The Wrong People

Sermon for Sunday, October 22, 2017 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:15-22

Imagine with me the thoughts of a nameless Pharisee, one in the party that seek to trap Jesus with their questions during the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, while he’s teaching daily in the temple.

All week Jesus had been speaking out against us Pharisees. He did it subtle like, not taking it to us directly, but talking in riddles and stories. Stories about vineyards and tenants and weddings and guests, and at the end of them, we took umbrage because all the wrong people got rewarded in his stories. They were insidious, those stories; they rattled around in my head, making up pictures in an incomplete vision that competed with the one I had always been shown. I kept quiet around my brethren that week, lest I let slip the confession that Jesus fascinated me, despite – or maybe because of – his puzzling and radical rhetoric. Continue reading “The Wrong People”

Albums and Playlists

Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2017 || Proper 23A || Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

People don’t listen to albums anymore. In the age of digital music and playlists and Pandora and Spotify, you can tailor your listening experience exactly the way you want to. Don’t like a particular song? Don’t download it, or at least uncheck it from the list being exported to your device. Now the observation that people don’t listen to albums anymore is not new; the music industry has been in flux since I was a teenager when the invention of the mp3 changed all the rules.

But such an observation struck me recently when I went to YouTube and watched the new tour of one of my favorite bands. U2’s seminal album The Joshua Tree is thirty years old this year, and at their concert, they played the entire album straight through from “Where the Streets Have No Name” all the way to “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Because I had consumed many of the tracks via U2’s “Best Of” albums, I had never heard The Joshua Tree as a unit. And I was stunned. I had never noticed the intense longing the album as a whole conveys. Taken singly, the songs are fine – some are even extraordinary – but as a whole, The Joshua Tree is an astounding, beautiful, and heartbreaking work of art. Continue reading “Albums and Playlists”

The Last Word for Love

Sermon for Sunday, October 26, 2014 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:34-46

lastwordforloveEnglish is a strange language. We have thousands upon thousands of words – more than most languages – and more get added every year. And still there are plenty of instances in the English language where we employ the same word to speak about multiple concepts. I can’t bear to be in the same room as him. The apple trees are about to bear fruit. Yikes, there’s a bear in our campsite! Now bear with me. This idiosyncrasy of English often leads to confusion, especially among non-native speakers. What’s worse is that it can also lead to a concept being watered down, diluted when the various understandings of the word start to merge.

Such is the case with the English word “love.” We use the word “love” in so many contexts and in so many ways that we hardly know what the word means anymore. When I say, “I love you,” to my wife, I mean something wildly different than when I say, “I love that movie!” And yet, I use the same verb in both sentences.

So when Jesus answers the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment, we find ourselves in a bind. Jesus chooses two commandments and both begin with the imperative to “love.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. How we go about living into these commandments has everything to do with what we think “love” means.

But before we go there, I find myself needing to scratch my Greek itch, as it has been months since I talked about Greek words in a sermon. So, if you’ll indulge me for a minute. While the English language has thousands upon thousands more words in it than ancient Greek, the Greeks of the first century had at least four different words that we translate as “love.” First, there’s eros, which is the love of attraction and desire. We get the word “erotic” from it. Then there’s philia, which is the love expressed in comradeship. A city in Pennsylvania bears this word in its name: Philadelphia. Then there’s sturgia, which is the love of a homeland as expressed in patriotism. And finally there’s agape, which is the love we’ll spend the rest of this sermon defining. This last word for “love” is the one Jesus uses in his answer to the lawyer’s question. And this last word for “love” inspires our fulfillment of Jesus’ two great commandments: Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

Because of the diluted nature of the word “love” in English, we might find it difficult to obey Jesus’ command to love. We might protest: “I can’t decide whom I love and whom I don’t. How can I help feeling the way I do?” The first problem we run into, then, is defining love primarily as an emotion. We get into trouble when we think of “loving” as a more intense version of “liking.” We all fall victim to this line of thought sooner or later, usually for the first time in high school. “Well, I like her but I don’t love her.” Or perhaps, “I like this top but I love those shoes.” When we mistake “love” for “liking a lot” we remove nearly all of the weight of the word, as Jesus uses it. Indeed, the Gospel according to John tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. If God only “liked the world a whole lot,” I don’t know where we’d be.

When we move past this high school version of love, we find the deeper territory that our last word for love – agape – exists in. Far from being a simple emotion, love opens the door to the whole universe of emotion. Because God loves each of us, we each have the ability to love in turn. Shutting the door to love means shutting the door to the entire emotional realm and replacing it with indifference and isolation. But God does not desire this for us. God desires us to open the door, the same door God opened when God sent the only begotten Son to this sin-soaked world.

When we love, we invest ourselves. We become vulnerable. We may be hurt. Or we may be filled with joy. The ability to love is the ability to look past yourself, to see the heart of God burning in the chest of another, reflecting the burning in your own heart. And to have that burning move you to trust, to connect, to sacrifice. This burning may or may not kindle affection within you – that is, the emotion of “liking a lot” – but you will be “loving” just the same.

So the love that Jesus commands us to show for God and neighbor begins, not with the emotion of “liking,” but with a posture of openness, selflessness, and vulnerability. This is a scary way to live because it means living without a mask and without the protective armor we so often don unconsciously. This unconscious armor implores us to keep our heads down, to disengage, to do everything we can not to be spotted.

Going back to examples from school, how many of us had the opportunity to help a kid who was being bullied, but chose not to; chose instead to hover in the back of the pack, not laughing and jeering like the others, but not standing with the victim either. This bully-victim model stretches from school into all facets of life where there are power differentials. If we take seriously Jesus’ command to love, we will always choose to stand with the victim, to risk being tarred and feathered, to risk coming to the cross.

Yes, the kind of love Jesus commands us to live out is the very love that brought him to Golgotha. He could have sunk under the waves of uncertainty in the garden. He could have shrunk back into obscurity after causing a stir in Jerusalem. He could have slunk home, only to have his followers drift off in search of new messiahs. But love would not let him take that path. Out of love, he chose the path of selflessness and sacrifice. On the cross, naked, with his arms spread wide, the openness and vulnerability of love was exposed. But only with his arms spread wide could he reach out and touch everyone with his loving embrace.

The last word for love – agape – is not an emotion. This love is a state of being. This love is the word we use for the voluntary conviction that propels us to step outside of our selfish selves and to discover the riches of building up one another, of finding mutuality, of respecting difference, of speaking out against intolerance and hate, of standing with the victim until enough of us do to remove the label of victim forever.

This is the kind of love Jesus commands us to live. This is the kind of love Jesus died to express. And this is the kind of love that rose with him from the dead. You see, the love that Jesus commands us to live does not turn us into victims, although that’s what we’ve learned from years of wearing our unconscious protective armor. Rather, the love Jesus commands us to live moves us with him through death to resurrection. As we walk this road, Jesus strengthens us to live like he died: shed of our protective armor, with arms spread wide, ready to embrace the victims of this sin-soaked world and walk hand in hand toward the coming kingdom of God.

Giving to God

Sermon for Sunday, October 19, 2014 || Proper 24A || Matthew 22:15-22

givingtogod“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Give to God the things that are God’s. Two weeks ago in the sermon and last week at the forum hour between services, we talked quite a bit about giving to God. We said that all giving to God is really and truly giving back to God. We said that good stewardship comprehends the intentional awareness that what we have isn’t really ours; therefore we cultivate an attitude in which all that we are and all that we have is a gift given back and forth between us and God.

But I was struck this week when reading Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson that we never talked about what giving to God really looks like. If you think for even more than a few seconds about the idea, you realize that this act of giving is, in the end, metaphorical. Or perhaps a better word is ephemeral. We just don’t have the opportunity to hand something physically to God, as I might hand you a birthday present. The trouble is we use the language of “giving” so often when we speak of our interaction with God that I’m afraid we now tend to skip past the real world impact of this necessarily ephemeral action. So I’d like to spend the next several minutes exploring with you this real world impact and at least make a start at answering the following question. What do we really mean when we say we are giving something to God?

Notice first how often we use this “giving” language. Let us give thanks to the Lord God. It is right to give God thanks and praise. Give that burden on your heart to God in prayer. All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. These three common phrases illustrate the three biggest categories of our use of the term “giving to God.” We give our thanks. We give our burdens. And we give our material possessions, our stuff.

With each of these categories, let’s start with what they look like when two humans engage in them. Say Tom and Brad go out for ice cream. When they arrive at the cash register, they both reach for their wallets, but then Brad says, “I’ve got this,” and motions for Tom to put his wallet away. Tom then says, “Thank you” to Brad for the ice cream. What is happening in this exchange? Brad gives Tom something, a gift Tom wasn’t expecting. Tom says, “Thanks” in acknowledgement of the gift.

Thus, in regards to giving thanks to God, the act of giving thanks is the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given us. The act of giving thanks is our response to the giver. Therefore, giving thanks keeps us in right relationship with God because by it we practice again and again living into the reality that we are not the prime movers of our own lives. We are simply the respondents.

Our fallen world often causes us to drift toward isolation and disengagement. But the act of giving thanks reminds us that we are not, in fact, unmoored. We are tethered to the God who continually calls us into being. Our lives have a source. And they have a culmination. Both the source and culmination are the eternity of God’s love. In between, we stay anchored to God when we respond to God’s gifts with our thankfulness.

This is one of the reasons we share Holy Communion each week. We begin the Eucharistic prayer by stating how proper it is for us to thank God for everything. In the words of the various prayers, we catalog what we are thankful for. And then we stretch out our hands and receive the Body of Christ, a response to God’s love, which nourishes us to continue to respond.

So giving thanks anchors us to the prime mover in our lives. What about giving our burdens? Let’s return to Tom and Brad. Tom comes to Brad with a heavy heart. He said something that hurt another friend’s feelings. He tried to apologize but the damage had been done and the friend isn’t talking to him anymore. He’s afraid he has irreparably damaged their relationship. He needed someone to talk to and is so glad Brad is willing to talk. By offering an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, Brad helps bear Tom’s burden.

So how does this conversation change when it happens not between two friends but in the context of prayer to God? We don’t necessarily hear audible words of comfort or feel the warmth of a physical embrace. But something important happens nonetheless. Our burdens often make us feel small. They threaten to crush us under their weight if we spend all our time trying to hold onto them. In a way, our burdens function similarly to the idols we talked about two weeks ago. They can warp our lives around the need to carry them and end up taking all our energy.

But giving a burden up to God releases us from this functional idolatry. Rather than the burden being between us and God as a barrier, the burden is shared between us and God as a bridge. The burden becomes another way we connect to God, since we are both carrying it, as do two people trying to lug a couch up the stairs. So just as giving thanks anchors us to God as responders, giving our burdens tethers us to God in the sharing of the weight between us.

These two categories of giving link us to God, and so does the third, but we have to look more closely as we now move from the ephemeral to the concrete and turn to giving our “stuff.” Quickly, back to Tom and Brad. Tom needs a trench coat to finish his Halloween costume. Turns out Brad grew out of his old one, so he gives it to Tom to keep. The important thing to note in this exchange is the physical handing over of the item, wherein perhaps they shake hands or high five or express some form of camaraderie.

When we give God our stuff, we obviously don’t give it directly to God. God can’t use a trench coat, after all. Instead, we give our stuff to other people, either directly like when we purchase, cook, and serve food to those in need at the WARM shelter or indirectly like when we pledge money to God’s work at St. Mark’s. Our other two categories of giving tether us to God in one way or another, and so does this third category, but we have to look more intentionally for the link.

Thankfully, Jesus makes this link for us just a few chapters after our Gospel reading this morning. He tells us that whenever we give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty or clothes to the naked, we are actually giving to him. Therefore, whenever we give to God some possession of ours, God grants us the opportunity to seek Christ’s presence in the person receiving the gift in God’s stead. By intentionally recognizing God at the heart of the receiver we connect more deeply with that person and with God who makes all connection possible.

This theme of connection animates all of our thanksgiving. We give God our thanks. We give God our burdens. We give God our stuff. In each instance, our giving anchors us, tethers us, connects us more deeply to God and to each other. This is what we mean when we say we are giving something to God; this is what happens: We respond to God with thanks, we partner with God in sharing our burdens, and we meet Christ whenever we give of ourselves to help another.

P.E.A.C.H.

Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14

peachToday I’d like to do something a little different. Do you remember how, in math classes, your teacher told you to “show your work” in order to get full credit for answering a question? Well, this morning, I’m going to show my work as we go through this sermon together. Rather than just give you the end product of my Bible study, my struggles and false starts, and my attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and show you some of the process.

I’ve decided to do this today for two reasons. First, the passage we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew is very difficult to encounter, so taking a step back and looking at it from a higher vantage point can be beneficial. Second, I never want to fall into the trap where I set myself up as such an unassailable expert in all things spiritual that, instead of inspiring you, I keep you from thinking you have the necessary skills to do what I do. Believe me, I am not an expert. I’m just a fellow disciple, who perhaps has a bit more specialized schooling than you might.

So think about this sermon as one that is really a step or two from the normal finished product. In it, we’ll explore together one way I like to study and interpret Biblical passages. My hopes are, by the end of this sermon, we will hear a word from God about today’s Gospel reading, and we will all be just a little bit more confident the next time we sit down to read the Bible. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a favorite acronym of mine: P.E.A.C.H. PEACH will lead us through five steps toward more fruitful Bible study. I commend these steps to you whenever you sit down to study our sacred texts. PEACH stands for Prayer > Encounter > Atmosphere > Charge > Humility.

We’ll start where any endeavor should: with Prayer. You might seek out a prayer specifically about reading the Bible, or you may write one for yourself to pray whenever you sit down to read. Or you may allow a new prayer to bubble up whenever you are getting ready to pick up your Bible. Perhaps your prayer might sound something like this:

“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word, to be patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand, to be enfolded by your grace as I read, and to be courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”

After you pray, read your passage. Read it aloud. Read it slowly. Try to have an authentic Encounter with it. Don’t allow preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin this authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, feel revulsion. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace.

Today’s parable from Jesus contains so much overt hyperbole that any emotion our encounter with it evokes will most likely be a strong version of that emotion. The parable begins innocently enough. We have a king, a sumptuous wedding banquet for the prince, and guests who decide they have better things to do. So far this sounds like several other parables Jesus tells. But then everything goes haywire. The realism of the story disintegrates when the would-be guests kill the invitation deliverers. And then when the king burns down their city. And then when the host throws the improperly dressed fellow not back out into the street but into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t know about you, but so far my authentic encounter with this story leans me toward discomfort, if not all out revulsion. It’s entirely possible that such a response is exactly what Jesus is going for. To look further into that, we turn to the next letter in PEACH. “A” is for Atmosphere.

The atmosphere of a reading is everything around it that helps it breath. This can mean a lot of different things where Bible study is concerned, but for our purposes, let’s say the atmosphere surrounding our reading is everything that happens within a couple of chapters of it in the Gospel. Backing up, we witness Jesus ride in humble triumph into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. That means we are at the beginning of Jesus’ final week. We know what’s right around the corner, and by all accounts, so does Jesus. Jesus gets off the donkey, walks into the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and drives out all the sellers of sacrificial animals. This disruptive action probably seals his fate.

Jesus returns to the temple the next day, where the chief priests, Pharisees, and many others question him. He tells three consecutive parables, all having to do with inviting a new and unlikely set of people into the kingdom of heaven. The first parable (which we read two weeks ago) speaks of two sons, on who did the will of his father and one who didn’t. The second (which we read last week) speaks of wicked tenants who kill the son of the vineyard keeper. By this time, Jesus’ opponents realize he’s talking about them. But he’s not done. Now Jesus tells today’s parable, and the violence ratchets up again. With each story, Jesus gets more explicit and more graphic. After a few more verbal skirmishes, Jesus stops speaking in parables entirely and denounces the scribes and Pharisees openly. If chasing people out of the temple didn’t sign his death warrant, this indictment surely does.

The important thing to glean from our look at the atmosphere of our story is the constant ratcheting up of tension within Jesus’ parables. With each successive story, he makes his point more graphically so that no one mistakes his meaning – that those chosen to represent God among the people had failed in their duty and that God was welcoming all to become God’s representatives.

And this is where we find the “C” of PEACH. This is where we hear our Charge from God, the word God puts on our hearts during many prayerful, authentic encounters with scripture. In today’s passage, our charge comes when the king sends his messengers out to invite everyone they find in the street to attend the wedding. Everyone becomes a guest, no matter what. We hear our charge in this good news. Everyone is capable of being a guest at the heavenly banquet. Therefore, God invites us to treat all people – regardless of any reason we might have not to associate with them – as guests at God’s table, as people who bear the image and likeness of God in their souls. The more we treat each other as God’s honored guests, the more generosity, hospitality, and gratitude we will show one another. And not just each other, but everyone, for the wedding hall is filled with guests.

But this charge, which invites us to be radically welcoming, runs up against our last letter in PEACH. “H” is for Humility. The prayerful, authentic encounter with scripture often leads to unanswered questions and causes for further study somewhere down the road. The humble response when this happens is simply, “I don’t know.” Such is the case with me and the very strange paragraph about the fellow who doesn’t have a wedding robe. I confess I don’t know what to do with those few sentences. I have no answers, just questions, and so I strive to remain humble in the face of these cryptic words of Jesus, to admit I’m not in a place to hear them instead of throwing them out or explaining them away.

So there you have it. I invite you to try this process when you read the Bible. For fruitful study, try PEACH: Prayer, Encounter, Atmosphere, Charge, Humility. Without going through these steps this week, I would still be stuck in the discomfort of the passage and I would not have heard my charge, which I now share again with you. Everyone is a guest at God’s table. Far be it for us to bar the way. Instead, why don’t we go out “into the main streets and invite everyone we find there to the wedding banquet.”