9 Pentecost, Proper 14 (A) – 2014

Our faith inside the boat

August 10, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28and Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b (or 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Psalm 85:8-13)Romans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33

Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Jesus calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and sidetracked from keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. And if we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. If you do an Internet search on “walk on water,” you’ll get links to business consulting firms, fashion companies, science projects – all of them proponents of going the extra mile (another biblical phrase that’s gone mainstream). It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box,” “The early bird catches the worm,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.

But is that really what Jesus really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s really true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s really interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.

So I wonder if when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the church. And no wonder. Think of a ship, a vessel large enough that it takes a number of people doing diverse things to get it to move. A ship is a great symbol for the church. Moving through the waters on a gorgeous day can be simply glorious. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbor. Christians have long treasured this image of the church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.

In today’s lesson, Jesus makes the disciples, those who would follow him, get into a boat, and head out across the sea. The gospel says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.

But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Jesus doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their scriptures. Psalm 77 says, “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. … Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” In Job 9:8, God overcomes the powers of chaos, pictured as a stormy sea. It says, “God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”

If.

There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, beautiful, real Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”

If.

Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.

That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives them a promise – all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Jesus has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.

There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

 

The Transfiguration (A,B,C) – 2014

Who is Jesus to us?

August 6, 2014

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Each year, we hear the story of the Transfiguration twice – once on the last Sunday after Epiphany and again on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is a narrative common to all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Moses and Elijah, long-deceased prophets of Israel, appear on a mountain with Jesus, whose appearance has radically changed. All in front of the disciples, who don’t seem to know quite what to make of all this, with a voice that comes from a cloud proclaiming Jesus as the Beloved Son and a command to listen to him. Admittedly, it is a strange story – especially to our modern, enlightened, scientific culture. Rather than seek a rational understanding of the spectacular details in this story, it might be more helpful to consider why it is told rather than what is said.

The Transfiguration in Luke follows on the heels of four vignettes that frame the repeated question of Jesus’ identity. First, Jesus sends out the 12 disciples and gave them “power and authority” over all demons and to cure diseases. As Christians who know the rest of the story, we might never stop to think about the audacity of this act. Who does Jesus think he is to grant mere mortals the power and authority over demons and to cure disease? Luke’s original audience might have asked this question at this point in the story. Who does Jesus think he is? He tells them to take nothing for their journey – in other words, rely on God alone for the provision of your needs. The disciples do as Jesus commands them, and we hear they bring the good news throughout the villages and cure diseases everywhere.

The second vignette cuts to Herod the Tetrarch hearing about “all that had taken place,” and we hear he is perplexed about the identity of Jesus. The buzz in the street is that Elijah had appeared or one of the prophets of old had been raised from the dead. Herod knows this cannot be John the Baptist – he ordered John beheaded. Luke tells us Herod tried to see Jesus, but there is no indication he was ever able to arrange the meeting.

This perplexity of Herod and the introduction of the idea that Jesus might be Elijah returned sets the stage for the third vignette: the feeding of the 5,000. Here we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the meager offering of five loaves of bread and two fish. This feeding miracle is not directly linked to Elijah, but to his successor prophet Elisha, who, as recorded in the Second Book of Kings, fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread. This feeding miracle, preceded by the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain in Luke 7, is linking Jesus to these great prophets of ancient Israel. Could Jesus be one of these great prophets?

Now Jesus puts the question clearly to the disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

Who the crowds say that Jesus is has been set up by Luke’s narrative – he’s John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets arisen. But it is Peter who speaks the deeper reality: “You are the Christ of God.” While Peter says this, it is not clear that he or the disciples understand the full ramifications of what it means. Jesus continues on and tells them the Christ of God, the anointed one, must suffer and die at the hands of the very religious experts who claim to speak for God! This teaching just doesn’t make any sense to a first-century Jew – surely it perplexed the disciples.

It is after all of this that Luke tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus’ appearance was “transfigured” or, in Greek, “metamorphosed.” Instead, he says the appearance of Jesus’ face “changed,” which in Greek reads “became other.” Jesus’ face became different, and his clothing became dazzling white. This change in the appearance of Jesus’ face is reminiscent of the change in appearance of Moses’ face as he came down from Sinai, which continues the theme of Jesus being one of these ancient prophets. It is at this point our idea that Jesus is either Moses or Elijah is shattered when both of these ancient prophets appear with Jesus and begin to speak of Jesus’ departure – or, in Greek, “exodus” – which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. All three appear in glory as they speak of another exodus – an exodus through the suffering of the cross. Suddenly, the meaning of what it is to be the Christ of God is revealed as the veil is lifted for the disciples to see.

As Moses and Elijah depart, Peter, not really knowing what he was saying, blurts out his offer to build three booths: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. While Peter’s thinking was lacking clarity – cloudy, if you will – a cloud descends on the disciples and they enter the cloud filled with terror. They hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice interrupts Peter’s babblings about booths and brings clarity to all of the disciples: Jesus is no ordinary prophet. He is not just another great teacher. Jesus is the Son of God, the Chosen one, and this is why we are to listen to him.

The story of the Transfiguration is one that grounds the identity of Jesus as Son of God, but through the experience of suffering, death and resurrection. Luke’s narrative hints at the glory of the empty tomb, but only after Jesus says it will come through the darkness of suffering and death. The earthly trappings of glory – power, riches and fame – are not the same as the glory of God brought to us through the cross.

The Transfiguration is a story that calls us to face our understanding of Jesus’ identity: “Who is Jesus to me?” and “Who is Jesus to us?” And although we hear this story over and over, we still have trouble accepting a Christ of God whose glory comes through suffering and death.

After 2,000 years, we still resist this message! Our cultural trappings around Christianity have distorted his glory as being grounded in something other than his suffering, death and resurrection. We are tempted to wrap Jesus in all kinds of false messages, because glory through suffering still makes no sense. We see evidence of this when we hear Jesus wrapped in nationalism by those who claim we are a “Christian nation” and attempt to enshrine biblical interpretation in secular law. We see it in the claims of prosperity from theologians who claim that all God wants to do is to bless you with more wealth and privilege, and imply that if you do not receive these blessings, it is because you are not “right with the Lord.” All of these false messages of glory through something other than the cross are false teachings. But they are persistent because God’s glory revealed through death and resurrection just does not make rational sense.

But just because something is not rational does not mean it is not real.

We may, like the disciples, see only brief glimpses of God’s glory in this life, while other worldly claims seem more prevalent. But our call as Christians is to see through false claims of earthly glory. We are to face the cross, its suffering and death, trusting that a resurrected life in God lies beyond.

Who do we say Jesus is? He is the crucified one with whom we are joined in baptism in a life where suffering and death happen, but are not the last word.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

8 Pentecost, Proper 13 (A) – 2014

The power of interruptions

August 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 16 (or Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22)Romans 9:1-5Matthew 14:13-21

Have you ever noticed that wherever food is present, Jesus is there?

As often as he was praying, he was sharing food.

Late in his ministry, he even identified himself with bread and wine – staples in the Mediterranean diet, then as now.

Food: It nourishes, brings pleasure and comfort, fills us up – sometimes makes us too full.

Without food, we are cranky, confused. We might lose our way, become disoriented, lose balance.

Food: It’s basic, necessary, essential.

When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they were given manna for food: nothing fancy, just filling. The people became so bored eating manna day after day that they complained to God; and yet, they were fed.

Today’s gospel tells another story of food – lots of food. There is so much food, that they have some left over!

This isn’t a banquet like the wedding of Cana story in John’s gospel, but food to tide one over, food for a journey, simple food: bread and fish. This isn’t even a meal, really. It is food to just get by. The food of our gospel story is basic fill-the-hole-in-your-stomach food, something to take the edge off, something for survival.

The people on that hillside long ago were not friends and family gathered for an occasion, so much as people who wandered away from home, seeking Jesus.

We know the story as “The Feeding of the 5,000,” one of the miracles of Jesus. Those of us either enlightened or listening closely know that it was actually many more than 5,000: the count was taken of men, “besides women and children.” How many would that be altogether, do you think?

So: Did it really happen as Matthew records? Where did the food come from? What did they do with the 12 baskets of leftovers?

Questions like these are so often the focus of discussion of this story. But is this even what the story is about?

There are many ideas about this story, many theories about this, from the conviction that it was an outright miracle of Jesus producing multiple and more-than-sufficient fishes and loaves, to the idea that the people produced the food from their satchels when prodded to share.

There is really no way to know. But this may not be the point of the story. And however it happened, is this really a story about food?

Consider again the story we have of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel: “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a lonely place apart.” What we’re not told in reading just today’s portion is that he was in a boat, withdrawing, because he had just learned of John’s death. John, his cousin, John who had baptized him.

It wasn’t the best of times for Jesus. He was trying to get a moment of peace.

And according to the gospel, when the crowds heard that he was near, that he was drawing apart, “they followed him on foot from the towns.”

So he fed the crowds, and after he dismissed the people, he again went off by himself.

He set out to do one thing: to get some space and some time away. This proved to be difficult for him, as we read in today’s story.

Is this familiar to you?

Rest, time apart, a few minutes alone, a break, some space – it’s something that we all seek at the end of a busy day, at the close of a tiring week.

Jesus was interrupted and responded, and then went on with what he was doing.

Parents recognize this dynamic, and so do clergy. People with demanding jobs, family obligations, social responsibilities – this dynamic is likely familiar to all of us. We get involved in what we’re doing, and we don’t want to be interrupted or distracted, and so we ignore what is nudging us for attention.

Several years back there was a series of television commercials sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. There was one in particular which showed different scenes of children wanting attention: “Look what I made in school today!” and “I brought you flowers!” There was another one of a dog wanting attention from family members, and people wanting attention and to spend time with others. In each case, people were distracted, busy, un-interruptable. In each instance, the one seeking attention and time was “filled with joy and wonder in all God’s works,” what we pray for as a gift for the newly baptized.

In each case, the one seeking attention is ignored, put off.

In each case, it is an opportunity for ministry, for witness to the loving grace of God, missed.

This is, perhaps, one of the most challenging aspects of life: the constant interruptions and inconvenience of answering a call and still trying to get anything done.

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “I didn’t get anything done today”? Think, though: Didn’t you see some people, make some phone calls, run an errand, send an email?

Even within the interruptions there can be interruptions: You’re in a hurry to get out of the house, and you can’t find your keys; you find your keys, lock the door, and the telephone rings; as you’re rushing to your meeting, you realize that the car is out of gas, and then you remember that you have no money because you forgot to stop by the bank. And so it goes. Have you ever had an experience like that?

Such moments leave us vulnerable to a breaking-in of the Holy Spirit. Each point is a chance to find something lost, to greet a stranger, to learn something new.

In short, it is an opportunity for grace, a chance to bear witness to the Christ in our midst, with all that that means.

Jesus withdrew and was constantly interrupted by people clamoring for attention: Teach us! Heal us! Give us food! Prove yourself!

Lest you be tempted to think of ministry as limited to ordained ministry, those on the altar guild know there is always someone wanting something, right? Parents with children are used to being asked for attention, yes? You might be driving somewhere and stop to loan jumper cables, or walking down the aisle at the grocery store you pick up a dropped box of cereal, return lost coupons or a shopping list. A stranger might ask you for directions as you’re headed back to your office, or the passenger next to you on an airplane is nervous about flying when you had hoped to settle in for a nap.

These are the kinds of experiences common to all of us. A compassionate response, a helpful effort, ministry, happens in the interruptions.

You may like it, you may not – you probably experience a bit of each – but be on the lookout for such interruptions, because there may be something important happening.

We tend to think of interruptions as limited opportunities, small moments, but like the tiny mustard seed of last week’s gospel, such interruptions can grow into something we never imagined.

The gospel parables of last week – the mustard seed, the pearl of great price, and so on – all these are stories of God’s abundance. So also is this story of feeding many.

Jesus sought time apart, time for himself, quiet time. He was interrupted. And his response? With grace and care, he healed the sick, and he somehow found food for the hungry. However it happened, all were fed. Five thousand men – not counting women and children, of course!

The faithful response to interruption models Jesus in a plentitude of grace.

Yes, the story is about food. Consider, though: It is also about interruption, about blessing, about goodwill, about possibility.

Jesus fed not only their bodies, but their spirits.

This is the message of our gospel story: Allow for interruptions as opportunities to show Christ in the world.

A joyous and generous response to a bothersome interruption is one of the great challenges – and opportunities – of the Christian life.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

 

7 Pentecost, Proper 12 (A) – 2014

Finding value in what others overlook

July 27, 2014

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In the Finger Lakes region of central New York, you can find a delicious and unique treat: concord grape pie. Like many other places in the United States, there are a variety of bakeries and shops in the small towns nestled among the winding roads. They sell all sorts of pies, but grape pie is a specialty. It makes sense, especially given all the vineyards in the Finger Lakes region. So why not make wine and pie?

Vineyards are everywhere. Rows and rows of grape vines next to rows and rows of corn and other crops. So neat and orderly looking – quite pretty. Quite predictable, except for the weeds, of course. You never know where or when they’re going to show up. Just like we can never predict how the Kingdom of God will show up.

Take, for example, the parable of the mustard seed that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. What we may not know today, but what the early listeners would have most likely understood, is that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed. Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a plant that will constantly and inevitably keep growing and spreading. Have you ever seen ivy on an old house, taking it over completely? Now there’s a visual. That’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

But that’s the endgame. Jesus’ point is that the beginnings of the Kingdom are tiny. The Kingdom of God starts small and unnoticeable. But when the Kingdom comes into its own, it is everywhere, and you can’t miss it. We are part of that growth, part of that kingdom, whether anyone recognizes us for what we are or not. The most important thing is that God knows.

Jesus does not stop there in our gospel lesson today. He gives even more parables – more stories of ordinary things that possibly have extraordinary meanings. Parables like these should be wrestled with.

In his book “The Parables of the Kingdom,” C.H. Dodd wrote:

“At its simplest, a parable is a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or the common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

So, what else do our parables tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven? It says in the gospel that it is like yeast that a woman mixes with flour to make huge amounts of dough – enough for an entire wedding feast. In Jesus’ time, leavening was something that people understood in scripture as unclean or evil. Unlike the convenient packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients. The Kingdom of Heaven is being modeled after something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life. And yet, God makes it good.

The Kingdom of Heaven is also like a treasure hidden in a field that makes a person sell all they have in order to buy the field that the treasure is in. It is like a pearl of great price that makes the merchant sell all he had in order to have just that one pearl. How valuable is the Kingdom of Heaven? What would you give up everything to possess? Would possession be worth the sacrifice?

The Kingdom of Heaven in your part of God’s vineyard is like … . You fill in the blank.

What is valuable in God’s Kingdom, others may see as junk. How often do we buy into the attitude that on Sundays we carry Jesus in our pocket and take him out for a while, only to put him back in as soon as we leave the parking lot? We get settled in our daily lives the rest of the week and forget whom it is we follow. We might think, “Oh I’m just part of a little church. We can’t do much, so why bother?”

As Lou F. McNeil in his essay on Christianity in Appalachia puts it, “When one’s thinking begins with the parish and its members, rather than the gospel itself, it is likely that ministry and planning will not get beyond the parish and its membership.”

Why bother indeed? Except that God bothers. Then God asks us to bother more than we want.

Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom starts out small like a mustard seed and grows into a tree that shelters and nurtures life around it. When that small mustard seed starts growing, it has an advantage, because it can grow in and around the landscape, sheltering those beneath it and giving a place to perch for those above it. This, too, is how the gospel is spread in neighborhoods where churches discern which leaf to unfurl in their present landscape. A little branch here, a little branch there, and suddenly the place is alive with people in the neighborhood being nurtured by the spread of the gospel.

God’s gifts are unexpected, but they are so vast that they require a response. Do we give up our self-centered attitudes and everything else for the Good News of the gospel? That’s a question that will take a lifetime to answer and is easier said than done.

Sometimes we don’t know what to do with the section of God’s Kingdom that we’ve been given. Even right now, we are in flux – we don’t know what the future holds for the church. But even in that unknowing, we have an advocate – the Holy Spirit – that helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. As Paul says in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It might not look like what we think it should look like, but God knows better.

We must trust God. The God that uses what others think is unusable. The God that calls us to love others with reckless abandon. The God that sees in us what others cannot see. By living this way, we become of what the Kingdom of Heaven is made.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is an Episcopal priest serving in the Diocese of Olympia. She is also becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist.

6 Pentecost, Proper 11 (A) – 2014

Groaning: The soundtrack of creation

July 20, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17); Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

If you go into any gym and find the section where people are pumping iron, you will hear a lot of grunting and groaning. Weightlifters often groan. They groan as they strain to push weights off of their chests, or over their heads, or pull and heave them off the floor.

Engines straining also groan. If you strap a heavy trailer to a pickup truck and point it uphill, you will hear the engine groan. Gears push against gears, the engine revs, and the truck groans as it strains forward.

This is the sound of creation. Groaning is the sound of creation. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”

This is a vivid image. Perhaps it isn’t such a fantastic metaphor for women who have actually experienced labor pains, but it reminds us of the difficult work of creation. That work can be hard. That work can be groan-inducing.

Groaning happens in a gap – a gap between what we are trying to do and what we hope to do. Groaning reminds us that the time spent in the gap between what is and what could be is a place of hard work.

Our readings from the New Testament today are about living in this gap. We hear about the gap between creation as God intends and wills it, and where we are now. Paul describes how to, somehow, live in optimism and hope in a world that so often doesn’t fulfill what God has promised to us. He calls this life in the Spirit. Paul’s whole ministry, in a way, was driven to close this gap.

Paul felt that he had seen the fulfillment of creation in Jesus, he knew that fulfillment was within reach. He also knew the communities he preached to still lived with injustice, war, poverty and suffering. He knows both the glory that is to come and the very present sufferings of the present time.

He exhorts the Christians in Rome to live in the Spirit, because he also sees the glory that is just beyond the gap. A life in the Spirit is a life characterized by the confidence that through Christ we have been freed from all the things that can increase our suffering. A life in the Spirit is a life lived free of hatred and violence, and instead filled with joy and reconciliation. A life in the Spirit is a way to live in the gap between what is and what shall be, in joyful exertion, not in desperation.

The gospel parable also speaks to life in the gap. The Reign of God – a reign that Jesus preached was here and now – is described as glorious. Jesus compares it to a grain field. A field of grain is the source of not just one loaf of bread, but an abundance of bread. This is an image of an abundance of what was, and for many still is, the basic food, the basic source of life. Yet, in the midst of this vision of an abundant life, there are weeds. The weeds gum up the works. They cannot be removed easily. The parable today is about having to wait in the gap – in a world of both abundance and weeds. The parable is there to comfort those who live in the gap with the assurance that at the end, the weeds will not ruin the harvest.

It is extremely difficult to live in a gap. It is difficult to see the glory beyond the horizon and still live in a place that is not yet fully glorified. The first Christians must have felt this very strongly. Those who actually knew Jesus had known in their minds and felt in their souls the goodness and love of God in creation, the Reign of God in the here and now. Paul had seen the glory of the risen Christ, and his conviction, faith and excitement must have filled the minds and souls of the people in the churches he planted. Yet, just outside the door of each house church, every time the communion meal ended and people returned to their lives, they were confronted by the realities of a world that did not meet that vision.

The parables Jesus told about the end of time, the words Paul gave to his communities, were written to help those communities understand and overcome the gap between what is and what ought to be.

They are also words written for today. Christians still live in the gap. Many know the feeling of God’s love and have experienced it in their lives. Many have seen it in grand acts of compassion and small daily acts of kindness. Christians rejoice when justice triumphs and celebrate when sickness turns to health. These are signs of the Reign of God come near. Yet, people everywhere also wake daily to news of war and rumors of war, of violence in homes and communities, of soul-crushing poverty in every country, of injustice, and all the many ways the dignity inherent in every person is neglected.

As Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, Christians are reminded now – we do not hope based on what we see. Christian hope is based on the confidence and assurance that the risen Christ is present in the world, bringing all things to what they are meant to be, closing the gap. God’s focus is on closing the gap between what is and what ought to be. This is the work of God from the beginning of creation. To be Christian is to join in this work, for all people are children of God, part of that creation coming into being.

The way to join in this work is to live a life in the Spirit. This isn’t a life that tries to ignore the gap. It is a life that can stride confidently into the gap – angered at injustice, grieving at suffering, striving and straining and groaning.

Groaning is the soundtrack of creation. It is the sound of the gap closing, of the Spirit overcoming resistance. Life in the Spirit strains and groans to close the gap. It is a good, honest groaning, the soundtrack of what will be coming into being.

Life in the Spirit is a life that closes the gap between the weight on the chest and the weight lifted high and triumphantly overhead. Life in the Spirit closes the gap between the engine straining against the gears and finally reaching full speed, running like a well-oiled machine.

Christians are to be gap closers. Christians are to see the distance between what should be and what is, and strain, and heave, and work, and lift to close that gap. It may be necessary to groan, but the groans sing the soundtrack of creation.

May we stay true in the struggle, groaning if need be, laughing at our groaning when we can. The gap is closing, let us hear the soundtrack of creation as we raise our voices in work and strain and joy.

 

— The Rev. Matt Seddon is an archaeologist-turned-priest who focuses on multicultural ministry, social justice and care for our environment. As of this sermon he is living in a gap. He is currently transitioning from serving as vicar to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in West Valley City, Utah, to serving as priest-in-charge for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.

5 Pentecost, Proper 10 (A) – 2014

Sowing the Word of God

July 13, 2014

Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112 [or Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14]; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9)

We don’t often think of it, but of all the New Testament literature, St. Paul’s letters are the oldest sources we have about Jesus – predating the gospels by a couple of decades. And Paul writes that for those who are “in Christ,” and “Christ is in them,” “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This ought to strike us as an astonishing assertion. Not something we should take for granted.

And we might ask, just how does this “Spirit of God,” this Christ, come to dwell in us?

“Us” is the key word here, since St. Paul writes in the plural – something the English translation cannot indicate. Paul rarely speaks of an individual’s relationship to Christ. He speaks almost exclusively of the individual in the context of the faith community – the community of Christ’s Body, the priesthood of all believers. How does Christ and the Spirit of God come to “dwell in us”?

Along comes the Parable of the Sower, rich with varied depths of meanings to help us see just what things, as our collect for today urges, we “ought to do,” and just how we might find ourselves equipped with the “grace and power to accomplish them,” and which things very well may prepare ourselves as a community to receive Christ and the Spirit of God into our midst – so that God’s spirit might “dwell” among us, a technical word in the Greek for pitching a tent, setting up shop, moving into a neighborhood.

And the first thing we might notice is the repetition, “A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed … .” That is, this is no random person scattering seed, hoping gravity and good luck will take care of the rest. This sower is sowing, which points to a practiced skill. This seed goes where it is supposed to go. No soil is left bare. No soil is overplanted. Yet, even with such a sower, some seed lands on the road, or on stones, or among thorns.

Vincent van Gogh, a 19th-century Dutch artist, understood this. He understood that the seeds were God’s Word of the Kingdom – and van Gogh knew, as we all know, that Christ is God’s Word of the Kingdom. Christ, the Word of God’s Kingdom, came to proclaim a message: I will set you free; I won’t let you be anything but holy, good and free.

Now what most people do not know is that the young van Gogh set off to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Protestant pastor. He spent some years evangelizing, bringing this good news of God’s Word to the poor, beginning with mine workers in Borinage, Belgium. During this time he was able to identify with the miners, their families and their lifestyles. His religious beliefs made him want to alleviate spiritual and physical suffering.

Only later did he turn to painting as another way to express his desire to bring people closer to God, closer to each other and closer to themselves. In 1888 he painted “The Sower,” an important work in the history of art, and surely a scene related to our story here in Matthew. One sees the sower, practiced in the art of sowing, deliberately planting the seed in the soil. For van Gogh the color yellow symbolized faith, triumph and love. The color blue represented the divine – and so he combines these colors so they seem to move together, showing the relationship of all living things. And there is something holy, good and free in the figure of “The Sower” – who, in the parable, of course, is God in Christ planting the Good News of God’s Kingdom in the soil of our hearts.

And the very thought that this seed, the Word of God, could yield a hundredfold would be heard by the farmers and fishermen Jesus addresses as simply fantastic! No seed known yields such bounty. Maybe tenfold, twentyfold or even thirtyfold, but 60 or 100 is unprecedented, unknown – simply unimaginable! We are meant to respond with awe that God’s Word possesses such grace and power. We are meant to want this Word planted in the soil of our own hearts, where we can tend to it, hear it, and be transformed a hundredfold ourselves. What a truly awesome gift from an awesome God.

Of course, the dangers of not tending to it are outlined. It is a parable of self-analysis: Are we fertile, well-tilled, deeply mulched soil? Or are we rocky ground? Do we welcome and make opportunities to tend to God’s Word every day? Or do we spend more time tending to the thorns of wealth and the cares of the world, such that the Word yields nothing?

Many who first heard Jesus tell this story figured out its meaning: We are the soil, the seed of God’s Word comes to rest in us, and for those who till and water and mulch and care for God’s Word, we become sowers of the Word ourselves – like the young Vincent van Gogh, like St. Paul, like the fishermen, tenant farmers, soldiers and others who first heard this story.

Like the skilled sower, may we become more practiced in letting the Word take root in our lives so we might begin to feel and to know that what St. Paul says is true: “We are in the Spirit, God’s Spirit dwells in us.”

God’s son Jesus desires to pitch his tent and plant his Word in our hearts and minds and souls so that we might truly become holy, good and free!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

4 Pentecost, Proper 9 (A) – 2014

The yoke that fits

July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Psalm 45: 11-18 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (or Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 145: 8-15); Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel is quite a contrast to what we’ve been hearing Jesus say lately. For most of the last few weeks, Jesus has been talking about the cost of discipleship – the certainty of persecution, conflict, suffering and painful division for those who choose to follow him. “Leave it all behind, pick up your cross, give up your life for my sake.” Strong stuff like that.

Today his tone changes, and Jesus is all sweetness and light – promising rest and comfort, light burdens and easy yokes. This is more like it. Gentle masters are much more to our liking – if we must have masters at all. But Jesus’ words are a little more complex than they seem.

First of all, the primary thrust of what Jesus is saying here is not directed toward people who have just any kind of difficulty. By “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” or an older translation, “who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus doesn’t primarily mean folks with ordinary problems – such as too many bills, or being unemployed, or sick, or having ungrateful kids, a hard life, or whatever. Jesus has all sorts of things to say about stuff like that, but that’s not what he’s talking about here. Here, Jesus is talking quite specifically to and about those who are on a religious quest – those who are seeking God, and relationship with God. He is calling to himself the religiously exhausted – those who, like Paul was just saying, have tried all of the usual ways of finding some peace with the divine and have achieved only frustration.

The real clue to this is the fact that a yoke was the common symbol for the Law of Moses, especially for the details of the law and the minute, ever-expanding demands of the legalism of the Pharisees. In fact, this is the main way the rabbis used the word “yoke” allegorically.

Also, we need to remember here that here Matthew is presenting an exaggerated picture of the Pharisees – most of them were not nearly this bad; many were not bad at all; but there were enough jerks to justify this caricature.

This is why Jesus says that the wise and intelligent  – that is, the religious leaders – have missed the point. He then adds that only the Son – not those leaders, and not you, and not anyone else, only the Son – knows the Father.

The yoke of the Pharisees, their demands that you have to do this and this and this exactly right in order to matter to God, in order to be a decent person, in order to be loved or counted significant – that yoke Jesus rejects, even though it was the yoke of the wise and intelligent.

That yoke, the yoke of seeking God by keeping the rules, by doing what somebody or anybody or everybody else says is the thing to do, by trying to get it right all the time and so living constantly in fear of getting it wrong, that yoke leads those who wear it to “labor and be heavy laden.” It leads to living in what Paul just called “this body of death.” It leads to a religion and a life of fearful obedience to a multitude of petty dictates where the spirit is deadened, and where some measure of success is more likely to lead you into self-righteousness than into the heart of God.

To say to your child, or a friend, or your spouse, or anyone, really, “I will only love you if you do right,” is to ensure a sick and twisted relationship. It hurts everybody involved.

To teach that God says this is not only terrible theology, it can also be devastating. Yet the yoke of the Law, at its worst, did just that. Those who, like Paul, struggled under such a yoke discovered that it didn’t fit; that it didn’t bring them to God; that it didn’t enrich their lives. Yokes like that never do.

To go scurrying about with the notion that if we could only figure out the right thing to do – the right way to act, the right words to say, the right way to do the rituals – then we would be all right, is to skate on the edge of magic, as if we could conjure up God’s acceptance. It will only ensure frustration and exhaustion. God’s presence with us and God’s love for us are never the results of our actions. He is in charge; we are not.

In response to all of this, Jesus says, “Come to me.”

Not to a new law, not to a new teaching, not to a secret interpretation or a hidden loophole, not to a book, not to a list; but “to me.” Come to Jesus himself.

In essence, Jesus is saying, “If you seek God; if you seek his love; if you seek a life that makes some sense; if you want a way of understanding the world that allows you to deal honestly with what happens and not be destroyed; if you want to be who you are created to be – if you want this, then come to me.”

It’s a call to relationship – to relationship with Jesus and to relationship with the community that continues Jesus’ life and ministry.

The alternatives, then and now, will fail. He will not. Remember today’s collect, in which we are reminded that God has taught us that all the commandments are kept by loving God and our neighbor. Such is the yoke of Christ. And since this yoke has to do with these commandments to love, the folks who seriously take that yoke upon themselves usually find that it is shaped very much like a cross.

One more thing: In many translations, Jesus calls his yoke “easy.” Now, that’s an unfortunate English word; it makes it sound like everything’s a snap, that very little effort or energy is required to do it. And as anyone who has tried to live the life of Jesus knows, that’s just not true. The New English Bible’s translation is better: It reads, “My yoke is good to bear.”

The point is not that this yoke, the Lord’s call to relationship, makes no difference or asks nothing of us – quite the contrary. The point is that it fits, it’s the right size, so it works – it leads to God, and it brings with it wholeness and a peace that can be found nowhere else.

To come to him is to discover that what can seem a frantic and desperate task – life with God – is, in fact, not an earned reward, but a free gift. To come to him is to discover, as Paul discovered, that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” To come to him is to discover that the task of getting it all correct is replaced by the absolute gift of God’s grace, and our grateful response to that gift.

All the strong stuff we’ve been hearing the past few weeks about the cost of discipleship is still very much there. But the yoke is good to bear. It leads to life. To put it on is to be embraced by God’s mercy – to carry it is to fulfill both God’s will and our own deepest humanity.

We are called to this new yoke, not to a law, or to a set of rules, but to a person and a community built around that person. And in this the religious quest – the greatest journey of human existence – can find its richest fulfillment, and its deepest satisfaction.

Jesus said, “Come to me if you seek God, if you seek life, I will give you rest.”

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. 

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

 

3 Pentecost, Proper 8 (A) – 2014

God of Vengeance or God of Love?

June 29, 2014

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

We have in today’s readings some very difficult texts.

First, the frightening passage from Genesis, where God tests Abraham. The idea that God would demand that Abraham sacrifice his own son is so terrifying to us that the compilers of our lectionary removed this passage from its more prominent position as part of the Good Friday liturgy. It raises many questions – difficult questions – including who would want to worship a God who makes such outrageous demands?

Then, we have Psalm 13: “Will you forget me for ever, O God?” As we sing this psalm, are we to have perplexity in our minds and grief in our hearts? Are we to cower in fright because our enemy triumphs over us again and again? The psalm does go on to express trust in God, but, honestly, who wants to deal with a God who hides his face from us?

And the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a treatise on sin. The Blessed Apostle depicts sin as the opposite of obedience to God. Our catechism refers to sin as distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation – that’s not exactly the same thing. Because obedience to God, well, that takes us back to the first lesson – and who wants to be obedient to a God who makes such outrageous demands?

Author Phyllis Tribble has referred to biblical passages such as this as “texts of terror.”

But, like it or not, these are part of our sacred scripture, facets of the God revealed to us in the Holy Bible.

For most of us in the Episcopal Church – and even the wider Anglican Communion – ignoring these texts is something of a lifelong devotional practice. It is far, far easier to look away than to confront the painful reality of such texts of terror, isn’t it?

But we are challenged to reconcile the violence in the Bible with the idea of a loving God, and so we tend to concentrate more on the many passages where God is depicted as loving, as nurturing, as caring.

And, fortunately, the scales are tipped from violence to love in the transition from the Old Testament to the New.

The gospels and the New Testament are not entirely devoid of violence, but – on the whole – they depict a God of love much more than a God of vengeance.

The opposite is true of the Old Testament. It’s full of violence – much like the world in which we live.

Regardless of how much or how little violence there is in our biblical narrative week by week, we struggle with it.

Even in today’s gospel passage, Jesus is hardly unconditionally affirming. Let’s examine that more closely.

He speaks of rewards – for prophets, for the righteous. And he speaks of people who lose their reward.

If the reward is eternal life, who wouldn’t be concerned about losing that? And doesn’t it make us scared to think we could lose it?

And the passages right before today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel have even more terrifying concerns: about sending us out like sheep into the midst of wolves, about being flogged, about being persecuted, and about losing our life for Christ’s sake so that we can find it. Jesus also says that whoever denies him before others, he also will deny before God in heaven. Ouch.

But Jesus also says, paraphrasing slightly, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me … and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, these will definitely have their reward.”

Maybe that’s what we should concentrate on: welcome.

Not fear, not violence, not vengeance – but welcome, acceptance and love.

The world has had enough of retribution.

The world has had enough of aggression.

The world has had enough of terror.

And the Bible’s had more than its fair share of all of these – because the Bible is about the journey of humankind almost as much as it is about God.

So, maybe one lesson to learn from all this is about free will: your choice, my choice, our choice.

Because we are all created in the image of God, we are free to make choices.

Free to choose love, free to create, free to live in harmony, free to reason.

And there’s a flip side to that: We are also free to hate, free to kill, free to foster discord, and free to deny the good sense given us.

Abraham could have said, “No, I will not sacrifice my only son!” to God, but he chose to be obedient. And God spares Isaac.

The psalmist could have cried, “I don’t trust you, O God,” but instead choses to praise God. And God responds with saving help.

Paul could have insisted that “we should sin because are no longer under the law,” but instead proclaims our true freedom in righteousness. And God gives us the free gift of eternal life.

It makes you wonder: If we get all these blessings for behaving badly, how much must God love us?

The answer, of course, is infinitely, without bounds, reservation or qualification of any kind.

God loves us enough to overlook our wrongdoings.

God loves us enough to pardon our offenses.

God loves us enough to forgive.

And, so, how are we to respond? With hatred, malice, fear and prejudice? Or with love, forgiveness, mercy and faith?

The answer is clear.

We are given a choice. It’s up to each and every one of us, each and every day we live.

We can seek to oppress and control others, to amass power and wealth and to serve the demons of this world.

Or we can do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

We can affirm the goodness of creation – as told in the creation story in Genesis.

And, following the teaching of Jesus, we can welcome the stranger – offering not just hospitality but acceptance without judgment, giving without obligation and love without condition.

It’s a choice.

So let us choose life. Let us choose justice. Let us choose to offer a cup of cold water to one of those little ones in the name of God.

Let us put our trust in God’s mercy; and our hearts will be joyful because of God’s saving help. We will sing to the Holy One, who has dealt with us richly; through our ongoing choice for good, we will praise the Name of God Most High.

 

— Barrie Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montclair, N.J. 

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

2 Pentecost, Proper 7 (A) – 2014

Facing battles with the promise of victory

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.

Trinity Sunday (A) – 2014

A glowing oven full of love

June 15, 2014

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8 or Canticle 2 or 13; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Well, friends, today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the church year when we ponder the mystery of the Triune God, how God is Three in One and One in Three.

It is also the day when, throughout the world, rectors usually decide that it is a good Sunday for their assistants to preach.

Ask your average assistant pastor, and he or she will probably tell you his or her files contain several Trinity Sunday sermons, along with several on Doubting Thomas, John the Baptist calling people a brood of vipers, and Jesus saying if you don’t hate your father and mother you cannot be his disciple. And this, ironically, is too bad for the rectors! They are missing out on a great opportunity.

Some of the most creative and important theology being done today is about the Trinity – about how the Trinity helps us to understand ourselves, our place in the world, and our relationship to God. Perhaps this doesn’t rise to the level of “a best-kept secret,” but it does sometimes surprise people to find out how much the Trinity influences Christian thought today.

Because this is an area of research that is rapidly expanding, we can only focus on one major insight today. There is a lot more to be said, but there will be other Trinity Sundays and a lot of assistant pastors scheduled to preach.

So the major point about the Trinity to lift up this morning is this: God is social, and so are we.

Martin Luther once said, “God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.” And if God is love, then God cannot exist is isolation. Think about it. To love is to be in relationship, and to love perfectly is to be in eternal relationship. If God is perfect love, then God must be social.

God is not some simple, solitary, isolated, individual being. God is not some kind of Wizard of Oz hiding out behind the curtain of the stars. God is not personal in that sense. That’s anthropomorphic. Rather, God is personal in the sense that God is the love that creates, redeems and sustains everything that exists. The life of God is like a divine dance of persons in love from which sparks fly, the love that moves the sun and the other stars. At the heart of the universe is the divine dance of persons in love, and if God is the love that creates and reconciles and transforms all that exists, then God must be relational in God’s essence. So when we say that God is Trinity, it is a way of saying that God is love, nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love, a love that overflows into all of creation.

Now, if God is social, then we are social too. If we are created in the image and likeness of the Triune God, then we are also created to be in loving relationships. Now, this is actually quite a radical statement because it runs counter to the pervasive individualism of our culture. Whether or not we are still living in the Me Generation, many folks, philosophers and theologians, have noted that the rampant individualism of our society is one of the greatest problems facing us today.

In his book “God in Public,” Mark Toulouse writes:

“Personal success and consumption have become the primary ends of American life. Even religion has become a competitive item for sale. As Carlyle Marney used to say Americans are addicted to salvation by successing. This statement might today be altered to include salvation by consuming. The pursuit of private gain has become the great American sport in all walks of life.”

And this is bad. It is bad not only for society, but it is also bad for people themselves. The loneliness and isolation and despair that are so prevalent in our society stem from this view of people as isolated, individual selves.

But the doctrine of the Trinity tells a different story. It tells us that we are created for loving relationships. We are hard-wired for relationships of mutual fellowship and love.

Did you know that many scientists are also saying that we are hard-wired for social connections? In an article on trust in the Harvard Business Review in 2009, Roderick Kramer wrote:

“Within one hour of birth, a human infant will draw her head back to look into the eyes and face of the person gazing at her. Within a few more hours, the infant will orient her head in the direction of her mother’s voice. And, unbelievable as it may seem, it’s only a matter of hours before the infant can actually mimic a caretaker’s expressions. A baby’s mother, in turn, responds and mimics her child’s expressions and emotions within seconds. In short, we’re social beings from the get-go: We’re born to be engaged and to engage others.”

Now this is really amazing, but it really ought not to be all that surprising if God is love. The Triune God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love. That love has created us and redeemed us and sustains us. Our life, our breath, our very existence is a gift. When we enter into loving relationships, we not only find our truest and deepest selves, but we also find God, because we are created in the image of the Triune God.

God is social, and so are we. The divine life is a dance party. When we join the party, when we enter into loving relationships, then we participate in the very life of the Triune God, in whom we live and move and have our being. We are created to participate in God’s love, and we are created to share that love with others.

Here’s how Miroslav Volf puts it in his book “Free of Charge”:

“The flow of gifts is God’s arms opened to the world, enabling us to partake of the gift exchange that makes up eternal divine life and supreme bliss. … The purpose of the outbound flow of God’s gifts is for us to receive living water from God’s eternal source, and to thereby come to mirror among ourselves the loving gift exchange of [God].”

If God is love, then the purpose of human life is to participate in that love, and to share that love with others. That is why, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This may be the key to the universe.

God is love. Participate in that love. Share that love.

So God is social, and so are we. God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love, and we are created to participate in that love and to share that love. These insights that come from thinking about the Trinity could really transform how we think about God and ourselves and our place in the world.

A theologian and priest recalls that when he was teaching, students would often say things to him along the lines of “I just can’t believe in a God who sits up there in heaven and allows all the terrible things that happen in the world.” And his usual response was to say, “Well, neither do I.” This surprised many students, who seemed to think that priests are somehow contractually obligated to defend God at all times. But their view of God as some kind of aloof Wizard of Oz hanging out alone behind the curtain of the stars is not worth defending. More importantly, it is not the God we know who poured himself out completely for us on the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Trinity is a way of saying, that costly love, that vulnerable love, that suffering love that we know in Christ, that love that continues in the new life given to us in the Spirit is who God most truly, most fully is. God is Emmanuel, “God with us” and for us, who suffers with us and for us, not hanging out in some far corner of the universe watching all the pain and sorrow of the world, but rather hanging on the cross for us and for our salvation.

The Trinity, at its heart, is a way of pointing to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new life that comes from this, and saying that is what God is most truly like. The love that moves the sun and the other stars is the same love that poured itself out for in the self-giving love of Jesus. God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love. And if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we are to find our true selves not in being aloof and alone and apart and above it all, but rather in giving of ourselves away in love, in our vulnerable and suffering hearts, and in all those ways we are with and for one another.

God is social, and so are we.

God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.

We are created to participate in and share that love.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

 

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