You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Jesus’ category.
The sermon this morning is about one little word:
Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE.” The Spirit is upon him for a REASON, there is a purpose, there is a BECAUSE.
“Because The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
The Spirit has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus does not say “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me AND the Spirit has anointed me. That would just be a sequence of events. Jesus says, BECAUSE. The relationship between the Spirit’s anointing and good news for the poor is not casual but causal, because. The reason, the purpose of the Spirit is named. This is the Mission Statement of the Spirit’s anointing, the Because. Jesus has just returned from the wilderness (We’ll hear the story of Jesus in the Wilderness with the Devil in a couple weeks at the start of Lent), but he is driven into the wilderness BY the Spirit, after the Spirit came down, swooped down on him at his baptism in the Jordan. The Spirit has been the driving force for the past chapter of Luke.
So now Jesus explains why the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, why the Spirit came down. “Because, Jesus says, Because.” There is a reason, a purpose, a because.
Luis used the same word, “because,” this last week in his benediction to close the inauguration of the President. He’s going to hate that I’m including a bit about him in the sermon, so I will keep it brief. I have to say we were proud of Luis this last week. Many of our parishioners who watched expressed that they were amazed that on National TV how Luis seemed “exactly like himself.” I agree, I think Luis Leon pulled off the best Luis Leon impression I’ve ever seen. We were proud. The Luis that the world saw is the Luis Leon we hear preaching here. He even said, “We pray for your blessing because…with it we can see each other created in your image, a unit of God’s grace, unprecedented, unrepeatable and irreplaceable.” The same message of love and grace we hear from this pulpit was heard on the National stage.
Unfortunately I can’t get Luis to comment on whether or not Beyonce was lip synching. He says he was too far away to tell…
Back to the point. In Luis’ blessing he used the word “because.” “We pray for your blessing BECAUSE with it, we can see each other created in your image.” BECAUSE. It’s almost like Luis is riffing on Jesus…adapting Jesus’ words for today. Luis is in good company: Jesus was riffing on Isaiah. Jesus knew his Haftarah. In the theology of Luis’ benediction, in the theology of Jesus’ words today, the theology of the prophet Isaiah’s words there is a BECAUSE for blessing, there is a reason for the Spirit’s presence, there is a purpose to faith, a because.
To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
You know, modest goals for a thirty year old preacher.
That’s just it, there is nothing modest about this “because.” There is nothing small about Jesus’ sense about what the life of the Spirit is about, about what he is about. Jesus wants to see the world work differently. Jesus says, “today this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Because the poor need good news, I am amongst you. Because captives need to be released, I’m asking you to follow me. Because the oppressed need to go free, you need to have faith. Because we need to declare jubilee, we need to open the eyes of the blind, the Spirit is upon me. Because. There is nothing modest about Jesus’ sense of the Spirit’s anointing, nothing small about the faith of Jesus.
Notice what Jesus does not say. Jesus does not say: “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon me because you all need a lesson in sexual morality.” Jesus does not say: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because I want to make sure you go to heaven when you die.” Jesus does not say: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to encourage you to give money to the synagogue.” Jesus does not say: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to support Sarah’s side in this family argument, her sister Gina really needs to get it together.” Our faith can get very small sometimes. Our sense of the Spirit, our sense of “Because” can get us into Spiritual trouble. When our mission, our because is too small, spirituality can seem trite. The church can become nothing more than a social club.
There is a video that has been released by the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts, and the video features Bishop Tom Shaw. Bishop Shaw, in addition to being a bishop, happens to be a monk, an Episcopalian monk. His day to day clothes are a long black robe, the habit of his order of monks. In the video Bishop Shaw tells the story of coming out of the Boston Metro, the “T,” and hearing two guys call to him from across the street, “Hey are you a Father?” The Bishop said yes and they said, “Come here we’ve got a question for ya.” The other guy said, “So, is it a sin to smoke dope?” So the Bishop in his robes looked at him and said, “well…how much?” He said, “just a couple of joints a week.” So the Bishop said, “no that’s not a sin. Sin is about the tremendous gap between rich and poor and the poverty in this country. Sin’s about racism or homophobia and sin’s about war and violence, but it’s not about smoking a couple of joints a week.” And the other guy said to him, “We want to join your church.”
The questioners in Bishop Shaw’s story have a very small sense of Spirituality. It’s not surprising that they don’t go to church. I would be bored of church if I thought that God’s biggest concern was whether or not someone was smoking pot. But I go to a church where people think Jesus came into the world for bigger reasons than that. The Jesus I know, the Jesus we know began a public ministry BECAUSE the Spirit of the Lord was upon him BECAUSE he had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free.
We live in a city with a lot of poor people. Washington DC expects to announce Tuesday a $400 million budget surplus, but we can’t find the money to keep homeless shelters open, the homeless have been told there is a multi-million dollar budget deficit for shelters. There are over 2000 homeless people in Washington waiting for Permanent Supportive housing. There are waiting lists every night for the few shelter beds we have for homeless youth, and in the past months the funding for the youth homeless has been slashed, which means there are fewer beds. We need to bring good news to the poor in this city. We need the Spirit of the Lord and people who are willing to be engaged, anointed.
If you’re feeling down in the Spiritual life, if you’re searching for a connection to God, if you don’t feel like God is paying much attention, I think Jesus might have a word for you this morning. The Spirit of the Lord can be found in bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives. If you’re looking for God, probably the best advice I have is to seek God where God wills to be found, among the poor, among the oppressed, among the captives.
I’ve heard the stories from people in this parish who have spent time with our partners at the Kwasa Center in South Africa, with the Bishop Walker School in Anacostia. I’ve heard stories of how God’s presence was so keenly felt as people reached out to bring good news to the poor. I lived Honduras as a volunteer for the church for awhile and I watched doctors performing cataract surgery for rural villagers, literally bringing sight to the blind. Those doctors would say that their eyes were opened as well, to God’s presence in the world, to the work God is doing even now to let the oppressed go free. If you’re looking for God, a good way to start is to listen to Jesus quote the prophet this morning, his mission is located among the lost, the least, and the left out in our society. Jesus, seeking to express his purpose, looks to the ancient tradition. He reads in scripture that Spirit of the Lord has a reason, a because, and it has to do with bringing good news to the poor.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These are the unexpected words of Isaiah the prophet, the words of Jesus, and they can be our words. We can bring good news. We can bring sight to the blind. We can bring hope to a world that needs hope. We can let the oppressed go free. Because we have a God who walks with us. Because we have a God who sends God’s Spirit to be with us. Because we have a God who sends God’s blessing so that we might “see one another made in God’s image, a unit of God’s grace, unprecedented, unrepeatable and irreplaceable.” Because. Amen.
“You are my child, the Beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
It’s hard to say exactly what they saw that morning on the banks of the Jordan. It’s hard to know exactly what the voice sounded like. As the young man Jesus prayed, water still dripping from his hair, the grey sky split. An arc of sunlight pierced slantwise through a crack in the clouds. They said they saw some kind of bird. What kind of bird? What color were its feathers? Did the bird really rest gently like a dove? Or did it come crashing down, with purpose, swooping like a hawk? What did the voice that spoke those words sound like? What was the pitch, the tone, the cadence?
This Jesus, some remembered the stories of his birth. the shepherds, the angels. But that was many years ago. No one expected the sky to split when the young man came, with the others, to be baptized.
Their expectation was for the wild-eyed John. Some whispered that he, John, was the messiah, the anointed leader. This bearded man with crazy eyes, wearing musty camel fur, dreadlocks constantly in disarray. His breath smelled of locusts. His teeth were rotting (too much wild honey). But the wild man John scared Rome’s puppet leaders. He had the guts to call them vipers. John could be the Messiah. Rumor had it that Herod were afraid of John. John could be the one. But John said “no.” “Wait for another, I am not worthy.” So the people waited.
No one expected much from the young man who came to be baptized, the carpenter’s son. Yes, some remembered the story of the wise men from the East. Just after his birth these wizards appeared, wandering, following, in search of a star. They brought gifts to the baby, but since then? Who would have predicted the strange meteorological phenomena? Who expected that wild bird to come down? No one was waiting for that voice. But that’s the thing about epiphanies, they come when you least expect them.
This epiphany came with words. The voice came from heaven. So did it come down from the sky or did it come from “heaven?” which is to say the voice came out of nowhere, and out of everywhere. The voice came from no one, and yet from everyone. The words echoed in the hearts of the people, reverberated in the chests of the onlookers, like a deep bass beat. “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
This is sort of Jesus’ IPO- His initial public offering. 30 years after those wise guys came wandering through the desert, not much had happened. Then boom, another Epiphany. “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Get this, Jesus’ first public act, his initial public offering, is to HEAR the voice of God. Before he acts, he hears. Before he heals, he hears. Before he teaches, before he stirs up trouble, before he calls disciples, before he walks on water, before everything he hears God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
“Well pleased with WHAT?” we might ask. We, who live in Washington, the land of confirmation hearings. We want a public record. We want to weigh accomplishments. We want to see a resumé. WHAT had Jesus done that was PLEASING to God at this point? Answer: nothing. Zilch, nada, nein, zero. BEFORE he acts, he hears. Before he does anything of note, before he does anything worth writing down, he hears this voice of love and affirmation. God doesn’t wait for Jesus to act before he announced his love, his approval.
So the voice came as an epiphany, not an expected revelation, but an unanticipated uncovering of the truth. James Joyce wrote that an Epiphany is when we recognize things as they truly are. When an object becomes clear, when “It’s soul, it’s ‘what-ness’ leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.” This is an epiphany.
An epiphany occurred on the banks of the Jordan that morning, a shared realization, a vision of the “what-ness” of Jesus. Jesus hadn’t yet accomplished much of anything. He hadn’t merited the divine attention, but there on the banks, God did not care. In front of everyone Jesus’ soul leapt into appearance. The people heard a voice, a voice they understood, a voice which declared “I love this one, and I am well pleased.” How it happened, the angle of the light, the appearance of the bird, these elements are all left up to our imagination. It is hard to say how they saw, how they heard, but somehow on the day of his baptism Jesus saw and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. The people heard the voice of God. “You are my Son, the Beloved.”
Luis likes to say that he wishes our dome was retractable, and not because he wants to be more like the Dallas Cowboys. He wishes we had a Steven Spielberg budget for baptism Sundays. If he had his way, the dome would open up, a hologram of a dove would come crashing down with beams of light surrounding each person who was baptized. “You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased,” the congregation would all hear.
Perhaps today it takes special effects to hear the voice of God, to hear “You are my son, my daughter, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Why is it so much easier to hear the cacophony of voices that constantly say to us, “You don’t make enough money. You don’t eat the right food. You’re too tall or too short. You are too old or too young. You aren’t pretty enough. You’re too loud. You’re black. English is not your first language. You don’t have the credentials. You don’t have what it takes.” These voices too often drown out the voice of God. These voices strangle life. These voices, we need a break from these voices. We need an Epiphany.It takes courage to hear the voice of God. It takes courage to have that kind of Epiphany, to embrace who you truly are, your true identity. St. Irenaeus, one of the early church theologians wrote: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” To be fully human, fully alive, is to glorify God. It takes courage to hear, over the din of self-doubt: “you are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased.” But God never stops speaking these words. God never fails to say these words to each and every person. How do we quiet the voices of culture? How do we help others hear? How do we ourselves hear this voice, “you are my child, the beloved, in you I am well pleased?”
God speaks these words to us, not because we merit them. God’s love is not something we can merit, or fail to earn. God who created us loves us, loves each and every person, all people. God loves you. God is well pleased with you. God loves your neighbor, and your sister, and your cousin, and God loves the children of Syria, and the widows in India, God loves AIDS patients in Haiti, and God loves the gay rights activists in Uganda. God is well pleased with infants. God is well pleased with the vulnerable. God is well pleased with people who can do nothing. God is even well pleased with politicians in Washington. God is well pleased because God looks upon us and sees first a beloved creation, a daughter, a son.
Each time God looks at you, each time God looks at anyone, God has an Epiphany. God sees who we truly are. “You are my children, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Do we have the courage to have that kind of Epiphany?
Three years ago, when I was a seminarian, I remember listening to Luis preach a sermon about these lessons. I don’t remember the whole sermon, but I do remember Luis beginning by summoning all of that theological heft we’ve been missing during his sabbatical, all of that gravitas Luis has when he preaches. So three years ago Luis stands up here and summons all his gravitas and he says, “when I speak about marriage, I’m speaking about gay marriage and straight marriage. I think our society, and our church, need to get with it. We’ve been behind the boat.” Just a few months later same sex-marriage would be legal in the District. Since that time a number of same-sex couples have been married here at St. John’s. For the purposes of this sermon, I also make no distinction. Same-sex or opposite sex, marriage is marriage.
So, maybe you have heard about this little piece of papyrus. A piece of papyrus that has been all over the news because it says, “and Jesus said to his disciples, my wife.” Of course the question is: Jesus said to them, “my wife.” My wife what? My wife cooks the most amazing cous-cous , you wouldn’t believe? Jesus said to them, “my wife” and my mother-in-law really don’t get along? Jesus said to them, “my wife” writes all my material?
I don’t actually think that the papyrus makes any difference to our faith, and I don’t think if Jesus was married, it would make much difference to us either, but it helps us to remember that marriage is always a cultural construct. In Jesus’ time, if you weren’t married and having kids by the time you were twenty years old, they actually could sentence you in religious court, and the legalese was that by being unmarried, un-procreating, you were “killing your descendants.” (I hope I’m not giving any ammo to some hopeful grandparents out there. Don’t go call your kids and tell them your priest said it was sinful not to give you grand-babies.) In Jesus time, in first century Jewish society, marriage was still, largely, a process of buying and selling a bride to produce offspring for the tribe.
The Bible’s narrative moves through several different nuanced cultural-historical understandings of marriage. Think about Jacob marrying Leah first, so that he can marry Rachel, the woman he really wants, later. Solomon had how many wives? The concept of marriage changes over time, even in the time of the writing of the Bible. Which is why I think we have to be very careful with what Jesus says to us today. (Incidentally, I wrote a few pages of sermon about the argument going through the first century argument between rabbis Hillel and Shammai about divorce, and how what Jesus says is really a feminist commentary on that argument over divorce, but I decided to spare you. To sum it up, it is a BIG deal that Jesus says that a woman could divorce her husband.) Anyway, trying to take Jesus’ statement out of its context, and apply it to divorces today would be disaster. Ask the Catholic Church. The absurdity of annulments just irks me, which probably makes me a good Episcopalian.
Today we think of marriage very differently. No one is bought and sold. We hold up an idea of two equal partners, standing before one another, their family, friends, and their God, and pledging to love, comfort, honor, and keep one another. Both people make those promises. We have in our marriage service what I think is a beautiful statement about two equal partners, choosing to create life together.
I chose that phrase carefully, “to create life together.” Jesus quotes Genesis when asked about marriage, and surprisingly, I think he quotes Genesis on purpose. Jesus actually quotes only part of a verse from chapter one when he says God created them male and female. The whole verse is: “God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Jesus assumes the pharisees know this crucial introduction, this story of Genesis. Jesus knows that the repetition in the first part of the verse places the emphasis there. The verse primarily tells us something about the nature of humanity. We are made, all of us, each of us, in the image of God. Women and men, in the image of God. Specifically, in the image of the God who creates, the Creator. We are made in the image of the creator, which makes us co-creators. We are beings who are given, in our creation, the gift of creativity.
Humans are alone in creation as made in the image of the creator, with God given creativity. Notice in the second chapter of Genesis, God has Adam name all of the animals, using his creativity to take an active part in creation. This is the creativity that scientists use when the come up with theorems which change how we live life and imagine the universe. This is the creativity that poets use when they use words to express emotions we did not know they had inside of us. We are made creative, in the image of the creator God.
Anyone who has been married for a good long time can tell you, marriage takes creativity. Every few years you are faced with a new situation, a job loss, an unexpected child (let’s be real), every few years couples face crisis or joys that change the nature of a relationship. It takes creativity to respond to the new situations of life. It takes creativity to respond to the person your spouse becomes over time. Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian writer and lover of music, likened her music to a piece by J.S. Bach. In one of her books, she called her marriage a “Two-Part Invention.” Marriage takes a lot of creativity.
Creativity is not just reserved for married couples, or to couples at all for that matter. I don’t think that all people are called to be married. Some people are called to live in marriage, others are not. I think that all of those stories of princesses and princes finding one another that we hear as children in fairy tales put some crazy ideas in our head. I don’t think that all people are meant to be married, and I think we do a disservice to a lot of people when we norm marriage, when we make marriage a norm. I think a lot of people would be happier if they weren’t married, and we would save a lot of anguish if we realized that not all people are called to be married. We’d probably save a lot of money on dating websites as well. Life outside of marriage takes creativity, takes God given creativity as well. Creating a network of friends and companions that becomes a family to care for and be cared for by, takes loving creativity.
Similarly we have to face, in our society, the reality of divorce. Sometimes marriages do not work. These words about divorce from Jesus are often quoted, and they are tough. But the Jesus I know is a Jesus whose love and forgiveness is bigger than any single law or commandment. I think sometimes divorce can be a creative way to respond to a really bad situation, and I mean creative in the literal sense. Sometimes, sometimes, I think, divorce can be life-giving. Sometimes it takes an end to a situation which is stifling, to allow new life to be born. I don’t think that any couple I known came up to an altar expecting to get divorced. I think that people make their vows with all of the best intentions, but sometimes we can’t fulfill even our best intentions. That does not mean we don’t try. I have known some very good marriages, and I have known some very good divorces.
What is important, as Christians, who believe we are made in the image of God, is that we seek to live our lives in a way that creates life, for ourselves, for our spouses, for our children, for our families, and friends, and community. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” We live life creatively for the sake of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, for all of those people out there who are made in the image and likeness of God.
These are hard lessons. When Luis preached three years ago, he finished his sermon by pointing out that these are hard lessons. Then he said that in three years he would be wiser about his scheduling. He wouldn’t preach. Whichever assistant was being unruly, he said, would get to tackle these lessons. I don’t know what you’ve been hearing while you’ve been away. (Whatever it is Gini did it.) Whatever motivated this act of creative scheduling, I appreciate a good challenge.
I think the readings we have before us challenge us. They challenge us to live with creativity, in the image and likeness of the God who creates us and who loves us. They challenged those of us who are married to bring that loving creativity to our marriages. These scriptures challenge those of us who are not yet married, and those of us who are perhaps never supposed to be married to live lives creatively as well, to gather a community of friends and loved ones. Because we are not meant to live life alone, but to live life out of love creatively.
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and with the comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
The prayer I just read comes from Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Prayer book tradition. Those are the words from 1549. We read this Collect, the prayer we pray at the beginning of the service, toward the end of November, but when I read today’s Gospel, today’s very strange Gospel with an invitation eat Jesus, to eat his flesh, this prayer came to mind. I remember the words of this prayer from being a little kid serving as an acolyte at church services, because the image is so strong. Let us “inwardly digest” the scriptures, “inwardly digest” them? As a little kid, that struck me as odd. It put in mind the image of Ezekiel eating the scroll. That we would ask God to help us “inwardly digest” our scriptures struck me as odd.
Kids can be quite literal, and I was a very literal little child. When I was three or four years old, my mother left me in the car with a cake she had baked for my grandfather’s birthday. She just needed to run into the house for a moment, having left something behind on the kitchen counter. Everything would have been fine, except that before she went into the house she told me the kind of cake she had baked. The cake, it turned out, was a pineapple upside down cake. By the time she returned to the car, I had turned the upside down cake right side up. My mother has never baked that kind of cake again.
So as a very literal minded child, this image of “inwardly digesting” was strange. The image is powerful, but to get past the “weird,” we have to grow up a bit. To hear Jesus tell us that we must “eat his flesh” if we are to have “life within us, we have to see the scripture as more than literal.
In the early days of Christianity, rumors spread through the Roman Empire that Christians were cannibals. Think about it, they claimed to gather each week to eat the flesh and drink the blood of their savior. These rumors, based on a loose misinterpretation of John chapter six, fanned the flames of persecution against the early church.
John 6, this chapter we find ourselves so deep in this week, the chapter we have been reading all month at Saint John’s, is not LITERALLY about flesh, or even about bread. This is an extended mixed metaphor, and if you are having a hard time following what Jesus is saying, take heart, you are in good company with your priests, and with our seminary professors. Even the disciples, in the next few verses will say “This teaching is difficult.”
BUT, the invitation, however strange, is profound. Jesus invites us to eat his flesh, to inwardly digest HIM. Jesus OFFERS his flesh for the life of the world. Jesus offers his life to us, that we might have life. The words are gruesome, there’s no way around how gruesome the words are, but at their heart is a profound offer, an offer of life, an offer of sustenance. I believe our world desperately needs the sustenance of Christ, needs to learn to inwardly digest this message of self-offering, of self-surrender.
This has been a summer of violence. This week just down the street from St. John’s Church, at 8th and G a gunman tried to charge into the offices of the Family Research Council. Nine blocks from where we sit right now, a gunman yelled at a security guard, “I don’t agree with your politics” before opening fire. Thankfully he was stopped. But in Aurora Colorado, near where I grew up and in a house of worship, not unlike this one, belonging to a Sikh community in Oak Creek Wisconsin the violence had incredibly tragic results. This summer our flags have spent too much time at half-mast.
What have we inwardly digested, as a society? I think we have to ask this question. When attackers fill their packs with neo-nazi music or Chik-Fil-A sandwiches to make a point with violence, something is terribly wrong in our society. We have taken in a message of hatred and division, we have inwardly digested an acceptance of violence. Our society has digested a level of division and hatred that is causing major problems for our social health. Hatred is not a neatly partisan issue, as the events of this summer show.
I wish the answer to these terrible events was simpler. I wish I could stand up here and tell you that passing a particular piece of legislation would solve this crisis. I wish solving hate and violence was that easy.
Jesus also lived in a culture of violence. The Pax Romana was hardly peaceful for the peasants subject to the rule of the Romans. Massacres in Palestine under the Roman Empire were commonplace. Jesus himself would be caught up in the violence, labeled a threat to peace, and executed.
In the midst of this violence what did Jesus do? He ate with people. Jesus ate with ALL the wrong people. Jesus ate with Jews and Romans, women and men, tax-collectors, prostitutes, little children, and samaritans. Jesus ate with people he disagreed with. Jesus dined with Roman soldiers and pharisees. What would that look like today? What would it look like for the House and Senate leadership to come together for a potluck? What if in response to the attack in downtown Washington this week, the leadership of the LGBT Center of Washington and the Family Research Council sat down for dinner?
This is why we come here each week. At St. John’s Church, we do not agree about everything. We are from different parties, and backgrounds, and we just do not agree. But we come, we gather around this table. We received Jesus, and we practice his radical table fellowship each week. To borrow a phrase from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, we participate in “solidarities not of our own choosing.” We come to break bread together, and to eat with people we don’t agree with, that we might learn the grace, forgiveness, and peace of Christ.
There is an old Cherokee legend about a Grandfather teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.“
The story is about what we choose, in this world, to inwardly digest. Do we feed on the anger and hatred and violence of the world, or do we choose the love and forgiveness of Christ?
Six years ago this October another massacre occurred in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. A gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse. The news from this story, more than the others, was not dominated by the gunman, but by the Amish community. Members of that Amish community, from the moment the news broke of the shootings, sought to forgive the gunman. They visited his widow. Members of the Amish leadership attended the funeral of the killer. Around the country, around the world, people were moved by the example of the Amish, a people who had inwardly digested Jesus’ command to love their enemy, had inwardly digested the idea of forgiveness.
The gift Solomon receives from God in our story this morning could describe the Amish Christians of Lancaster county. Our translation (and it will come as no surprise to many of you that I have quibbles with our translation) but our translation has Solomon asking for an “understanding mind,” and that’s a nice thing to ask for, but that is not what actually in the Bible. The Hebrew actually has Solomon ask for a “listening heart.” A “listening heart” is what Solomon receives from God, the gift that helps him discern right from wrong. I think “listening hearts” well describes the Amish Community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. This gift comes from years of taking in a message which is counter-cultural, inwardly digesting the forgiveness and love of Jesus. This isn’t easy in a society dense with hate and division. Listening hearts are the root of wisdom, and the product of a lot of inner work, a lot of inwardly digesting the Word of God, the message of Jesus.
Jesus tells that we will know those who eat his flesh because they will have “life within them.” Six years ago we watched with awe the amount of life there was in that little Amish community. How can our stories witness to that kind of life? How can the life of Christ be known in our lives?
We have before us a complicated Gospel this morning, a Gospel proclaimed in a world with few easy answers. But at its heart is an invitation to receive the life of Christ, to inwardly digest the Word of God, and to be transformed.
I was home in Colorado recently, and while there I took a tour of Stranahan’s Whisky distillery. Stranahan’s is a Scotch style American whisky, a very fine whisky. At the end of the tour, they let you sample the product, and then in a stroke of marketing genius AFTER you have sampled the product you are invited to make purchases in the gift shop. As our tour guide sold us what seemed like very reasonably priced fine whisky, she shared some advice from the owner and founder.
The tour guide said that the folks at Stranahan’s would never pretend to tell you how to enjoy your whisky, but, and this is apparently a direct quote from the founder, “if you mix Coke with this fine whisky, you make the baby Jesus cry.”
If you mix that fine of a whisky with Coke, with anything really, you dilute the taste. You lose the flavor of the whisky.
Don’t miss it, there is a theological point being made here, Don’t mix your fine whisky with Coke. It’s theological, and I promise, it has something to do with our Gospel today.
We really have about three Sundays worth of Gospel text today, but don’t worry we are going to spend the next five weeks in chapter six of John’s Gospel, so there will be time for me and Gini to get to almost all of the finer points. Today I want to focus on the transition that occurs between the two narratives: between the bread and the walking on water. Immediately after Jesus performs the miracle of the loaves and fishes, what happens? He has to run away because the people want to SIEZE him and make him king. “This is the prophet we have been waiting for!” they say. They are ready to seize Jesus, to grasp ahold of him. The word “seize” is the same as Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians. He tells us, “Equality with God is not something to be grasped.” Jesus knows this, and avoids the grasping.
Jesus’ time was full of expectation for a coming messiah. There were many candidates running around Palestine, and there were militias ready to get behind one of them to try and replace the Roman governor. You know this if you’ve read any biblical history, or if you’ve scene Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian.” The time of Jesus was the time of expectation of the coming savior of the Jewish people from the Roman imperial oppression. So the people hear in Jesus, the see in Jesus, what THEY WANT TO SEE.
The expectations are dangerous. The people here are ready to try an install Jesus as King with armed rebellion, so Jesus takes off. This story about Jesus seems so long ago, but we know something of the reality of those who would seize God for their agenda. We have survived the terrorism of some who claim God is diluted in their own prejudice.
If you watched the opening ceremonies on Friday night, you missed something. Here in the United States, NBC decided NOT to air the final portion of the ceremony, just before the parade of nations. The last act was a memorial to those who died in the London Underground attacks just after UK was announced as host for the 2012 Olympics. If you haven’t seen the memorial, google it later. I found it online, and I was amazed. It is mostly a modern dance piece, which wasn’t what amazed me. I have to confess, I don’t really get modern dance. What amazed me was the singing of a hymn. In response to a terror attack, a religiously motivated terror attack by a group of people who claim a dangerously deluded vision of God, the London Opening Ceremonies planners asked us to listen to a hymn. One verse:
3. I need thy presence every passing hour;
what but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
What a way to counter spin, to counter the claims of those use God for their own agenda of terror. The planners of those opening ceremonies offered a old vision of the God who abides, the God of hope. This is important. Rather than avoiding the danger of religion altogether, they addressed specifically the dangerous vision of those who would hijack God for their own ends. The hymn has another vision of God, not one set to our own agenda.
Our world needs this God. Jesus needs followers who are not ready to seize him and make him king. After the crowds have dispersed, Jesus comes looking for the disciples. By this point they’ve gotten in a boat, and, not surprisingly for this crew, things aren’t going so well. Then they see Jesus, walking across the water. Do not be afraid, he tells them, and suddenly they find themselves on the other side of the sea.
If anything is clear from the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t leave things where they are. Jesus doesn’t leave people where they are. When people encounter the real Jesus, undiluted Jesus, their lives change, and not necessarily in the way they were expecting them to change. A bunch of fishermen go around proclaiming God’s justice. People walk away healed. Women are sent back to preach to their communities.
Can we let go of our agendas? We have a world that desperately needs an undiluted Jesus, a Lord who comes to heal, to feed, and to save us from drowning.
What star do you follow? What road do you walk?
The story of the three wise men that we have today from Matthew, is strange. Three nameless travelers follow a star to kneel before the child Jesus. There is no way around the strangeness. We variously have called these characters “the wise men,” or the “three kings,” or the “magi (the magicians).” The last title is closest to the original.
In Matthew’s Gospel three strange visitors “appear” in Jerusalem. The details of their visit are shadowy, we know they come from the East. We know they have status. These magicians must also be astrologers, for they have noticed a new star in their Western horizon and have followed its appearance. Somehow though, they got a bit lost along the way…
The three magicians, seemingly used to government contracting, head to the royal authority in the region. Herod the Great, Herod I, ruled as a client king for Rome in Jerusalem, and these three men come knocking on the halls of power. They seem to know that a king has been born, which makes, Herod who is perfectly happy reigning as king, currently reigning as king, very nervous. New candidates tend to make incumbents nervous. Herod checking in with his own paid consultants, identifies Bethlehem as the city of coming anointed one, the Messiah’s portended birthplace.
You might notice I keep referring to the Magi, the wise men, the three kings, as “consultants.” Maybe this is because I find myself living in a town where it seems more people contract or consult for the government than actually work in the government. Probably though, I have just been watching too much of the Television show MadMen. Now do not despair. I worked for awhile trying to get a joke that brought together the titles “Wisemen” and “MadMen”, but it never quite worked. So I will spare you.
But the past few months I have been captivated by the TV show MadMen, and luckily I can now stream the first several seasons. If you don’t know MadMen, it is a primetime TV drama that centers around consultants, specifically a Madison Avenue Advertising agency Adman: Don Draper. MadMen’s drama plays out in the usual ways: Don trips through seedy romantic relationships. The plot develops around campaigns for big name clients. The whole show is saturated with the glamour of New York. The twist of MadMen is that, unlike most of our TV shows which are set in the modern day, Don does not work on today’s Madison Avenue. The MadMen universe is set in the 1960s, and the thrust, the energy of the show is a sort of “my-how-times-have-changed” effect.
Often this is played for a comedy. As regularly as possible we hear what people earn in salary: $40 week is middle class pay. But that is okay because apartments rent in Manhattan for a couple hundred dollars a month, and a cup of coffee costs a nickel. (My how times have changed). Pregnant women regularly swill cocktails and smoke. Everyone smokes. (My how times have changed).
Other “my-how-times-have-changed” moments play around questions of justice. Every man in the office works behind a door, and every woman, save one plucky Peggy Olsen, works in front of a door. All the women do is answer phones, type, get drinks for the men. The one black man in the office operates the elevator. No one picks up on the clues that the art director is gay, not even his wife.
Part of the “my-how-times-have-changed” thrust of MadMen is that here, in the advertising offices that the fictional MadMen office represents, a major revolution took place. You see the times they were a-changin’ in the 1960s on Madison Avenue, and in many ways the people that worked there, they helped those times change. Regularly on MadMen the advertising agents consider how the new fields of psychology and sociology can help them sell their product. They seek to push consumers to see how purchasing a product or service is in their “self-interest.” Don Draper convinces Lucky Strike cigarettes that they do not need to produce the “best cigarettes” or the healthiest cigarettes, or have better filters. They need to catch the sense of pleasure that the consumer has in imagining herself satisfied by purchasing and using the product. “Luckies are toasted.” (All cigarettes at the time were “toasted” but something about the word brings images of satisfaction to the consumer.)
The admen of Madmen were busy in the 60s, as they are busy today, polishing a star. “Follow this star, the star of self-interest. Buy the product. Consume the service. You will be satisfied.” This is the message of advertising. Madison avenue still wants you to follow that star. It is a very old star, perhaps one of the oldest, the star of self-interest and consumption. The star of self-image.
Lest we think this was only a problem in the time of MadMen, we have an article that my mother sent me about the religious neural impulses caused by iPads. My mom and I are Apple devotees, and so when scientists began
claiming that Apple’s iPad advertising caused the same neurons to fire in the brains of Apple consumers as icons and religious images caused in the brain pathways of religious followers, we were not that surprised. The image of the satisfied consumer, the star of self image can exert powerful influence.
I wonder if that star, that old star, is what distracted the magi, the wise men, on their road to see the Christ child. These mystical consultants were used to working with kings. I wonder if the star above Herod’s palace in Jerusalem appeared more familiar that night. That star had led them before to influence, to comfort and power. I wonder if that star caused the detour to Herod’s throne-room.
Something about where that old star had led them, it did not seem right. The magi are wise enough to know that when they have arrived at Herod’s palace, they have not really arrived. My family always laughs at those GPS systems that come in rental cars, the ones that tell you, “you have arrived.” Somehow you know you really haven’t. Something nags at the magi. Another star beckons.
Following the Star of Jesus the Messiah takes them to an unexpected place. They kneel not in a throne room, but in a much humbler home. Their opulent gifts seem out of place in the ramshackle Bethlehem dwelling. But something happens to the wise men, as they kneel before the baby under that unexpected star. Some change is wrought. Though Herod has asked them to return to his palace, to share the location of the competing candidate, they choose to return “by another road.”
These strange men are, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first converts. I debated using that word “convert.” There is another sermon to be preached about the magi, Matthew, and interfaith dialogue, because these pagan astronomers do not walk away reciting the Nicene Creed. They might do something like that in John’s Gospel, but Matthew is content that their conversion be a conversion of life. Their religious ideology to us is unknown, but encountering God in Christ caused them to live differently. They walk away by another road.
As a seminarian, you get suspicious whenever you are invited to preach. I find great joy in coming home to St. Paul’s, in seeing friends and breaking bread with the community that walked with me at the start of a long process toward ordination. But as a seminarian, you have to be wary when they ask you to preach. I am very thankful to Dean Richardson for inviting me to preach while I am home, but when I saw the texts for today I had to wonder if he had other motives…
Jesus in this fragment of Matthews Gospel seems extreme. But before anyone goes and tears out an eyeball, let us ponder this text for a moment. The section of the Matthew’s Gospel we have today comes from the great Sermon on the Mount. We’ve been reading the sermon for the past two Sundays, and we’ll be reading the sermon for the rest of February. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the great rabbinic teacher.
I want to sit with that image for a moment. Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, I think it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. He was a preacher, apparently a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shook people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shake people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have in the Gospels.
In a mosque, during the Friday gathering, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. He climbs several stairs to look out over the gathered crowd, but he stops one step short of the top of the pulpit. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. So today, I want to offer a couple of comments on the sermon of our great preacher.
To do that, I want to start with our reading from the Old Testament, from the Hebrew Bible sort of sets up Jesus’ sermon today. Jesus is commenting on Jewish law. The repeated phrase in his sermon is “but I say to you.” As in, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’, but I say to you ‘do not be angry.’” Again and again Jesus raises a point from the law, and says “but I say to you.” Our reading this morning from Deuteronomy explains the purpose of all of Jewish law: we learn that the keeping of the law brings life in abundance. Interestingly, the passage describes turning away from the law as idolatry, idolatry. The writer of Deuteronomy basically believes there are two possibilities for humans: an abundant life of following God’s law, or idolatry and the worship of false Gods.
Now idolatry may not seem like a problem in our world today. Last I checked, no one was worshiping down the street at a temple to Apollo. The priests of Baal are not offering a competing Sunday service. Today, the tension in the West would seem to be between believers in the Abrahamic God and atheism. I want to read a short paragraph by the writer David Foster Wallace, from a speech he gave for a college graduation a few years ago:
here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the
day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as
atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody
worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real
meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have
enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual
allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start
showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve
Foster Wallace goes on to list several other things that people in our day worship. Power, intellect, the list goes on. He finishes with this sentence:
the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
David Foster Wallace implicitly asks: What is our default setting? What do we give our attention? What do we give our life? What do we give our worship?
In the sermon on the mount, in the midst of all of these “but I say to yous,” Jesus also says something interesting about worship:
“When offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
The true God can only be worshipped in loving relationship with your brothers and sisters. If we are to approach God, we must be attentive to those around us. We must actively seek reconciliation with one another.
This is radical. If we are honest we all have something to leave at the altar. Some relationship that demands our attention, needs reconciliation.
Jesus is proposing that true worship, worship of the true God involves us in active work in our relationships with one another. If we pay attention to how Jesus is tweaking the commandments, the same thing is true. In a culture that worships the gods of individualism, this may seem a strange thing to say. Worship and morality require attention to relationship.
In a world accustomed to the gods of individualism, this is a strange thing to say. We expect to have our own personal actions in worship matter, but Christianity is a faith of incarnation. We believe that God takes on human flesh. It means we look for God in one another. Jesus’ demand that we pay attention to our human relationships continues throughout Matthew. Matthew 25 brings us Jesus’ words to the disciples that when they clothe the naked, feed the poor, visit the imprisoned, they minister to him. We encounter Christ in one another.
St. Paul’s is a place that practices that care of Christ in our fellow human beings. I was blessed to be a part of this congregation when we started our work with Dorcas House. I am so excited that St. Paul’s will soon, for the first time, host the Interfaith Shelter Network. Tomorrow all day the Mobile Health Clinic will be parked in our parking lot and Cassie Lewis, one of your chapter members will be admitting patients who have no other access to medical care for visits to the doctor. St. Paul’s takes this seriously.
Looking for Christ in one another does not stop at outreach and service. In a culture that worships self-sufficiency and individualism, it can be harder to reach out for help than to reach out in service. We can buy the message the world is selling us that with all the right purchases, we can make it alone. This is not the message of our preacher Jesus today.
Jesus tells us we need each another to worship God. We need one another to have life and to have it abundantly. We need each other to be Christ. I know from my time at St. Paul’s that you all practice this radical being Christ to one another. Canon Chris Harris can tell (and has told) you a great deal about how this community has been Christ to him through this year. I know that so many of you out there can name ways that this community has been Christ for you in times of sorrow and in times of joy.
The heart of Jesus’ sermon is that the true worship of God, the true following of the commandments involves paying attention to our relationships with one another. I am proud to be a part of this Cathedral community. I think we’ve got a good start on living the message of our preacher Jesus.
Travelling to Israel as a Christian Pilgrim, you see a lot of churches. I thought I’d write about just two that I’ve seen in the past few days.
The first is in Galilee. Capernaum is a small town on the sea where God decided to go local. Jesus of Nazareth moved to town and most of the healing stories come from here. Most of the disciples came from right in town, and Peter supposedly came back and had a house Church after the Resurrection. I lived this summer in a House Church, and so seeing his supposed house church, related to the beginning of the Christian movement, really had an effect. The inside was circular, surrounded by benches, and I could see having a potluck meal and simple sharing of communion around that circle, much like we do at Hawthorn House.
Above the House Church the Roman Catholics have built a spaceship looking sanctuary. At first I thought it looked oppressive, squashing the original church, but I got another view from the ruined Synagogue up the street. The movement got too big for a house Church. The question seems to have been, and still is, how does someone keep the core of the story alive in big buildings with big budgets and programs. How do you feed thousands, millions, billions really, from the same bread? I think the Church is still trying to work that out. As I swam the next morning in the Sea of Galilee, I could just make out the ruins as the sun came up over the lake. Galilee is a wonderfully peaceful place, would that the tranquility there spread over the whole Church.
The other Church we saw just today, the Dominus Flevit, or “The Lord Wept.” The title comes from Luke 19 :41-42 “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” The Church is teardrop shaped and looks out over Jerusalem, the city still fraught with intense conflict. As we sat on the Mt. of Olives, outside the Church looking over the city the power of Jesus’ tears still held. When will peace come to this land? Surely the conflict here is sacramental, emblematic of the deep conflicted nature of humanity and creation. We dream of peace, we long for justice, but they seem so unrealizable. Being human seems to work as an exercise in patience and hope, in the face of signs that tell you to do otherwise. Still, the view is miraculously beautiful, the City with its towers and domes. Somehow coming here brings you to what is basic and central.
I hope this last week and a few days to continue to enjoy the adventure, to live in the midst of the confuse dynamics and relationships of this place, but to enjoy the gift of being here for now.