Sermon – 02/26/2023 – Everything, but That

Genesis 2:15-17

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Sermon Text

Limits are hard to accept. We always want to push against the things imposed upon us, and sometimes do so to our detriment. As we make our way up I-79, taking that long slow slog up to Morgantown, we face a continual desire to get there just a bit quicker. The signs tell us, 65 mph, 70 mph when we are lucky. Construction that constantly stalls us slows us to 55, but we are always looking to see if work is really being done that day so we can punch that gas pedal just a little harder. We seem to ignore that, even if we go 80 the entire way up to Morgantown, we will only save 4 minutes. We want to push against any limit, because we feel it will serve us better to do what we want than what is asked of us.

American culture is founded on this kind of rejection of limits. We began as a country because taxes were imposed on import businesses, and those with money and means wanted unlimited wealth, not metered income. That is shown in the radical independence of American culture. “Who cares what benefits those around me, as long as I get what I need? Who cares what I can do for my country, when it can do so much more for me? Neighbors? Who needs them, I want a house and a lawn, all as far away from the world as I can get it.” Rugged individualism, the idea that “greed is good,” it is as American as apple pie.

We pretend that our problems are new, that they are the result of generations younger than ourselves that have poisoned the future we have worked so hard for. However, the problem is much older, as is our tendency to blame anyone but ourselves for it. It goes all the way back to a garden planted at the source of all rivers, a garden with every good fruit and vegetable you could ever want, and a single tree that was off limits.

Scripture does not tell us what kind of fruit was on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We usually think of it as an apple, just because “Evil,” in Latin is “Malus,” which is the same word for apple – a bit of a literary confusion we never quite got over. However, whether it was pomegranates or apples or even something we have never dreamt of or seen, the fruit itself is far less important than what it represents. In chasing after that fruit, humanity was gaining knowledge of everything they could ever want to know, and in chasing that fruit, humanity gave up the joys of paradise they had once known.

The Garden is one of the stories in scripture that we can easily get wrapped up in the details of and miss the point of. Countless oceans of ink have been spilt justifying why God would plant a forbidden tree in the garden, and trying to explain why humanity would be given a choice so massive and dangerous as this to begin with. I’m uninterested in that kind of exposition. In my mind, the Garden and the tree tell a story that is played out eternally all around us, there are choices that we can make and when we make them poorly there are consequences.

We talked at length about the finality of choice just a few weeks ago, and we looked at how God gives us guidance to choose life again and again. It is important to point out that God also imposes limits to prevent us from making choices that would ultimately harm us as well. Despite attaining all knowledge they could ever want, no good comes to Adam, Eve, or the Serpent who mislead them. The serpent loses its limbs and becomes a slithering thing, robbed of intellect and now a beast like any other. The primordial couple meanwhile must face the reality of life outside of Eden, a world where childbirth is dangerous and where weeds are far more common than produce.

In our own life, the limits imposed on us by God take many forms. For one thing, there are restrictive commandments – things like do not steal, lie, or kill. For another, there are the human limitations imposed by our mortality. We cannot know everything, we cannot do everything, and while most of us get our three score and ten no one ever gets more than one hundred twenty years to sort their lives out. Limits abound all around us, and they are as frustrating as can be.

The writer of Ecclesiastes spends most of the book complaining about how limited life is. The seasons of pain cannot be seasons of joy, because God has ordained both for their set purposes. The waters from the ocean race back to the rivers to race back to the oceans. Life and death are always chasing after each other, and we have no control over what anyone does to our legacy once we die. God set a knowledge of eternity in our hearts, and yet has made us limited. For Qoheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, there are few things as miserable as that.

Yet, on the other side of those frustrations, is an acknowledgment of the good that they can produce. The hard times are made bearable because they do have an end. The waters that constantly replenish one another sustain life. The legacy we leave may be out of our control, but we can work to enjoy what we have now, and set up a future where others can continue and enhance what we have begun. The life we live is limited, and that can be frustrating, but every limit can also impose a blessing if we are open to understanding the fullness it provides.

For the first humans the choice was between expulsion and continued presence in paradise. For us today, the issues are much more layered and sometimes not obvious. The teachings of Moses, for example, make sense if you are in an ancient agrarian community, but are sometimes hard to translate to our modern life. Do the teachings of Moses, then, only cover so much of what we now face? The prophets seemed to think so, as their own proclamations augmented and clarified these teachings in a different era. Even Jesus, the one who fulfilled and preserved all of Moses’s teachings, gives us new insight into the “Yes,” and the “No,” that God has given time and time again.

For us today, we are interpreters of scripture for a new era. We cannot answer questions the same way we always have. What does it mean to bear false witness in an era where it is easy to share falsehoods accidentally? What does it mean to build fences to protect people from accidental injury, not on the roof of a house, but in the way we build the world around us? How do we leave an ox unmuzzled as it mills grain, when we are no longer dependent on animals to produce our food like we once were?

Every generation is given unique opportunities to understand what God commands. We do so as limited people, people who easily can make mistakes and misinterpret what is set before us. Yet, we do so with an understanding that everything we want to be able to do, is not always what we ought to do. We want to have freedom in every aspect of our life, but we are reigned in from that for the good of all people. We do not horde, so that others can have what they need to live. We do not say whatever we want, however we want to,  because others are worthy of fair treatment and dignity. We do not get everything we want when we want it, because to do so we would have to exploit those around us and enforce an autocracy of the self.

The Church is known today as a place that tells the world what is shouldn’t be doing. So much so, that I think we often forget to represent what we as people of faith are called to do, rather than what we seek to abstain from. However, I think that we are also guilty of telling the world “No,” and ourselves “Yes.” When we want something, it is fair and reasonable, when we are asked to give something up it is the worst thing we could ever be asked to do. Today I invite us to be honest with ourselves, about the bad habits and behavior we tolerate in ourselves and put limits upon them. We must tell ourselves no sometimes, if we ever want to be better at saying “Yes,” to what God has for us. Learn to glory in limitation as well as in freedom and find that both have their place in God’s economy of goodness. – Amen.

Sermon 02/22/2023 – Ash Wednesday 2023

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Beware of practicing your righteousness 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…

“And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces 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

There is always something different to lift up in Lent. Sometimes the simple idea that we can be better than we currently are, is worth remembering. Sometimes the emphasis can sit on the reminder that this life has an end and so our decisions matter. An infinite amount of lessons to be learned, all to be lifted up in the forty days that we call “Lent.” Yet, in the modern world I think that there is a lesson that might be more important than any other – the lesson of privacy in our devotions.

It is easy to share online, in-person, or simply to the void around us, all that we embark upon in our life of faith. Maybe we hope to inspire others to follow our example, maybe to keep ourselves accountable, or sometimes even to just look good and holy. Whatever the case, there is a real benefit that can come from us not sharing anything and everything we do, a holiness and joy that can come from privacy in our life. In an era when we can share, at any moment, our thoughts and feelings with infinite numbers of people, sometimes it is enough to simply do things and let nothing mark that they were done.

How holy would our world be if we kept our opinions to ourselves sometimes, rather than fight over every little detail. How blessed would life be if our failures and successes were sometimes between us and God, and not every follower we have on Instagram. How much mor honest might we be, if we were not always projecting our best selves to a world we imagine is judging our every moment. Perhaps, for this Lenten season, we should all work to give up some of the publicity we all have accepted as normal in our life. Let us embrace the prayers Jesus taught us to pray in secret, that we might in public focus only on living a good life, and not on what people may thing of us while we do so. – Amen.

The New Covenant – Lectionary 03/21/2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34

          The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Sermon Text

             Our scripture for today proclaims a message of hope that is largely unparalleled among the prophets. This text is often put alongside its neighboring chapters and lifted up as a kernel of consolation in the midst of Jeremiah’s otherwise quite grim prophesies. God speaks of the love that God holds for the people and of a commitment to bring them out of exile and to restore the relationship between God and God’s people. A relationship broken by generations of personal and corporate sin – a covenant broken by our inability to do justly.

            This promise comes during one of the darkest moments of the Babylonian rule of Judah. The city of Jerusalem and the kingdom as a whole, had managed to avoid complete destruction by Babylon up to this point. This was because the current King, Zedekiah, was initially willing to submit to the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. However, against Jeremiah’s instructions, Zedekiah tried to reject Nebuchadnezzar shortly into his reign. The result of this decision was the destruction of Jerusalem in a terrible final siege.

            Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s salvation comes during the siege or else immediately before it. Despite its hopeful message, anyone with eyes to see knew the danger of the siege could not be denied. Death was coming to Judah and there was little that could minimize the destruction that was to come. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, never pretended that the future was going to be easy to bear in any way. Instead of giving the people over to their grief totally or cutting the tension through false platitudes, Jeremiah holds up a hope separate to this impending disaster, a hope for generations of people to come.

            This week we conclude Lent proper, that is to say that next week is the start of Holy Week. With this transition we see our focus shift away from the self-reflection which defined Lent to the adoration of Christ and his work on the cross. On the horizon, more clearly than ever before, we begin to see the shape of our salvation. Now, just two weeks away from Easter, we anticipate the joy of our salvation fervently. The shame of the cross and the miracle of the resurrection fill our view – something new is at work in the world, if only we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.

            The ability to see ahead of us – to fear and also to hope – is a uniquely human trait. Only we are capable of thinking ahead and of putting our perceptions into concrete terms. Sometimes our heart rejoices at the thought of future bliss and other times we seize up, locking ourselves up in dread of all the wretchedness that may come to be. Both inclinations can be harmful or good, largely dependent on how we make use of them in the here and now and what we have based upon them otherwise. Concern that leads us to prepare and hope that gives us strength are a boon. Dread that leads us to be paralyzed or reactive and sanguinity that makes us forget reality are a curse.

            For this reason, scripture balances two realities – our need to remain in the present and to trust God for the future. We cannot save ourselves through fretting over what is to come but can tackle the troubles of life as they come. We cannot be sure exactly what God will bring about in the days ahead, but we can trust that God’s goodness will see us through no matter what we face. The balance of now and then, that is one of the hardest and yet most essential elements of our faith.

            There will come a time, Jeremiah says, when there will be no more fear of doubt, nor a need for uncertain hope. The Hebrew of verse 31 opens powerfully – “Look! The coming days when I will cut a new covenant with you.” The days are treated as an approaching reality – not as objects to look at, but as an active and moving reality. The days are coming. Look at them come! And in those days, all will do what is right, all will know me, all will contain my instruction and read it from their hearts.

            God was bringing the people a perfect existence. Once more they would be called God’s people, and God would be called their God. This offer was not for kings, nobles, or the wealthy alone – but for all people – the strong and the weak, the needy and the powerful. This Utopia which God promised was not meant to replace the hardships ahead, but to transcend them. Beyond the distant horizon sat their dream. Not the idle dreams of humanity, but the concrete promise of God.

            Now we sit, twenty-five hundred years beyond Jeremiah and find that dream is still set before us. We are not yet in a God run Utopia. We still teach one another the way we ought to live and the knowledge of God. Though the Spirit dwells within us, God’s teachings are still being etched onto our heart. We do not contain all of God’s righteousness. Does time dull Jeremiah’s dream? Certainly not. The presence of God is sure. The restoration of God’s people, that final Utopic Covenant, began the day Jeremiah promised it and will be fully fulfilled when the Lord brings final victory over sin and death. It is this future hope which we depend upon.

            While we face nothing as dire as a Babylonian siege or the exile of the Judahites into Babylon, we are well aware of the troubles we face. Sickness, broken heartedness, the tedium of our off-kilter world. We are people of twisted hearts and shortsighted aspirations. In our concern for our fallen world we find ourselves clinging to fear or false hope – both of which we find pleasing. Perhaps we formulate complex conspiracies in our heart to explain our fear and give it form, or else use it to justify our vices. Or, in false hope perhaps we trust that our problems will go away through brute force of will or else through the intervention of powerful people.  

            Biblical hope and Biblical caution are rooted in a realism about the world. Trouble is coming, so we should be prepared, but it cannot consume our life. To quote the popular aphorism, “If the world should end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” We are to build resilience, not amass comforts or concerns. In the same way, we do not anticipate immediate deliverance from the majority of troubles we face. Instead of hoping trouble away, we should find hope in a God who gives us strength to face the troubles ahead of us. We can weather the storm, for the God of Heaven is greater than it is, and is Lord over it.

            More than this, as we prepare to gather once more in our sanctuaries and to celebrate Holy Week, we should see Christ’s acts two thousand years ago as an example of what our hope is. The suffering of Good Friday cannot be erased, but Easter is sure to follow it. As adopted inheritors of God’s goodness through Christ, we await Jeremiah’s dream to be fulfilled. We see in Christ a sign of what that dream looks like lived out, perfection on earth. Hope wrapped up in sorrows. Prepare yourself this week for our celebration of Holy Week. Hope lies on the horizon, but trouble does too. Praise God who will guide us through one toward the other. – Amen.

The Burning Serpent – Lectionary 03/14/2021

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Sermon Text

            We have seen today’s scripture before during our Sunday services. I confess as a preacher that it is one of my favorite passages to preach on. It contains multitudes and in Jesus’s use of it in John 3 it takes on still greater depth. This strange story of snakes in the wilderness, and the bronze serpent which was made to save the people from them, carries a gravitas all its own. Here in the fourth Sunday of Lent, so close now to Easter, we return to the mysterious occurrence which took place on the edge of Edom.

The story opens with the people leaving Mount Hor. There they had buried their head priest, Aaron brother of Moses. The community, fresh off of their period of mourning for one of their core leaders, is naturally upset. They have been wandering for some time now, but they could take courage in the fact that, just over the horizon, was the land of Canaan. Their very own, Promised Land.

Yet, when they are lead forward, they suddenly find their path trending toward the Red Sea. In their previous wandering, they had gone directly from the shore of the Red Sea, north through the Wilderness of Zin, and came near to Canaan. They had then turned south once more to arrive at Mount Hor, something that to them would have likely seemed like a brief detour. The plan, however, was to enter Canaan across the Jordan, and to do so by traveling around the land of Edom first.

This detour would eventually result in the people traveling to the point on the Red Sea that they had previously departed from. The people had been traveling for years at this point, and while we cannot be sure of the exact timeframe that this detour had resulted in, we know the distance it set them back. The people who were once within spitting distance of Canaan, now had to backtrack what was essentially the last two hundred miles of their exodus.

The people, in their frustration, now begin to turn against Moses and against God. While we read their complaints as though they were simply that, complaints voiced to one another, we should see them in their full context. To say that a sentiment like this was spoken of by, “the people,” is to suggest it was shared by the thousands upon thousands of Israelites who were following Moses in this journey. Previously such a large group of dissidents had encouraged acts of rebellion. This unified stance against Moses and God as heads of this journey were more than simple complaints, they were a threat of insurrection.

The people no longer saw God or Moses as beneficent. In fact, they again tried to accuse them of outright malice. “Why have you brought us out here to die!?” They had claimed something similar to this before. This accusative question brings to mind the other that was once paired with it, “Were there no graves in Egypt!?” The people saw God as a trickster, promising freedom but only giving them a slow death in the wilderness. Even the Manna which had rained from Heaven, God’s daily provision to them, was given as evidence. “We detest this miserable food.” Miserable here meaning deficient. They were not content with their fill of Manna, they wanted more.

God looks upon the people, and their rejection. God looks upon the prospective rebellion they are forming and resolves to punish the people. The people are sent, “הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים”, (ha nechashim ha seraphim,) “the serpents of fiery being.” What this means exactly is unclear, although many translate it to mean the snakes were merely poisonous. Strangely, the word used to describe these snakes, “seraphim,” is also used to describe God’s angel attendants. No mater what they were, or how we describe them, what is clear is that the people could not face these serpents alone. The people came to Moses and begged him for relief.

Sin and repentance, two polar aspects within our life, often spring up from similar causes. They often spring up as a result of us responding to pain. When we feel that we have no control over our life or that our needs are not met, we begin to seek comfort anyway that we can. Sometimes we seek out to fix the problems that we face and sometimes we seek to chase after a momentary sense of relief. Acknowledging our pain, acting against evil we see or experience, even complaints are not sinful responses to trouble. However, when our intent moves away from a restorative purpose to a destructive or selfish one, then we begin to err.

Within our scripture, the people did not sin in voicing their concerns about food or water. They were wrong in that they did not bring these complaints before God or Moses, nor did they seek to understand the situation they found themselves in vis a vis their detour around Edom. Communication had broken down between the people and God, and with that communication breakdown came a breaking in trust. Trust, once eroded, is a very difficult thing to rebuild. The hardship of the Wilderness had worn the people down, down to the roots of their being. Now, they found that the journey had not built in them anything new. Sinai had not instilled them the skills they needed to be holy, they had not internalized the teachings God had given.

It was only when the serpents came that they people saw their mistakes. As dull as Manna was, it was nourishing rather than fatal. As long as the road to Canaan had been, it led to life, whereas the serpents only brought death. In the shadowy light of suffering, the stark contrast between a life with God’s provisions and a life without God’s provision became clear. The people saw that they needed to repent, to turn away from their present course toward destruction. They looked to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned!” and Moses in return interceded to God on their behalf.

I’ll be the first to say that I do not know much about God’s wrath. In my experience, good and bad happen to the wicked and righteous with the same regularity. There is seldom an apparent rhyme or reason to it. I do not think that most of our suffering is initiated by God, and quite honestly, we here on earth cause more than enough for ourselves and one another without outside help. We are seldom visited in this life by seraphim, but we often find ourselves visited by bad luck.

What hardships shows us, regardless of its source, is what hides beneath the image of ourselves we project outward. When we are in distress, whether that be sorrow or anger or fear, we will do things we would not do if we had all our decorum about us. Yet, beyond the impulsive act of someone caught off guard, is the habitual action of someone once the shock of trouble has left them. If I, because of any number of circumstances, am short with someone, there is hope for me if I realize my sin and make amends. However, if I continue to do harm to others in the midst of troubles, then it is not the trouble that made me err, it was something deep within myself that must be either worked out and healed, or rooted out and done away with.

In the latter case, we may not see the way trouble has exposed our habitual tendencies until something else bad comes of them. When our grief has exposed a hardness of heart we were previously covering, and that hardheartedness alienates us from those around us. Only when we first begin to see people leaving our sides do we understand that we have let one evil birth many more. This second bout of pain, born from the first, is what can inspire us to repentance. For the Israelites, tedium and desire led them to distrust God and Moses – pain eroded relationship rather than strengthened it. It then took the introduction of another source of pain, the serpents, to wake them up to just what they had let take over their lives.

We are blessed by the example of the Israelites before us, not because we are so much wiser or better than them, but because we can learn from this incident. When we are caught off guard by suffering, we can choose whether we will let it consume us or if we will find our way through it together. We have the gift of one another and of God to help us in this difficult calling. We can see the ways that our difficult life tempts us to all manner of evil, and then by leaning upon one another escape the snares which we might prepare for ourselves. Heartbreak need not destroy us, not if we have each other.

More than this, whereas the Israelites had Moses to lead them and a bronze serpent to heal them, we find our leader and our cure in a single person. Jesus, through his life of suffering and suffering death on the cross, knows the pain we face. Taking on the image of sinful humanity, Christ broke sin’s hold on us, and opened the door for us to truly know what it is to be Godly – to be pure in heart and in Spirit. We look to Christ, and we are healed. We follow after Christ and we are made whole. God’s grace at Mount Hor continues on even till today.

Let us then not compound our suffering. When we sin, let us repent of our evil quickly. When we are in pain, let us look to God and one another rather than lashing out or covering up our wounded heart. Whatever comes our way, we must love one another, support one another, trust one another. This is a high calling, not only for those of us who share our pain, but those who help one another through it. A helper cannot be a judge at the same time, nor can they seek gain through the help they offer. We must be selfless in our love for one another, in all things.

Life is hard, let us not pretend otherwise. Still more, God is good, let us not forget. Now let us take the love of God as our example. Where pain is found, may love abound even more, and may the merciful God of Israel rain blessings upon us. Let us find that same blessing, most abundantly, in our service to one another, that none may fall to sin because of the pain of this world. – Amen.

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.

Who is This? – Palm Sunday 2020

 

Luke 1:26-38

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Sermon Text

When Jesus entered into Jerusalem long ago it made a stir. What is confounding to us looking back on his entry into the city is that so much of that day has become sacrosanct. We have images in our head, built up from years of church liturgy and sermons, from passion plays and movies, that make us think of very particular things when Palm Sunday comes around. It is a day of waving palm fronds, of joining with the crowd who welcomed Jesus into the city. It is our last outright celebration that precedes the solemnity of Holy Week.

The text we have read today speaks to a difficult reality within our reading of the scripture. Namely that we are looking back at people who lived lives that were quite different to our own. More than that, in the crowds of people who lived differently than us there was a multiplicity of voices and opinions. There was no one Jewish opinion or one Roman opinion in the ancient world. In the same way that we live in a divided and diverse world, the people of scripture encountered various people with thoughts, viewpoints, and practices different than their own.

We know of first-century Judaism that in Jerusalem alone there was something like five factions working with or against one another. Zealots wandered the streets staging assassinations of Roman forces. Pharisees lived in every town in the region offering moral teachings to anyone who needed them. Sadducees controlled the Temple, holding sacrificial authority over all the region. Meanwhile, the Greek-speaking Jews lived on the margins, and the new movement of the Nazarene was gaining traction.

All these diverse parties came together around the Passover to celebrate as Moses commanded them. They gathered together in Jerusalem and greatly expanded the population of the city. It was a time when the Jews united in their commonality, but also a time when their differences threatened to bubble up into open conflict. The first century saw several Jewish revolts against Rome and oftentimes these revolts were motivated by intrasectarian disagreements as much as they were motivated by Jewish liberationists.

For Jesus to enter the city as he did, with the crowd going before him and shouting he was a Son of David and rightful king of Jerusalem was to court disaster. If the Romans decided that a significant threat was posed by Jesus and his followers then every one of them, and much of the unaffiliated Jews who were in the city, would be killed as dissenters and rebels. The arrival of someone claiming to be King, that would certainly cause a stir for the people in the city. Fear and worry hung thick over the people within the city as they saw Jesus approaching on the colt, would he and his band of followers be enough to finally stir up the wrath of Rome.

Add to their concerns the reality that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea – unpopular in Rome and he was in Jerusalem – had just arrived to hold court for a period of time. Pilate was known for his cruelty – in shutting down rebellions and dissent in the past he had aired on the side of bloodshed. This upset the population of Judea who saw him as a tyrant, and it upset Rome who saw him as causing more problems than he had fixed. Pilate was desperate for good press and killing a rebellion before it started could give him some clout back home in Rome.

The people of the city, here called the Πολις  (Polis,) are described as, “Trembling,” as the crowd arrives. While many throughout history have taken this to mean that there was excitement at Jesus’ arrival, to read this into the text is to assume that the people of Jerusalem were reacting as we hope we would when Jesus arrived. We project onto them the joy we feel in Christ’s arrival and attempt to clean up an otherwise complex narrative. If Jesus is universally loved upon his arrival, then we do not have to question which group of people we would be in.

When we read the text as though Jesus entering the city caused universal joy instead of anxiety then we can easily picture ourselves among those crying out, “Hosanna!” When we see Jesus triumphantly entering and imagine that he came upon a happy church service waving fronds, then we do not have to think about whether or not we would be among the Crowd he entered with or the anxious city. When we project a uniform image of Sunday School simplicity, we are not asked to evaluate our lives.

When Jesus enters into a situation, Jesus always enters as the rightful King. Jesus is not relegated to any position other than Lordship except for when Jesus does so himself, as we will remember on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus comes into divided cities, nations, even sanctuaries, and all people are made to look at him in that moment and ask whether they will celebrate his coming or be terrified by it. When we speak like this, we are not talking about the end of time, not the final coming of Christ in judgment, but in the day to day moments when Jesus appears to us and we either accept or reject his entrance.

When Jesus came into Jerusalem he had an entourage with him of people who were already convinced of his kingship and his status as Messiah. Among this group were members of all the major Jewish sects. He gathered followers who were Pharisees and even members of the High Council. He gathered Zealots who threw down their weapons to follow the prince of peace. He gathered Greek-born Jews and Hebraic Jews and had them come together as one family. His triumph in coming into Jerusalem was not that he had gotten a unified force together that all agreed on every issue, but that he had gathered together a great multitude of people who had nothing in common except their desire to be with Christ and to follow Christ into his kingdom. They learned to be united because Christ called them to be so, not as a monolithic structure of uniform ideas, but of uniform conviction and desire to see good done in the world.

The reality of the crowd we are presented within Jesus’ triumphal entry is that they were not a large group of people. Elsewhere Matthew uses the term, “Great crowd,” “multiple crowds,” or some other formulation to say when a large group of people is gathered together. Here though, here we see a rowdy band gathered together to welcome Jesus into the city. There are enough there to constitute a gathering, but they are almost lost in the vastness of the city. They are big enough to cause a noise, to put everyone on edge, but they are still a drop of water into a very large bucket.

When we gather together as the Church universal we do so as the Jews did in Jerusalem. We earnestly come together to worship God, we gather to celebrate a feast just like our ancestors did. However, like them, we gather as people of diverse opinions, desires, and worldviews. We come as people who are worried about the powers that exist in our world and whether or not we can stand against them. There is fear, there is prayer and praise, there is uncertainty.

Jesus enters into the church every day. Each morning when we wake up we all face the triumphal entry head-on. Christ presents himself in our lives and we decide every day whether that is an attractive or terrifying prospect. Do we see the arrival of our king and quake in fear that he will disrupt our lives? Or do we cry out to be saved and follow him into a world that has yet to wake up to his light?

The answer is different every day. Somedays we fail to hail our King, some days we choose to protect ourselves from disruption and curl up in resignation about how things are. Sometimes Pilate, the power of the status quo, seems more attractive than Christ, the meek and the revolutionary. The reality of sin is that we will choose one over the other throughout our life, but the promise of Christ is that we never sell out completely to the status quo, not unless we choose to.

Christ came into Jerusalem on a colt only once. Yet, as we have said, Christ comes to us every day, multiple times a day. We never are left unable to join the crowd shouting loud Hosanna! Yet, we must make the choice to follow Christ into the city. Yet we must choose discomfort over comfort, to choose what is right over what is convenient. When Jesus entered the city, the people in it expected a riot, and honestly, perhaps the church should be more like that.

The church should be a group that is excited to do the work of Christ. Organized together out of every rejected class of person in society. Those who have been told time and time again that they are not good enough, that they do not deserve what they have, that they should be treated poorly because of circumstances of birth, position, or happenstance. The church should be a ragamuffin rabble, it should be made up of ne’er-do-well on the path to redemption.

What marks the church as separate from other gatherings of the marginalized is its intent. While the past few years have shown us white supremacists, anti-semites, and other hate groups gathering people who feel disenfranchised to commit evil, we see the Church gathering to scattered people of the earth for good. The Church gathers all the poor and powerless of the world, all those who have been treated cruelly by power, all people of all races and creeds, not because it desires to become bigger or stronger or more powerful, but because it wants to eliminate all these words of domination from our vocabulary.

Jesus comes to us, Jesus calls us daily, not so we can triumphally raze the world to the ground in holy fire. Jesus comes to us meekly, on a colt instead of a chariot, seated on robes and not on fine linens. Jesus models for us what our triumph in life truly is. A riotous group of people, loudly praising God, worshipping a king whose revolution is one of peace, and whose greatest weapon is not the sword but is love large enough to die even for those who hate you. Let us all follow the lead of Christ, let us join the procession of the righteous, and let us all put aside our many differences in the name of truth, the name of love, and ultimately the name of Christ who saves us, the Son of David for all eternity. – Amen.

 

A Nascent Promise – Feast of the Annunciation Observed

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Sermon Text

We come now to our Scripture. The celebration of the Annunciation is an ancient one. It was solidified in our Church calendars as being properly celebrated on the twenty-fifth of March, nine-months before December twenty-fifth and the celebration of Christ’s birth. While there is no actual date recorded in scripture for Christ’s birth, and subsequently of Christ’s conception, there is a tradition of the Church that dates back centuries. Following a Jewish belief at the time that a righteous man would die on the day he was conceived, the early tradition that Jesus was crucified on March twenty-fifth locked in place both the celebration of the Annunciation and Christmas.[1]

Today, though we have waited four days for our observance of it, we celebrate a feast day like no other. The first moment in which a person became a minister in the New Testament, the first moment that Christ was received by a person, the fist transmission of the Holy Spirit in the era of Christ’s earthy ministry. It begins in a simple moment, a conversation between two people in a small room in a small city. A private conversation with a universal impact – the moment that Mary is told of what her life is to become, and the moment that she accepts her place in God’s plan without reservation.

The Annunciation is the starting point of the Christian faith, the first obvious interaction of the entirety of the Godhead with creation. The arrival of the Word made flesh, the Anointing of Mary with the Spirit, as she received her blessing from the Father. The world was transformed as it had never been before – not by general and armies, not by Caesar or Herod, not even by priests, but by the faith of a woman that was sufficient for God to work within her.

What can come as a surprise to us, steeped in various Mariologies that either cast her as the Queen of Heaven or just some woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time for God to work through her. The Scripture does not ask us to make so much or so little of Mary. She is the only woman in the New Testament to speak prophetically. While Elizabeth blesses Mary and Anna is called a prophetess, Mary alone is given voice to shout her praise and prophecy of God. The prophecy that she gives later, the Magnificat, is one of the most powerful pronouncements in scripture – it challenges us to understand what God has done, is doing, and will do. It tells us about a God who is planning to shake up creation, to turn it on its head, to make things right at last.

However, the Magnificat is not where scripture takes us today. We see the moment, months before, in which the incidents that allow for this wonderful song of praise to be sung take place. An angel appears to Mary, tells her that she is going to have a child and that that child will be the Holy. Not only will they be Holy, but they will be called a “Son of God.” This title is used throughout scripture to mean one of two things – either that a person is an angel, as it is used in Genesis or else that they are a descendent of King David and therefore worthy of being called King.[2]

The second title Gabriel bestows upon Jesus is significantly rarer – calling him a “Holy One.” This title is given in some places to all of God’s people, elsewhere to specific anointed prophets, but most interestingly as a title for those who are directly representing God in a situation. Angels who speak for God are given this title, when it is presented in plural it refers usually to God in Godself.[3]

These two titles, one tying Jesus to being King, the other to Jesus being a prophet and envoy of God. They establish what role Jesus is to have in the world as its ruler and as its new mediator between God and God’s people. The angel speaks to Mary and assures her that her child is going to be a spectacular child.  Worthy of a lineage like King David’s, as magnificent as Moses and Elijah before him.

Mary hears all these things and we can imagine that like each of the encounters she has with prophets speaking to her, she contemplated them deep within herself. The reality of her coming pregnancy was now revealed to her. The complexity of her child’s future was laid out before her. The evidence of God’s power was presented in the pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. The wonders of God were all arranged now to culminate in a grand convergence that required pieces from all of time and space to act in concert – the incarnation of Christ had begun.

Mary provides us all a model for our own faith. From beginning to end of her appearance in scripture Mary is presented as a paradigm of what a faithful servant of God is to be like. She listens attentively to God, to questions God to learn more about God’s will, and she follows God when she is given a direction to go in. Throughout the rest of Luke 1 and 2 we see Mary interact with God directly. Not on a mountaintop like Moses had, not in a chariot of fire like Elijah had, not in terrifying visions. No… Mary saw none of these things when she saw God. Instead she saw God in a child, in her child, nestled up to her and dependent upon her.

God’s magnificent entry into a corporeal form was in the form of a fragile child. All the work of God in this new era of Christ was wrapped up in a child, and before it was wrapped in a child, it was wrapped in the waters of the womb. Jesus begins Jesus’ ministry prenatally. A nascent promise waiting for Advent among us.

Mary is pushed from her life in the city into the wilderness of her close relatives immediately after the angel’s proclamation. Perhaps seeking safety while her child gestates – we have to remember that her and Joseph are not yet married and that the law of the land makes this pregnancy dangerous for both of them. Mary travels to her relative Elizabeth, the one who has received her own miraculous child, and there Elizabeth sings for Joy that Mary has graced her with her presence. Elizabeth, who finally is going to have a child after years of waiting, pronounced Mary more blessed than she is. More than that, she says that Mary’s child is more blessed than any other child.

Upon reception of these words Mary sings a song which we know best as the “Magnificat,” literally meaning, “Magnifies,” from the first words of the prayer. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This prayer lays out all the wonders of God. God’s taking down of the proud, God’s salvation of the meek and needy, God’s constancy in all conditions, the promises of God which never go unfulfilled. Mary, pushed into a place she does not know, receives support and blessing from someone else in the faith, and she is able then to fully realize what God is doing with her life.

Mary is a model for us because she is the first person to hold the promises of God within themselves. She was the first to have the Spirit transform her body into a temple of God. We are told through the letters of Paul that we too inhabit this state of being. While we are not pregnant with the physical Christ, we all contain within us the Spirit of God – the fullness of divinity wrapped in our flesh. We are not fully divine and fully human like Christ was, our nature is not one of twofold unity, but we are united to Christ’s divinity through Christ’s spirit. We all contain the fullness of Christ’s promise through the Spirit’s participation in our life.

At the beginning of our faith we all receive a word from God. “You will bear Christ into the world. You will tell others about him and show others what his love was like. You will speak against the proud and lift up the humble. You will bear the Most High because the Spirit is with you.” Still we often are unconvinced, “How can this be? I am no great orator, no speaker, no wonder worker. I have not done nearly enough to be worthy of this title – I’ll go even further and say I do not know how it is possible!”

Then comes the word from God, “I have made it possible for thousands of people for centuries. I have seen kingdoms rise and fall and yet I am present in my servants. See the wonders around you, and know that no word that comes from my mouth is impossible.” We hear this, we consent to be workers in God’s economy of grace – but can we really say that we have taken hold of the reality we are now in? Not until we come face to face with grace in action, not until the time is right for us to embrace our future. When we come into hardship and God’s grace appears to us in the kindness of another – in an Elizabeth who sees the blessing within us for what it is.

In that moment we are ready to declare what God has done and will do. “Lord! You who bring down the mighty you have chosen to work with us who are lowly. Lord! You who have kept your promises will not abandon us after saying you will protect us! Lord! You who have destroyed the thrones of power will lift up the poor and the powerless!” The promise which had up to this point been contained within is now free to go out into the world and grow. We, following Mary’s model, not only carry Christ but let Christ out into the world. The wonders that will be completed are let loose, and we in giving up our control join with Mary. In joy, in pain, in ministry, we follow the example of the first great evangelist – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Amen

[1] Golden Legend, vol. 3, the Annunciation. C.f. De. Pascha Compututs. Pseudo-Cyprian. Latin Text available: https://scaife.perseus.org/reader/urn:cts:latinLit:stoa0104p.stoa009.opp-lat1:1-5/?highlight

[2] Psalm 2 reflects this relationship most clearly

[3] Gehman, Henry S. “‘Άγιος in the Septuagint, and Its Relation to the Hebrew Original.” Vetus Testamentum 4, no. 4 (1954): 337-48. Accessed March 23, 2020. doi:10.2307/1515813.