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.

Sermon 12 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
12 Pentecost • August 23, 2020
Exodus 1:8-2:10 • Psalm 124 • Romans 12:1-8 • Matthew 16:13-20

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

Jesus and his close disciples are moving around Galilee in today’s Gospel Reading, avoiding the authorities and on the run. He is a healer and an engaging teacher, so they are generally welcomed into places without TV or Internet—no entertainments were available, nor adequate medical care so they were welcomed, and his core group is joined by many others, some coming and others going, a constantly shifting audience.

At one point, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” was Jesus way of referring to himself. His disciples report on the great figures from the past, somehow resuscitated in the person of Jesus. It is not clear to me whether these luminaries were thought to literally embody the person of Jesus, or whether they were just saying he was similar to them. Either way, they are identifying Jesus as some traditional figure from the past.

Okay, says Jesus, but how about you? Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter, who almost always got it wrong, gets it right this time. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says. As far as Jesus is concerned, Peter gets it exactly right, and to mark the occasion, Jesus gives Simon a new name: “you are Peter” (which is the Greek word for “rock”) and on such rocks the assembly of my followers, the church, will be built.

The issue that Jesus raises is one of identity. Identity is a matter of being, not of action, or of interpretation, or of nature. Being is a distinctly human thing, and it is not natural, but must be conferred. For example, a lion or an ameba has no being other than that conferred by us humans. Being is a function of language, and it is given by naming.

So you might ask, who has the power to confer being? Other people? Ourselves? The answer is “yes.” You can confer being on another by the simple act of declaring their being. We do this all the time, this godly act of creating beings. We do this when we declare, “You are my friend,” or “She is my mother.” Others can create our being, and then relate to us accordingly. You will treat the persons you call your friend or your mother differently than any other person.

Being can also be created by ourselves when we declare, “I’m an Episcopalian,” “I am a teacher,” “I am a father,” or even “I’m a shopper!” My favorite example of creating being is when a couple stands before witnesses and say, “I, John, take you, Mary, for my wife, etc.” When she does the same, they have created a new entity, a married couple, a family. And they did this godly act of creating a new being by saying the words, by declaring it to be so.

When Jesus raises the issue of his own being, he is doing a profoundly important thing. He is letting his disciples know how to relate to him. He is not just some guy in a diner; he is the strong, God-given savior of the world. He is a person to be listened to. He is one who can be relied on to straighten things out.

It is important to notice that Jesus forbids his disciples to spread the news that he is Messiah. This is a practical measure. Anyone who claims to be Messiah must be a fraud. This is for others to declare, just as Peter did. He said it, not Jesus. The power of Messiah lies in others’ recognition that he is the Savior, not is his boasting about it. You will notice that when we blow our own horn, when we claim exceptional greatness for ourselves, other people raise an eyebrow and cast a skeptical look, as indeed they should.

For himself, though, Jesus identified himself as Messiah. By claiming messiahship for himself, Jesus knew how he should relate to the world, what his job was, and what his deliverables were.

It is the same with us. It’s very useful to know who others say we are. And it is equally important to know who we say we are. When these two things are clear—how others identify us, and how we identify ourselves—everyone becomes more powerful and more enabled to do great things.

Like, for example, forgiveness. Every Jew knew that only God could forgive the sins and misdeeds of us poor humans. Forgiveness was God’s business, and it required sacrifices to get God to forgive. Yet here is Jesus, almost casually conferring the power of forgiveness on his disciples! And, because he is Messiah, they listened to him, and believed what he said, that they suddenly had the power to forgive. This ordinary power to forgive we now take for granted, but in Jesus’ time, it was shocking.

Before this, the power of heaven flowed to earth, not the other way around. Heaven, God’s domain, dominate the earth; but the earth had no power over heaven. Jesus is saying that, from now on, whatever we forgive on earth, heaven will do likewise. And whatever we refuse to forgive, heaven will also refuse to forgive.

You and I, my friends, have a profound gift placed in our hands, the power to either forgive or to hold others in the bondage of unforgiveness. And we have this because Messiah said so.

Amen.

Sermon 11 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
11 Pentecost • August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1-15 • Psalm 133 • Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 • Matthew 15:21-28

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

Today’s Gospel Lesson has two distinct sections—a teaching and a story. Both have profound points to make about the nature of reality.

The first teaching distinguishes what generates good and evil in our poor world, beset with so many problems, so many confusions. Jesus says, “It not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

This is said against a background of the Jewish notion at the time of purity. Being pure and blameless was, for them in that time, a matter of observing dietary and sexual taboos. Some were contained in the Bible, but many were not. What foods a person could and how they were prepared and with whom you ate them counted. Dairy could not be mixed with meat, or even prepared in the same kitchen; eating with gentiles, those who were not Jews, made one unclean and impure. To this day, some parts of Judaism observe these purity laws.

But the reality is simply that evil and the purity of our souls does not come from such ritual acts. Evil comes from what is generated in our hearts, from out of our mouths. Think about it, think about where war comes from—someone in authority declares war and death and destruction follow. Where does theft of property come from—someone says in their heart and mind, “I have a right to their car and I’m going to take it.”

Think about how you have damaged other people. It all started with a feeling of anger, perhaps, or revenge, or coveting something that belonged properly to another. Then, out of this feeling in our hearts or perhaps our gut, we speak the word, we put the feelings into language in our minds, and then out from our mouths and into the world, actions that damage others.

Notice that Jesus is not forbidding us to speak evil; he is just wanting us to get clear about where evil comes from. Jesus is never the moralist, always the clarifier of what’s so, of the truth of it.

Likewise, the peaceable kingdom of God also comes from our hearts, and through our speech, and into the world.

In the second passage, the story is heartrending, of a gentile woman whose daughter is crazy—“tormented by a demon,” in their words. Jesus at this point in his ministry is on the run from the authorities, avoiding contact as his fame grows and he becomes more and more of a danger to the establishment. He moves into a gentile territory outside of Jewish lands, to Tyre and Sidon, the Phoenician domains. She pleas for help, but he ignores her. His disciples say to send her away because she’s making a disturbance and Jesus agrees that she has no place there with them.

But the woman won’t take no for an answer—“Lord, help me,” she says. No, he says, she’s not my problem—she’s a gentile and my business is with the Jews. She insists. Then he becomes directly insulting in an attempt to get her away: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Most people would be so insulted they’d leave in a huff, but she won’t leave. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” At this, Jesus’ resistance crumbles and he is overwhelmed by the woman’s faith—by her commitment to the possibility of her daughter’s healing. “Woman, great is your faith!” he says, and her daughter is healed.

A couple of things: First, it is at this point that Jesus widens his view of his ministry. In the beginning, he saw his ministry as one aimed at God’s Chosen People, his fellow Jews. But after this event, the distinction between Jews and gentiles seems to be broken down in his mind. He becomes the savior of the whole world.

Secondly, the woman’s faith is what generates the miracle. Again, it is a matter of faith, of a commitment to a possibility, a commitment that will withstand rejection and insults and public humiliation. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

If you would like to have miracles in your life, to have the impossible thing that you badly want for yourself or for others, you can have it. But it will cost you. We would do well to take the example of the Canaanite woman to heart.

Amen.

Sermon 10 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
10 Pentecost • August 9, 2020
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 • Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 43b • Romans 10:5-15 • Matthew 14:22-33

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

Another extraordinary miracle that Jesus generated appears in this week’s Gospel Lesson—walking on water!

You will recall from last week’s Gospel Lesson that Jesus was very tired and needed some space so he took a boat and went across the large lake that is called the Sea of Galilee. But crowds frustrated this plan for some time alone by walking around the lake to meet him on the other shore. There, he had compassion on the sick and healed them. And then he had his disciples feed the five thousand with only two small fish and five loaves of bread, a remarkable miracle that is a prototype of how miracles happen and how we can generate them in real life.

In today’s lesson, Jesus finally gets some rest. He sends the crowd away, puts his disciples in a sailboat to go home, and spends the night in rest and prayer. Maybe some sleep, too. Meanwhile, his disciples in the boat were having a hard time of it, battling strong winds and waves all night. They had not even made it to the far shore when Jesus showed up, walking toward them on the water.

“Walking on water” has become a synonym for performing miracles—we say about someone who seemingly can do no wrong, “He walks on water.” Let me say at the outset that I do not know how this miracle could have happened. I will suggest a possibility at the end of the sermon, but it is in the form of a joke so perhaps it cannot be taken seriously. Maybe he did walk on water, literally; the story appears, after all, in all four Gospels. And maybe something happened that, in the re-telling, got exaggerated. Who knows?

The story, however, is not really about walking on water; it is about the power of faith; it is about the effectiveness of a commitment to a possibility, and about some of the pitfalls that can lead to ruin.

The miracle begins badly—the disciples, tired and stressed by a sleepless night, struggling against contrary winds and failing to make much headway toward the distant shore, suddenly see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water.

They let their superstition overcome their direct observation of what is happening. They actually saw Jesus walking toward them, but they knew—they just KNEW—that people cannot walk on water. So they said, in effect, I cannot see what I’m seeing. This is the very nature of superstition: “knowing” with such profound determination that we can’t be seeing what our eyes are telling us, or what our possibilities envision, that we are stopped. “It must be a ghost!” And so they were terrified.

We get stopped when we KNOW something cannot happen. “We tried that and it didn’t work,” we say. “No, that will never happen,” we say. These are statements of “no-possibility” and they make miracles impossible. We cease to be like little children, who are always in a state of “not-knowing,” when we let what we know get in the way of what we want. Yet Jesus’ promise that whatever we ask for will be granted is nullified and made of none effect.

Fear is the other great killer of possibility. Peter wants to believe that it is Jesus and not a ghost, so he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” to which Jesus responds, “Come.” Peter steps out of the boat and walks toward Jesus, but then “knowing” step in, he notices the power of the wind, knows that it should sink him, so then he sinks.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus chides Peter. Well, he doubted because of fear, which is another kind of knowing. We get afraid when we know we are in danger, which often is a useful survival aid, but also can easily deflect us from our commitment to a possibility.

So walking on water is not so hard after all. It just requires a commitment to a possibility and sticking to it.

Now, how could it possibly have happened? Looking at the event after the fact, after the miracle, we can usually explain how it happened. I confess that in this instance, I am not so sure, but here is the joke I promised at the beginning:

A priest and a rabbi had gone fishing together for years. A new minister came to town, so they invited him to go fishing with them. The three drove to a nearby lake, got into a boat, and began fishing. After a few minutes, the priest said, “Oh! I forgot my pipe and I need a smoke.” So he stepped out of the boat, walked across the lake to the shore to get his pipe and came back. The rabbi said nothing but the minister was amazed. Then the rabbi said, “My lunch! I forgot it,” stepped out of the boat and walked calmly across the lake to the car and brought his lunch back to the boat. The priest said nothing, but the minister was amazed. Finally, the minister drummed up his courage and said, “I think I’ll go to the car also,” got out of the boat and promptly sank like a stone. After the priest and the rabbi had hauled him out of the water, the priest said to the rabbi, regretfully, “We forgot to tell him where the stones are.”

Amen.

Sermon 9 Pentecost

Sermon
9 Pentecost • August 2, 2020
Genesis 32:22-31 • Psalm 17:1-7, 16 • Romans 9:1-5 • Matthew 14:13-21

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

Here is a wonderful story of a major miracle in Jesus’ ministry, wonderful in that it tells in detail exactly how the miracle happened, precisely what Jesus and his disciples said and did.

When I was trained as a business consultant, we were expected to produce breakthroughs by working with our clients, and we did. A breakthrough, as we understood it, was making the impossible happen. Marking the impossible happen is akin to making miracles. And the process we used was exactly as described in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

This is hard for us Twenty-first Century Americans to hear, since we know quite well that there is no such thing as a miracle. And indeed, we can easily explain how anything that might be called a miracle could happen. We can look back and see the details, the actions that resulted in the miracle. And so we discount the miracle. “There’s nothing miraculous here,” we say since we can explain it.

Looking back it is obvious what happened. But how about before the miracle, before the breakthrough, before, when it was clearly seen to be impossible. So let’s look at the feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus is tired. He needs a little space, a time of quiet to refresh himself. So he takes off for some private time, getting into a boat and sailing to another place where nobody was. But the crowds were not having it. They had seen him cure the sick and tell his marvelous stories, and they walked around the lake on foot so that, when he came ashore, they were there to greet him. So much for quiet time!

But he felt their pain and need, and out of his compassion, he sacrificed his quiet time to heal their sick. When the evening came, his disciples were concerned with the welfare of the crowd and suggested to Jesus that he send the crowd to the villages in the vicinity to get something to eat. This is the first phase of generating a miracle—identifying a need.

The second thing is to propose the most efficient action to satisfy the need, to propose a possibility, to consider an obvious way to satisfy the need. So Jesus says that there is no need to send them on a journey to get food. Feed them yourselves, he says, feed them here and now.

What immediately arises is that it is impossible, a lack of resources or some other obstacle that clearly cannot be overcome. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” the say. It is impossible to feed so many people with so little food.

But Jesus is unwilling to let it go; he has faith that they can be fed. So he says, “Let’s go with what we’ve got,” with the faith that, once started, something would show up to make the impossible thing happen.

Five loaves of bread and two fish are brought forward. Jesus then proceeds with an ordinary meal by blessing God, thanking him for the meal. Then, as with any other meal, he broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to distribute.

Did Jesus know that somehow the five loaves and two fish would suddenly multiply and feed the multitude? Absolutely not. All the evidence indicated that they had a pittance in the face of a great need. It was impossible and Jesus knew it. What he did have, however, was faith—faith that what was needed could happen, he knew not how.

And it did happen. The impossible became a reality and there was more than enough for everyone. Looking back, it was simple to see how it happened. People tend to be self-protective and they are also smart—they did not come out into the deserted place without something in their pockets. After all, his disciples thought to bring along some bread and fish. So did the rest of the crowd; they had their own dinners with them, but everyone was keeping their own dinner for themselves, hidden secretly in their clothing lest others might want to part of it.

When Jesus showed generosity and a willingness to share what little he and his disciples had, the others began to get generous as well, and there was plenty for all—twelve baskets-full left over. This is an easy explanation, one that many people have come up with.

But here is the thing about miracles—it all depends on where you are looking from. Before the fact, it looks impossible. After the fact it looks obvious and simple. A breakthrough—a miracle—cannot happen if we let the impossibility of a situation stop us. It take faith to proceed despite what appears to be impossible.

On one engagement with a computer company, our consulting group had been working with a team of six people who had been given a project. But they were stymied because of a lack of equipment. They had been told that the necessary equipment would not arrive for six weeks and moving ahead was impossible. But the team cost the company about $12,000 a week and six weeks of inactivity would break their budget and the project would fail.

We forged ahead anyway, working from a commitment to the possibility that the project could be successful. “A commitment to a possibility” is business language for “faith.” We lived in the possibility and refused to be stopped by the apparent impossibility; we had faith. And the miracle—the breakthrough—occurred. The needed machine was sitting on the desk of the proper person and the project succeeded.

How? Looking at the situation from before the fact, the lack of a machine made success impossible. But after the fact, the solution was embarrassingly simple—an identical machine was sitting unused on the desk of the team leader. It had been given to him just because of his status in the organization; he had no use for it and had entirely forgotten about it. It was only a matter of noticing it, and moving it about two yards to a new location—an overnight solution.

Faith is a very practical matter. Not a belief, but a commitment to a possibility. My friends, Jesus invites us to have faith, and to ask for whatever we desire. He promises that God will provide it.

Amen.

Sermon 8 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
8 Pentecost • July 26, 2020
Genesis 29:15-28 • Psalm 105:1-11, 45b • Romans 8:26-39 • Matthew 13:31-33, 44-62

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

Jesus spoke mainly about the kingdom of God, which Matthew usually refers to as the “kingdom of heaven.” By using the word “kingdom,” Jesus is drawing on the ordinary political organization of his time. A kingdom is a defined geographical space organized by a strongman, who is called a king. The king’s job is to keep order and promote the welfare of the country—peace and prosperity is the king’s work.

At least, that is the theory. More often than not, however, kings have concentrated on their own survival in power and their own family’s prosperity. There are exceptional rulers, of course, but history records remarkably few of them, and rarely do their successors live up to their standard of excellence in promoting peace and prosperity. You can see why the designers of our Constitution rejected having a hereditary king in America—kings and their children just rarely turn out well.

Jesus was clear that peace and prosperity are what is needed for us human beings, and since worldly rulers cannot be trusted to bring that desired peace and prosperity, we will have to turn to another source. His relationship with God, whom saw as his Father, pointed to another possibility, the possibility that the order that God established in heaven could extend to the earth. So he announced that the kingdom of God is at hand, attainable, available, and ready to be entered into.

Heaven is an abstract concept, of course, and like all abstract concepts it is difficult to get a handle on at first. I can remember—in the fourth grade, perhaps—struggling to understand long division. Mathematics, of course, is utterly abstract. You can see two things, and you can see a written symbol for two, but you cannot ever see two itself. It is only a concept, abstracted from our experience of a couple of objects.

So I struggled with this abstract thing called long division, immersed in the inquiry of what it was for and how it could work. It was a bit painful, but I kept at it, perhaps for two or three of weeks. And then, one day, in a neighbor’s back yard, standing idly on the grass next to a chain link fence, it came to me. Long division! I got it!

This is the way it is with abstract concepts—at first, incomprehension; what on earth are they talking about? And then wondering, inquiring about this elusive concept, trying to see it. And, finally we see it and understanding comes, all of a sudden. Unexpectedly, the meaning opens up and we get it. And then the ramifications of the abstraction unfold, and we begin to see its many uses and the variety of ways it impacts our life. This is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows into a huge shrub in which birds can nest. The kingdom starts with a tiny possibility, just a glimpse of what’s possible. And then, over time, that possibility unfolds into an extensive panorama of actions and understandings that create love, joy, and peace, the prosperity that we all desire.

Matthew adds another parable that has the same meaning—the kingdom is like yeast, a small amount of which, when incorporated in a large quantity of flour, causes the whole mixture to expand. The kingdom starts with that small spark of understanding, which then expands to every part of our life.

There are six parables in today’s Gospel Reading, one-liners, short stories. The first two—the mustard seed and the yeast—are followed by another pair—the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price. Those two make another point that, once one gets the concept of the kingdom of heaven, it is so desirable that we will give anything to live into it.

In both parables, the person sells everything to get an incredibly valuable object. To participate in the kingdom of heaven, one has to give up old certainties, long-help opinions, grudges and hurts from past damaging encounters, even the cherished identity and immense wisdom we have built up over the years. We will never give up these things, except for the vision of something vastly better. Once we see the possibility of the kingdom, we can see that it might be worth it to exchange them for the kingdom.

In the fifth parable, the kingdom is likened to a fisherman casting his net into the sea, catching all kinds of sea creatures indiscriminately and hauling all of them ashore. Then, once ashore, they sort out the edible fish and discard the rest. To be in the kingdom is to become like a little child, accepting everything as it comes. Later, one can sort things out. This is a kind of extreme generosity, to welcome everyone and everything that comes our way, and to delay judgment till later—indeed to let the angels of God do the sorting out.

Finally, in the sixth parable that Matthew has collected in this batch, Jesus says that everyone who has developed an understanding of the kingdom of God has both new understandings and old wisdoms available. The old way is not the best way, nor is the new way. The best way is the best way, and those ways will come from both what is new and what is old. “Therefore,” he says, “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.”

These are parables of the kingdom. They are clues, not answers. They are just a taste, not a meal. They are meant to tease one with a possibility which, when inquired into and grappled with, can unfold into the kingdom itself.

Amen.