a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.

Jesus, the subversive

Note: At yesterday morning’s service, as I ended my sermon, an additional word about the appointed gospel (Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52) occurred to me, which I shared during announcements. It rarely surprises me when things other than what I intended to say come to mind, for I am a person of constant second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth…on and on) thoughts. I cannot recreate precisely what I said, but it was something like this…

Jesus launched a movement, going out into his first century world to share in word and deed the near presence of the kingdom of heaven, indeed, of God. The church, founded on Jesus’ life and labor, is an institution. Throughout human history, whatever the endeavor, in the transition from precipitating origin to permanent organization, something can be lost. At times, I wonder whether we, two millennia later, run the risk of domesticating Jesus, thus, losing any sense of his radical, revolutionary nature. Looking again at this morning’s series of five parables, I focus on the first three, for they reveal, expose Jesus’ subversive edginess.

Jesus, as a storyteller, as all good storytellers, employed familiar images and ideas, which his listeners readily recognized. Yet he frequently, outrageously turned those images and ideas on their proverbial heads, catching people unawares, arresting their attention. I picture Jesus leading us to a comfortable chair in which a long, sharp tack is embedded, inviting us to sit, all the while hoping we have not lost our sensitivity to new ways of thinking, of seeing our lives and world.

So, today…

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree where birds make their nests. No, it doesn’t! The mustard seed is small, but the mustard plant is no tree, but a weed (a shocking comparison when the fabled cedars of Lebanon would be a far better image!) that, spreading quickly, is difficult, impossible to uproot. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman (a shocking comparison in a first century patriarchal society!) mixing yeast (another shocking comparison, for yeast was an ancient symbol of unrighteousness!) in three measures of flour, which was a vast amount, yielding bread able to feed multitudes. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure in a field (so far, so good!) that a man finds, then hides (uh oh!), then sells all of his possessions and buys the field; all of which amounts to thievery! In Jesus day, a similar parable was in circulation. A man had a field with a buried treasure, but he did not know it. He died, bequeathing the field to his son, who later sold it. The buyer, plowing the field, discovered the treasure.[1] This version of the tale eliminates the immorality. Jesus, in his telling, retains it. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom! It is treasure, yet one, once found, that always calls, challenges, confronts us with choices between righteousness and unrighteousness.

Ah, Jesus, a storyteller with the soul of a subversive!

 

Illustrations:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Footnote:

[1] Gospel of Thomas 109

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?

the truest heavenly harvest

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43 and the Wisdom of Solomon 12.13, 16-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Imagine. You walk into a room and catch the tail-end of a conversation. You hear what’s being said, but without the preceding context you’re not sure what is meant. You can continue to listen, hoping you’ll finally get it or, being assertive, inquire: “What are you talking about?” Whenever I’ve had the temerity to ask, sometimes, on hearing the answer, it seemed to me that the conversation and its supposed context weren’t at all connected!

This is what occurs to me when I reflect on this morning’s parable.

The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus’ explanation is so severely dualistic – Son of Man or the devil, good or bad seed, wheat or weeds, the righteous or evildoers – that it doesn’t follow the parable. It’s almost a non sequitur!

Now, in one historical contextual sense, it makes sense. When Matthew wrote his gospel about a generation and a half after Jesus, there were intense conflicts within the Christian community between insiders and outsiders over matters of governance. (This always happens when a dynamic movement begins to undergo the process toward permanence, transforming into an institution.) So, no surprise, the explanation of the parable, which, I believe, is Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, is strikingly either-or.

Now, in a world fuzzy with ambiguity, a little certainty is refreshing, restoring our sense of clarity and security. And in the life of the church, many, perhaps most people are attracted to a proclamation of clear conviction and firm belief. I’d be willing to bet that if I stood outside of our door on Sunday mornings, stopping traffic on Main Street, declaring to all who would listen, “Follow me inside! I’ll show you the bright light of salvation and the solution to all your problems!”, I’d have some, maybe lots of takers! Far more than if I said what I believe: “Come with me and let us together stumble our way toward the light of God’s truth through the fog of life’s ambiguities.”

Yes, a bit of certainty can be attractive, even magnetic! The problem? Life, the world, you and I aren’t like that. We don’t live or, I believe, thrive in hermetically-sealed existences of the purity of clarity. Things, we are complex, thus stubbornly resistant to an either-or reductionism.

This brings us back to the parable about wheat and weeds left to grow together until the harvest.

A parable, from the Greek, para, alongside, and ballo, to throw, is a story tossed next to us; a metaphor that stands parallel to our lives that we, not having been hit in the head directly, might turn aside to see more clearly something that is hard to articulate and perhaps harder to accept. This is why I think that Matthew’s interpretation of the parable, altogether too head-on, doesn’t reflect Jesus’ intent, which, I think, is this…

The field represents anyone and any community. In everyone and in every community, there exists wheat and weeds; that which is healthy and unhealthy, beneficial and harmful, productive and destructive. The harvest, that moment of judgment as to what is which and which is what, will come. At the end of our lives, when we no longer will have the opportunity, the ability to think and feel, to speak and act, to review and revise, to change and correct, no longer leaving undone those things we ought to have done, some estimation or reckoning of our lives will be made; perhaps by us if we are conscious of our coming end and surely by others. Yet while we are in this world, we are bidden to learn, to discern and decide, how to live together with ourselves and with others; all, both wheat and weed, that is in us and in them. We are bidden to learn how to be like God of whom Solomon speaks whose power of judgment is the forbearance of mercy, whose righteousness is kindness.

If we and the whole world would learn live together like that, then the truest harvest will have come, and we will behold a glimpse of the fulfillment of that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Illustration: The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

the Sower sends sowers to sow

me preaching 1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23 and Psalm 119.105-112, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017

Jesus tells a parable, an allegorical story, about the nature of his ministry, even more, the character of the kingdom of God.

Our gospel passage skips over several verses.[1] In the missing text the disciples ask Jesus, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” Doubtless, their inquiry is spurred by their own confusion and lack of understanding about the meaning of Jesus’ story. And his answer would seem to confirm their concern. For he says, in so many words, that parables are meant to fulfill a prophecy to blind the eyes and bewilder the minds of those who, perhaps haughtily, believe they already see and know all about God.[2]

Blessedly, for Jesus’ disciples and perhaps for us who, from time to time, may find his teachings mind-numbingly mystifying, he later explains or, as my daddy would say, “makes it plain.”

Jesus is the sower. The seeds are the proclamation, his proclamation in his words, his presentation in his deeds, that God’s kingdom – God’s realm, nature and character, being and life; all this and more! – is no longer away and apart, up there, out there, but has come near.[3] And, as in all things, the results vary. Sometimes the sowing, o’er two millennia and unto this day, is fruitful. Folk hear and receive the word of God, which, after the psalmist, “is a lantern to (their) feet and a light upon (their) path”, which takes root in their minds and hearts, souls and spirits and bears the fruit of faithful, gospel-living; their lives patterned after the one they follow, Jesus Lord and Savior. And sometimes or, perhaps more often, as three of the four types of soil Jesus mentions are unfertile, the sowing is unfruitful.

Given Jesus’ intense emphasis on the soils – despite ending in a good place, speaking of a harvest of thirty-to-a-hundredfold – this parable might be categorized as a rant. A fussy Jesus, adding to his other sayings about not casting pearls before swine[4] and shaking from the feet the dust of homes and towns where the word of God is not welcomed,[5] complains about the stubbornness, the obtuseness of the people.

However this story, again, is about the ministry of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Therefore the focus is on Jesus, the sower, who, far from prudent selectivity, profligately, extravagantly tosses the seed everywhere!

The Parable of the Sower, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

What, from a human point of view, is inefficiency at its wasteful worst is divine faithfulness at its best. For this, the word showered on everyone, everywhere, and whatever the state of receptivity, is a sign God’s unconditional love for all.

Therefore today’s parable is a summons to us, who, as good soil, have received the word, to follow Jesus into the world as sowers who go out to sow, proclaiming in our words and presenting in our deeds that the kingdom of God is near.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Sower, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 13.10-17

[2] The disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”…The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will listen, but never understand, and you will look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes’” (Matthew 13.10, 13-15a; see Isaiah 6.9-10).

[3] According to Matthew’s gospel account, this was Jesus’ testimony at the inauguration of his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4.17b).

[4] Matthew 7.6

[5] Matthew 10.14

swordplay

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17

a sermon, based on Matthew 10.24-39, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

“Do not think that I come to bring peace…not…peace, but a sword”

14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo

Jesus! This is a hard word! So hard that I sometimes wonder what happened to Jesus between his birth and this point in his ministry. Peace was the purpose of his coming. When Jesus was born angels sang: “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace.”[1] When Jesus spoke of blessedness, he identified peacemakers as God’s children.[2] So, what’s up with this sword?

Now, I also remember at the start of his ministry those who gave him the most trouble were the people of Nazareth. An ostensibly triumphal return home swiftly soured as they, with the contempt of familiarity, criticized his teaching and him.[3] That must have been hard! Worse, his family wasn’t supportive. They believed he had lost his mind and tried to restrain him and take him home, presumably for his own good. That must have been hard![4]

So, I wonder. Did Jesus begin with visionary hope and idealistic zeal, seeking to breathe into a world of iniquity and inequity a word of peace about a kingdom of integrity and equality, then suffer manifold Shakespearean slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or find himself caught frequently in that poetic fell clutch of circumstance or simply have too many bad days, all of it knocking him off message?

On more serious reflection, “not peace, but a sword” is not contradictory to Jesus’ message and ministry. Rather, it is a faithful word. Though conflict was not Jesus’ purpose, it was a product of his ministry; for he challenged the powers-that-be, which always bears the bitter fruit of conflict. Thus, he warned his followers to expect it.

From the earliest days of the church, to be a follower of Jesus meant ostracism for some, even from their families; death for others. Because of this hard word, no one who became a Christian later could say: “No one told me about the high price I might have to pay!”

But what does “not peace, but a sword” mean to us in our day and time? Where, when is the sword of conflict for us?

Under the rubric that one biblical passage can illumine another, the Epistle to the Hebrews offers another metaphorical sword reference. God’s word is described as “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow…thoughts and intentions.”[5] I focus not on the sword or source of division, but on the character of the division: inward and deep, personal and precise; involving differentiation, slicing-and-dicing between and among realities so closely bound as to be practically inseparable.

I believe the sword of conflict arises in our lives – whether as individuals, families, communities, nations – and first within, whenever we conceive of an idea or claim a hope or behold a vision of who we desire to become or embark on a life’s mission to fulfill it. In other words, whenever we engage any activity involving definition and decision, there is the sword of conflict. For whenever we choose one thing, it means, demands letting something else go. Depending on the issue, that can be a hard thing. And when the choice is made, there arises another external sword of potential conflict with other individuals, families, communities, nations who question, challenge the choice that has been made of an idea or hope or vision or mission.

I believe that Jesus, his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional love and justice are ultimate matters of life and death, in this world and for the next. I believe that to follow Jesus, to bear his gospel, to share his good news in our thoughts and feelings, intentions, words, and actions is to experience conflict within ourselves and with others, for all of it flies in the face of our inherent human often selfish self-interest.

I believe that in following Jesus, if we never or rarely have known conflict, internal and external, then we’ve been following someone or something else. For to follow Jesus is to hold in our hands the sword of our own conflict.

So, beware and take care.

 

Illustration: 14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 2.14, my emphasis

[2] Matthew 5.9

[3] See Matthew 13.54-58, Mark 6.1-6, Luke 4.16-30.

[4] Mark 3.21

[5] Hebrews 4.12