Preparing for Eternal Glory, Third Sunday after Pentecost (A) – June 25, 2017

Proper 7

[RCL] Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

In today’s gospel, Jesus instructs his apostles about the cost of discipleship. Christianity just is not an easy life, he seems to say. In fact, you may be handed over to councils who will flog you, dragged before governors and kings, betrayed by your family, and hated by all because of the very name of Jesus.

Who wants that, we wonder? Seriously, what kind of Sunday message is it to hear “children will rise against parents and have them put to death”?

Now that Jesus has their attention—and ours—he goes on to say some things that have more comfort value. Do not fear death, for the forces of evil may kill the mortal body but they cannot kill the soul.

And that beautiful, poetic image: the sparrow, worth half a cent, is cared for and loved by God. Every sparrow. And every hair on your head.

In this bizarrely contrasting narrative, Jesus lays out two fundamental principles of Christianity: First, we are not spared from suffering, and, second, when we suffer God suffers along with us. Let’s examine those two basic tenets of the Christian life, shall we?

First, suffering: we may not be flogged before governors or hated by everyone—but we do struggle, right? We contract diseases, grieve the death of loved ones, lose jobs, and undergo a myriad of nasty experiences—some trivial, and some catastrophic.

And part of what Jesus seems to be saying in this passage—in his own exaggerated manner of polemical hyperbole—is that we will most probably continue to suffer. The Christian life is not a magic fix to the woes of this mortal life.

If it were, we would not have the manifestation of any evil or hate in the world. Instead, everything would just be lovely.]

Imagine: No mass murder of Coptic Christian children in Egypt. No Manchester bombing. No killings in Paris, Ferguson, Orlando, Boston, Charleston, or Newtown.

And as beautiful a picture as that might be, it is a picture of the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, what we hope and pray for, what Jesus came to earth to proclaim was coming, and—let’s face it—what is not yet here.

So how are we to live in this world where hate and violence are so rampant?

We need the help of God.

And that’s the second point: our God is with us. “He shall be called Emmanuel, God with us”—remember that from Christmas? The promise made by Jesus is that we are not alone in our struggles. God is here, to comfort us, to help us through the difficult times, to show us the way when we don’t know where to turn, to help us when we cannot help ourselves—and certainly to rejoice with us in good times.

We will sometimes suffer in this mortal life, but God is with us—to comfort and guide us.

Perhaps we might think of these two things when we consider the many current controversies that we seem to be entwined in—in the church, in our nation, maybe even in our families and communities.

Voices on both sides of every issue want resolution—they want to be out of the struggle. And they seek to do this by legislative action, human edict, and having one winner—all based on contradictory interpretations of the same text or tenet.

But could it be that no less than our Lord and Savior, that God-made-human, Jesus Christ is calling us not to make an end to our struggle, but to be in the midst of it?

And could it be that, once we accept our place in the very midst of it, the Holy Spirit could show us the way forward?

That’s, at least, how Jesus seems to imagine it. Oh, we all have opinions of our own—make no mistake about that. But we must be interested in opposing views—hearing them and respecting them. We must not dare to presume that our view is the right view—or the only view.

Time was when we Episcopalians lived like that. We were respectful and polite. We listened to each other. Sure, we didn’t agree on every issue, but we agreed to continue in conversation.

Nowadays, we in the church sometimes take ourselves too seriously. We imagine and presume that our debates and legislative actions will somehow bring about—or perhaps even prevent—the salvation of the world.

It’s really odd, when you think about it. God-fearing people of every political stripe and theological persuasion—faithful, caring, loving people—presume to know the mind of God, in painful detail and with absolute certainty. Or, worse yet, they have decided to take over sovereignty from God.

This is not our calling as Christian people, dear friends. Oh, we will have struggles and issues—every age has its own set of these. And the God-made-human we worship calls us to be in the midst of the struggles of this world.

In our struggles, we are called not to engage in a fight to the finish, in which one group winds up the victorious insiders and other the dejected outsiders. But to proclaim to everyone on God’s green earth that God is here, in the midst of us. And to share with every human being—our fellow pilgrims on the journey—the love that we have known in Christ Jesus.

Because every human heart has the capacity to love and the capacity to hate.

So, what helps keep us on the path of righteousness? What will help tip the balance for good over evil? What can we do to overcome the negative instincts we all have to some extent?

Listen for the still, small voice of God.

The God who was with the infant Isaac, who grew into a great patriarch for God’s chosen people.

The God who keeps watch over our lives, as the Psalmist tells us.

The God who will reunite us all in a resurrection like his, as we read in the letter to the Romans.

And the God-made-human who came to earth to proclaim that love is stronger than death.

For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered. These spiritual truths will be revealed to all in God’s good time.

What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops:

  • Jesus Christ is risen from the dead,
  • the kingdom of God has come very near us, and
  • when we suffer—and we will—we have the church, the Christian community where we “bear one another’s burdens,” as St. Paul said (Galatians 6:2).

And, again from Paul, “this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

In this Christian life, we are not spared from suffering, but when we suffer, God suffers along with us. And this suffering helps prepare us for eternal glory.

The Rev. Barrie Bates has served Anglican and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past 20+ years. He holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies, and memberships in the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Screen Actors’ Guild. Other than ordained ministry, his interests include opera, fine dining, and boating.

 

Download the sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Facing battles with the promise of victory, 2 Pentecost, Proper 7 (A) – 2014

June 22, 2014

Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69: 8-11 (12-17), 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Have you ever thought that having a relationship with God would make your life easier? With God on your side, you’ll slide through life with no problems, right?

The readings this morning should disabuse you of that notion.

In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah rails against God, using words on the edge of blasphemy. Jeremiah has been out doing what God asked Jeremiah to do, and it hasn’t gone as well as the prophet had hoped. Jeremiah says, “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.” He goes on to complain, “All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”

The psalm offered no comfort either, lamenting:

Save me, O God,
For the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
And there is no firm ground for my feet.

I have come to deep waters,
And the torrent washes over me.

I have grown weary with my crying;
My throat is inflamed;
My eyes have failed from looking for my God.

Then in our gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” Jesus is himself the master of the house and we are the members of his household, so if Jesus was called Beelzebul, a name for Satan, then how can we who follow him expect to be treated?

This is the Good News? So much for getting comfort from scripture for the week ahead.

Yet, for those who would follow Jesus, perhaps the question is not, “Why do things go wrong for those of us with a relationship with God?” The questions may well be, “Why are things going so well?” “Why aren’t we having more problems?” or for any follower of Jesus, “Why am I not being persecuted?”

Jeremiah did what God asked of him, and he was laughed at. The psalmist tried to follow God’s will and grew weary with crying for justice. Jesus was put to death, and after his resurrection, Jesus’ disciples went on to preach, teach and with the exception of John, the disciples were killed for their faith in Jesus.

So where did we go wrong? Why don’t people laugh at us more? Make fun of us more? Why are our lives going so well?

Certainly we are fortunate to live in a time and place when those who proclaim faith in Jesus Christ may do so without risking their lives. Baptism into the church no longer puts a death sentence on you as has been true in some times and places.

But we still can’t expect that following Jesus will lead to a life of no problems. Your relationship with God will not remove all the obstacles from your path. You aren’t guaranteed a perfect marriage, perfect kids, a perfect job or a perfect boss. Faith is not the path to a life of no worries. Jesus promised the victory, but he never taught of a life with no battles.

So what, then, is the point? Why believe?

Well, for one, believe because the gospel is true. There is a God who loves us and wants a relationship with us. That God is best known to us through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. As God made man, Jesus not only showed us how we should live, but his death and resurrection reconciled us to God. Knowing the truth of Christianity is at the core of our faith. One believes, not because this is the easy path to a good life, but because the faith we profess is true. The Bible warns that problems can and will follow.

In fact, the 16th-century spiritual writer and mystic Teresa of Avilla wrote to God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”

Often a problem is that the faith we were given in Sunday school of “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” while true, may not be realistic or even muscular enough to handle a cancer diagnosis, the decline of a parent, the death of a friend or the end of a marriage.

But when we read further in our texts for this week, we find a confidence in God’s presence and mercy.

Jeremiah says confidently, “My persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” So convinced is the prophet that a few verses later, while people are still laughing at him, Jeremiah can proclaim, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.”

Likewise in Psalm 69, the poet first felt that he was sinking in deep mire with no firm ground for his feet. Then he grabbed hold of the conviction that God is the firm ground on which he stands. For the psalmist never loses the conviction that God’s love and compassion will get the last word. The psalmist refers to God’s unfailing help, God’s kind love and God’s great compassion.

Finally, Jesus tells his followers, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Not only does he not promise smooth sailing, Jesus warns that storms will besiege the faithful. But in the tempests of life, we are not to be fearful. The question is not “Why are things going wrong?” Maybe we should ask, “Why is no one bothering me?” Perhaps your faith has not so changed your life that anyone else can notice.

For as Verna Dozier, an Episcopalian and great champion of the ministry of all baptized persons, once wrote, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

When your faith leads you to make public stands that are not popular, opposition will come. Problems will arise. This is to be expected. But we also know that we do not face these problems alone.

The anchor has long been a symbol in Christian art for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Though storms may come, we have a sure and certain hope that gives us purchase on the rock. Hold fast to the faith that is in you, knowing that Jesus said, “Even the hairs of your head are counted. Do not be afraid.”

Or to borrow the imagery of the psalmist, when all around begins to seem like deep mire, count on your relationship with God to provide the firm ground on which you can stand. Jesus did not promise you a life of no battles, but he did promise the victory.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

Click here to download a large-print PDF of this sermon.

Jesus refused to be scandalized, Proper 7 (A) – 2008

June 22, 2008

Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 (or Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69: 8-11 (12-17), 18-20)Romans 6:1b-11Matthew 10:24-39

According to the gospels, a big part of the ministry of Jesus was that he refused to be scandalized.

First, he refused to be scandalized by garden variety sinners. Indeed, he was often seen in company with them: prostitutes, who sold their bodies, for example; or tax collectors who ripped people off. He knew full well what they were up to; he didn’t countenance their behavior, but he didn’t reject them.

Nor was he scandalized by victims, by the losers in his world. These included the handicapped, the marginalized, all the literal and metaphorical lepers who were shunned by self-proclaimed “good people,” sometimes for reasons that appeared religious. With such victims he kept company, and he did what he could to help them.

Jesus wasn’t scandalized by any of these people. So, as a result, some people were scandalized by him. These were the authorities, the big shots, the self-proclaimed “good people.” They resented very much his refusal to be scandalized. For, you see, their world depended on some people being dismissed as rejects so that others could enjoy huge advantages. It was very much a win-lose system.

It’s too bad they acted that way. Besides doing harm to others, they did harm to themselves: they missed out on a blessing.

Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel we hear how John the Baptist, while still in prison, sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was indeed the expected messiah. It seems that John was starting to have doubts. Jesus sent the messengers back to John. They were to tell him what they had found out. Jesus was not scandalized by rejects; he was busy helping them. He met this messianic requirement. Then he added that blessed indeed is anyone who takes no offense at this, anyone not scandalized by what he was doing.

Jesus was not scandalized by sinners and victims. More than that, Jesus was not even scandalized by the victimizers. He knew what they were up to. He publicly criticized it, and he watched his back, but he was not shocked or surprised. He recognized that, like their victims, these victimizers lacked freedom. Their power, their prestige, their pride may have kept them ignorant, but they were enslaved by their own injustice. They have crashed, they have burned, but they simply did not know it.

Jesus refused to be scandalized. This scandalized others. They launched a conspiracy that carried Jesus to his death – and to resurrection.

What about his disciples – both his first followers and us? Jesus invites us not to be scandalized by anyone. And he warns us that by living in this way, we will scandalize other people, those who draw dividends from an unjust world.

Admittedly, Jesus is asking a lot of us. He tells us to buck the system big time. We are not to become players in the world’s most popular game, where people become either victim or victimizer, the one who rejects or the one rejected. Or to put it differently, the world lives in fear. They fear their enemies. If they appear to have none, they manufacture some. The game must go on.

Jesus tells us not have enemies. If others see us as theirs, that’s their problem, but we are not to treat them as enemies, as opponents, as effective threats. We are not to be scandalized by them. We are not to play that game.

Thus we do not permit others to define who we are. We refuse to travel this way of fear.

Instead, we accept the identity that comes to us from God. We are his children; we are of infinite value; we are free from the scandal system. And whether or not they know it, this identity is available to everyone else as well.

Accepting this is not easy. We have to die to the old way, the old identity, governed as it is by scandal and fear and death. We make this escape by being baptized into Christ. We live a life loyal to our baptism as we die repeatedly to the world’s way, to our old identities, to the trap of scandal and fear. We live in a way oriented to God, the One who sees us as his children, who graces us with life. This is the way of the cross: dying to the world of death that we may live the abundant life for which we exist.

To some, this life, with its demands for forgiveness, sounds impossible. Others imagine it as unbearably weak. The truth is just the opposite.

Forgiveness contains the strength of God. Forgiveness means we refuse to be imprisoned in the scandals of this world. We refuse to be remade by the evil done to us. We reject the stifling identity a win-lose world would thrust upon us. We accept instead our identity that comes from God. Because we are God’s children, manifesting the divine image and likeness, we are free not to be scandalized. We are able to forgive others, that they too may be free.

None of this is easy. But it’s the only way out of the darkness. It’s the only way into the light that waits to welcome us all.

What we are here for, on this Sunday morning in June, is to renew our commitment not to be caught by the scandal system, not to allow the world to define us. We are here to renew our discipleship.

It’s all quite subversive, of course. Today we celebrate how victimization and force do not have a future, that death doesn’t reign here any more. We rejoice, today and always, that we are beloved daughters and sons of the God of life, children of the resurrection.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).