party hardy!

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

What a bizarre story! Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet given by a king.

Who wouldn’t want to be invited? Clearly, none of these folks, who, summoned once, then twice, the second time with the added enticement of a description of the menu of succulent oxen and fatted calves (Yum!), refuse to come, and some of whom kill the messengers! The furious king retaliates, murdering the murderers, who are his subjects, and destroys their city, which is in his kingdom! Nevertheless, the party’s still on, the king inviting people off the street!

Sometimes when I’m preaching, as my personal reality-check, to assure myself that I’ve neither confused you nor left you along the way, I’ll ask you, “Are you with me so far?” As I read on this parable, I hear Jesus asking, “Paul, are you with me so far?” No!

Ah, then I remember that back in that late-first century day, Matthew was referring to the kingdom-banquet of God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus, the invitation to which some had rejected. The violence of the immediate outcome notwithstanding, our focus, as Christians, those who have accepted the invitation, is, must be on what happens at the party; where the king chastises and casts out a guest who, either disregarding or disrespecting the occasion, has failed to dress appropriately and, therefore, is out of place and might as well not have come at all.

Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

My sisters and brothers, God’s salvation in Jesus is a banquet. You and I have been invited to wear the robes of God’s love and justice, to feast on the food of God’s love and justice, to dance to the tune of God’s love and justice, and to share God’s love and justice with all. This, I submit to you, is what it means for a Christian to party hardy! So, let’s wear, feast, dance, and share God’s love and justice, thus, demonstrating our delight in being invited and having accepted the invitation to God’s banquet!

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712). Note: Luyken’s depiction of the great banquet portrays the moment when the king (on the right with his arm outstretched) directs his attendants to “Bind (the guest who chose not to don a banquet robe) hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”

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An Instructed Eucharist: Rite II, Part 1 – The Liturgy of the Word

epiphany-laurens-sc-facade

The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany

Laurens, South Carolina

The mission of Church of the Epiphany is to celebrate the light of Jesus Christ, proclaim the Gospel, deepen our faith, nurture and encourage all people

The 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

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Introduction

This morning’s Instructed Eucharist, covering the first part of the service, the Liturgy of the Word, is intended to give us a greater understanding of the Holy Eucharist, “the principle act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.”[1] Today, we will explore in depth the first part of the Holy Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Word. Next Sunday, we will continue with an in depth consideration of the second part of the Holy Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Table.

The word eucharist means thanksgiving. The essence of Christian worship is giving thanks to God for creation and especially for the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The early Church established the Eucharist based on Jesus’ actions on the eve of Passover; the annual Jewish celebration commemorating the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian bondage. Moses, at God’s command, told the Hebrews to place the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts as a sign to God’s avenging angel to pass over their households. Death was visited on the Egyptians and the Hebrew people were freed.[2]

Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion coincided with Passover. The Church proclaims that Jesus is our Passover Lamb, whose death liberates us from bondage to sin. So the Apostle Paul declares: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.”[3]

At that Passover meal, Jesus took, blessed, and offered to his friends bread and wine; symbols of his coming sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross. Thus, we call the Holy Eucharist[4] a sacrament; the bread and wine being “outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace”[5] of communion with God in Christ. Although a bishop or a priest presides at the Eucharist, Jesus is the chief presider and all the people are celebrants.

The Liturgy of the Word

Processional Hymn 383 – Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature

Narrator: The Opening Acclamation and Response is an invitation to holy conversation between God and us. It also declares why we have gathered.

Presider          Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

People             And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Narrator: Entering God’s presence and remembering Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,”[6] in the Collect for Purity we pray that God cleanses our hearts.

Presider          Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.

All                   Amen.

Narrator: Thankful that God, who loves us, has cleansed us, we sing Gloria in excelsis, “Glory to God in the highest.”

All       Glory to God in the highest,

and peace to his people on earth.

Lord God, heavenly King,

almighty God and Father,

we worship you, we give you thanks,

we praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,

Lord God, Lamb of God,

you take away the sin of the world:

have mercy on us;

you are seated at the right hand of the Father:

receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,

you alone are the Lord,

you alone are the Most High,

Jesus Christ,

with the Holy Spirit,

in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Narrator: The Salutation acknowledges our interdependence as priest and people in our offering of worship. We also express our unity in our customary response to prayer. When we say, “Amen”, meaning “so be it”, we affirm our agreement with what has been said.

Presider          The Lord be with you.

People             And also with you.

Presider          Let us pray.

All kneel.

Narrator: The Collect of the Day gathers together or collects the themes of the day as expressed in the Bible passages to be read.

Presider          Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we   may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All                   Amen.

All sit.

Narrator: The Liturgy of the Word focuses on the Bible. The order of the readings was established in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Old Testament reading – Exodus 32.1-14

After the reading, the Reader says, The Word of the Lord.

All                   Thanks be to God.

All stand to chant the psalmPsalm 106.1-6, 19-23

New Testament epistle reading – Philippians 4.1-9

After the reading, the Reader says, The Word of the Lord.

All                   Thanks be to God.

Sequence Hymn 645 – The King of love my shepherd is

Narrator: The Gospel, taken from one of the biblical accounts of the life of Jesus, precedes the sermon. Hence, it is read from the pulpit.[7] The Gospel is read by an ordained minister signifying the historic continuity of the Church from ancient times to the present day. We stand and face the reader to indicate the importance of this reading.

Presider          The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (22.1-14)

All                   Glory to you, Lord Christ.

After the reading, the Presider says, The Gospel of the Lord.

All                   Praise to you, Lord Christ.

All sit.

Narrator: Having heard biblical readings that originally were directed to a particular group of people, at a particular time and place, and for a particular purpose, the Sermon seeks to interpret these texts for the current day.

The Sermon – Party Hardy!

Narrator: The Sermon concludes with the Nicene Creed. The Creed, from the Latin, credo, meaning, “I believe”, is a summary statement of Christian belief.

All stand.

All       We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Narrator: The Prayers of the People largely are intercessory in nature. We pray for the Church, its life and mission, the nations and all in authority, the welfare of the world, the concerns of the local community, the needs of those who are afflicted, and the departed.

All kneel.

Reader  In peace, we pray to you, Lord God.

Silence

Reader   For all people in their daily life and work;

People    For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.

Reader   For this community, the nation, and the world;

People    For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.

Reader   For the just and proper use of your creation;

People    For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.

Reader    For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;

People     For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.

Reader    For the peace and unity of the Church of God;

People     For all who proclaim the Gospel, and all who seek the Truth.

Reader  For Michael, our Presiding Bishop, Andrew, our Bishop, Paul, our Priest, and for all bishops and other ministers;

People   For all who serve God in his Church.

Reader  For the special needs and concerns of this congregation.  Hear us, Lord;

People   For your mercy is great.

Reader  We thank you, Lord, for all the blessings of this life. We will exalt you, O God our King;

People   And praise your Name for ever and ever.

Reader  We pray for all who have died, that they may have a place in your eternal kingdom. Lord, let your loving-kindness be upon them;

People  Who put their trust in you.

Narrator: Having opened ourselves to God’s presence through scripture, sermon, and prayer, we offer ourselves once more in the Confession. We acknowledge the ways in which we sin or “miss the mark” of authentic and faithful living.

Reader  We pray to you also for the forgiveness of our sins.

Silence

All           Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Narrator: In response to our confession and our intention to reform, the priest, in the Absolution, does not absolve sins, but rather declares God’s forgiveness made available to us through Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Presider  Almighty God, have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our      Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.

All                   Amen.

Narrator: The restoration of our relationship with God is reaffirmed in the pronouncement of the Peace. In our renewed peace with God, we share it with others.

Presider          The peace of the Lord be always with you.

All                   And also with you.

All exchange the Peace.

The Holy Communion or the Liturgy of the Table

Offertory

Doxology

Praise God, from whom all blessing flow;

Praise Him, all creatures here below:

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

The Great Thanksgiving

Presider          The Lord be with you.

People             And also with you.

Presider          Lift up your hearts.

People             We lift them to the Lord.

Presider          Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

People             It is right to give him thanks and praise.

Presider          For you are the source of light and life, you made us in your image, and called us to new life in Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Sanctus – Holy, holy, holy

The Breaking of the Bread

Communion Hymn 325 – Let us break bread together

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Blessing

Recessional Hymn 625 – Ye holy angels bright, who wait at God’s right hand

Dismissal

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 13

[2] See Exodus 12

[3] 1 Corinthians 5.7-8

[4] The Holy Eucharist is known by a variety of titles, each focusing on an aspect of its meaning or arising out of its historical development. The Lord’s Supper affirms that the meal belongs to no Christian assembly, but to Jesus, who offers it to us. The Holy Communion affirms that through this meal we are brought into union with Jesus and one another. The Mass is derived from the Latin dismissal in the Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy, “Ite, missa est”, “Go, the mass is ended.” The Divine Liturgy emphasizes that Eucharist is a communal act of God’s people responding to God’s love in Jesus by offering themselves in worship.

[5] The Book of Common Prayer, The Catechism, The Sacraments, page 857

[6] Matthew 5.8

[7] In many places, the Gospel is read in the midst of the congregation following a procession, symbolizing the carrying of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ to the world. When the Gospel is announced, we may make a sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips, and breasts indicating our intention to keep Jesus’ words in our thoughts, speech, and hearts.

my?

a sermon, based on Matthew 21.33-46, which I had planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017. Note: As happens on occasion, in the midst of the liturgy and prior to the sermon I was overwhelmed with emotion during which another word was given to me, I pray by the Holy Spirit, to share with my people of Epiphany Church. I will try to reproduce what I said and post it later.

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Jesus tells a parable, truly, a prediction of his death. Jesus is the son of the landowner, a symbol of God, sent to the vineyard of Israel, following other servants, the prophets, to collect from the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, the due portion of the harvest of the obedience of love and justice for all people.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

“When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him the produce at harvest time.” With this answer, they, ironically, unknowingly, reveal their blindness to the reality that they are the object of Jesus’ scathing indictment. They are the wretched tenants who refuse to give God the harvest of righteousness. They are those who have confused sacred leadership for the people with sovereign ownership of the people. For the Owner of the vineyard is God and God alone.

And that point, from the first century unto today unto eternity, is, for us, as God-believing, God-revering folk, a universal truth.

It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, for anyone to write or to speak without using the word “my”. My wife. My daughter. My family and friends. My people of Epiphany Church, Laurens, South Carolina. My mind and heart. My soul and spirit. My home and property. My day and time. My life and labor and leisure. My money…

The risk of employing this necessary word referencing our realization of our connection to people, places, and things is that we unconsciously can come to believe, and act accordingly, that we possess people, places, and things (an equal danger being that people, places, and things can possess us to the point that we cannot live freely, fully without them).

Yes, in some sense, in this mercantile world, we do own things (our creditors and the IRS surely think so!). And, yes, as we know that in death we can take nothing of this life with us, it is prudent that we make legal provision for the disposition of our things.

Nevertheless, these worldly practicalities cannot, must not, must never obscure our constant realization of the eternal revelation that God is Owner and Provider of all life and all that is in this life and the next…

Therefore, you and I, as God-believing, God-revering folk, alway, every day, every moment of the day, are to discern, come to know, and to decide, choose, to offer to God the produce, the harvest of our living in our love and justice toward all…

For it is in this act of faith, hope, and love, that we, with sincerity and truth, can say, “my God!”

 

Illustration: Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Note: Millais depicts the son of the landowner lying dead outside the vineyard fence under the eyes of two of the murderous tenants; upper right, the vineyard watchtower stands in the distance.

which one?

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 21.23-32, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Never answer a question with a question, so the olden adage advises, lest one be accused of refusing to engage in honest dialogue or, as bad, seeking to conceal one’s ignorance. Clearly, Jesus was no proponent of this school of thought.

Jesus triumphally entered Jerusalem,[1] then brazenly cleansed the temple of money changers and sellers of animals,[2] thus, disrupting the sacred economy of the institution of ritual sacrifice, and now, self-authorized, has taken up residence in the temple, teaching, preaching. The chief priests and elders charged with maintaining order, demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (1886-1894)

The accusatory tone of these religious leaders is a strong indication that it’s hardly likely they will accept anything Jesus says. Nevertheless, given, again, their role as overseers of the life of worship of their people, God’s people, theirs is a fair question. What does Jesus do? He answers their question with a question to which they plead the fifth, refusing to answer. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but rather responds with a parable about two sons whose father asks to labor in the vineyard. One says, “No”, but then goes. The other says, “Yes,” but then doesn’t go.

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot (1836-1902)

“Which of the two,” Jesus pointedly asks not only those chief priests and elders, but also us, “did the will of his father?”

The one who appears to be, who presents herself, himself to be a follower of Jesus who outwardly does the right things, but whose mind and heart, soul and spirit are far from doing, being the love and justice of the kingdom of God or the one who by all appearances fails, falls from grace time and time again, but finally responds favorably to the call of Jesus, “Follow me”, acting fairly, living faithfully; even if it comes at the proverbial “eleventh hour” of the last breath of life in this world!

Which one are you? Which one am I? Jesus calls you and me to answer and not with a question.

On another, deeper level, I believe the answer to Jesus’ question is neither the one who said, “No”, but did go nor the one who said, “Yes”, but didn’t go, but rather Jesus himself. He was…is the son who when sent to proclaim in word and deed God’s will of self-sacrificial, unconditional love, came among us teaching and preaching, holding out his hands especially to the least, last, and lost, then stretching out his arms, loving us all, from the least to the greatest, to death, his own, that we might be redeemed from sin and death. Jesus is the son we are to imitate.

When Jesus asks us, as he does today and every day, “Which son did the will of his father?”, by the grace of God, let us answer, “You, Jesus, are the one and you, Jesus, are the one we follow that we, your sisters and brothers, God’s daughters and sons, might do, be fulfillments of God’s will.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 21.12-13

equality

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 20.1-16, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

God asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And we humans, alway, in our innate self-interest, wanting what we want when and how we want it, ifwhen we’re honest, answer testily, “No!”

God asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” And we humans, chastened by the implication of the question, again, ifwhen we’re honest, answer quietly, “Yes.”

Jesus tells a parable, comparing God’s kingdom to a landowner who hires workers throughout the day from first light to an hour before dusk, literally the now proverbial “eleventh hour”. At day’s end, the landowner, summoning the workers in reverse order from the last to the first hired, perhaps to assure that all will see and know what’s up, pays all the same wage.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

I know of no human being, including me, who doesn’t take offense, however slight, more likely great, at the landowner’s munificence, which, in worldly terms, thus, for us, is injustice. For there is no human being who does not employ the worldly calculus of time and effort, sense of purpose and spirit of perseverance, ability and achievement to determine, surely, we believe, fairly, the measure of our deserving: “I had more, gave more, did more, therefore, I should get more!” Whatever the wage – financial remuneration, public recognition, and, yes, even personal attention and affection.

And how right we are. For we have a right, in the light of the way the world is, this world we inhabit, to our time-honored sense of what makes sense. Yet Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who” – with the inequality of his authority, possessing land and wealth, over and against day laborers who have nothing but the strength of arm and the sweat of brow to exchange for a daily wage – establishes equality for all.

And, by faith, dare we say, “Thanks be to God!” who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, doesn’t pay us, but rather gives to us, each and all equally, not the wage, but rather the grace of salvation, which is ridiculously, unfathomably beyond our deserving.

Why does God do this? Because God loves us equally no matter who we are, no matter how much or how little we have, give, and do; all the while, hoping, praying that we will see and know what’s up, and then act toward one another accordingly.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

the debt and duty of Love

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based principally on Romans 13.8-14 and secondarily on Matthew 18.15-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Owe no one anything, except to love one another…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

LOVE

According to the Apostle Paul, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus were…are about self-sacrificial, unconditional love. By “love”, it is alway important to remind ourselves, we are not talking about our affections or our emotions, which, at best, are ephemeral, but rather active benevolence that seeks not only to do no harm, but also to do good for others. And Jesus demonstrated his love for us in dying on a cross for the sake of our everlasting redemption. And we, being redeemed, are called to embrace, to embody this same love.

But let’s be honest. There’s a mighty difference, distance between this declaration of the Christian ethic – owe no one anything except love – and our doing it. For we, in this life in this world, have manifold obligations. In a word, we owe lots of things. To our chiefest relationships, we owe our fidelity. To America, our loyalty. To the letter and spirit of the law, our conformity. To our word as our bond, our reliability. To our creditors, money. And, yes, to others and to ourselves, we owe our integrity.

Yet Paul, though exceedingly aware of the ultra-hierarchical-and-patriarchal first century Roman culture where all owed honor to the emperor, debtors owed service to their benefactors, wives and children, submission to their husbands and fathers, and slaves, their lives to their masters, does not say, “In addition to your attention to these obligations, love one another.” No! Owe no one anything except love.

And we Christians in whatever era are called to take this seriously. Though impractical, as it always is, in a world of unavoidable, indispensable obligations set on the real-life terra firma of our relationships, roles and responsibilities, it is not impossible. For if it is, then Christianity is a story to be told and not a life to be lived. Yet I don’t believe that Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead simply to tell a tale that might be considered in some circles “fake news.”

And to take this seriously, I believe, is to believe that the debt and duty of love are supreme, superseding all else. In everything, we are to love. With everyone, we are to love. We are to see in every face of everyone – whatever their age, color or culture, race or religion, status or stations of life, philosophies or theologies, perspectives or prejudices, and whether they sin not or sin against us[1] – those whom God created, those for whom Jesus died, and those whom the Holy Spirit sends our way to love.

And neither Paul nor Jesus tell us how, in the daily, concrete circumstances of our lives, we are to embrace, embody unconditional love in our thinking and feeling, intending and acting, and “binding and loosing”,[2] which is another way to describe establishing and maintaining our personal, relational boundaries. That’s for each of us to discern and decide. Nevertheless (and, with judicious restraint, rarely do I employ what I consider to be the sacred trinity of heavily morally weighted and freighted words, however as we are talking about the Christian ethic, I will), we must, ought, should discern and decide how to do love, indeed, how to be love.

Why?

Foremost because scripture tells us that love is God,[3] love is the gospel of Jesus,[4] love is the principal fruit of the Holy Spirit.[5] God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, thus, we are all about love! And, in existential terms, because we live in a polarized America. The conflagrations of culture and race that raged through the founding of our nation, through the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, through the Civil Rights Era, I had hoped and prayed, if not wholly resolved, had abated. Yet now we see the public and palpable, alway divisive and destructive resurgence of cultural and racial hatred. As there is no other time than the present of now, now is the time to owe no one anything except love.

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to Matthew 18.15-20, the day’s appointed gospel passage.

[2] Another reference to Matthew 18.15-20.

[3] Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4.8, my emphasis).

[4] Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15.12, my emphasis).

[5] The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23a, my emphasis).