Count them on your Hands – Lectionary 03/07/2021

Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Sermon Text

            We continue through Lent by coming to the ultimate expression of God’s teachings. We look back in time to behold Sinai, the mountain of God, in its glorified splendor. Our nose smells the smoke that surrounded the mountain as God rests upon it. Our eyes are full of the radiance of God’s light. Now we close our mouths and listen carefully to the words which God speaks to us, the instructions that are given for us.

            Sinai is not the first time that God appeared to people, nor was it the last, but on Sinai God literally set in stone the Covenant that was to stand between humanity and God. The expectations which the Covenant places upon the people of God and upon the Godhead itself are numerous. While we as Gentile members of God’s covenant family are not held to all commandments found in the Torah, they still provide a window into God’s plan for humanity. More than this, there is much of the Torah which does still apply to us, those matters beyond ritual purity which guide our conduct toward one another.

            The Ten Commandments, properly called, “The Ten Words,” are not the sum of God’s instruction, but they serve as the general guidelines by which we understand God’s desires for the world. We can guide so much of our life against whether or not it aligns with the ten core teachings of God that were given at Sinai. Traditionally, the review of our conduct based upon God’s teachings is called an, “Examination of Conscience.” Today, using the Ten Commandments as a guide, we will model what this kind of examination looks like and think about how we can be more aware of the ways that we develop into the kind of Christians we are called to be. We must be willing to look at the standards which God lays before us and evaluate how well we are living up to them.

            The first word of God which is given at Sinai is one that we usually leave out of the list of commandments. Yet, in the Hebrew tradition the first word that God gives us at Sinai is God’s self-identification as a deliverer. God begins the decalogue with the memory of the people’s exodus from Egypt. When we begin to reflect on our lives, we must do so by rooting ourselves in the goodness of God. We examine the choices we make and the things we do because God has been good to us, and that goodness sets the stage for how to make our way back to God in repentance.

            The second word of God is that we should not put any other God in place of the God who saved us, nor make an idol of any kind. While this is a command we may easily write off as irrelevant to our lives, deciding that we are not tempted to worship things other than God, we cannot be casual or brush off this command. We as humans are constantly seeking to replace God with something or someone else. The idols we build are seldom made of stone or wood, but of ideals and desires. While there are many criterion, we may use to examine our life against this teaching, I propose a simple one. The idols we build for ourselves are those things that we are willing to disobey God for. If something moves us to violate a commandment over, then it has become an idol to us. When we examine our life, we must root out all idols within it.

            If we define idols as those things for which we are willing to sin, then we can also understand God’s fourth teaching. We usually understand, “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” to mean using “God,” or, “Christ,” as a swear word. While it is admirable for us to respect God enough to not invoke any holy name in anger, taking the Lord’s name in vain is a deeper issue than this. A person’s name in the ancient world was tied to their reputation. Taking God’s name in vain includes blaming God for our bad behavior. Are we ever difficult, cruel, vindictive, or in any way wretched for reasons we decide are in service to God? We must be willing to accept our service to God as a reality we aspire to and not an excuse for our own feelings or desires.

            Our next commandment is one we are all guilty of abandoning. We all push the Sabbath aside. The complete cessation of rest is something required not only of all people, but of creation. We excuse our unwillingness to rest in a million different ways, but ultimately it betrays some important aspects of our life. We set up productivity as an idol. Sometimes even work in a church can take on an idolatrous place in our heart when we are so obsessed with “doing” that we lose track of God’s part in our work and God’s command for us to rest from that work. We must rest, and we must not make excuses.

            The fifth commandment is to honor our father and mother, and perhaps has the most complexity of any of these ten teachings. We are not all of us blessed with parents who have acted in a way that motivates us to honor them, nor are some of us able to enjoy the presence of our parents who have gone before us into glory. Our honoring of our parents should not be taken lightly, but the obstacles to it should not be neglected either. This, more than any other teaching of the decalogue, is often personal in its scope and requires careful reflection on our part.

            We all feel good when we come to the command not to kill, but it is part of three commands we commit consistently whether we mean to or not. Murder takes place in the heart before it takes place in our life. Hate, the progenitor of murder, rests in our heart. Do not write off the rage or aggression you feel when someone drops a person’s name, there is the root of murder in this. Adultery likewise is committed long before someone stands ready to open a motel door but begins in our hearts and minds first. To live out these commandments we must not only look to our actions, maybe not even our intentions, but examine even our inclinations.

            Theft, while not a matter of cognition, is a deceptive sin. We steal not only by taking but withholding. Who have we failed to give their due? What pleasures do we cling to while our neighbors freeze and starve? At what point does withholding help become theft? At what point does theft become murder?

            False witness, our penultimate teaching, is more valuable a teaching than ever before. To bear false witness is to speak against someone falsely to their detriment. This happens in gossip and court rooms, on social media and in newsletters. In an era defined by commercialized truth, where you can find any number of people who will support you and villainize your, “opponents,” we must seek what is true in life. Look beyond the headline and beyond that first text or sentence a person sends or says. Seek truth and seek life.

            Finally, we must ask where we have turned from our own blessings to look upon the blessings of others. Where do we scorn people for having things that we would like to have for ourselves? Avarice can motivate all manner of evils in our life, but it in itself is a sufficient evil to reject.

            What we have done here is a surface level examination of conscience. We are given the teaching of God to keep before us at all times. We went through all ten teachings of the decalogue today, but each has a depth to them that can never be fully plumbed. We must be willing to hold onto them, one by one, and ask ourselves whether we live up to the standard they establish for us.

            We cannot fail to examine our own motivations and actions, especially during this season of repentance we currently observe. The teachings of God are not far from us, and they hold a freedom we have not yet known within themselves. Hold out your hands at the end of a long day, count the commands of God on your hands and ask how you have succeeded and failed to keep each one. Start with the goodness of God and end with a prayer asking God’s continued instruction in your life. Repent and trust God to lead you onward to perfection. – Amen.

Ashamed of Suffering – Lectionary 02/28/2021

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sermon Text

            Shame has many meanings. A person can feel shame when they’ve done something wrong or a person may be shamed for breaking social conventions. However, shame as a system was much more concrete in the time of Jesus. A person had a sliding scale of two attributes – honor and shame. A complex series of cultural norms overshadowed any conversation a person had. One was expected to speak to people dependent upon their relative honor.

            A person who was poor would have less honor than the rich, an older person more than a younger, men more than women, and so on and so forth. Different categories overlapped so as to add or diminish one another, but the result was a strictly stratified society that punished those who pushed against conventions. To an Honor-Shame society, everything and everyone had a place and to push against that was to be exceptionally disgraceful.

            Jesus, naturally, walks an interesting line in his interactions with those around him. He actively participated in the honor-shame culture around him no other way of interacting with people would have been intelligible to those around him. Yet, Jesus consistently pushed the envelope on who he was supposed to speak to and how. He opposed the honor of community leaders like the Pharisees and Sadducees and gave it to the poor and the hungry instead. Jesus rejected the false piety of his countrymen in exchange for legitimate faith – Judean or otherwise. Jesus spoke to women regardless of their connection men. Jesus was fully immersed in the culture of his day, yet as the eternal son of God he saw beyond it and acted against it when necessary.

            Today’s scripture captures a moment of Jesus simultaneously living into and against the norms of his society. Jesus speaks of his coming suffering at the hands of prominent figures – scribes, high priests, elder – and says that after suffering abuse from them he will be killed. Jesus is telling all who have gathered around him, likely most of the nearby population of Caesarea-Philippi who have seen him perform a miracle, that at the end of his long road of ministry he will be killed as a criminal. Even though he finishes this prediction with his resurrection, the crowd would have been struck most by Jesus’s insistence he was to die in dishonor. What kind of Messiah would do such a thing?

            Peter reads the room and pulls Jesus aside. Though Peter had just declared Jesus as the Messiah prior to this episode, he was aware of the fact that Jesus was stepping into dangerous territory. The people wanted a champion to destroy Rome and a Holy One to restore the Temple. Yet Jesus was putting forward an image of a king who was to be killed by a committee decision. That was not going to fly. Peter chastised Jesus for breaking the mold, for deflating the expectations of the people. What we cannot lose is that even though Peter seems to be pulling Jesus aside privately to discuss this matter, he does so in front of a crowd of people. Peter has issued an honor-challenge to Jesus, and Jesus responds accordingly.

            Jesus reverses Peter’s challenge and commands him to take his place behind Jesus. Peter, who would go on to be a key leader in the Church, was not yet ready to lead and was certainly not in a place to chastise Jesus. Culturally, Jesus would be justified to leave this conflict here and be satisfied with restoring his honor publicly. However, Jesus had bigger fish to fry than keeping up appearances. Jesus looks at the crowd, who is perhaps now clutching pearls at the thought that Peter would say out loud what they were privately thinking. He looked to them and said that his fate, to die on a cross, was to be their fate if they truly wished to follow him.

            It must have been shocking to have heard Jesus’s words. When Jesus is saying that to follow him is to take up one’s own cross, Jesus is telling the crowd that they must be prepared to die. They were being told their lives were to be on the line Not only that, but the image of a cross specifically meant that they would not face dignified deaths, but the most humiliating death imaginable.

            Jews, like early Christians, had a complex relationship with martyrdom – here meaning dying for the faith. In Jewish culture martyrs were usually killed because they refused to bend to the Gentile ways around them. Famously the apocryphal books of second and fourth Maccabees describe the deaths of seven brothers who refused to accept Greek customs of food and worship. Despite elevating stories like this, people were discouraged from seeking martyrdom – in other words from dying unnecessarily. Even in early Christianity, St. Clement describes those who, “rushed on death,” but, “banish themselves without being martyrs, even though they are punished publicly.”[1] People, in other words, who sought fame through their martyrdom rather than truly dying for a cause.

            Jesus, in highlighting the cross as a means of death, was highlighting that those who wished to follow him were not doing so for an immediate escape from all their troubles. More than this, those who were interested in glory should not sign up at all. The glory Jesus was offering was for the World to Come, for the resurrected reality of Christ’s kingdom. However, to come to that glory one must take up their cross and live a life based upon sacrifice, dishonor, shame, and ultimately death. Only through sacrifice could they save their life. The vainglorious had no place in this World to Come and those who were rejected and dishonored in this life would be the ones to truly know honor in the next.

            We often equate worldly success with blessing, but to do so is to work directly against Jesus’s teachings throughout the Gospels. A person who is rich is not automatically a holy person. A person with power is not automatically in that position because their righteousness qualified them for it. More often than not, power and money corrupt the soul rather than crown a righteous person. What Jesus puts forward throughout the Gospel, but especially in this passage, is that all definitions we hold onto of honor and success are nothing in light of God’s actions in this world. Peter’s fear that Jesus was disgracing his message by tying it to persecution was refuted with a revelation – the life of a Christian is not supposed to be one where we glorify ourselves, but one where we glorify God in all that we do.

            How do we apply this to our life outside of the context in which Jesus was speaking? We do not live in an honor-shame society, we do not actively face persecution in the United States, and many of us – socially, economically, materially – are comfortable if not well off. We are people who have been given a great many resources, a great many opportunities to succeed as the world deems success, and indeed we are people who often push the more uncomfortable elements of our faith to the side. To take our scripture at its words and respond to it accordingly, we must not do as Peter did, pushing the uncomfortable out of the way to make way for a more palatable faith, we must embrace the hard teachings which our faith holds for us.

            The reality of our human existence is that it is full of painful things. We suffer disease, loneliness, sorrow, age, anger, and an innumerable number of other things which contribute to the broad umbrella of what we call “suffering.” Suffering is not, as some might suggest, a good thing in itself. No one wants to suffer and the elimination of suffering in the World to Come shows us that it is not something we are meant to experience. No, suffering is a temporary companion but a very real and powerful one. Though we spend so much of our life seeking to escape it, Jesus asks us to not be afraid of it when it comes our way and instead to follow Christ’s own example in how to face suffering.

            Jesus, firstly, invites us to consider the fact that sacrifice is the primary means by which we follow him in our life. We must take up our cross – willingly dying to this life and if necessary, literally dying in this life – and go down the path of our Christian observance. This mentality means that we acknowledge the hardship that comes our way, not minimizing it or baptizing it as good, but seeing it as a temporary obstacle in our way. We embrace opportunities to help people that may be inconvenient. We sacrifice our pet pleasures for the good of other people.

            We must accept that sometimes doing what is right will seem gauche to those around us. When we help the unhoused people may accuse us of attracting more of them to us.
When we point out injustices in the world people may say we are being divisive. When we seek to treat, rather than punish, to promote harm reduction rather than punitive action for those suffering from addiction, people may say we promote addiction. Indeed, if we give freely to the poor, we may find people accusing us of rewarding bad life choices. The truth is, no good work has ever been taken on that was not unpopular to the wider culture around it.

            Peter rejected Jesus’s sacrificial ministry. The “holier than thou,” souls of his day opposed his eating with sinners. Those in power and with money opposed his helping the poor. From the moment Jesus stepped out of the Desert of Temptation and onto the path of ministry people opposed his work in the world. We must be willing to do unpopular work as well. We must be unashamed of the Gospel which has called us to unabashed love of our neighbor as ourselves. We must give and work and love and make tough choices and even harder sacrifices for the good of those around us. We must take up our cross and carry it all the way to our grave.

            For, if we are ashamed of suffering. If we are ashamed to address those who hurt around us or to accept that Jesus calls us into solidarity with them, then Jesus is clear he will feign ignorance of us like we did of him. Do not let comfort keep you from eternal bliss, do not let the inconvenience of righteousness keep you from a holy life. Repent, and believe the Gospel, take up your cross and follow Christ. – Amen.


[1] Clement. Stromata IV.4

The First Covenant – Lectionary 02/21/2021

Genesis 8:20 – 9:17

[When the flood had end…] Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,  seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Sermon Text

            Our first Lenten sermon looks to the first few moments after the Great Flood. In preceding chapters, Genesis describes a world that has gone far afield of what God would have had it become. Though little is given in terms of specifics, it seems that Cain’s sin of murder has become the norm. Tales of great heroes were spread over the land, but greatness and goodness are not always tied to one another. God moved against God’s own creation, wiping clean the slate that would be used to create a new world – one hopefully free from the previous evil of this post-Edenic hellscape.

            God spared only Noah and his family among all the people of the world. We are told that Noah stood out as a righteous person, blameless in all ways a human may be. As a model of virtue and righteousness God sought to rebuild the earth with Noah as the foundation. Humanity had the chance to start over strong. Led by righteousness there was hope for the future to be completely unlike the past. Perhaps in this new world, death would not be the chief legacy of humanity, perhaps there would come a time where peace could reign over the land. God set the stage for a complete renewal of creation, but as we know we seem to have fumbled that chance.

            We live in our modern world, far removed from Noah and further removed from Eden than we could ever imagine. We know that humanity did not overcome their evil and that we still sit heavily in a world that is corrupted by our wrongdoing. Murder is still close at hand, and privation of one another’s needs make it so few, if any, of us have completely clean hands in regard to the lives of our siblings. Sin, deep within the heart of humanity, cannot be simply removed with time or disasters, no amount of flooding or catastrophe. No, something deeper and stronger is necessary to purify the human heart, something closer to God. Stronger than death there exists the love of God, and close to that love is the transformational potential that comes when we look to God to make our broken world right.

            We are told that God knew that all the earth’s problems would not be fixed magically following the flood. We hear this in God’s words at the end of chapter 8, “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” God is aware that there are some things about humans that cannot be punished into oblivion. The Flood may have been a cosmic reset of some kind, but it did not rewrite this tendency of humanity. Noah, for all his goodness, was still fallible and his children along with him. If God truly desired only a world without evil, humanity would need to be erased entirely. Yet, God does not desire wonton destruction, but rejuvenation. God does not seek wrath but mercy.

            In a decision that would shock anyone in God’s position, God seeks to reclaim humanity through the long and difficult work of Covenanting with them. This decision is described by several Old Testament scholars as, “[God’s] unconditional commitment to stay with the world.”[1] Covenant, that ancient system of legal and relational agreements we hear about in scripture, has suffered for centuries under the burden of improper teaching. Many have reduced it to a legal contract between parties – one party agrees to be a patron to the other and both set up conditions for what should happen if they fail to meet those expectation. Yet, covenant was so much more than this. Covenants were agreements between two parties to take one another seriously, to never part from one another, to do all they could to promote the mutual good of one another.

            The Covenant we read about today is especially striking. It begins with the sacrifice which Noah offers to God. The smell of the sacrifice is described as reaching Heaven, and God breathes it in with the same nostrils which scattered the Flood waters and that would later separate the Red Sea. God looks upon the Earth, cleared now of water and ready for a new era to begin and sets up a new relationship between God and God’s creation.

            Though Covenant is implied in God’s relationship to Adam and Eve, this is the first instance in scripture where a Covenant is cut. God is the sole participant in setting the parameters of the arrangement, but we should make note of how gracious the terms are. God only forbids two things, the act of murder which had defined the previous era of human existence and the eating of blood in any form. To this day, observant Jews must ensure meat has been drained of its blood completely before it can be certified as Kosher for this reason. Yet, beyond these conditions, little is asked of humanity in this Covenant.

            God lavishes upon humanity so much more than this. Beyond a commitment to stay involved with humanity, God takes the rainbow and uses it to paint a powerful picture. The “bow,” of God, a visible sign of a weapon of war, is pointed at the Heavens. God is saying, in essence, “If I violate any aspect of this covenant, then this bow will shoot me down.” An immortal God threatening bodily harm against their own divinity is a complex thing to think about, but the truth remains. God is saying that God is putting down all weapons of war against humanity, something new is happening, a commitment to transform rather than destroy the evils of this world.

            This would not be an easy task to set out on, as God would soon see. Noah took the open land that was before him and planted a vineyard, drinking himself into a stupor in short order. His son, Ham, then shamed his father in some way. The text is not clear outside of the fact that it involved revealing his drunk father to his brothers. Noah was enraged when he awoke and learned of what had happened, cursing Ham’s firstborn, Canaan, and setting up a long line of conflict between his descendants.

            Yet, the vision which we are given at the close of Noah’s life is not meant to be one of division and shame. Within a few scant verses the conflict of Canaan and his relatives is overshadowed by an immense and powerful reality. The Table of Nations, as it is called, takes up all of chapter 10. Within that single page, the claim is made that all people – no matter where they are – are inheritors of God’s covenant with Noah. All humanity is blessed, all people receive the goodness which God has given to the world, all contain the spark of hope for a new and better creation than the one which preceded the Flood.

            The rest of Genesis comes round to tell a more particular story of God’s work through Abraham and his covenant and his lineage. Those two aspects of faith are closely tied to one another – the particular and the general. We cannot deny either aspect if we are truly to look at God’s goodness in this world. To all flesh is given the hope that Noah found long ago on a mountain top, and all live under the sky which God hung the rainbow upon. All humanity benefits from the goodness of God, whether they know it or not.

            Yet, transformation takes a more active participation in the grace offered us. As we inherited Noah’s covenant with God, so we inherited the deep festering sickness of our sin. We on our own have no hope of truly excising it – though we may for a time suppress it or even weaken it, it will always have roots dug deep within us. God offered us the means to truly separate ourselves from our wickedness, in yet another Covenant that was cut on Calvary’s hill. Where Christ died and the whole earth shook, where Heaven covered itself in sackcloth to mourn, and where all wickedness finally lost claim upon our hearts.

            We who are baptized into the Church are washed with a flood unlike the one Noah knew, a flood of grace and mercy that wipes away the evil within us. We are washed clean, and the Spirit is sent to dwell within us. We become holy, we become vessels of God’s mercy in the world – a living sacrifice offered within the living temple which is our body. We who are called to faith in Christ must take hold of God’s grace and not be satisfied merely to be saved from destruction, but to be saved completely from the sin which cannot be punished away within us.

            Among the many truths found within Noah’s sacrifice on the mountain and God’s covenant, there is the powerful truth that God is good beyond what we can imagine. As we said early on in our discussion today, greatness and goodness are not identical. God could have shown greatness in destroying the world, strength in pressing humanity into submission through still greater acts of violence and dread. Yet, God chose table fellowship and covenanting over destruction. Yet, God ended the Flood and birthed a new world for humanity to inhabit in the process.

            We who are called to repentance by this Lenten season must live into the grace we are given, not through sin that makes it necessary but through the righteousness that it allows us to partake in. We must love all people, Christian or not, American or not, West Virginian or not, with great fervor and intensity, for they are our siblings through Noah and co-heirs to his covenant. We must go further than abstention from actions that harm one another and actively promote one another’s wellbeing, putting others before ourselves in a mutual love which God invests in our hearts. We must be transformed, for only through a God initiated transformation can sin truly be stamped out of our heart.

            Commit yourself this day, to look up to Heaven and give thanks for the grace of God. Let us look upon the grace which the Heavens attest to – shown in the rainbow and the eucharist, in water and the spirit – and see it as a gift of another chance, of a life born again in the flood of God’s goodness. Repentance is a result, not of fear of God’s wrath, but a true acceptance of God’s abundant grace. Accept the grace which Heaven calls you toward this day. – Amen


[1] Bruce C. Birch et al. “The Created Order and the Re-Creation of a Broken Order.” In A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon. 2005) 58

Put Off Pretentions – Ash Wednesday 2021

Matthew 6: 1-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sermon Text

            Lent begins today. For the next forty days (forty-six counting Sundays,) we should take time to intentionally think about our life. The things that we do, that we do not, and that we should do. The things that we do, we should weigh against the teachings of Christ and determine if they are worth continuing to do. The things we do not must also be examined, where are we sitting still where we should be moving – what aspects of faith are we neglecting in living out our Christian calling? Whatever we are neglecting we must take hold of, living truly into our calling.

            In our scripture, Christ puts forward several key aspects of our life as Christians. Piety, almsgiving, prayer, forgiveness, fasting, and an aversion to accumulating earthly treasures. We must understand each of these essentials fully, as they provide us helpful categories for how we might think about our actions over the course of Lent.

            Piety, firstly, is the ability for a person to live a life in line with God’s vision for their life. While we often use the term derisively, referring to “pious,” people almost exclusively as those who are “holier than thou,” the true mark of a pious person is in humility. The word Jesus uses in this passage is literally translated, “righteousness,” all right behavior and virtue of a person lived out must be done fully with God in mind, not our own glorification. Righteousness, like all virtue, is a muscle we must exercise. Piety is the method by which we train ourselves to become righteous. It is achieved through study of scripture, through acts of mercy, through all goodness which we seek to do in this life.

            Jesus leads us through the key aspects of righteousness one at a time – firstly in almsgiving. Almsgiving, often referred to charity, is the giving of resources to those who do not have them. It can be in money, it can be in opportunity, but it is not something which can be abstract. Charity, from the Latin caritas, is how we live out our sacrificial love for one another. It is one person giving something to another person with no strings attached, it is a gift in the purest sense. We must live out this selfless love, it is not optional. We should spend Lent considering how we can better support the people around us – in money, in time, and in sacrificing our comfort for their livelihood.

            Jesus quickly follows this up with prayer. Prayer is the root of all our Christian life. Without it we drift away from our source, the floodgates of grace which are given through knowing God personally and truly. Prayer can happen alone, it can happen in groups, but it must not stop happening in our life. While every moment of our mind cannot form the words we normally associate with prayer, we must train ourselves to have our thoughts in conversation with God. While intentional time should be given for prayer alone, we must also find ourselves sharing our thoughts with God throughout the day. The conversation of prayer is not formal, it is simply God standing with us and us standing with God, it happens in closets and prayer rooms, but also on buses and in the midst of a busy work day.

            We must never forget that our food and our livelihood is from God. We must not forget that all goodness comes from God. We must during this Lententide devote ourselves more fully to prayer. We must also, as Jesus teaches us, see prayer as a recognition of God’s goodness to us despite our sin. It must inspire us to forgive those in our life that we have neglected to forgive. To bridge gaps which we have previously believed unpassable. God who forgave us asks us to forgive others, and to embark on the difficult road of reconciliation with those we have grown distant from. Sometimes restoration to what once was will be impossible, but we must forgive our debtors – both those who have hurt us and those who literally owe us money or any other kind of wealth – as God has forgiven us.

            Finally, there is the matter of fasting. We in the modern Church are afraid of this practice more than we should be. For those who must eat during the day for their health, fasting is an impossibility, and it is often not wise for those who struggle with eating disorders to fast either. However, for those who have neither mental nor physical reasons not to fast, the practice is given as a expectation of the Christian. Fasting, as it was practiced in the ancient world, was the cessation of eating for a period of time, usually from one sunset to another. I invite us to consider together taking up the practice of fasting during Lent. I plan to abstain from food from Monday at Sunset to Tuesday at Sunset, and from Wednesday from Sunset to Thursday at Sunset. Join me if you feel so called.

            Most important for us to consider in Lent, and indeed in all of our Christian life, is that we engage in these practices only so that we can grow closer to God and more in line with God’s call upon our life. We do not fast, or pray, or study scripture so that we can look better or more holy or more in love with God than anyone else. These are transformative practices that we must keep close to our chest, sharing them only as needed and when doing so would be edifying to those around us. We must put away our desire for supremacy of all kinds, and any pretension that we are already as we ought to be.

            This Lent let us give up the idea that we must have it all together. Let us be honest about our fallenness and our failings. Reach out to God, for God cares for you. Lean upon the love of Christ, for Christ will deliver you. Listen to the call of the Spirit, for it is the call that will bring us all home. We have a holy life to live into this Lent, as we do at all times, but over the next seven weeks or so, let us commit ourselves together to not hold onto anything harmful any longer. May we find ourselves transformed into the image of Christ in a way we never have been before, let us seek after the word of God and find life, and life abundant. – Amen.

The God of this World – Lectionary 02/14/2021

Exodus 34: 29-35

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.

Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Mark 9:2-9                                                     

            Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text

            We gather today as a Church to celebrate the Transfiguration, but we also gather culturally to celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day. The two days are both testaments to God’s love for us in distinct and unique ways. Though we now associate Valentine’s day with the secular giving of gifts to our beaux or else with Hallmark cards and candlelit dinners, the day truly originates in a memorial to a faithful priest who lived and died for the good of the Gospel. As we explore scripture today, we will do so with the life of St. Valentine beside us, an example of faith lived to the fullest.

            We begin with our Gospel. Here we are told of a few disciples being brought to a mountain to see Jesus in his full glory – unfiltered divinity and yet full humanity. Climbing the mountain, they see Christ for the God that Christ is, a radiant point in the darkness of the world. Glory unlike any other, the perfection of God in human form. Like Moses before them, the Disciples see the glory of God and wish to dwell with it forever. They ask to build tabernacles to Christ and for the two prophets that have joined him. A cloud overshadows them, the voice of God rings out, the Glory seems to fade, and Jesus is once more – in appearance – fully flesh.

            Paul, in our Epistle, looks to another radiant appearance of God – this one being Mount Sinai and Moses visitation with God. Paul puts forward that Moses felt God’s glory, reflected in his own face, was a source of authority. Moses, says Paul, wore a veil after visiting with God, not to protect the people from God’s glory, but to hide that it faded overtime from his face. In this view, Moses was not concerned for the sensibilities of the people but held a selfish desire to retain the authority that God’s reflected glory gave him. In truth, it is likely both conscientiousness and personal pride played a part in Moses’s veil. Moses wanted to protect the people and maintain the illusion he was always tightly connected to God’s reflected glory.

            Paul takes hold of Moses’s veil and utilizes it in a new way, seeing the image of Moses covering his face as a powerful vision of how easily we as Christians can hide God from the world. The veil here is any distraction that we create in order to make people unable to see God’s presence. While Paul speaks of those in the Church who have lost sight of God, “those who are perishing,” Paul also looks beyond this to the natural conclusion of the Church hiding God away. That is, that the world will not be able to see God, trading a relationship with true Divinity for what he calls, “The God of this World.”

            Paul here is invoking the image of the Great Adversary, Satan. However, Paul is sure not to mention Satan by name, allowing for us the reader to not quickly push our concerns to one place and forget about them. If we think to our everyday life, our everyday problems, we love to have a single person to blame or a single cause to track down and take care of. In the same way, to simply say, “Satan,” was to blame for the veil being put over the eyes of Christians would risk us believing we are immune from the effects of this particular evil. Satan, the God of this World, works through our natural and good impulses and twists them toward evil. To understand the ways we are tricked into serving, “The God of this World,” we must look inwardly not outward.

            In Corinth, we find that sometime after the conflict surrounding meat and idols, a new source of friction in the Church. This conflict was rooted, as so many are, over who had authority to teach and lead in the Church. A group had arrived in Corinth, dubbed by Paul to be “Super Apostles.” Lest we think Paul is complementing them, Paul uses a made-up word to describe them as, “Super,” highlighting the sarcasm implicit in the name itself. This group arrived with letters of recommendation from prominent figures in the Church and proclaimed all manner of teachings based on that authority. These teachings caused the Corinthians to send Paul a letter that broke his heart, and 2 Corinthians consists of the two letters he sent in response to them.

            Paul’s opponents did not sin because they disagreed with Paul is some matters of how the Church should run. Anywhere that Paul went he usually rubbed a few people the wrong way, but more often than not the misunderstanding and quibbles between apostles were settled without too much trouble. The sin of the Super Apostles was in their self-aggrandization. They took on every title and accolade they could to seem holy, but they did so only to make themselves feel bigger and better than those around them, not in service to the Gospel. Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul highlights his own qualifications, not in terms of the things he did to look impressive, but in his suffering service to God. Our scripture holds his most striking statement, that an unveiled love of God is a life of slavery, not a life of mastery.

            The God of this World is not often manifested in a cloved hoofed demon, but in the actions of you and of me. It is the greatest idol that hides behind all others, the great idol of Ego, of self above all else. The Super Apostles places their prominence in community above community itself, even above the Gospel. Moses places his authority over reflecting God’s glory. We ourselves choose to put anything and everything above God’s call upon our life. We seek simple answers that do not challenge us, we seek bold displays to show our skill, we neglect mercy and love in exchange for flashy and hollow piety.

            Our Gospel shows us the key to our life, the key to reflecting rather than obscuring Christ. As God exclaimed from within the cloud of transfiguration – we must obey Christ. Christ who calls us to sacrificial love, to humble lives, to giving and not taking. Christ asks us to be good and to work for others, even when it gets hard. We preach and unfettered Gospel of Grace and do so without asking what is in it for us. We must serve God with all our Heart and follow Christ wherever that path takes us. The reward of God’s glory and of Heaven’s light is given to those who seek neither glory nor prestige in this life, but seek in all things to do good.

            Which brings us to Saint Valentine. Valentinus, a priest in the third or fourth century, was alive during a period of Christian persecution. Christians were considered atheists by Rome and were seen as dangerous because they refused to worship the emperor or any of the God’s that were believed to maintain Rome. Taken into prison, Valentinus amazed the jailors through his faith and converted the magistrate overseeing his case to Christianity. Valentinus even grew close to the emperor, becoming a guest to him on multiple occasions. Eventually, however, the emperor grew tired of their mutual attempts at conversion and ordered Valentinus to be executed. As he left to kneel before the headsmen, legend says he left a note thanking the jailor’s daughter for the kindness she showed him in prison. The letter was signed, “Ex Valentini,” in English, “from your Valentine.”

            Lost in our Romantic overtures is the story of a faith that was stronger than death. Valentinus preached to rulers and oppressors and loved all he met. Valentinus always showed the unfiltered glory of God by living as a slave to the Gospel. He sought no fame, no glory, not even a stay of execution – but only cared in life to meet God and to see Christ proclaimed in the world. Let us live out such a life ourselves.

            We do not live in persecuted Church, but many in this world do, pray for their fortitude. We face little danger as Christians in the United States, so we lack excuse to live out our life fully. Our greatest risk is to our ego, that we might give up what we want or turn down ambition when it calls to us. We must tear down the idol to ourselves we have built within, because if we do that, the God of this World will have no foothold within us. For though we love ourselves and care for ourselves as God’s good creation, we must not worship and laud ourselves as Gods in our own right. Christ shines out among the faithful, let that light shine on without obstruction in all that we do. – Amen.

Keep Moving – Lectionary 02/07/2021

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Sermon Text

We have are a month into a new year, both liturgical and calendarial. With this shift we move from our Gospel readings coming predominately from Matthew, to predominately from Mark. Mark, the first of the Gospels to be written, is a short but cutting document. Mark does not waste anytime in telling a story about God coming to earth to deliver us from our sins, and to lead us into a community unlike any other. Christ was the king apart from Caesar, the Church was the gathered people apart from the polis, the Gospel is good news unlike any other.

Mark opens his Gospel in the preceding verses of chapter one with the ministry of John the Baptist, then with Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, and then the exorcism of a demon possessed man in Capernaum – the hometown of Simon Peter. Walking through the town, we are given the image of a ministry that was constantly on the move. The watch word of Mark’s Gospel is, “Immediately.” To go out and to do and to not be caught up in a single thing for too long.

Jesus’s ministry was public in scope. In all things, the actions Jesus took were oriented toward the communities he worked within. People were healed and allowed to live out normal lives, but more than that the ministry of Christ allowed for all people to go beyond what was and enter into a new life – greater than what was before. The brokenness of our world is repaired through the mere visitation of Christ, our soul healed by his loving works.

Our scripture recounts three acts of Christ – the healing of a single person, of many people, and then the retreat of Jesus to an empty space to pray. All three of these are examples of different ways that we must do good in the world around us, and all three of them reflect the fast-paced work of Jesus and of his Church. We never cease the work of Christ, even and indeed especially when we rest.

The first act of Christ in our scripture is the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Laying in bed with a fever, the family told Jesus about her condition. A fever in the ancient world was never as simple as taking an aspirin and waiting it out, the family was likely unsure if she was going to live. Yet, Jesus lifted her up and her fever broke at once. While we are not able to instantly heal people, Jesus here models ministry that directly works with individuals.

This sort of direct care for one another is something we can easily neglect in the church. To visit with the sick and to pray with them and give them company (digitally or otherwise,) to find those struggling and to lighten their load somehow. The work of Christ should, when possible, be conducted face to face and person to person. There are few things so wonderful in life as just being with another person, and connection in itself can heal.

The impulse of the Church, however, can be one of distance and depersonalization. We are fine with donating to causes and sending supplies to other people, but not in doing work ourselves. We do not want to see the faces of those in need unless they are smiling in photos that are sent to us for our participation. We do not want to see the brokenness of our neighbors unless they have already come out the other side. Still worse, if we do help people one on one, we begin to expect certain kinds of gratitude in response.

To work with someone one on one is to acknowledge their personhood. To shake the hand of someone in need is to acknowledge their dignity. To be silent in the house of mourning is to show someone their grief matters. While there are ethical and practical boundaries we all must maintain, we must not make barriers of excuses between ourselves and the people we serve. Even lack of gratitude is no excuse not to serve – while Simon’s mother-in-law served Jesus a meal in gratitude, many others chased Jesus out of town – still, Jesus served the people.

Personal connection does not keep us from corporate acts of mercy. Jesus’s second act in our scripture is to heal the multitude that gathered outside Simon’s home. Capernaum was not a large city, housing less than two thousand people at its peak. All the same, the crowd outside the house was not small, especially for the tiny group of people inside to deal with. Yet Jesus was able to minister to them all. Large scale acts of mercy can still maintain personality and be efficacious, indeed, they are the only way to meet the many needs of those around us.

What we must be watchful for in participating in and supporting large scale ministries is whether or not the initiatives we support truly produce fruit. Recently, I heard of a massive clothing drive a church invested in every year, gathering palettes worth of clothing. Some years into the program, they engaged directly with those they had been sending clothes to and found out that 80% of the clothing was unusable and needed to be disposed of for one reason or another. However, when the church learned this, they worked with those in the community they were serving and began another large scale mission that met the needs of that community. They succeeded because they involved voices in the community to guide their efforts.

Beyond personal connection in terms of working with people directly there comes working with people to find what they really need. We must not presume we know what someone needs unless we have first spent time among them and their community. Practically, this means we should look to the groups we support and ask a simple question – when we read about what a group does, and the results, are we hearing and seeing people from the community they serve or people who are claiming to know better than them? Corporate acts of mercy are delicate things, and we must treat them with the same care we treat individual ministries with.

Finally, Jesus shows us that in order to keep moving forward in ministry we must rest. Rest is not simply cessation of work, but recuperation of our body and soul. Jesus sleeps, then rises earlier than anyone else to go into an empty space and pray. Rest occurs in the quiet, in solitude, and most importantly, before God. In praying, Jesus found strength to carry on – to leave Capernaum and continue to minister throughout Galilee.

Too often we define rest as either leisure or as the absence of career work. I myself am especially guilty of taking a day that is meant for rest and filling it with anything but. While it is sometimes therapeutic to engage with our passion projects, we often spend time we should be resting running errands or cleaning or making up for what we see as lost time. Rest should be total, and it should be deliberate. It should be rooted in prayer and oriented toward God.

In normal times, we take a special moment each month to simply acknowledge God’s goodness and to take in the Eucharist as a corporeal reminder of that goodness. Somehow in taking it we are brought to be present with Christ, joining in the salvific work of calvary. Though we are unable now to join together and to take of bread and of the vine, we must be sure to take time to be alone with Christ, present intentionally with God.

The work of the Church, personal or corporate, relies on a foundation rooted in Christ. Let us commit that we never stop moving forward in our ministry and let us keep in mind that sometimes we travel the furthest distance while we rest. – Amen.

Getting Over Ourselves – Lectionary 01/31/2021

1 Corinthians 8

“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Sermon Text

            I have a bad habit of being incredibly picky. Not when it comes to food or music or any material aspect of life. No, I tend to be picky about what I want to see from worship services that I attend. While I can and have enjoyed the broad spectrum of expression which the Christian church enjoys – from contemporary services to traditional, from masses and great liturgies to revivals and prayer meetings – I find that there are certain criteria I create in my mind for what does and does not constitute a good worship experience. As with any organizational scheme, some of these criteria are better than others.

            What stands out to me about my pickiness is that it is proportional to my familiarity with something. I am pickier about a traditional church service with hymns and collects and litanies and processionals, because it is the kind of service which I know and love best. If someone is preaching on Ecclesiastes I have particular things I do and do not like to hear from that book because, as it is my favorite book in scripture, I know it better than most. Meanwhile, if I go to a service conducted in an orthodox church where very little is familiar, my heart will probably be more open to the things I see and the experiences that I take part in. Familiarity, somehow, breeds a sense of entitlement in our hearts.

            For many of us in the Church, we can find something quite refreshing about Sundays where we break the mold, but we get more defensive when there are slight alterations to things we regularly participate in. Think of when the lyric of a favorite hymn is rendered slightly differently in a hymnal or when a version of scripture is used that we do not know but of a verse we love dearly. We begin to sing or speak along with the verse, but then the sudden break from familiarity upsets us.

            The only way to know that something has violated our sense of what is normal is if we have a definition of the norm. When we hear about something miraculous, we can only know it is miraculous in reference to how it defies the mundane. The parting of the Red Sea is uncommon, sudden healing of the sick is rare, the resurrection of the dead is unbelievable. We discern a thing is exceptional only when we know what is typical. In the same way we define a thing’s acceptability by its commonality.

            The people of God often create their own concepts of normality, usually changing them every few decades. Though building off of traditions that stretch back throughout time, we define our norms about once a generation. Sometimes the changes are small, prayers being slightly different in wording and message. Other shifts are extreme, the addition or removal of entire articles of the faith and rites of the Church.

            Scripture shows us such shifts occurring several times across its pages and history beyond that shows ever greater examples. Even looking only at the locations where God was worshipped throughout scripture, we see changes happening across generations. The patriarchs worshipped God under sacred trees while the Wilderness wanderers had a mobile tabernacle. The tribes, once settled in the land, worshipped primarily at Bethel while the people worshipped at the Jerusalem temple during the united monarchy. If we were to move beyond location and look at the rituals and prayers of the people, we would see that these too changed. Festivals, sacrifices, and prayer likewise morph over time.

            The whole span of Scripture, across a compositional history of three thousand years, shows us that we approach God differently depending on when we meet God. One generation will worship differently than another than another. Yet, the one constant that remains is the God who is worshipped. Though we alter our words or shift our focus, the center of the faith is left unchanged. God, the founder and author of all creation, is the ultimate focal point of the lives of the faithful.

            The first four decades, maybe even centuries, of the Church were even more volatile than most generational shifts. Suddenly, rather than simply being Jews and Gentiles (which are already two diverse groups to begin with,) there are now Christians. Not only that, but some Christians are Jewish, and some are Gentile. Two worlds were coming together and stepping into a new one. To Jewish Christians, Christianity was a continuation of centuries of faith in the God of Israel. For Gentile Christians, it was a revelation unlike even the most charming mystery religion. It was familiar to them both, but in wildly different ways. Both joined knowing things would be different, but what differences they were willing to accept was a matter unto itself.

            The issue in question for our scripture today is the eating of food sacrificed to idols. This sort of food was, surprisingly, not hard to come by. It was freely sold in markets and, though it was pricey, it was good quality meat to those who could afford it. The well-to-do in a town would buy this meat to eat. Whether its ritual status was important to the buyer was a largely personal matter. To some within the Church, however, whether it was right to buy and eat this meat was a matter of grave concern. Paul specifically highlights how those in the community who came from idol worshipping families and cultures had yet to separate this food from its religious origins.

            To them, eating food offered to idols was too close to participate in the ritual that sanctified the meat. It was too close for comfort, too much like what they had left behind, too gentile to look Christian. Paul’s language suggests that some Gentiles and likely more Jews in the community lacked this concern. The meat was meat, neither special nor abhorrent, and there was no worry about eating it. Pressure was put upon those who refused to eat the food, pressure to eat the expensive gift brought to communal meals against their conscience.

            Paul could have easily taken this opportunity to chastise or belittle those who did not want to eat consecrated meat. It would have taken nothing to push Paul’s own secular view on the matter but instead he addresses the people with a proverb of sorts, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” To know something, or to think you do, and then to try and force people to agree with it against their conscience makes the aggressor feel important, as though they have championed over their colleagues. That is not what Church is for. Church is for building one another up in holiness, not competing with one another.

            Love, that is what guides our actions. Transformative love that promotes community and seeks what is best for one another. For the Corinthians, and indeed for ourselves, that constitutes getting over ourselves to a certain degree. It means that sometimes it is better to allow something we would rather not have around for the good of others, it means lifting up and supporting those who feel differently than us. It means putting God and substance over preference and appearance.

            Let us return to our own churches and our earlier example of worship. Imagine a guest came in and led worship differently than we usually do. Perhaps they are an ecstatic Pentecostal, or they are a high church Anglican. If we rejected them because, “That’s not how we do things here,” we would not only insult them, but lose out on what they brought to our conversations on faith. Likewise, if we visited another church and criticized their services for being different and demanded they act more like us, we would likewise find them cut off from us and miss an opportunity to work together with one another. Sadly, this has often been the case, and many non-European or American Christians throughout history, even till today, have been told their Christianity is lesser because it does not look like Augustine or Billy Graham.

            This goes deeper than worship preferences though. Some of our cultural and personal customs are treated as absolute despite being non-essential. Some in the church believe alcohol is fine to drink in moderation, others believe in absolute abstention. In an attempt to preach God’s grace, some may insist that the teetotaler should respond to scriptures lack of a prohibition and imbibe. Paul is adamant against such teaching. Leveraging scripture – whether through a valid interpretation or not – to bring someone to act against their conscience is wrong. God calls us all differently – one to abstention and another to liberty – but to push the former to act against their conscience is a grave sin.

            Some believe fasting is absolutely necessary on a regular basis, others never fast. Those who do not fast should not prevent those who do. Those who pray specific prayers cannot be forced into extemporaneous prayer. We must discern how our perspectives, especially our preferences, are not always the sort of thing that others must join in. I do not like contemporary worship music, in fact most of it is bad to me, but if I stood here and spoke against it as a matter of authority it would be betraying the sensibilities of many here. God calls us to defer to others and to make allowances, not to become judiciaries of what is and is not of God.

            This does not mean that anything goes or that in flexibility there is always virtue. Nor does it mean that sin can just be written off as a difference in perspective. We must be open to participating in all things which do not betray our conscience and occasionally even in examining our own to seek out our faults. If my conscience is such that I never do anything I’d rather not do, for example, may it’s not my conscience stopping me.

            As with much of our Christian life, there is no universal rule for how we extend grace of matters of conscience and preference. Sometimes we must yield, sometimes we must stand firm, sometimes we must even let ourselves feels uncomfortable. The balance must be struck out across different situations differently. Yet, we can be sure that when we act out of love and not control, out of seeking what is best rather than what we would like, then we can be confident in our actions. We are free for one another, not for our own desires. Let us love one another fully, let us get over ourselves, even just a little. – Amen.

And God Changed God’s Mind – Lectionary 01/24/2021

 

Jonah 3

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Sermon Text

           Jonah is a goldmine of strange and fascinating instances of God’s mercy and human selfishness. Nineveh, the city which Jonah is called to preach to, was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Within a handful of generations that empire would rise up and destroy Jonah’s kingdom of Israel and reduce its sister kingdom of Judah to a vassal-state. The Assyrians, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, were not interested in maintaining any semblance of normalcy in their conquered kingdoms. Once a nation fell to Assyria a large chunk of the native population was transplanted elsewhere in the empire and replaced with another group from another conquered territory. While Babylonians exiled dignitaries to help with administration, the Assyrians exiled thousands to stamp out resistance and cultural identity from their conquered territories.

            Assyria was ruthless, and yet somehow it became a place that, we are told, God was willing to work salvation. As we have discussed previously when looking at the book of Jonah, the book itself is a historical fable. While Jonah was a real prophet active in Israel, the exact events of this book are a narrative which provides a clear example of the sort of work he engaged in. The comparison between the book of Jonah and George Washington’s cherry tree remains apt – the story is not itself a 1:1 history of an event but is meant to tell us something about the characters in the story. In this case, those characters are God and Jonah.

            Jonah, the stand in for humanity is an unwilling prophet. Jonah is not unwilling because of fear, but out of hatred. God is sending Jonah to preach repentance to the people who Jonah knows will bring destruction to his people, that the audience of the story knows will succeed in wiping them out. Jonah wants God to destroy the Assyrians, and Jonah believes that if he can get out of preaching repentance to them, then God will be trapped in God’s own desire to see justice done. Jonah, like so many did before him, and like we do today, was trying to trick God into doing what he wanted.

            Yet, the whole arc of the story shows Jonah being pushed to Nineveh even despite his opposition. When Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life by ship, storms prevent him. When the storm blocks one path, Jonah seeks to drown to avoid his call, but a great fish comes and prevents his escape once again. Somewhere in the despair of the ocean, Jonah comes to terms with what God has given him, but not for the reasons we would want him to. He takes up his call, he goes and preaches to the city, and camps out on a hill nearby, because Jonah is sure that the city will carry on being evil and the city will be destroyed in short order.

            Jonah, the prophet who heard the voice of God, had failed to listen to the city he was preaching to. We are told that Jonah made it at least a day’s journey into the city, a city that was three days across. Though the story does not tell us whether he carried on through the city or not, it seems likely that Jonah stopped traversing the city at this point. The halfhearted, spiteful prophet was not willing to give any more time to these people he actively wished to see destroyed. Even as he walked back out of the city, he began planning how he would watch it burn. Even as he left the gates, he failed to hear the decree of the king calling the people to repentance.

            You see, Jonah, like we do, was sure that God would only speak against the people of Nineveh if they were truly beyond repair. We see in something we dislike or that we know to be bad, an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation and recovery. God, thankfully, is more creative than we are. God, in relenting, in changing God’s mind, is ready to take something like Nineveh and give it a new lease on life, because God knows there is power in grace and in forgiveness, power that is greater even than the most wrathful anger of the divine.

            Throughout scripture God is described as, “repenting,” and “relenting,” of wrath. When judgment comes to a people, God can and does remove the penalty of that judgment. These are treated the same way that a person may forgive another person, albeit often on a grander scale. The language of, “relent,” as is used to describe God in this passage can be translated as, “consoling oneself,” or, “being sorry.” It is the same language used for when God regretted making humanity before the flood. The king of Nineveh, in his prayer is essentially saying, “If we repent of our evil, perhaps God’s heart will soften, and God too will repent – not of evil, but of anger.” Repentance, turning around, changing direction, would here suggest God is not only ceasing to do harm but even blessing the people who have repented of their sin.

            The people who were once completely against God, now they had a chance to go even beyond simply avoiding what is bad but stepping into the goodness of God. The people of Nineveh were not just being spared; they were being saved from themselves. Fasting, covering themselves in sackcloth, these were all outward signs of an inward change. God set out to destroy Nineveh, Nineveh saw the coming wrath and turned around, God likewise transformed punishment into opportunity – the people had a chance for real change, for a relationship with the God of the universe.

            The paradox of Jonah is that God sets out to destroy Nineveh, but God also sends Jonah to save the city through his preaching. The prophet sees the intent of God’s actions immediately – God is loading the deck against the destruction of the city; God is actively working to make sure that the availability for mercy overcomes the need for judgment. God wants to be convinced the city is worth sparing, more than anything God wants to change God’s own mind about the necessity of violence against creation. God desires that not even a single soul should perish, but that all people might be saved.

            When we begin considering God’s righteousness in judgment and God’s righteousness in offering mercy, we inevitably get a headache. It seems on one hand that for God to be absolutely merciful, God must give a blanket pardon to all people on Earth, thus showing the absolute power of mercy. Likewise, our mind looks at all the evil of the world and we say to ourselves that God would be equally justified in destroying much of if not all humanity. Life is rough, and oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed both by the need for forgiveness to manifest and for justice to burn.

            I, personally, do not envy God in looking at the world. To see in every person the best and worst parts of humanity and then to have to balance in tension wrath and mercy and in all things show your incredible love for all things. There are times I do not know how I feel about the people in my own life, unable to discern them as mostly good or bad in how they interact with the world, I could not do this with seemingly infinite numbers of people throughout history. Yet, God looks at humanity and loves it eternally, yet God chose the ultimate expression of mercy in giving the Son – a member of the eternal triune divine – to live a life we may model and die a death that sets all of us free.

            Ultimately, the paradox of God in Jonah, in all of history, in all matters of mercy and justice, is that God is not the binary switch we imagine God to be. God is not at one moment a burning cloud of anger and then the next a gentle breath of peace. God is simply God, the eternal being who manifests in our life as blessing, as goodness, as love. There reaches a point in trying to understand how God acts in history where no words are sufficient. No wonder then that the Hebrew Scripture often stops short of trying to explain God’s inner thoughts. We know God seems angry in one moment but may offer peace instead of judgment when the time comes. God, for love of us all, seems to be able to change God’s mind. That is sufficient to know.

            If we know that God is ultimately oriented toward mercy, and if God is even willing to see the worst humanity has to offer enter into the Kingdom of God, then we too must define ourselves by mercy. We are too quick to write people off, too ready to wish ill on our enemies, too poised to see God wipe out those we have imagined are not part of the world we inhabit. For Jonah this meant first running away from his call to save hundreds of thousands of people, then giving up part way through doing his work. That the book concludes with God chastising him for his hardness of heart should not surprise us.

            Let us be enthusiastic in our quest to be merciful. When the opportunity to get to know those we have written off comes up, let us take it up with a smile and with hope about what that chance might bring. When we find ourselves wishing evil on other people, let us remember God sparing Nineveh and let go of that anger. When we want to give up part way through the difficult walk toward reconciliation, let us out do Jonah and make it to the end of our work before we decide whether or not the trip was worthwhile.

            Love is the greatest mystery we are shown in life. Mercy is love which we show one another when times get hard. That God’s mercy is baffling to us should not be surprising. Yet, it offers us the example of how conflicted we can feel. Anger, disappointment, regret, all these valid feelings can come out of conflict we have with one another. However, they should not overcome our faculties for mercy, peace, and love. Repentance is hard, working with people who just don’t get it yet is hard, the whole business of living a good life can be overwhelming. Thanks be to God that in his works at Nineveh, on the Cross, and in our own lives, we are continually shown it is all possible. Changing hearts and minds, that is the business of God, and sometimes it seems that business can be turned inward. Let us work to change our own minds and to seek peace with all those around us. – Amen.

            Jonah is a goldmine of strange and fascinating instances of God’s mercy and human selfishness. Nineveh, the city which Jonah is called to preach to, was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Within a handful of generations that empire would rise up and destroy Jonah’s kingdom of Israel and reduce its sister kingdom of Judah to a vassal-state. The Assyrians, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, were not interested in maintaining any semblance of normalcy in their conquered kingdoms. Once a nation fell to Assyria a large chunk of the native population was transplanted elsewhere in the empire and replaced with another group from another conquered territory. While Babylonians exiled dignitaries to help with administration, the Assyrians exiled thousands to stamp out resistance and cultural identity from their conquered territories.

            Assyria was ruthless, and yet somehow it became a place that, we are told, God was willing to work salvation. As we have discussed previously when looking at the book of Jonah, the book itself is a historical fable. While Jonah was a real prophet active in Israel, the exact events of this book are a narrative which provides a clear example of the sort of work he engaged in. The comparison between the book of Jonah and George Washington’s cherry tree remains apt – the story is not itself a 1:1 history of an event but is meant to tell us something about the characters in the story. In this case, those characters are God and Jonah.

            Jonah, the stand in for humanity is an unwilling prophet. Jonah is not unwilling because of fear, but out of hatred. God is sending Jonah to preach repentance to the people who Jonah knows will bring destruction to his people, that the audience of the story knows will succeed in wiping them out. Jonah wants God to destroy the Assyrians, and Jonah believes that if he can get out of preaching repentance to them, then God will be trapped in God’s own desire to see justice done. Jonah, like so many did before him, and like we do today, was trying to trick God into doing what he wanted.

            Yet, the whole arc of the story shows Jonah being pushed to Nineveh even despite his opposition. When Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life by ship, storms prevent him. When the storm blocks one path, Jonah seeks to drown to avoid his call, but a great fish comes and prevents his escape once again. Somewhere in the despair of the ocean, Jonah comes to terms with what God has given him, but not for the reasons we would want him to. He takes up his call, he goes and preaches to the city, and camps out on a hill nearby, because Jonah is sure that the city will carry on being evil and the city will be destroyed in short order.

            Jonah, the prophet who heard the voice of God, had failed to listen to the city he was preaching to. We are told that Jonah made it at least a day’s journey into the city, a city that was three days across. Though the story does not tell us whether he carried on through the city or not, it seems likely that Jonah stopped traversing the city at this point. The halfhearted, spiteful prophet was not willing to give any more time to these people he actively wished to see destroyed. Even as he walked back out of the city, he began planning how he would watch it burn. Even as he left the gates, he failed to hear the decree of the king calling the people to repentance.

            You see, Jonah, like we do, was sure that God would only speak against the people of Nineveh if they were truly beyond repair. We see in something we dislike or that we know to be bad, an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation and recovery. God, thankfully, is more creative than we are. God, in relenting, in changing God’s mind, is ready to take something like Nineveh and give it a new lease on life, because God knows there is power in grace and in forgiveness, power that is greater even than the most wrathful anger of the divine.

            Throughout scripture God is described as, “repenting,” and “relenting,” of wrath. When judgment comes to a people, God can and does remove the penalty of that judgment. These are treated the same way that a person may forgive another person, albeit often on a grander scale. The language of, “relent,” as is used to describe God in this passage can be translated as, “consoling oneself,” or, “being sorry.” It is the same language used for when God regretted making humanity before the flood. The king of Nineveh, in his prayer is essentially saying, “If we repent of our evil, perhaps God’s heart will soften, and God too will repent – not of evil, but of anger.” Repentance, turning around, changing direction, would here suggest God is not only ceasing to do harm but even blessing the people who have repented of their sin.

            The people who were once completely against God, now they had a chance to go even beyond simply avoiding what is bad but stepping into the goodness of God. The people of Nineveh were not just being spared; they were being saved from themselves. Fasting, covering themselves in sackcloth, these were all outward signs of an inward change. God set out to destroy Nineveh, Nineveh saw the coming wrath and turned around, God likewise transformed punishment into opportunity – the people had a chance for real change, for a relationship with the God of the universe.

            The paradox of Jonah is that God sets out to destroy Nineveh, but God also sends Jonah to save the city through his preaching. The prophet sees the intent of God’s actions immediately – God is loading the deck against the destruction of the city; God is actively working to make sure that the availability for mercy overcomes the need for judgment. God wants to be convinced the city is worth sparing, more than anything God wants to change God’s own mind about the necessity of violence against creation. God desires that not even a single soul should perish, but that all people might be saved.

            When we begin considering God’s righteousness in judgment and God’s righteousness in offering mercy, we inevitably get a headache. It seems on one hand that for God to be absolutely merciful, God must give a blanket pardon to all people on Earth, thus showing the absolute power of mercy. Likewise, our mind looks at all the evil of the world and we say to ourselves that God would be equally justified in destroying much of if not all humanity. Life is rough, and oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed both by the need for forgiveness to manifest and for justice to burn.

            I, personally, do not envy God in looking at the world. To see in every person the best and worst parts of humanity and then to have to balance in tension wrath and mercy and in all things show your incredible love for all things. There are times I do not know how I feel about the people in my own life, unable to discern them as mostly good or bad in how they interact with the world, I could not do this with seemingly infinite numbers of people throughout history. Yet, God looks at humanity and loves it eternally, yet God chose the ultimate expression of mercy in giving the Son – a member of the eternal triune divine – to live a life we may model and die a death that sets all of us free.

            Ultimately, the paradox of God in Jonah, in all of history, in all matters of mercy and justice, is that God is not the binary switch we imagine God to be. God is not at one moment a burning cloud of anger and then the next a gentle breath of peace. God is simply God, the eternal being who manifests in our life as blessing, as goodness, as love. There reaches a point in trying to understand how God acts in history where no words are sufficient. No wonder then that the Hebrew Scripture often stops short of trying to explain God’s inner thoughts. We know God seems angry in one moment but may offer peace instead of judgment when the time comes. God, for love of us all, seems to be able to change God’s mind. That is sufficient to know.

            If we know that God is ultimately oriented toward mercy, and if God is even willing to see the worst humanity has to offer enter into the Kingdom of God, then we too must define ourselves by mercy. We are too quick to write people off, too ready to wish ill on our enemies, too poised to see God wipe out those we have imagined are not part of the world we inhabit. For Jonah this meant first running away from his call to save hundreds of thousands of people, then giving up part way through doing his work. That the book concludes with God chastising him for his hardness of heart should not surprise us.

            Let us be enthusiastic in our quest to be merciful. When the opportunity to get to know those we have written off comes up, let us take it up with a smile and with hope about what that chance might bring. When we find ourselves wishing evil on other people, let us remember God sparing Nineveh and let go of that anger. When we want to give up part way through the difficult walk toward reconciliation, let us out do Jonah and make it to the end of our work before we decide whether or not the trip was worthwhile.

            Love is the greatest mystery we are shown in life. Mercy is love which we show one another when times get hard. That God’s mercy is baffling to us should not be surprising. Yet, it offers us the example of how conflicted we can feel. Anger, disappointment, regret, all these valid feelings can come out of conflict we have with one another. However, they should not overcome our faculties for mercy, peace, and love. Repentance is hard, working with people who just don’t get it yet is hard, the whole business of living a good life can be overwhelming. Thanks be to God that in his works at Nineveh, on the Cross, and in our own lives, we are continually shown it is all possible. Changing hearts and minds, that is the business of God, and sometimes it seems that business can be turned inward. Let us work to change our own minds and to seek peace with all those around us. – Amen.

Just ‘Cause You Can – Lectionary 01/17/2021

1 Corinthians 6: 12-14

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Sermon Text

            We all have things in life that we love. We may love coffee, books, television, video games, whatever it may be there are aspects of our life in which we take joy from engaging with our favorite hobbies or objects. Sometimes the pleasure comes from the action itself, the joy of a morning run for some people can be enjoyed regardless of circumstances. Other times it is a specific item that allows us to enjoy ourselves – if you have a favorite piece of art that you always feel better having looked at or a memento of a past event that awakens good memories then you know this feeling.

            Almost any aspect of creation can bring us joy because God made all things to be good in the beginning. While we as humans may twist that creation to become negative, the raw matter of the universe is inherently good. The tools we make from those materials carry on some of that goodness, and we as the secondary creators are the ones who decide for what purpose we make something. Have we made them for good or for bad, have we built them in the spirit of their original goodness or brought them down to our own depraved sensibilities?

            The right suitedness of a thing or an action defines the utility and the morality of its existence. While there are some implements which can only exist for evil, most things are made for multiple uses or can be used for several things regardless of the original intent of its making. A screwdriver can remove or tighten a screw, true, but a flat head can also be used as a pry bar in a pinch. However, we are too abstract to really make our point here. We are all of us given some universal gifts in life – gifts of ingenuity, of self-determination, of our basic desires, and many others. These gifts, these items bestowed on us by God alongside the physical objects we own, are the things we can use for good or evil and that we often need guidance for.

            Paul, in our scripture today, makes a provocative statement. “All things are lawful,” perhaps alluding to a teaching that was common in the Corinthian community. “All things are lawful,” is a slogan that seemingly no one knows the origin of. Some point to Paul’s own teachings on grace and suggest that people took his teachings on ritual purity too far. Others say that it is a reference to the teachings of Diogenes the Cynic or other philosophers. Still, maybe it was just a thing that the community said to themselves apropos of nothing.

            Regardless of how this idea entered the consciousness of the people, it was deceptively appealing. The idea that anything goes for Christians would be easy to believe. After all, Christ died for all sins, including mine. Who is to say that does not include sins yet to be committed as well? The basic ethic, “All things are lawful,” quickly becomes, “All things are good.” This perspective that says a person, often specifically Christians, are not held to actionable obligations is referred to as antinomianism – literally “Without Law.” While few people are fully antinomian in their beliefs, the impulse is more common among Christians than we would care to admit.

            We are people freed by God’s grace. This freedom includes being free from eternal punishment, it means being free of many ritual obligations as Gentile Believers, but it cannot be allowed to mean that we have a free pass to do as we wish. It is so compelling a temptation that when Paul went on his preaching journeys, we often see that people took his teachings and twisted them in just the right way to excuse their bad behavior. The Corinthians had their slogan, “All things are lawful,” while others like the church in Rome simply took license to neglect their Jewish siblings in the church. In both cases Paul had to write letters to the congregations to clarify the teaching, making sure the whole world knew that the question, “Should I sin that grace may about?” must be shut down with, “Certainly not!” Immediately. (Romans 6: 1-2)

            The way that antinomianism appears to us today is far more subtle. As heirs to two thousand years of Christian study and teachings we are too clever to just come out and say, “God’s grace is sufficient for any sin I’d like to commit, so I will commit whatever sin I’d like.” Few people are so self-aware or so upfront outside of Sunday school skits, and I do not believe they truly exist in any great number. However, for each of us we will find moments in which we do something we should not, knowing we should not do it, and then immediately go to God in prayer – not out of contrition and seeking to truly repent, but out of fear and a knowledge that God’s grace will cover our sin.

            Sin is born, oftentimes, out of the legitimate desires given to us by God being corrupted by our broken perspectives. As Paul says, everyone needs and loves food but if food controls your life then you will sin in a multitude of ways concerning food. Physical intimacy is an important aspect of our human relationships, but if we let our desire for it consume us then we will quickly find ourselves pursuing it in the wrong ways. The two examples Paul provides, food and sex, are some of the most common motivators for human sin. Neither one is in themselves wicked or wrong, both blessed gifts of God, but when we chase after them in the wrong ways any number of things can go wrong.

            Our list of twisted desires is not limited to these. Desires for money can lead us to all kinds of moral shortcuts. The want of status can cause us to step on our peers to get to the position we would like to have socially or professionally, Even in our households we may find ourselves putting our own wants ahead of those of our families in such a way as to cause hurt, mistrust, even resentment between their various members. Sin is not a thing we do, it is a state we live in, the gatekeeper of eternity and the blockade between us and the Kingdom of God, a prison we have built for ourselves. Our faith gives us the key to our own prison, will we open the lock?

            Paul’s insistence that we must be cognizant of what is helpful to our faith is a good litmus test for what desires we feed or starve. If the things we are after are in line with the ten commandments, the spirit of the 615 mitzvot, the prophets, the Gospels, and the two great commandments, then it is something worth pursuing. The final criterion and the first are probably the most helpful in our daily life – a list of twelve moral guidelines to help us make decisions. Does my action break any of the ten commandments? No? Good. Does it support my love of God and neighbor? Now that is a harder question to answer.

            The West, here referring to the philosophic tradition which is descended from Greek Philosophy and Imperial Christianity, has a particular fascination with the individual. While ethics in the ancient world were rooted in community and moral fortitude seen in terms of how well a person contributes to their community, the Enlightenment and other later philosophic movement sought to exalt the individual over community. In what would become the United States, this individuality was foundational to how we established the country. The ethic of the United States is centered on individuals and traditionally the participation of that individual in community is seen as optional, that kind of thinking is anathema to Biblical Christianity.

            Freedom, in the Biblical conception, is freedom to serve God fully. We are no longer slaves to sin, but fully fledged servants of God. This means that we are free from guilt and broken thinking, from self-centeredness and greed, free not for our own sake but for that of the gospel which sets all people free. Biblical freedom, as expressed in our Eucharistic confession is freedom for the sake of, “Joyful Obedience.” That obedience is chiefly to God, but it is also a profound understanding of how our actions impact those around us. We must be aware of how our actions impact those around us, because how we freely help one another defines our Christianity more than any half-hearted attempt ever could.

            This Pandemic in particular has exposed the problems with our American Christian perceptions of freedom, our own obsession with the idea that, “All things are lawful.” While certainly it is understandable that we balk at mandates that ask us to take specific action in response to any situation, the Christian should be thinking ahead to doing good before the government or any other entity tells them to do so. We should not have been rushing to horde paper products before other people could get them, should not have been buying up WIC eligible food so that hungry mothers and children could not get them, should not have fought against masks that limited the spread of a deadly virus. We should not have needed coercion to do what is good, should not have needed signs to tell us to limit our purchases. While these were all lawful to do, none of it was helpful to us, our community, or the kingdom.

            However, the gift of God’s grace means that, in the event we do fall short, for whatever reason, God is good to forgive our sins and set us on the right path toward a better tomorrow. What we cannot do, and what the Corinthians demonstrate in our scripture for today, is begin from the supposition of forgiveness. We all must give an account of our life before the throne of God and if all we have to show is a firm belief in forgiveness but no personal conception of righteousness, we will find ourselves, “Saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15)

            The glory of God is the grace of God who is with us. The mission of God set upon our hearts is to use the freedom we have from sin for the good of all people, not to satisfy any desire of our heart gone wrong. The earth, our fellow people, every object we own, and the fullness of creation exist for goodness – but only if we use the gifts we are given correctly. We use them not to glorify ourselves, nor to hurt others, but in all things to love as God first loved us. Let us all commit to earnest self-examination and to pursuing freedom that better allows us to be truly obedient to the God who has called us. – Amen.

Sermon in Response to the Storming of the Capitol

Psalm 46

  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

  Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.   “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

John 8: 31-32

  Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Sermon Text

            “God is our refuge and strength,” Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben read these words Wednesday afternoon to a gathered group of lawmakers and staff members sequestered in a secure location within the capitol. Kibben, a former Navy Chaplain, was serving her first day as chaplain to the House of Representatives. I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like. To have your first day be consumed with one of the most harrowing moments of your life and in the lives of an entire nation.

            Wednesday is a moment that I do not think any of us will likely forget. I hope it is a day we hold onto and never let go of. Nothing like it has ever happened in the history of our country. While we have seen devastating attacks, while we have seen secession and sedition, we have not seen a house of government stormed by bands of people since the British attack on Washington in 1814 – and never have we seen such an attack carried out by American citizens. An enormous crowd of insurrectionists – some armed, some not, but all of them there to disrupt democracy and to threaten the lives of law makers in the course of their duties.

Last Wednesday was an attack on the American Democratic System perpetrated by Far-Right organizers who had been publicly planning such violence for weeks. On Parler and other far more fringe, unregulated sites, and even here on Facebook, plans were made to answer the call that had been given and, “take back,” the United States. While many who gathered on the Mall that day may not have known about these plans, many others still did. Proud Boys and other White Supremacist groups who had previously been told to, “stand down and stand by,” were now coming to do what they had been called to.

Some may wonder why we would be talking about this in our worship service and I have two reasons to put forward. Firstly, many of those who stormed the capitol did so following prayer circles along the way to begin the siege, even erecting a cross across from the building preceding their attack. These people thought what they were doing was blessed by God and I have a duty as a minister of the Gospel to refute that. Secondly, though we would often like to pretend this isn’t the truth – our politics and our faith have to overlap. If our faith is so insignificant to us it does not impact our opinions in political realms and life outside of Sunday mornings, it is no faith at all. As a minister of the Gospel, occasionally I must turn the lens of scripture on the world around us, and call us all to repentance for the world we live in.

            I watched, as did many others, the chaos of Wednesday unfold in real time. It began on a lunch break I had during the Immersion I am participating in. Taking a break from discussions of Ho-Chunk spirituality, I thought it would be good to turn on C-Span and watch the certification of the Electoral College votes. A good, boring foray into the political happenings of the day. Unfortunately, my Twitter lit up with a video of people breaking through the first set of barriers between them and the Capitol building. There were no updates for some time, but I trusted that those guarding the building would push them back. However, within minutes I saw the floor of the House erupt as news began to break that people had successfully pushed behind all barriers, some moved out of the way for them, and were breaking through doors and windows to enter the Capitol.

            As shocking as the images were, as astounding as the videos were, I was not overly surprised by it all. The simple fact is that we have been building up to this kind of unrest for some time. However, the sad fact is that it was likely completely avoidable from the first moment it began to fester within us. We all know that a lot happened in 2020 to exacerbate existing problems in our country. Racism was not invented in 2020, but we were given opportunities to explore its lasting presence in our society. Disease was not new to us, but a new strand of human coronavirus made us realize how poorly equipped we were to face viral threats.

            Yet, each of these problems would have been easier to face if not for the one all consuming threat which we in the United States continually face and that we in the Church must oppose openly and strongly. We must reject viewpoints that trade morality and ethical actions for political power. We must reject the proliferation of falsehoods at the expense of truth. We must divest ourselves from all cruelty and greed and instead pursue godliness at all times. In short, our greatest threat is that we have let ourselves believe lies. Just look at the major crises of this past year.

            From the beginning of last year, with the initial cases of COVID-19 being reported around the world, lies spread about the nature of the virus. Those who wished to gain followings, to sell ad dollars, or to secure political power began to plant seeds that would grow into disaster. Accusations that the virus was made in a lab, rather than the reality that it naturally mutated and spread like any virus does. False reports that the virus was a globalist conspiracy to induce mind control or remove rights, led people to doubt measures that would have limited viral spread. Even now, lies about the vaccines being distributed to help end this pandemic are leading to events like the destruction of vaccines to prevent them from doing harm they are incapable of.

            The many demonstrations which were held over the Summer in response to the deaths of people of color led to a great deal of unrest. More often than not, any unrest incited by these demonstrations was initiated by those outside of the groups who had gathered to protest. Yet, disinformation was spread to paint all protesters as dangerous killers bent on destroying the American way of life. The Black Lives Matter movement, which has no central leadership and is distinct from the foundation of the same name, was described as a Marxist institution undermining American democracy. The reality, we know, was that these falsehoods were predominately spread by bot farms on social media and White Supremacist groups to stoke the fires of conflict, to push people to take up arms where otherwise they might not have.

            The disasters we saw on Wednesday were part of the same parade of lies and disinformation. However, instead of focusing on viruses and protestors, the lies which incited the violence were about the November election. The strangeness of this year naturally contributed to many questions about how various aspects of voting would be carried out. However, those who feared losing power made a point to spread seeds of doubt in the election to ensure that, if things went the wrong way, they could leverage their base to reject the results. Despite repeated audits, recounts, court cases, and ample evidence that this election was secure, many people refused to budge from the disinformation they had initially heard. Doubt, once it has entered into our hearts, can be very had to exorcise.

            Years of this kind of information, but an especially bad year of it in the form of 2020 culminated in what we saw Wednesday. A group of people, who had publicly made known their intent to cause harm. Political leaders, including our sitting president, who encouraged them, calling them heroes of democracy and, “patriots.” All these who were given lies and who had written these lies. Some of them fully aware they were false, fully aware they were simply justifications for violent actions, some of them just swept up in the flood – all of them laying siege to the symbol of our democracy, the Capitol, a literal temple devoted to our nation.

            What has been frustrating, from beginning to end, is not simply how many historically significant things we have seen pass us by as of late, but that so many of them have been made exponentially worse by lies told to dupe people into following those who told the lies. Conspiracy theories are some of the leading causes of violence in the United States. Countless school shootings and bombing have been motivated by lies surrounding, “White Genocide.” The recent Nashville bombing was motivated by 5-G conspiracy theories. We have seen thousands of people die every day from a virus we could have stamped out of existence, if not for policy makers and armchair virologists spreading disinformation and pushing us all to take unsafe actions.

            Even now, people are lying about what happened Wednesday. As I implored the day of here on Facebook, “Do not forget what you have seen today.” Some are saying that no crime was committed, even though property was destroyed, people killed, and government property stolen. Others have begun to conspire, saying that it was Antifa or Black Lives Matter that instigated the siege, even though all evidence and ample weeks of public planning tell us the organizers were largely white supremacists, neo nazis, and other Alt-Right groups. We know who to blame, but are we willing to do it?

            In many ways I have simplified our problems, but I think that much of what we have faced in the past few years can be chalked up to our inability to trust God and our willingness to accept convenient lies. We do not trust God to care for us and so invest our hope in political parties and public figures to bring us salvation. We do not love the truth enough so we chase after anything that makes us feel better or that will justify our politics and lifestyle. In a world of pain and misery, rather than fighting back with God’s goodness and the true nature of God’s creation, we descend into a world of tinfoil hats and loaded guns.

            I return to the image we began with, of a chaplain sitting with congresspeople. Some of them were the same people encouraging the mob outside just days ago, but all of them now locked behind doors as an insurrection raged above them. The words that rang out, the words that will endure for all of them, the words that may yet save us – are those of scripture. “God,” not hatred, not power, not lies, “God, is my refuge and strength, an ever present help in times of trouble. We have to repent and come back to God. We have to hold people accountable for inciting insurrection. We have to divest ourselves of anything that gets between us and God, and accept that politics and faith are often more deeply entrenched than we can ever imagine. We have to do better, or else there will be no democracy left to save, no nation to live in – Christian or otherwise. We must begin to fix this broken state we find ourselves in, and it begins with us, it begins with the truth, and it begins with the God who is our refuge and strength in all things. – Amen.