have we understood?

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. They answer, “Yes!”

Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ disciples. So quick to reply to a question of cosmic significance of the meaning of life, the nature of God, the character of the kingdom of heaven; all said, the meaning, nature, and character of life with God.

But the disciples were disciples. Students. They had come to Jesus to learn from him. And sometimes they seem like the children of any classroom. Faced with a question and with the approval of the teacher hanging in the balance, they either remain silent hoping one of them will speak up, usually the impetuous Peter, bearing for all of them the weight of judgment or, in boisterous solidarity, blurt out an answer hoping their unanimity will count for something.

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. All these parables piled one upon another? (Parable, as I shared with you last Sunday, from the Greek, parabole; literally a thing tossed alongside. Not the reality itself, but a story, a parallel image to help us understand that reality; here, the kingdom of heaven.)

“Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. Then comes the point of the question. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Huh? I confess that I don’t know what this means. I do have some guesses. And that, too, is the point.

None of us knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. About anything. About people. Others or ourselves. About life. This one or any other. All we have is our guesses. Our perceptions and presumptions about the reality around us, which are like parables; things we toss alongside to help us understand our experience.

Looking again at this odd saying of Jesus, my guess is that he is the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. He is the master of the household who, in his teaching, brings what is new out of what is old; new interpretations, new meanings from old, well known images and ideas.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven, the life of God, our life with God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows expansively, invasively everywhere or yeast that makes bread rise in bountiful measure or hidden treasure or fine pearls, priceless and worth every effort to obtain or fish nets that catch and hold all fish or all of the above.

So, let me toss some things alongside our reality.

The kingdom of heaven is like this Sunday morning when we, all alike in our shared humanity, yet each of us different in our individuality, come together to make community, gathered in this sacred space that, like a net, holds us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like this morning’s Holy Eucharist when we take what is familiar, bread and wine that we have made from creation’s ancient gifts of grain and grapes, and offer them to God with timeless words, “take, bless, break, give”, that we might partake of spiritual food to be strengthened anew to be like Jesus…that we may go out into the world as scribes trained for the kingdom, sharing with all the treasure of life with God.

Have we understood all this?

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seemingly

(Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.

 

Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)

a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

“after these things” – a meditation for Holy Saturday

Joseph of Arimathea and NicodemusAs John the evangelist tells it, “After these things” – the arrest, trial, condemnation, crucifixion, and death of Jesus – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus rendered homage; Joseph providing the tomb and Nicodemus, spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.

In Christian tradition, Good Friday focuses on Jesus’ suffering and dying. Easter Day, his resurrection. Holy Saturday, the “in-between day,” his being dead; which (as I remain alive, thus, not yet having the experience of being dead, and when I will be dead, not knowing whether I will be conscious of the experience) leaves me to contemplate the sorrow of the living.

For Joseph and Nicodemus, as far as they knew, the darkness of their grief at the forever-there-after-death of their friend would last as long as they lived. Still, I behold in them the light of something else that would endure. Their love. For their final act of devotion to Jesus truly was the threshold, the beginning of the rest of their lives…

Joseph, in fear, was a secret disciple; following Jesus along the confined and hidden corridors of his heart. In asking Pilate, the Roman governor, for the body of Jesus, Joseph “blew his cover,” exposing himself as a believer. He was a secret disciple until his public profession of devotion to Jesus crucified his secret. No longer could, would he be undercover…

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a revered observer of God’s Law, “first came to Jesus by night” (John 3); “night,” a metaphor for skeptical curiosity and outright unbelief. In his encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus came to believe; his loyalty shown in his defense of Jesus before his fellow Pharisees (John 7.50) and, at Jesus’ death, in the costly outpouring of a hundredweight of embalming spices.

I believe that Joseph and Nicodemus, somehow, somewhere along the way had made a commitment to follow Jesus; in their sorrow, lovingly dedicating themselves always to revere his memory.

What they could not know was that the first Easter Day, that would transform their sacred sorrow into holy hope and their discipleship of true and loving, though mere blessed memory into the power of their living reality, was soon to dawn.

paradox – a sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

sermona sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, March 8, 2015

The message of the cross is foolishness…but…it is the power of God…For (as)…the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…(both)…the power…and the wisdom of God.

I reflect first on last Sunday’s gospel; Jesus teaching his followers about his Messiahship and their discipleship…

Even before that, Jesus, journeying throughout Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing, in word and deed proclaiming the near presence of God’s kingdom, senses that the time is ripe, is right to go to Jerusalem to face his final confrontation with the religious and secular authorities. He wants to know whether his followers know who he is. “What do people say about me?” he asks, then the more critical question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers, “Messiah!”

Given the people’s hope that Messiah will liberate them from Roman oppression and restore Israel’s glory as in the time of King David, Jesus needs to make clear who he is, telling them he will suffer and be killed. No surprise, Peter rebukes Jesus, who rebukes Peter in the strongest terms, calling him Satan. Then Jesus, having verified his Messiahship, clarifies their discipleship. “To be my followers, deny yourselves, bear your cross, and follow me; for to save your life, you will lose it, for only in losing your life for my sake, will you save it.” As Peter is troubled by Jesus’ proclamation of the Messiah’s death, this declaration must terrify him.

Even we, two millennia since this word’s first utterance and o’er that time with countless reflections on its meaning, might confess ourselves, at times and at least, confused. For this cross-bearing, self-denying, life-losing to life-saving is paradox. That which, at first glance, makes no sense, yet at its heart embraces, embodies deepest truth.

Today, more paradox. “The message of the cross” – which is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying the heart, verily, the whole of the Christian story – “is foolishness.” No surprise that for many, on first and second view, this story upon which we stake our lives now and forever is laughably fictitious!(*) Exercising some biblical license, allow me to reframe and retell the Christian story, our story from the skeptic’s viewpoint; one of unabashed incredulity:

God, in love, longs to reclaim, redeem a broken world not with a divine display of power, but through an innocent, innocuous baby; born not in prominence, but to an unwed mother in a stable, wrapped in shreds of cloth, laid in a feeding trough for animals, and given the name, Jesus, meaning “God saves” as decreed by (who else?) an angel…

Jesus grew up not in a palace, trained in the art of governance and leadership (even Moses was raised in pharaoh’s house!), but as a common carpenter…

Jesus took part in a seminal rite of passage, not a coronation, but an immersion in a river at the hands of John the baptizer, a lunatic who had come out of the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and eating wild locusts and honey and making outlandish pronouncements that would get him arrested and beheaded…

Jesus was shoved by the Spirit, which had appeared moments before in the pleasant form of a descending dove, not to some prestigious grad school, not even an acclaimed, highly effective on-the-job training program, but into the desert for forty days to talk with (who else?) the devil and to stare into the terrifyingly beady eyes of wild beasts, and to be attended by (who else?) more angels…

Jesus came out of the wilderness, like John, with a vocation, not medicine, not law, nothing as mundane, though as lucrative as that, but some audacious spiritual quest, the heart of which he boldly proclaimed, “God’s kingdom is near”…

Jesus gathered a vision-quest, campaign committee, not skilled fundraisers and speechwriters, not savvy pollsters and strategizers, but commoners, fishermen, even a universally hated tax collector, all who had to be taught and all who demonstrated an inexhaustible and exhausting intellectual and ethical density…

Jesus shared in word and served in deed his kingdom-message not primarily with those in power, but largely with the powerless…

Jesus went to the holy city of Jerusalem to make his case, not by lobbying the religious and secular authorities, but by angering them, cleansing the temple…

Jesus, having incurred the enmity of said authorities, was arrested on trumped up charges, tried illegally, convicted unjustly, and sentenced to death, and, though innocent, crucified.

Concerning the paradox of Jesus’ teaching of cross-bearing, self-denying loss of life, at least we can say he practiced what he preached! Concerning the more paradox of the heart and whole of the Christian story, again many say, “This is ridiculous!”

Yet this is the story – born in a faraway land, long ago, having been told for 2000 years, for each of us perhaps, at times, ineffable, beyond the power of our words to define or describe – that draws us together today.

Why? Here I follow the counsel of 1 Peter 3.15, “Always be prepared to give reason for the hope that is in you.” For me, there are two reasons.

First. This story is counter-cultural. A worldly culture that (after all we have learned about this life as expressed in that Latin phrase, sic transit gloria mundi, so passes the glory of the world) still cultivates power, craves prestige, and curries the favor of the prominent. Therefore, a culture that esteems not the lowly and, thus, blithely accepts, even expects, and so makes peace with the iniquity of systemic inequality.

I read the gospel as a story of the incarnation, the enfleshment in Jesus of love and justice, the unconditional benevolence that acts to make things right in this world for all. So, I rejoice in its inherent counter-culturality. Maybe as we continue to tell it enough, do it enough, be it enough, it will become true enough for all.

Second. This story is counter-characteriological. Counter to my character. I’m from Missouri. The state motto: “Show me”. This makes me, according to the Apostle Paul, Jewish. I like signs. I want things shown, demonstrated, proven to me. I won’t simply take your word. I won’t easily believe you. Why? Because I like my wisdom, my way of seeing things, my way of settling in my mind what it true, not yours. According to Paul, this makes me Greek.

Yet as I reflect on this gospel in my life, I have learned that in order for me to do something, I need to do it. To believe, I need to believe, which, yes, sometimes necessitates the suspension of my unbelief, the relinquishment of my demand for signs and my desire for wisdom. For there is something else I’ve learned. When I choose to exercise my power to believe, then no sign or wisdom is needed, and when I refuse to exercise my power to believe, no sign or wisdom is enough. So, I rejoice in the inherent counter-characteriologicality of this story. For as I’ve continued to tell it enough, do it enough, be it enough, it has become true enough for me, and, I pray, through me, for others.

(*)Two of the fastest growing religious groups in America are the “unaffiliated”, which include the “nones,” the unchurched as in no religion, and the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” (see Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, Religion and the Unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/global-religious-nones-on-the-rise/) and Religiously Unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-unaffiliated/) and the “dones”, the de-churched, those who were active, but no longer (see Holy Soup with Tom Schultz, holysoup.com (http://holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones/).