It is not You Who Sent Me – Lectionary 02/24/2019

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.

And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there–since there are five more years of famine to come–so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Sermon Text

There is a strange mercy in life which is afforded to us by God. Though we are sinful, we can be saved. Though we do wrong, we may be blessed. Though we have committed the unspeakable, God can do more than wipe away our past – God can make our past shine. In today’s reading we see the greatest possible outcome of this mercy, that Joseph, having been sold as a slave, is now able to look at his brothers, at his slavers, and say that God orchestrated his sorrow to save the lives, not only of his brothers but of Egypt and beyond.

This passage does not make suffering into something good though. Nowhere in this text do we see Joseph say, “I am so glad that I was a slave.” Or “That time with Potiphar taught me I should wear a tighter belt, thank goodness.” Instead, Joseph says that God was able to use the tragedy of Joseph’s life and use it to help others. Joseph decides for himself, “God sent me ahead of you,” placing God as the one who saw him safely into Egypt and through a long and winding path into Pharaoh’s household.

Joseph does not make his brother’s act of slave mongering an act of God though. God directed his path after he was sold, but in the eyes of Joseph, it was his brothers alone that chose to sell him to the passing caravan. Nonetheless, this act which was intended to get rid of Joseph forever, “God intended for good.” The good ultimately being the preservation of life, the gift of God to all people – not just the Israelites.

Already in the story of Joseph we see the promise of God to Abraham begin to take hold, Joseph becomes a blessing to “all people,” through his bizarre journey out of Egypt. It is important though that we do not turn this story into what it is not, namely a blanket endorsement for us to look at any tragedy and decide that God meant for it to happen, that God wanted people to suffer for some far-flung good we do not know yet.

Reading the Joseph story, we see Joseph speak about God frequently, we see Joseph look to God for interpretation of dreams, but ultimately God never speaks to Joseph. Up till this point, the patriarchs have had several face to face encounters with God. Abraham saw God as three visitors to his camp, as a cauldron passing through a sacrifice. Isaac wrestled with God, somehow someway, and was given the name “Israel” the one who wrestles with God.

Yet, in prison, in Potiphar’s household, and in the slave caravan Joseph is never given a direct encounter with God. There is no theophany on a mountain, no wrestling match by the river, Joseph does all that he does in the darkness of life. Joseph lives as we often do today, not as direct but indirect recipients of Divine Revelation. Growing up in Israel Joseph would have heard of God’s work – of the Garden, Cain, Abel, Lot, Abraham – but unlike all those before him all he had were these stories.

Joseph does not have a grand moment of divine revelation like his ancestors, but this does not mean Joseph is alone. All around, Joseph sees moments in his life as divine intervention. That even as he was rotting in prison, God was working to do good somehow. For many of us, this reflects our experience… Well, maybe not the prison part.

We do not see God coming down in a column of smoke and fire, but we feel led to one thing or another in life if we listen. We do not wrestle with God by a river, but we are fighting against God’s will daily. We are interpreters of our own life experience in the same way that Joseph is, we know the works of God in the past and as we go through our life, we are able to see how those works are similarly manifested in our own lives. The key thing to understand is that God is working with Joseph to reach this point, and understanding that eventually allows Joseph to say, “God sent me. Not you.”

What we do not see in this text is Joseph being told by his brother’s, “You got to feed all these people! If we hadn’t sold you as property that would not have happened!” We do not see Joseph crying out to God in prison and then being told, “No no, don’t despair, this is good for someone else – I assure you.” There is nothing in this story, no point of condescension, in which Joseph is told, “Well it really isn’t that bad, is it?”

When we read this story, we should not read it as Joseph telling people who suffer to chin up and get over it. Likewise, we should not read it as God deciding that the brother’s actions were good because they produced good. The evil committed by Joseph’s brother is still evil, nothing can redeem selling another human being as property. Not 400 years removed, not even 3.000 years removed can we ever say ownership of a person has anything redeemable about it.

If a blessing comes from any evil action, it is because of God. The evil is not ordained by God, but God leads us – through God’s mercy to something better than the evil we have brought into the world. We often skip to the last piece of this without acknowledging the first. We take the good God has given us in the face of evil, and attribute it to that evil thing. This is why people can say, and somehow not think themselves in the wrong, things such as “God appointed slavery to bring slaves to be converted.”‘; “God made diseases so that we could be healed and know God’s mercy.”; “God made the Holocaust to create alliances in the West.” In each case, we see something evil and we say, “Well if God does it, it must be ok.”

We know though that God does not do evil. In the thirty-some years that God spent among us in the Christ, never once did God do something evil. Not only did God not do evil, but actively discouraged what could be called justified retaliation to it. Our command to love our enemies is put plainly in the Greek, “Do to others according to what you would will others to do to you.” If you wrong someone and become their enemy, would you hope for them to take revenge?

God walked among us and was very clear that God did not tolerate evil or victim shaming. When asked if an ailing man or his parents had sinned, Jesus said neither was true – the man was simply blind. That particular blind person was placed in Jesus’ path though, so that when people looked to him and asked, “How horrible a thing do you have to do to end up like that.” Jesus could show what was really required of the situation – compassion.

Jesus showed that God is not capricious in giving to people, that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous equally. Thus, to say in the Joseph story that God made the brothers to commit evil, made Potiphar’s wife to accuse Jacob falsely, or that God threw up God’s hands and said, “Well I guess it all worked out.” Is wrong. God does not commit evil so that Good can happen, but God does do more good than we could ever ask for or imagine.

There are only two people who can decide if something that was done to them worked out for Good. These people are God and the person who was wronged. Joseph forgives his brothers, Joseph appraises the situation as a blessing, Joseph finds it within his heart to give to the brothers who otherwise deserve punishment. We need to have a victim-centered understanding of trauma, refusing to focus on excusing the wrong of the person who did wrong.

How often do we speak to people who suffer as if they are somehow responsible for what happened? How many victims of hatred and violence do we look at and command that they forgive people when we cannot understand what they have gone through. While we must ultimately reach a point where we bless those who curse, give to those who take from us, it is rarely an instant turn from curse to blessing. For Joseph, it was over twenty years from being sold to blessing his siblings.

In the ancient world, forgiveness was initiated by the person who did wrong. Joseph forgives his brothers after they grovel before him for another crime – a silver chalice that had gone missing. Only after seeing that his brothers have changed their hearts does Joseph give them his blessing. It is this model of forgiveness we see explained by Jesus, “If YOU have wronged someone and then come to the altar to offer a gift, first go and reconcile with that person, then offer your gift.” The is on the one who commits wrong to seek forgiveness.

This does not mean that anyone who is wronged should sit on their pain, sit on their anger. We all have had times where we forgive someone before they ever ask to be forgiven. However, we are not obligated to restore every relationship with our abusers or oppressors, only with those who are willing to repent. We are not expected to ever be ok with the ways that people have hurt us, but we can see blessings which came after the pain has been given.

What is important is to remember that God seeks for us to be in community with one another. God seeks to give us all the gifts God can. Yet, when it comes to maintaining relationships, God lets the victims of wrongdoing set the pace. The perpetrator of violence has no place in the process except to be silent and to beg forgiveness. After it is given though, then, in this story at least, the family is restored. There is weeping and kissing, and eventually a feast. This is the model we see too in our Eucharist, we ask forgiveness, and only after it is given can we approach the table, feasting on the love of God. Let us do so, may we always be willing to own up to the wrong we have done and forgive as God has led us. Amen.

Reborn and Unashamed – Lectionary 02/17/2019

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ–whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

Sermon Text

Death is scary. I think we do well as a Church to come out and say that. From the moment we as people find out that our time is limited, we spend of lot time worrying about that end. To quote the wisdom of a Country song, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, nobody wants to go now.” We face, day after day, the reality of our own mortality. Every breath could be our last, and if we say that isn’t intimidating at least, I think we’re lying to ourselves.

Death is so severe of a thing to face that Christ, the perfect image of God, though fully divine, was shaken to the core by the reality of his coming death. While the severe nature of Christ’s death no doubt added to his fear in Gethsemane, I don’t think it is too far a stretch to say that Christ was scared of any sort of death. How else could God, who never knew what it was to not be, to suddenly face deprivation of something – namely deprivation of earthly life.

Yes, death scared Christ even though he knew that Easter was coming. Death scared Christ even though he knew that, “By his stripes” we would be healed. All the knowledge in the universe, all that ever was or will be, and death still seemed scary. Nonetheless, Christ followed God dutifully to the end, and in his last breath he was sure enough of God’s plan to say – “It is accomplished.” That is, all that was required for Christ to die according to scriptures prophetic voice.

If Christ struggled to find peace in his final days, we should not suppose that we are greater than Christ in our ability to find peace. Nonetheless, we have a God who has gone before us in death, facing the horror in a way that we could never imagine. With all this said though, if the story were to end there, then we would have no reason to ever feel at peace again. A dead God is a dead God. Whether they died in solidarity with us or not, they’re not doing anything anymore.

It is this thought process that Paul speaks about in today’s text. The death of Christ on the cross was not the end of the story, and if it was, then not only is the Church mistaken in all it does, but we are to be “pitied most of all.” However, there are those in the Church who deny the resurrection. Whether it be a philosophic rejection, a spiritual rejection, or a scientific rejection – there are many within the fold of the faith who see Christ as God perhaps, as living perhaps, but not as resurrected and enfleshed at the right hand of the Father.

For philosophic reasons many opposed the bodily resurrection early on in the church. Among Greek Platonists and Stoic atheists the idea that someone would come back from the dead, worst still that they would keep their body when they did so? Disgusting. Platonists did, after all, see all matter as evil, a perversion of the “Good” which transcended all creation. Stoics viewed death as the final end of all things, there was no afterlife, death was the final end, and all we could ask was to end our lives well and on our own terms.

To Jews, at the time the resurrection of a single person into Glory disturbed the Pharisees and scandalized the Sadducees. To the former, they could not imagine that only one person would enter into Glory before all the faithful after all everyone was to be raised when the World to Come became the World that is. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection at all, holding only the Torah to be scripture they did not believe in angels or an afterlife of any substance, the whole of the human life was to be spent following God – to die well and with a good legacy was all anyone could ask for. Both would be disturbed by this particular messiah though, an apostate in their eyes, a rebellious nobody they had crucified.

The death of God on the Cross does not rest well with anyone. Greeks and Jews were equally uncomfortable with the idea – and yet both Jews and Greeks converted en masse. Why would they do this? There is only one reason, and that is the reality of the resurrected Christ.

I mentioned the way in which spiritual or scientific oppositions to the resurrection existed. While I think few Christians object to the resurrection because of scientific reasoning – miracles innately defy science anyway, many do deny it spiritually. Many talk about heaven as an escape from this world, as shedding off the weak flesh and becoming the strong spirit. It is true that we become “spiritual bodies” when Christ returns, but it is important to remember that this does not mean we’re ghostly saints walking around noncorporeally in the Kingdom of Heaven.

No, the Greek tells us that what occurs is a transition from our ψυχη – our physical, life force filled being – to our πνευματικος – the blessed state which Christ first embodied for us. We cannot deny Jesus as being a physically resurrected person without denying the essential piece of Christ’s work. Interestingly, Paul goes so far as to prove the importance of Christ’s resurrection by first stating the general resurrection of the dead proves the particular resurrection of Christ. If there is not, Paul argues, a resurrection for us – then Jesus could not have been raised either. If Jesus was not raised, then where is our hope? It is in the same grave Jesus was buried in.

There is no body in the grave though. Jesus walked and talked, ate and drank with his disciples following his resurrection. He implored them to prove his physicality, reach out and touch my wounds. No one took him up on that offer, good thing too – nothing kills a party quicker than putting your hand in the host’s open wounds.

John tells us that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The important thing is that the Christ never stopped being flesh. To this day a human being, a godly being, sits with God the father in the Heavenly throne room. The resurrection of the singular Christ is a seal, a proof, of our own future glorification.

“What does this mean for me?” A good question. Remember that at the outset we talked about death. The fear, the finality, of the cessation of all that we know. If we only had this life to go off of, then we would have no reason to think anything followed the termination of our life signs but the extinction of that particular nature we call ourselves. We would either live in constant fear at our eventual end or be forced to create a meaning for ourselves. To live in the Eldritch terror of an uncaring universal, or the personal conviction of Nietzsche’s existentialism.

Yet, to put it lightly, “God got up!” Christ did rise up on the third day. The tomb was empty. The resurrected Lord did appear to Cephas. To the Twelve. To the cloud of witnesses, many of whom are still alive. And the miracle for all of us is that – as one untimely born – Christ appeared to me. To you. To all of us who would count ourselves the least of the apostles.

Do you fear death? You’re not alone. Christ precedes us in our fear, Christ knows what it is to feel and to truly be abandoned in our last moments. Christ nonetheless led the way into life for us as well. The triumph of the resurrection of one person, the Christ – is the promise of the resurrection of all people – the world to come. This is the comfort that we can rest in. That we have a proof for our faith. It would one thing to live in a purely intellectual faith, one that we would never need proof for. We aren’t like that though, at the end of the day we all like to touch, and smell, to know and to see in a physical way the world around us.

Unfortunately, none of us were there to see the empty tomb. So where is our proof. It is seated in every chair that is now reading this. All the faithful are proof of the resurrection because they embody the fruits of the spirit. We are duty bound, not to defend God, but to testify of what the risen God does in our lives. Our healing – spiritual and physical – our repentance and our good works – all these are means to speak to God’s work in our life. Even more, those who are able to find peace in simply sitting at the feet of God, testify in serene and beautiful ways.

We are the resurrected Christ to the world. The Church represents all the promises of the world to come in the world that currently is. As such we must commit ourselves not only to rest in the promises of God’s eventual deliverance of us from death but to the testimony of the present goodness which God daily grants us. For Paul and many others, this testimony was carried out so that we gave them a special name. The word that means, “to testify” is, after all, μαρτυρεω – to testify is to be a martyr.

For many today, dying for the Gospel is still a way to testify God’s work in their life. Lest we think it is required though, let us remember that many saints did die a natural death throughout history. Still, their testimony was living a life worthy of the Gospel they had been called to. A life full of love, and faith. If we today wish to testify our resurrected Lord, we must begin first by becoming like him. Let us, therefore, commit ourselves to love, rest upon the promise of the resurrection, and in all things do the Good which was set out before us in the work of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Preaching: Fishing for People – Lectionary 02/10/2019

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Sermon Text

What must Peter, James, and John must have thought when Jesus called to them on the beach that day? Not only were they asked for become followers of Jesus, but they were also told they were about to become, “catchers of people,” “fishers of men,” in the KJV. We are familiar enough with this text to not think too much of it. However, the word that Jesus uses – ζωγρῶν – is the same word to describe taking a prisoner of war or kidnapping someone. It is to take hold of someone while they are still alive, to hold them captive. It’s an uncomfortable way to talk about ministry, it sounds violent. We must not for a second though, think that Jesus was talking about taking prisoners in the name of the faith.

From the earliest years of the church though, the “kidnapping” of people that Jesus’ describes was understood as being directly connected to the fish that the disciples were catching moments before. We see this in sermons and in commentaries going back as far as John Chrysostom and Jerome. These bishops and priests were certain that God, in calling us on the shoreside, was asking us to put ourselves out like a fisherman in their boat.

What does it mean to be a “catcher of people”? For the Christian, it means preaching primarily. While we can go out and we can work among people to do good for them, good works divorced from good preaching are only that – good works. They are not baptized with the Spirit in the same way that they could be, not that it is wrong to do a good thing in itself, but that denying someone the Word of God while practicing the Work of God is ultimately a deprivation of the Will of God.

Specifically, I believe those who preach in any official capacity in the Church are to be doubly concerned about how they preach. We can very quickly descend into a Christianity that asks for people to sit down and shut up, or one that asks they speak out and act so that they never pause to listen to that still small voice. The Christian witness is unique in all the world, and we must be uniquely balanced in our administration of this gift. Balancing the contemplative and the practical, the intellectual and affectionate.

Luckily, Jesus provides for us in this lakeside call an example of how we can preach in good conscious to the people of God. We see Jesus walking out after doing his own preaching and finding his future disciples busily cleaning their nets. Now, for the purposes of our discussion on “catching people,” I’m stealing directly from Jerome in suggesting that our preaching is the “net” by which we capture those who will be called disciples. Because of this, if we wish to catch people for the sake of Christ, we must clean up our preaching.

I do not mean that we need to remove whatever makes people uncomfortable or sterilize the word of God so as to make it inoffensive. No, the word of God is sharp as a doubled edged sword, separating marrow from bone. It is offensive to all people, it strikes out against all our most human suppositions about ourselves and what God wills for us. No, I instead suggest that we are to clean our preaching of all impurities that we bring to it, all things we do to pollute God’s good word.

How can we pollute the word of God? By bringing our own assumptions and our own bigotries to the text. When we make God someone who never disagrees with us as preachers then we deny our prophetic witness to ourselves as stewards of power and deny our congregation the correcting convictions that will set them free. If I have something that grieves my heart, but does not grieve the heart of God, and I say that God hates it as much as I do – I am a liar. If I endorse cruelty or support the oppression of others in God’s name, I render the Gospel inert.

If we are to preach the word of God, we must purify ourselves before we step into the water. We cannot catch good fish if our nets are not cleaned thoroughly.

Likewise, we must mend our net. We must make sure we are coherent, consistent. If we do not have the full witness of scripture at our disposal, for example, then our testimony has gaping holes in it. A minister who does not know the scripture and the fullness of how it connects to itself will, like a net with holes in it, miss the vital connections that allow someone to be caught up into the Grace of God.

Once our nets are clean and ready for use though, where out we to fish? If we follow our own inclination we will go where we think the best fish are. For use preachers this may mean that we begin to preach to the hifalutin and proper people in society. Those with the connections, the power, the “moral high ground.” This is ministry to the crème de la crème will not be sufficient though. While all people need and can respond to the grace of God, and our prophetic witness is against the powerful in this world – we are not called to minister to the powerful alone. Jesus spent his time with the poor, with the people of bad reputation – those who are not sick are in no need of physician.

This does not mean that rich or the well put together do not need the Grace of God – on the contrary, their wealth and privilege often atrophies their heart and renders them resistant to God’s will, “Woe to you who are rich! Woe to you who are full! Woe to you who are spoken well of!” says Christ in pronouncing his woes against the “Respectable” people of his day. What it does mean at that coming to someone who is deeply ill, but does not see the symptoms of their illness, can oftentimes prevent a physician from doing their work. How do you heal someone who thinks they are perfectly well? They won’t take medicine, and they definitely won’t change their lifestyle for a disease they don’t even know they have.

So, after fishing where they though best for so long, Jesus tells the disciples what they should properly do. Fish against the current, fish so that you are in danger of capsizing. Yes, the way that Jesus recommends the disciples fish put them in danger – at best their nets would be washed away, at worst their boats would flip over and drown them. Still, they went out and cast their nets as God requested, and so too ought we to leave where we feel comfortable and preach the word of God in places that we fear to be in, among people we would not properly esteem.

What causes the fish to enter the net of the fisherman though? The hidden knowledge of Jesus about the patterns of sardines in the Sea of Galilee, of course not! It is a miracle that so many fish suddenly appear in a lake that, to this point, was producing nothing but frustrated fishermen. Jesus, not the skill of the fisherman or the strength of their nets, fills their boats with fish. So many that they have to call other boats in to help unload the catch.

This reminds me of the revival meetings in American history. Hundreds coming and being converted to the faith in the wilderness of America. People that so-called respectable society had long ago abandoned were now being brought into the fold of the faith. In the camp meeting race, gender, color, and personal history were for a time erased in the fits of religious ecstasy shared between the attendees. So numerous were the converts at these meetings that the churches in the area would meet to establish who was best suited to take care of the converts spiritual growth, boats coming to divide the catch if you will.

Lest we become absorbed in this metaphor and forget the humanity of those we are preaching too. The pericope ends, not with the fish being brought in – but with Simon declaring the Lordship of Jesus. This is what all this fishing metaphor amounts to – we who preach are given the unique opportunity to bring people into a place where they can see Christ as Lord and join the fold of the faith. We are not bringing in masses for the sake of numbers, but by casting our net wide we are bringing people into the community of faith and into a personal relationship with their creator.

Praise be to God who blesses ministers with the words which can light fires in the souls of those who hear them. It is not for the sake of numbers on reports, not as a result of our own skill in the craft, but from beginning to end as an expression of God’s love that we proclaim the work of God, the resurrection of Christ, and the comfort of the Spirit to the world. We are called to catch people, to seize them alive! We are not collecting people as prisoners though, we are instead freeing them to full participation in God’s love, God’s kingdom, God’s work. Glory be to God – Amen.

Becoming Love – Lectionary 02/03/2019

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Sermon Text

1 Corinthians 13 is not news to any of us. We have all been to weddings, we have heard it read to crowds of people waiting urgently to get to reception. There is something about it which appeals to sermonizers as well. When you open up any epistle, there’s a risk that people might be offended by a text, might find it too strong of a statement on Paul’s part or else that it might clash with something else going on. Yet this passage always gets passed through anyone’s worries. It travels from the lectionary to the pulpit as soon as the presider reads the address of these verses. It would seem that I am no exception.

There is a compulsion, all the same, to delve into the mysteries of this text. To really see what it means to say that love is all these things. To begin, we could say that when Paul says that Love is all these things, it is as good as saying God is all these things. If that’s true, it can shake up quite a few of our ideas of God. God is patient and kind. God envies no one. Is never boastful. Never conceited nor rude. God does not insist on God’s own way, God is not irritable or resentful. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Most compelling among this list is the idea that God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This speaks deeply to how we engage God in our day today. How often do we feel that we probably give God a headache? That our Heavenly Father looks down on us and shakes their ever loving head – or maybe even their fist – at our inability to behave in even the most basic of Godly ways. Or, perhaps we feel that our prayers must grow tiring to God, that we might annoy God with constant requests. Well here we have it, in black and white – God believes in you, God hopes after you, and eve if you did manage to annoy the almighty, God endures.

Still more, we know that we do not exhaust God – God hears us and rejoices in us. Do we not see Jesus telling us that while lawyers, judges, and politicians may grow annoyed by us – granting our requests to shut us up – God acts out of love to free us from all obstacles, to free us for joyful obedience. Not only this, but God bears the weight of our sorrows – not just in the work of Christ on the cross, but in the continual solidarity Christ shows for us. God bears our pain because God bore the pain. God is willing to help us face trouble because God faced troubles.

Now, there is one verse that may scare us away from seeing this as referring to God – but let’s face it shall we. “God does not insist upon God’s own way.” Uh oh. Sounds like we’re tiptoeing into some loosey-goosey Christianity. Are we not told elsewhere that God is quite sure about God’s way. The narrow road, the ways of life and death, the right hand of the sheep the left hand of the goats. Perhaps a better way to translate this would be that God, “Does not demand what is God’s.” Now, this is not to say God could not – but let us consider this for a moment.

God, in seeking after us – do work night and day to reclaim a mutual love within our hearts. God grants grace upon grace, God sends God’s spirit to commune with us, God sent Christ to live and die for us. In all these things, God sought after us. Yet, God does not demand that we come home. God does not bust down our door and drag us out of our homes – as much as our walk with Christ can sometimes feel. No, we are told instead that God stands at the door and knocks. God does not demand we do anything, but God is always ready to take us on if we turn home.

So would it be right to say that this text promises us how God is? It seems alright, but I don’t think that’s where we should stop looking. Let us look at the other way we typically read this text – to love is to be these things.

Most commonly this interpretation appears in well-meaning posts on the internet or in self-help books on dating. You take your husband’s, wife’s, or significant other’s name and pop it into the verse. In this model, and I’ll make myself the target – someone must ask themselves. “Is John patient? Is John kind? Is John slow to anger? Is John envious, or boastful? Conceited or rude?” and at that point, they answer no, and join a nunnery because if someone as fantastic as me doesn’t make the cut how could they ever find someone who does (Here you see clear evidence that I don’t meet the criteria for boastful or conceited.)

There are worse ways we could read scripture, but this is limiting for many reasons. On one hand, if this is your criteria for being in a relationship with someone then your future is really limited to life monastic life. To find someone who is unceasingly patient, and kind, who never insists on their own way… Oi. Some people manage it to be sure, but they are far and few between and after they die they usually get the letters S and T in front of their names. It also limits relationships outside of our romantic ones. Imagine, for example, if you applied similar measures to the company that you keep.

Suddenly friends, coworkers, and acquaintances would drop like flies from your social circle, and while there is wisdom in saying that we should not keep company with fools, we should also remember we worship a God who kept company with far worse than impatient people. Cheats, liars, criminals, at least two revolutionaries – Jesus was not afraid to fill his inner circle with people who by all means were not patient, kind, or, as some translations put it, “kept no records of wrongs.” When we apply such stringent a list as this to those who we associate with, then we find deficiency in all and squander our love for few. This is not acceptable if we are to follow a God who, in owning all these characteristics we can boldly say – “is love.”

I would not hesitate though, to say that we should hold ourselves to this standard. Oh, what a hypocrite I must sound like! If we cannot keep our friends with such criteria how can we keep anything approaching self-esteem? Well, I think that oftentimes we confuse our self-esteem, our self-worth, with our need to feel important. To quote from this passage, we prefer our self-conceit to our self-worth. Literally in Greek, “to fill ourselves up with air.” It is not a sin to think well of ourselves, it is a sin to lie to ourselves about how good we are. Passages like this then challenge us to really think about how we are.

Am I kind? I hope so, but now that I think about it I really shouldn’t have talked to so and so like that the other day… Do I demand my own way? Well just yesterday I got very mad at a coworker for how they edited a document… And so on and so forth.

This kind of self-examination is not asking that we deny our good qualities so that we can seem humble, it is asking us to be aware of how we act. We cannot follow God fully if we are not willing to act like God, that is to act in love. To truly love is work. We are not born knowing how to do it and many people die being quite bad at it. Love is equal parts emptying ourselves and filling ourselves up. To again look to the text, we tend to be puffed up with our own self – sometimes with our need to see ourselves as good, other times so concerned with our internal fears and doubts we forget that there is a world outside ourselves.

Take as deep a breath as you can, pull in all that selfness. Filling ourselves as we do with complete concern for ourselves. Every time we assure ourselves, we aren’t part of the problem, just those other people. Every time we enter into conflicts and blame everyone but ourselves. Every time we lock out the troubles of the world because we feel too full take all that in with this enormous breath – and then let all of that out.

Breathing out those concerns, breathing out our self-perceptions, our fears, our conceit – now we feel emptier. It is only when we become empty of all this that we can begin to be filled – to be filled with love, with Grace. We look at lists like this, and we can become overcome, to think that we are to be like God and that it is impossible. Well, that’s no way to look at anything. If we begin a journey by saying we can never make it to the destination, then we will stop walking as soon as we are asked to.

No, we must believe that when Christ asks us to “Be perfect as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” that it is possible to do so. Now, this is only possible with God’s help of course – but we must always be willing to do our part. We must examine ourselves at all times and ask honestly, “How can I be better.” Not so that we come to hate ourselves, but that we grow in love. After all, Love “Keeps no record of wrongs.” That includes wrongs that we commit. While we should be quick to work and reconcile ourselves to anyone we hurt, to dwell on the wrongs we do outside of repenting and making amends is to harm ourselves. We are not locked in a prison of past wrongdoings, we are freed to do good!

So, with all the confidence of God – we move onward. We walk toward the love of God and neighbor by being in love with God and neighbor. We examine ourselves so that we can improve ourselves – and whenever possible we take the steps necessary to do what is right. We live into what God has put before us in God’s example – namely that we have an example in Christ for how we can live perfectly. C.S. Lewis once said that to be humble was not to “think less of ourselves, but of ourselves less.” Similarly, let us not hate ourselves in our pursuit of loving others, but still, may we never waver to give others advantage.

“God was One of Us” – The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord 2019

Hebrews 2:10-18

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”
And again,
“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

            Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

            And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon Text

Christ, in order to bring about our salvation, became just like us. Doesn’t that just sound a little wrong? When we think about ourselves, and we think about Jesus, we will typically put a bit of a crowbar between us – separating out he, the incarnate word of God, and we the people who are lucky enough to have heard his name. Still, Christ – though still fully God – did become fully human. How does that work? I don’t think we can really know – much like the trinity where 1+1+1=1, here 1+1=1. The fullness of God, and the fullness of a human person were able to coexist in one body, and continue to do so to this day.

That’s something that’s easy to forget I think. Christ, as we’re told in the Gospels, rose bodily into heaven. This means that at the right hand of God is not just a spiritual being, not just some invisible conception of divinity – but a human being, perfected in death and resurrection – but a human being nonetheless. What a wonderful truth, that beside God, before God at all times, is a reminder of what a human being can be – the perfection of Christ is a physical proof, and a seal to the promise which God offers us in the Gospel of Matthew – “be thou perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.” Because, it can be said, God only commands what is possible, as such this commandment, to be perfect and the reality of Christ’s resurrection show us that it is really possible for us to be perfected, but only through the action of God.

We are told, in our readings, that Christ saved humanity through becoming one of us. We are told in our Gospel that Christ and his mother did indeed do everything a human being needed to do after being born. Jesus, as the first born of the family – was dedicated at the temple, and an offering made to God in accordance with the Law. It was not just any offering though, it was the offering that only the poorest of people were allowed to make – two small birds.

Christ had a choice, in taking on human flesh he could have been born a prince. Grown up to be king and ruled over the entire world as a physical ruler. Or perhaps been born among merchants, and sent word of his greatness on ships and with caravans. No such decision was made though, Christ was given to Mary – a faithful woman as poor as could be – the wife of tradesmen. The two lived destitute in a backwater village, in a region surrounded on all sides by Gentiles. Jesus chose not just to be human, but to be like the poorest and most marginalized he could be.

Christ would then go on to live a hard life. While being apprenticed to his father Christ seems to have been taken under the wing of his Cousin John. Though we can never be sure, it is likely through working with John that people became to regard Jesus as a Rabbi – a teacher of the Law. Tradition holds that Christ then waited for some years, and after the death of Joseph he began his ministry – first by being baptized by John, and then by being tempted.

We are told that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the devil – and while that is a talk much more suited for Lent, it shows once again that Christ was not immune to temptation – he still engaged with it, the difference being that he was the only person to never give into it. The ministry of Christ was then completely itinerate, he never stopped anywhere for more than a few days. The blisters his feet must have had, the sunburn and the cracked skin that must have covered his face. There is a reason that when the early Christians read in Isaiah, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” They immediately thought of Jesus.

And what should befall this servant of God, after three years of painful travels, of preaching, of working miracles? A humiliating death on a cross. Surrounded by criminals, mocked and beaten by soldiers. Jesus was so weak when they crucified him, he barely lasted a few hours. In fact, if you read the passion stories, it sounds like he nearly died on the way up the hill. The God of the Universe, the eternal Word who jumpstarted all of creation, finished up a hard life by dying a horrible death.

His mother too, who had followed him all his life, stood by him as he died. “A sword pierced her soul.” The minute that the soldier stabbed Jesus’ lifeless corpse, proving to everyone there that he had died. Think for a moment of Mary, who loved her son more than life, like any mother would. She watched him grow, she cherished every moment with him the scripture says, and even when she didn’t understand – she still was among the disciples who followed him. Now though, she’s lost her baby – her first, miraculous child now lies cold in a nearby tomb. No wonder she woke up early the next day, to try and give him some dignity in his death.

The tomb was empty though, and after a few weeks of teaching his disciples, Christ was brought up into heaven. There he sits, perfect. Looking down on each of us, hearing our prayers, and relating to us when we tell him our problems. It would be one thing if we were told by scripture that Christ suffered in a way we can’t even imagine. In some ways sure he did, in much the same way that you and I, though we may have been hurt similarly – never really have ever gone through the same thing. I lost my grandfather when I was young, maybe you did too – but that loss is unique, as unique as our grandfathers were, as unique as we are. Still though, when Scripture talks about Christ suffering, it’s said in a way that reminds us that Christ knows what we’ve been through.

“Christ, I’m sick, I need to be healed or at least to know I’m taken care of.” A God who was never sick could never know, but Christ did. A God who never feared death could never strengthen those who faced it now, but Christ was in agony in Gethsemane, and he hears us when we cry even now. He suffered not to be above us in how he suffered, but to be with us when we suffer.

Likewise, as Christ is raised up and brought before God – we too are lifted into the company of the Father. Christ, in suffering our suffering let us enter into his life as much as he entered into ours. As Christ descended into our flesh, so we are allowed to be resurrected with Christ. The death of Christ would not be sufficient for us to enter into our rest, unless Christ also rose from the dead. There is no miracle in someone dying, but there is promise and miracle and life in the resurrection of a person. In rising in a perfected physical form, Christ assured we could do the same.

Now we are granted the gift of a divine representative before God. We are told that Christ is not just ruling in heaven and doing nothing. Instead Christ is constantly praying for us, praying with us. When we suffer Christ is able to turn to his Father and say, “See, they suffer as I did. Remember how you wanted to save me when I suffered? How ready you were to send angels to defend me? Do the same for them, give them the help that I surrendered to you.” We have an advocate, a high priest as Hebrews explains, that knows what it’s like to suffer, to die, to weep, to laugh. If God was ever unsure what it was to be human, Christ’s wonderful incarnation and resurrection assured he would know every detail of our lives.

Christ, by entering into our flesh and blood, allows us to become siblings with himself. We are therefore heirs of the resurrection. We are given all the rights, all the gifts, which a child of God are afforded. What are those gifts? What rights do we have? The gifts are all the goodness which grows within us – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We are given a spirit of discernment, not a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self control.

What are our rights? Well, one could say that we are made co-rulers with Christ. Indeed, we are. However, insofar as we live on this earth we are called to follow Christ in giving up this singular right, we are to be subservient to all people. Giving to whoever asks, serving whoever needs help, and always putting others before ourselves. However, when the world to come arrives, we will be rulers in the Holy City, treated as princes and princesses, royal children in all benefits. In the meantime, we are given a power which surpasses all worldly powers. Namely, the power of unhindered prayer.

We, the church, in heaven and on Earth are given the ability through Christ to boldly approach God. We do not approach God as if we are enemies of God, we are not walking on egg shells when we pray. We are obedient, yes. We work out our salvation, “with fear and trembling,” yes. But at the end of it all God tells us to move forward and to be bold in worship and bold in intercession. “Praise God from whom all blessing flows.” And “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have Mercy.” Are both bold statements, and the unique blessing of Christ’s priesthood allows for us to pray unceasingly, to ask that we may receive.

With Christ in Heaven, who understands what it is to live. With the confidence of Children and Heirs of Promise. With the fullness of our future role as priests and rulers in the Kingdom. With the Boldness of those who fearlessly ask God for whatever needs they have. Let us go forward and worship, this day and always, our God who was willing to become one of us. Let us, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, enter in fully into the Kingdom. Amen.