Sermon 18 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
18 Pentecost • October 4, 2020
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 • Psalm 19, 37-45 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • Matthew 21:33-46

In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This parable, called the “Parable of the Wicked Farmers,” is very problematic for the scholars. For example, in this form as Matthew presents it, it is an “allegory,” not a parable. In an allegory, each character stands for some particular thing or person—the owner of the vineyard is God, the workers in the vineyard are the people of the Jewish nation, the representatives of the owner who were treated badly were the prophets, and the son and heir is Jesus himself.

But Jesus rarely, if ever, used allegories. They were a popular teaching tool in the First Century, but not one Jesus normally used. His parables made one central point, telling in a short phrase or even a story, one abstract message.

You probably are aware that Matthew had a copy of the Gospel of Mark in front of him when he wrote his own version of Jesus’ ministry. Luke also quotes Mark. So Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and is the source for much that Matthew and Luke were able to relate. This story of the Wicked Farmers is now found in all three Gospels.

In Mark and Luke, as it turns out, this story is a parable, not an allegory. It has a single point, one that engages one’s curiosity as to what Jesus means to convey. In this morning’s telling from Matthew, however, it is turned into an allegory. So the chances are that Matthew is embroidering quite a bit.

A second problem is this: In this allegory Jesus identifies himself as the Son of God—something Jesus never did. The Early Church, including Matthew who gave us this version, did call Jesus the Son of God. But Jesus? Speaking about himself? Never. To make such a claim for oneself would qualify one for the looney-bin, or brand one as a charlatan; I am told that insane asylums contain many self-proclaimed Messiahs!

The point in the other version of Mark and Luke is this: The hardness of heart of the established leadership, by refusing to listen to the prophets (and Jesus certainly considered himself a prophet)—such hardness of heart condemns them to live outside the kingdom of God.

What is being rejected is not so much Jesus, but what Jesus came to proclaim. They were rejecting the Word of God and thereby were denying themselves the kingdom.

We are enabled to enter the Kingdom of God by our willingness to listen newly, by opening ourselves to uncomfortable truths, by forgiving others as God has forgiven us, by feeding and clothing the poor, and the like.

Should we reject Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Wicked Farmers? I think not, even though it probably does not reflect Jesus’ teaching accurately. What it does give us is an insight into the faith and teaching of the Early Church. Jesus’ disciples certainly did see him as the Son of God, worthy of worship and example to be followed.

We promised, when we were baptized, to “follow and obey” Jesus as our Lord. Following Jesus means different things to different people, for each of us hears that promise differently. What matters is the intention to follow and obey, and then to actively search out what is the appropriate way for us to fulfill the promise.

What is appropriate to a twenty-year-old will not be the same as a sixty-year-old. What following Jesus means for a working person will not be the same as what it means for a retired person. So it take continual discernment, continual listening to the Word, continual openness to hear what each of our missions in life might be at any particular stage in our lives.

In this, Jesus promises to be with us unto the end of the earth, certainly the end of our earthly life. For we have taken him on as our Lord, our Leader, and our Savior.

Amen.

Sermon 16 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
16 Pentecost • September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15 • Psalm 105:1- 6, 37-45 • Philippians 1:21-30 • Matthew 20:1-16

In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A story and a koan we find in today’s Gospel Lesson. The koan is simple—“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” What could this possibly mean? Even though Matthew sticks it onto the end of a story, it is clear that it originally was a stand-alone koan spoken by Jesus to prompt some thinking, some investigation, some inquiry for those of us who are his disciples, something for us to chew on.  

So what does this mean, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” The first time I really heard this koan when I was 14 or 15 years old, standing with other members of my church youth group—the YPF, the Young People’s Fellowship. We were pushing and shoving, jostling each other as we tried to get to the front of the line for dinner. It was all pretty good-natured. We were doing the natural thing—trying to be first. You probably have done this yourself, trying to get into a crowed subway or maybe pushing your cart a little faster to edge out another shopper in the grocery store.

Our rector came up behind us, said “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” and led the head of the line to the back, reversing the order we had made. It was a shock. It was unfair. It was incomprehensible that he should do such a thing! But … I never forgot what he said, what I later learned was a koan from Jesus.

What does it mean? Well, perhaps it has to do with our misperception of what it means to be first! Maybe we got it all wrong, our striving and jostling, competing with our fellow humans to be first, when we thought that bigger is better, more powerful is more desirable, and richer is best.

Perhaps this is another version of another koan from Jesus—“Except you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Infants are charming and cute, but they certainly are not big and strong and smart. What they are good at is listening, but that is little valued in this world.

I leave it to you to sort out what this means for you—“The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The story that Jesus told tells another story of unfair behavior on the part of the kingdom of heaven. remember that this is, as always, an attempt by Jesus to help us as we seek the kingdom.

The owner of the vineyard, at about three-hour intervals, hires day laborers to work in his garden. The first group works 15 hours in the hot sun. The last group works only three hours until the work-day is ended. They all then get off work and are paid their agreed-upon wages. And they all got the same pay. Unjust! Unfair! “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!”

So perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not about getting fairness or equity or justice for ourselves—that would be just more self-centeredness, more about me-me-me.

Perhaps the kingdom of God is not about our hard work or being good. Perhaps entrance into the kingdom is not a matter of what we do. Perhaps it is only about what God does.

Perhaps entering the kingdom is a function of God’s generosity to us. Perhaps it is a free gift, a gift of grace, a gift that only has to be heard and chosen over what the world has to offer. No payment required.

As with the koan, this story is intended to hook us, to engage us in the inquiry. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be given.” Perhaps both story and koan are intended to aid us on our journey, seeking together the kingdom of God.

Amen.

Sermon 15 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
15 Pentecost • September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 • Psalm 114 • Romans 14:1-12 • Matthew 18:21-35

In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Forgiveness is at the heart of all of Jesus’ teachings. Forgiveness—the internal movement of the heart to let go of grievances, grudges, resentments, bitterness, ill will, and the like—forgiveness is critical to being able to access the kingdom of heaven.

We can look at forgiveness in a moment, but first I would like us to notice the ways in which Jesus teaches, his methods for engaging his disciples as we seek the kingdom of heaven.

In today’s Gospel Lesson, we can see two teaching methods, each of which aims at quite different kinds of learning. The first is what I am going to call the “koan” method, and the second I’ll call the “story” method.

A koan is defined as “a paradoxical anecdote or a riddle that has no solution.” There is a famous koan used by Zen Buddhists which you probably have heard: “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” Such a question is meant to derail logical thinking, to short-circuit our ravenous desire for easy explanations and simple answers.

A koan invites us to dig deeper, to look for ourselves at how something can be. This kind of teaching requires the disciple to create his own learning, and to let go of the need to be spoon-fed answers. The koan invites deep inquiry, and Jesus was a master of the koan.

In this lesson Jesus says, in answer to Peter’s question as to how many times we should forgive another: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” An immediate question: “How could you possibly keep count? This is ridiculous!” But then arrives another question, “Is there no end of forgiveness? Are we supposed to let them get away with their bad behavior forever, world without end?” Which invites another inquiry into the difference between unforgiveness—holding onto a grudge—and correcting others’ bad behavior.

A deep inquiry, like one initiated by a koan, leads to multiple questions, and profound, deep knowledge. This is the best kind of teaching, for it leads those of us who are disciples into the hard labor of actually thinking things thorough.

The “story” method that Jesus uses to teach his disciples is just that—story-telling. Cleverly designed stories are a great way to teach, because they can engage the listener with something that connects with our own experience; and it provokes an emotional reaction in us that makes the story memorable.

In this story about forgiveness, a servant of the king owes a great amount of money, which he cannot pay. So the king orders him and his household sold to pay the debt. The servant begs, promises to pay, and the king has pity and even forgives the debt. A simple story of forgiveness that leaves us feeling good.

The servant, however, has a colleague who owes him money and cannot pay. But instead of forgiving the debt as the king did for him, the servant tosses him in debtor’s prison. The king is outraged, as so are we. And it seems right that the unforgiving servant should himself be tortured until he could pay—serves him right!

The story tells the truth that we all have been forgiven multiple offenses by many people—particularly those closest to us—and it behooves us to be generous in forgiving the people around us.

We withhold forgiveness and hold on to resentments and grudges primarily because we hope it will protect us from the other person so they can’t hurt us again. A resentment keeps the other person at a distance, far enough away to that we cannot be vulnerable. It looks like safety to our primitive instincts.

But, in fact, distance isolates us from love. And the kingdom of heaven is a state of being where love engages us with others. And the truth is that without forgiveness, we ourselves end up with a kind of torture, made miserable by our own resentment.

Matthew puts together a koan and a story into today’s compelling and memorable parable. To love one another is to forgive … and forgive … and forgive.

Amen.

Sermon 14 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
14 Pentecost • August 23, 2020
Exodus 12:1-14 • Psalm 145 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20

In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus preached the availability of the kingdom of God to everyone, and what he declared was pretty much a mystery to his followers. What he said sounded right in some way; his stories and sayings were captivating; but exactly what he was talking about was not really clear.

This was especially true for the scribes and Pharisees, the religious experts of the day, who were very clear about what God wanted from them and how to go about giving it to him. Follow the Law as it was handed down from generations past. Even in the smallest thing, obey the Law. As for Jesus, they saw him as a lax, lazy, and permissive distorter of the absolute truth that had already been received.

And yet, very little of what Jesus taught was new. He was grounded in the Law and the Prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets were the context out of which he spoke; they were the foundation of his understanding of will of God. From his standpoint, Jesus saw his teachings to be the direct and logical result of the teachings that had been handed down.

This is why, from the very first practice of the Early Church, the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament, as we call it—was always included in Christian worship. They are the foundation of our understanding, just as they were Jesus’ bedrock, his fundamental truths.

So, what was new in Jesus teachings? What did he see in the ancient scriptures that others had missed? Well, what he saw was deceptively simple. He saw that, if your were to get to the bottom of all the Law and the Prophets, what was to be found was the basic principle that we are to love God and love one another. Jesus said, when challenged about the novelty and strangeness of his teachings, that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

St Paul grasped this understanding of what Jesus was teaching, even though he never knew him in person. Paul did know through the vision that he received on road traveling to persecute the Jewish heretics in Damascus who called themselves followers of Christ. He also knew Jesus from the stories and instruction of others who had known Jesus personally. He did, however, get the essence of Jesus.

In today’s Second Lesson, Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He was a student of the Law, but after he saw Jesus he became aware that all the dictates of the Law were intended to keep us from damaging each other. Indeed, the Law encouraged us to be a benefit to each other, to care for each other, to love.

Paul says that to refrain from adultery, murder, theft, and coveting “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Far from being simple or lax, this is a much stricter version of how to live than merely following the dictates of the Law. The commandment to love each other requires each of us to sort out what would be good for the other person, to discern what would damage them or contribute to their wellbeing.

This process of discerning what is best for another person changes from moment to moment, so that if we are to love each other we have to listen intently; we have to be aware of their needs and wants; we have to be conscious of where they are coming from. It requires us to “read between the lines” in what others say to hear what their true meaning is.

Sometimes people describe the Episcopal Church as “Catholic Lite.” In some ways, this description of our beloved Church is exactly true, and in others, it misses the mark completely. I have always found it amusing for exactly that reason.

Far from being an insult, it gets to the heart of our faith. We have a long history of rules and regulations, built up over two thousand years of church life. But in every generation, there have been those among us who gradually relaxed the grip of inflexible Law and opted in favor of love. Throughout Christian history, some have seen that all we need is love, and also that to love requires a lot of work.

Amen.

Sermon 13 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
13 Pentecost • August 30, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15 • Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c • Romans 12:9-21 • Matthew 16:21-28

In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning’s Gospel Lesson contains five separate sayings of Jesus that Matthew has stitched together. You can see the places where the verbal “needle” was used to stitch sayings together so they become part of the ongoing narrative, The use of the word “for” at the beginning of each saying is stitching, and it occurs four time in this selection.

The other obvious stitching words are, “Then Jesus told his disciples.” You will find “then” and “for” used a lot in Matthew’s narrative. I point this out because it is critical to understanding Jesus’ message. If we attempt to understand the passage as a whole, it doesn’t make much sense. But if we look at each individual saying, separate from the others, their meanings pop out clearly. So let’s walk through these sayings.

Jesus tries to forewarn his disciples about what he sees down the road—he sees a journey up to Jerusalem where suffering and death await. Jesus knows what he is doing and he wants his disciples to know it too. But. Peter objects. This is not the path to success, so far as he can see, and he mistakenly wants to protect Jesus; “This shall never happen to you!” he says. Jesus rebukes him with these stinging words: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Peter is making Jesus’ work harder because he cannot see God’s hand in Jesus’ ministry. He cannot see that suffering and death are the path to the salvation of the world.

Neither can we. We, too, cannot see that suffering and death are the path to the salvation. Jesus says to us, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Here’s the problem: We are programmed, genetically and socially, for survival. In almost everything we do, we first run it though a filter of “will this hurt me, or help me.” Survival means physical survival, keeping my skin intact and my bones whole; having enough food and housing for the next ten or twenty years. Survival means keeping a respectable image among my fellow human beings and avoiding humiliation at all costs. Survival means keeping my stuff safe—the valuable physical objects that fill my house and my car, that I have come to think are an essential part of me. We need to survive!

Except—that statement is a lie. We do not need to survive. We can die, and eventually, we will. Death awaits us all. We have trouble coming to grips with that fact, and we don’t notice that being alive is not a future event. Being alive is a “right now” event. Right now we are alive. Life, aliveness, liveliness, happens only in the now, not the past and not in the future. Right now. Worrying about the future kills off being alive right now.

Jesus invites us to let go. He invites us to loosen the grip of survival that kills our aliveness. He invites us to shake off fear for ourselves and for our survival, and to shift our attention to others, to love and care for them. He invites us to trust God, who made us and will take care of us.

This is foolishness to the world, of course. But it is where Peter is coming from when he declares that surely suffering and death should never happen to Jesus, God forbid! To this Jesus says: “What will it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world but forfeit [your] life?” Where’s the benefit of trading the aliveness of “right now” for survival sometime in the future?

So we are invited to give it up; to give up this fearful struggle for survival; and to notice the truth that life is now, right now.

And then, in the back of our minds, we hear that tiny, anxious voice that says, “Do I have to give up Social Security? My savings account? My wonderful possessions? Do I have to stop planning for the future?” Certainly not. The problem is not with sensible measures to look out for ourselves and those we love. The problem is the anxious fear that we must let go of if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Let go and let God,” as the saying goes.

This is particularly important in this time of fear and anxiety over the covid-19 virus. Taking sensible measures like masking and social distancing are fine. But if we succumb to fear and stop living, letting our aliveness shrink in the face of fear; submitting to terror over the danger of infection—if we choose concern for survival over openness to being alive, then we lose the possibility of living in the kingdom. We lose our life, and there is nothing we can give to buy it back.

Courage, my friends! This will not last forever. I love you, and God loves you—passionately.

Amen.