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.

Sermon 7 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
7 Pentecost • July 19, 2020
Genesis 28:10-19a • Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23 • Romans 8:12-25 • Matthew 13:24-30. 36-43

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

Friends, we human beings are always looking for something better. We are unlike dumb animals, who do not have the gift of language. They accept their lot without question, for without language there can be no questions. But we who have the divine gift of languaging—the ability to represent the past in words and, like our Creator, to speak the Word and create the future we would like to have.

We would like to have something better than our present circumstance, something better than our past. So Jacob, in the First Lesson, has been sent by his father Isaac to get a wife from among his relatives back East. Isaac and Jacob are living in Canaan, but Isaac does not think the women there were worthy—better to go to relatives, of whom they can be certain.

On his way, the sun seta and it seema good to stop and get some sleep. So he lies down, with a stone for a pillow, and sleeps. And a dream comes upon him of a ladder, reaching from that place up into heaven, with angels of God going up and down the ladder. And then God appears, standing beside him, and makes a commitment to him, a promise that the land on which he is sleeping will become his. God will give it to him and his descendants. And he promises to stay with him until he comes back to settle on the land he’s been given.

Now, promises are about the future. A promise puts into words something that does not yet exist, and creates it as a possibility, not yet a reality. A promise is a possibility backed up by a commitment, and you can hear God committing to the fulfillment of the promise in the dream.

Jacob’s current situation is not good. You will recall that, through deceit and cunning, he stole his brother Esau’s birthright and the blessing of his father which would make him the head of the family when the old man died. Esau was not happy with him, and threatened his life. Jacob’s current situation is not good.

Jacob needed a different future, a better one than the mess he’d so far made of his life. The dream was about that better future, the gift of a new possibility for him and for his children’s children—God promises that “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

Paul expresses something of the same idea when he contrasts our natural state as human beings, enslaved to our present circumstances, beset by difficulties, hounded by health issues and uncertain economic times. But here is the future that Paul sees as possible: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Paul’s vision of the future expands beyond the personal to the Universe: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

The promise that both the Book of Genesis and St Paul hold before us is the promise of a vastly better future and, amazingly, one that will be brought forth through us. We—you and I—are the vehicles by which the new creation, the bright new future will be manifested. Both Paul and Jacob were blown away by the possibilities that God has in mind for us.

Paul counsels patience when all we have is hope, not the reality. But we need to have the hope, the possibility of the bright future.

I was listening the other day to a small group of Episcopal clergy, expressing doubt that their parishes would survive, given the economic difficulties that the shut-down has visited on them. They could see no possibility, no hope. Yet without hope, there cannot be a bright future, and hope is something that only they can create.

Good Shepherd will survive. That is my promise and my commitment. We certainly face challenges, and I certainly do not have all the answers about how we will survive and prosper. But we do not have to know how the future will happen—only that it will happen. And not only will we survive, we will prosper!

Amen.

Sermon 6 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
6 Pentecost • July 12, 2020
Genesis 25:19-34 • Psalm 119:105-112 • Romans 8:1-11 • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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

Jesus leaves the house where he was staying and a crowd gathers to hear this man who is gaining a reputation as an engaging speaker. The crowd surrounds him, too many for him to be heard on the fringes. So he gets into a boat and pushes our a little from the shore. You may remember how loud it was in the swimming pools when we were little. Sound carries very well across water. So Jesus sat in the boat (teachers always sat in those days) and told a story or two.

We like entertainment! We like a good story. There was no television then, no radio, no books, no newspapers, even. There were community storytellers, of course, and wandering preachers who, like the tent revivalists in the American experience, came for a couple of days to hold a revival and then left. Jesus was like that, and he capitalized on people’s hunger for entertainment. He told stories.

We remember stories, and we can repeat them. They stick with us so that we can chew on them to extract whatever meaning we can find. He was speaking to country folk, farmers and men in the trades, housewives and parents. They knew what a sower is: the farmer who takes a basket of seed into a plowed field and flings them across the furrows—broadcasts the seeds in the time-honored method of planting grain.

But all soil is not the same, and some fell on the path which was hard pavement, trodden down by human and animal feet. And the birds saw the seeds lying helplessly exposed and ate them up. Other seeds survived to sprout, but had no deep roots since they were on rocky ground. The sun shriveled them up and killed them before they had a chance to produce grain. Others were choked by weeds, which steal all the moisture from the soil and cover them so no sun reaches them, and they die.

But some seeds fell on good soil and produced many times their number. Here is the miracle of farming. One grain, if it gains roots and is watered sufficiently, and has enough sunlight—one grain of wheat can multiply prodigiously. Just out of curiosity, I googled the question: “How much wheat will one seed produce?” The response was, “On average, there are 22 seeds per head and 5 heads per plant … 110 seeds per plant.” Just as Jesus said, a hundredfold at best, and others less.

He may have gone on to explain the meaning of the story. but not necessarily. In Mark’s Gospel, for example, he just lets the story germinate on its own in the minds of his audience, explaining it later to his close disciples. But good teachers have different methods for different times and this may have been one for parsing the story, for taking it apart to see the meaning. “Guided inquiry,” this is called.

The story is about the word of the kingdom. Some hear it and, because it is not easily heard, dismiss it—not out of disrespect, but just because they were distracted by what Jesus calls “the evil one.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “deliver us from evil.” But the original text says, “deliver us from the evil one.” The evil one is those distractions that divert our attention and keep us from learning about the kingdom.

Others actually get the meaning of the word of the kingdom, even become enthusiastic about it, but after a while, when it gets costly or troublesome, they forget. They are those whose rocky soil did not allow deep roots to grow—enthusiasm soon fades.

Similarly, seeds sown among the thorns are choked—in human terms, being harassed by cares and trouble, or hearing the siren song of great wealth, the word of the kingdom gets lost in the thicket of worldly concerns.

But some seeds hit the ground for which they were intended, the good soil, well-watered and sun-warmed, and they produced many fold.

Notice that Jesus is not trying to get us to improve ourselves. He is not encouraging us to be anything other than what we already are. He does, however, want us to wake up and seen the reality. “Listen!” he says. Pay attention! See the reality of how the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” gets lost with some people, and others are enthusiastic until it gets hard, and some are a blessing to many.

We in America live with the principle that all people are created equal, and there is some truth to this great American maxim. Yet it is also the case that vast inequalities occur among us. Some are huge contributors to society, and others are a drain on our common wellbeing. That’s just the way it is; that’s just the truth of it

The power of seeing clearly, however, is what Jesus is depending on. When he teaches, he shows us truth, reality as it actually is. Why? Because the truth allows for transformation. The truth alters us, all by itself, shifts us without our having to do anything. We do not have to fix ourselves once we see the truth of ourselves and the world around us. The power of the truth does the heavy lifting; seeing the truth turns us into the heavenly beings we were created to be.

Amen.

Sermon 5 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
5 Pentecost • July 5, 2020
Genesis 24:34-38. 42-49. 58-67 • Psalm 45:11-18 • Romans 7:15-25a • Matthew 11:16-19

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

Again, welcome back! If you’ve been wondering what church will look like in the future, this is it. A combination of zooming and in-person participation will likely be the norm for the foreseeable future. Social distancing and wearing masks will probably last for a year or so—a vaccine, at the earliest, will be produced in January and it will take six months to get most of us immune to the virus. So that means next June before we can again have Good Shepherd’s marvelous coffee hours. This is my optimistic estimate.

The good news for us is that we have discovered how to have close relationships via the Internet. Who knew! I never would have thought it possible, yet we are still church, in every sense of the word. And for that I am profoundly grateful.

In today’s Gospel Lesson, we find a compilation of five distinct sayings of Jesus, parables that Matthew has grouped together in the midst of an ongoing story.

“To what will I compare this generation?” he asks, and then answers his own question with a vivid description of sulky children, kids who just don’t want to play. His group wanted to play “wedding,” but they wouldn’t have it; then they tried to play “funeral” and they wouldn’t play that game either. To play is to be engaged, to connect, to participate, to listen. Unless one is willing to listen, the good news cannot be heard. Because the notion of the kingdom of heaven is difficult to get under one’s belt, it requires being engaged in the inquiry. And “this generation” wouldn’t play. Do you get the sense that Jesus is sad about the resistance he is encountering? Do you hear his disappointment that they won’t listen?

The next saying makes a similar point—whatever he and his old master, John the Baptist, did was interpreted to discredit them. John was an ascetic, living sparsely with no comforts. It was used as evidence that he was possessed by a demon—why listen to a crazy guy? Jesus did the opposite, using dinner parties as the venue for his teaching, and they called him a drunkard and a glutton—why listen to a depraved person? They found excuses to not engage, not to do the work of learning how to see the kingdom.

Matthew adds another line to this saying, one that I suspect was originally a stand-alone. But it fits. “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” he says. This is a version of the saying with which he warned his disciples against false prophets. How can you tell who should be listened to? “By their fruits you shall know them.” Just look and see the results; that will tell you clearly everything you need to know. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

The third saying deals with how it is that the Gospel is so hard to grasp. Thinking is hard work. Notice that we are always having thoughts; there’s a conversation going on all the time in our minds—“roof brain chatter” the Asian gurus call it. Notice also that these thoughts we are having are all familiar thoughts—opinions and judgements and things we long since figured out. This is not thinking; it is having thoughts. To think is to create something new, and that is hard work. Interestingly, that is what infants do all the time. They think. They collect sights and sounds and feelings, and then work out what they mean.

“I thank you, Father … because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” If we will return to being an infant, to wondering what on earth is going on, what can things mean; if we will shed our already-knowing, our freeze-dried explanations, the infinite wisdom that we have accumulated over a lifetime; if we will become as a little child—the Father will reveal all things. Our smarts will not save us; only our open-minded listening.

The fourth saying sounds to me like Jesus musing, almost to himself, about his relationship to the Father, and the work he has been given. “Whatever I have, it has come from the Father who knows me. And my job is to show the Father to those whom I choose.”

And finally, the fifth saying: This has come to be known as the “Comfortable Words.,” and they used to be part of the Eucharist every Sunday as I grew up. It is an invitation and a promise. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” This is addressed to each of us, for no one is free of heavy burdens. The invitation is to come to Christ for rest. How to get the rest? “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”

The yoke that Jesus is using as a metaphor is a wooden pole, shaped to go across a person’s shoulders. It is used to carry heavy burdens. Jesus is inviting us to replace our burdens that are weighing us down with his burden. This burden is a commitment to love and care for others, and to learn from Jesus. It is an invitation to come before him as an infant, open to learning what the world cannot teach. “For I am gentle and humble in heart,” Jesus says, “and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Amen

Sermon 4 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
4 Pentecost • June 28, 2020
Genesis 22:1-14• Psalm 13 • Romans 6:12-23 • Matthew 10:40-42

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

In today’s Gospel Lesson there are two distinct sayings of Jesus. Both sayings have the word “welcome” in them, and I suspect that is why Matthew put them together. But they make quite different points.

First, he addresses being welcomed by another person. It is not as simple as it might seem. He says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

For example, when we receive a phone call from a salesperson, and we like their pitch and welcome the call, we are welcoming not only that person but also the company they work for, the company that sent them. Perhaps you remember the Fuller Brush Man, who went door-to-door selling household goods, and was usually welcomed. Welcoming him meant that you were also welcoming the Fuller Brush Company that sent him.

It’s the same idea here, except that there is another one involved—the Father. This is the chain of “sendings”—God sends Jesus, who sends us. To welcome us is to welcome Jesus, which is to welcome the Father.

Jesus speaks elsewhere of a similar chain, this time of love. “As the Father loves me, so I love you, go and love one another.” Everything flows from the Father, through Jesus, to us, and beyond to whomever we deal with. Whether loving or being sent, it all cascades down from the Father.

I suspect Jesus is saying that we can have confidence. Others will discover God just by welcoming us. We are, after all, ambassadors of God; to welcome us is to welcome the God who sent us.

The second saying of Jesus in this passage speaks of rewards. We are often told by very wise people that to do good without the expectation of a reward is where virtue lies. Altruism—doing good for the sake of doing good—is the best way to live, some have told us.

We even have a lovely hymn that begins, “My God, I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby…” This is a pretty sentiment, indeed. But it is not very faithful to the gospel. Whether you love God hoping for heaven, or you love God because you hope God will make you rich, or you love God trusting that he will protect you, or you love God because you are afraid not to—what counts is that you love, not the motivation.

This is equally true in human relationships. Whether you avoid killing that irritating motorist because you fear the law, or because you love humanity—neither motivation makes any difference. What counts is that you refrain from murder. Please, I know you are not murderous! I’m just trying to make a point, that what you do is what matters, not your motivation.

G.K. Chesterton famously said, “This is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Nonsense! What counts is doing the right thing, whatever the reason.

Human beings, people like us, actually do act in the expectation of some benefit for ourselves or for those we care about. How could this possibly be wrong—it is reasonable and appropriate to expect a reward as the result of our actions. And so it happens. Smile, and you are likely to get a smile back—a reward. Yawn, and you will get a yawn back—a reward.

Jesus is never a moralist. He never tells us how to be good. “You have the Law,” he says, “obey it.” And he just doesn’t have anything more to say about being good. And indeed, we do know right from wrong; we know the laws, the statutes. the ordinances, and the canons; and we also know all those unwritten codes of behavior that we learned at our mothers’ knees.

Instead of being a moralist, telling us how to be good, Jesus is interested in our profiting, and in our being rewarded. Profit is about increase. Jesus is concerned “that we may life, and that more abundantly.” The good news is that it’s possible to be truly alive, lively, overflowing with vitality.

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” This is not necessarily very good news. Prophets, those who see and speak the bald, unadorned truth, are not always well-received, even today. The prophets before Jesus, and Jesus himself who was also a prophet, were usually persecuted. This is not the kind of reward that we would welcome. But the true reward of the prophet is the ability to live in the truth, not the mist of mythology or story. And if we welcome true prophets, true truth-tellers, we likewise will have the clarity of the prophet. The same is true of the righteous—those who do right; they receive the reward of a clear conscience.

And he says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Here is the great leveling of the Gospel—God is no respecter of persons and all will be treated equally, whether great king or little child. To contribute to the aliveness of another, even a little child, even so little a matter as a cup of cold water in the heat of the day, is to receive the kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

Sermon 3 Pentecost 2020

Sermon
3 Pentecost • June 21, 2020
Genesis 21:8-21 • Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 • Romans 6:1b-11 • Matthew 10:24-39

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

My friends, we should talk a little about how the Gospels were written, what methods were used—especially by the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels. In knowing how they were written, we can discover a marvelous access to the meaning that Jesus intended in his stories and parables.

The first Gospel to be written was by Mark. I was written after Jesus death and resurrection—40 years after Jesus, but perhaps earlier. Mark was not one of the Twelve, but was probably the person named Mark in Acts of the Apostles as an associate of Paul and Peter. Some scholars think there is evidence that Mark’s Gospel was strongly influenced by Peter, himself, perhaps even dictated in parts by him.

When Matthew and Luke sat down to write their Gospels, the certainly had Mark’s Gospel on the table in front of them. 90% of Mark appears in Matthew, and 50% appears in Luke—almost direct copies of Mark’s words. So Mark is the foundational gospel, simple, direct, and wonderfully straightforward.

But Matthew and Luke had another source sitting in front of them as they write their accounts of Jesus time. It was called “Q” by the German scholars in the 19th Century—the German word for “source” is “Quelle” and so this primary source became Q.

Q is lost now, but it is thought to have been a list of the sayings of Jesus. A fifth gospel was found in 1945 in Egypt. The Gospel of Thomas is also just a list of sayings, with a few short stories. Thomas is useful because it shows us what Q looked like—a list of sayings of Jesus.

So Matthew and Luke compiled their three sources: Mark held the basic story, Q contributed the sayings (the parables and stories), and then Matthew and Luke had their own spoken traditions, or perhaps written ones, that they included in their Gospels. They look like this:

You may well ask, “So what? How does this help us understand what Jesus was trying to say?” Today’s Gospel Lesson gives us a beautiful example of how this can help us better understand Jesus.

Matthew is telling the story of Jesus sending his twelve apostles out on the road for on-the-job training—the story we heard last week. Into this story he packed a whole series of separate saying that sounded similar to him. In this particular passage, I can find 10 separate sayings—mostly one-liners, the memorable part of a teaching, the “punch line,” if you will.

If you separate each of the sayings from the adjoining ones, there will be an aphorism, or a parable for you to ponder. Jesus says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Sometimes, particularly younger disciples, will want to exceed their teacher’s accomplishments. No, Jesus is saying, put your energy into learning what your teacher has to say; you don’t need to be in competition with him.

Another saying: “If they have called the master of the house the Devil, how much more will they malign those of his household.” A warning to expect trouble if we follow the Master.

Again, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This does not sound like “Jesus meek and mild!” No, not at all. So ask yourself who’s he talking about? It is pretty clear who can kill the body—robbers and murderers, government authorities like the police and the armed forces, your neighbors or family members if you enrage them. But Jesus seems to be speaking about people who take offense to the good news. Okay. But then who has the power to destroy body and soul in hell? Ah! That would be God! Now, what does he mean by “fear?” I think he means something like “respect.” Just as you should fear a pot of boiling water and treat it with respect. Just as you should fear the power of a cop, and treat her with respect. So also, we should treat our Father in heaven with respect and choose him over any other authority.

Another parable: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Most of us think from time to time that we are insignificant, unimportant, somewhat worthless. This is very human, a common thought. Jesus is saying that there are no insignificant parts of creation—the Father values us all.

I leave it to you to detach the sayings that Matthew and the other Evangelists have grouped together in their narratives. The word of life is to be found in each of these sayings if only we are willing to spend a little time with each of them, pondering them in our hearts so that they can reveal their message, directly from the mouth of Jesus.

Amen.

Sermon Trinity Sunday 2020

Sermon
Trinity Sunday • June 7, 2020
Genesis 1:1-2-4a • Psalm 8 • 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 • Matthew 28:16-20

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

Today we celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity—that God is Three in One, and One in Three. Since the Third Century, this doctrine has been central to Christianity and you will notice that the Nicene Creed is divided into three paragraphs, each celebrating one Person in the Trinity. Also, every collect in our Prayer Book ends with an ascription to the Trinity. 

The doctrine, as such, is not found in Holy Scripture, but once you know the doctrine, you can find reference to it. Two of those references are in the lessons this morning. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he concludes it with what we now call The Grace, saying, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” There they are—Christ the Son, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Paul may have written this casually, and not as a doctrine, but he got it right.

In the Gospel, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples out in his Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This may not have been Jesus actual words—scholars think it was added a century of so later by some scribe—but it certainly declared the mission of Jesus’ followers accurately, that we should let others in on the Word of Life.

But what is all this three-in-one business? How can God be a singular God, but with three persons? Here is a parallel example: Supposing a woman who has parents marries and has a baby. She is simultaneously a daughter, a wife, and a mother. The Greek word persona means mask, and in the Greek theater the actors wore masks to indicate what kind of character they were playing. The woman acts differently around her husband than she does around her parents—she in effect has a different face for each. And she has quite another one for her baby. Yet all of these persons are contained in one single human being. She is three in one!

So also with God. You can see in Genesis that the Father created the world in the first lesson this morning. He sent his Spirit out over the void, and “Then God said, let there be light.” The Father created the world by speaking the Word, whom John identifies as the Christ. The three-in-one appears again.

This is the accepted doctrine, correct in every way, but it is all very rational and brainy. It is all about God, which is fine, but we want not just an idea of God, but God himself, or God herself, the reality of God. We want to experience God. We want God to be part of our lives. We want God to be alive in the world in which we live. We want the experience God himself.

Our former bishop used to continually ask us, “Where have you seen God at work?” It is a good question, but I found it a hard one to answer. It becomes much easier to answer, however, if we ask it in the context of the three Persons of the Trinity. For example:

Where have you seen the Spirit? I saw the Spirit at work in Lafayette Park in Washington DC, full of citizens protesting for justice. Some trouble-makers came and tried to start a riot. But the Spirit moved through the protesters and stopped them, saying, “It is not about that. It is about justice.” That, it seems to me, was the Spirit of God in action.

You know the Spirit as she manifests herself in this congregation. You experience her every time we come to church and meet our friends. It is the Spirit that binds us together, even in the face of ZOOM meetings! That spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, the Spirit generated by the Father and the Son.

Where have you seen the Son? Where has the Christ shown himself? Christ showed himself in Florence Nightingale, the woman who left a comfortable life in England to minister to the sick and dying soldiers during the Crimean War. A gentle English woman who invented sanitation and hospital care at a whole new level, she transformed nursing and made it into the profession it now is. 

I saw Christ this morning in the faces of the policemen, nurses, and doctors who conducted covid-19 testing this morning, and in the city official who allowed a person without insurance to be tested anyway.

As for the Father: Who is the one to whom you speak in the dark of night, the one who hovers near you when you are sick and afraid, to whom you appeal for help when you are out of resources? This is, for me, the Father who loves me, who will turn any circumstance to my benefit, and who will transform any defeat or humiliation into victory.

The Trinity is a powerful way to see God: The Spirit moving among us; the Christ saving us; the Father, the source of all. Blessed be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Sermon Pentecost 2020

Sermon
Pentecost • May 24, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 • Psalm 104:25-35. 37 • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 • John 20:19-23

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

Pentecost—fifty days after the Resurrection. Originally a Jewish feast held fifty days after the Passover, it celebrated the ecstatic experience of the disciples after Jesus ascended into the heavens. The ecstasy described in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is wonderful—the sound of a roaring wind in their ears, their vision clouded with a red mist such that fellow disciples looked as though they had flames over their heads, and spontaneous, babble sounds ushering forth from their mouths, speaking in tongues.

Group ecstasy in church was apparently common in the early church—Paul speaks of it frequently in his letters, as though it were an ordinary part of Christian worship—but it died out fairly quickly. Revived at the end of the Nineteenth Century in America, several varieties of “pentecostal” churches were founded, and in the 1950s the Pentecostal movement spread to some Episcopal and Roman Catholic parishes. It seems to have died out now in the liturgical churches, but the Pentecostal Church itself remains alive in America and is growing very strongly in Latin America.

So, on that first Pentecost, the disciples spilled out onto the street, still babbling away in their ecstatic language, which some strangers took to be their own native languages, and the scoffers sneered, “They are full of new wine! A bunch of drunks, and early in the morning, too!” But Peter did what the Early Church frequently did—he referred back to the Hebrew Scriptures, saying that this was the fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Joel, chapter 2, verse 8. In it, God declares,

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

The teachings of Jesus struck devout Jews as being novel, radical even. So the Christians in the first Century tried to gain legitimacy by seeing the events that occurred as being foretold by the prophets, by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Joel. As it turned out, this practice was quite useful, for they forever tied the Hebrew Scriptures to the Christian experience. And what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, are not only the foundation of our faith, but a rich heritage stretching back thousands of years, connecting us with our forebearers in a powerful way.

The Spirit which moved the disciples on Pentecost was no new thing. The Bible opens in the Book of Genesis with the creation of the world. In the beginning there was nothing, “…a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word in Hebrew for wind is also used for spiritruach—and this passage is frequently translated as “the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” Ruach is also used to mean breath, so that wind, spirit, and breath are all pretty much the same.

You and I have a spirit. To have a spirit is to have breath—we are alive, and spirit is a word to describe life. Groups have a spirit. Good Shepherd has a spirit that is larger than any of our individual spirits, a spirit a bit different from any other Episcopal parish. Large, casual groups have a spirit—in a great stadium, when your side wins, you are impelled to rise from your seat with a great shout; you are moved by the spirit of victory. Spirit, of course, is not a thing; it is aliveness of one kind or another. On occasion, there are evil spirits, an aliveness intent on destruction and decay.

And then there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Paul says, in Galatians, that the fruit of the God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is a pretty good description of how one behaves when the Spirit of God abides in a person.

And in the Gospel for today, Jesus come into a locked room—this is following the Resurrection—and after greeting them and saying that he was sending them out just as the Father had sent him out, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ He gave them God’s Spirit, which is the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

So we celebrate the Spirit of God today, and give thanks for that spirit of forgiveness and truth, which yields in us a disposition to be better to those around us, so that we are a blessing to them, and they to us.

Amen.

Sermon 7 Easter 2020

Sermon
Seventh Easter • May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 • 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11

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

I heard on the radio the other day that there is widespread emotional distress abroad in the land, and that citizens are suffering at record rates. Our Bishop has indicated something of the sort as well. So perhaps it would be good to listen closely to what Peter is saying to us in his letter that was read a few minutes ago—the Second Lesson.

He says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” The fiery ordeal he refers to is not a virus, of course, but persecution of some kind, perhaps from the Romans or perhaps from the leaders of the Jewish communities of which they were members. Christians at that time were still a sect of the Jews, somewhat deviant since they claimed that Jesus was Messiah, and not always welcomed.

But they were definitely under siege and in trouble. He says, in effect, “Where’s the surprise? It’s just another test.” I want to suggest to you that the corvid-19 shelter-in-place orders, and the possibility of infection, sickness, and death—these are just another test. You and I are all of a certain age; this is not the first test we’ve been faced with. There was Hurricane Sandy; and 9/11; and various previous illnesses and economic challenges—a host of them, if you live long enough.

But James is suggesting something pretty radical. He is saying that these tests are not given to us for no purpose. He says, “…rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” Here is an invitation to not be the victim of the test, but to claim it. And in claiming it, to link it with the sufferings of Christ, thereby giving it meaning.

Peter has the clear notion that we are in God’s hands, in good times and in bad, and that the only thing to be afraid of is the devil. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that the Father will save us from the time of trial, or as another translation says, that God will not bring us to the test. We hate being tested! And rightly so, but we are tested and we will continue to be tested. The bigger problem is evil. As the next request in the Lord’s Prayer says, “…deliver us from evil.”

Evil is a profound fact of life. The Scriptures see evil as an active force, and evil is often personified as “the evil one,” or “the devil.” You can see evil every day in news broadcasts and newspapers. We seem impelled, from time to time, to do things that damage others, to be shoved into dividing and separating ourselves from others. Not only on the personal level, but nations are divided against nations, and we are caught up in the midst of the trouble.

Peter says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” If I remember my Greek correctly, “devil” is one way to translate “the evil one,” or simply “evil.” So devil, the evil one, and evil all refer to the same thing.

In the face of the evil one, Peter encourages us to “Resist him, steadfast in the faith,” and he goes on to say that we are not alone. Many of our brothers and sisters are facing the same trials. There is strength in solidarity, in knowing that we at one with many others who have the same problems to deal with.

And then Peter gives us a promise, and it is the consistent promise of the Gospel—our suffering will not last forever. I have noticed that, in the middle of a severe illness or stress of some kind, it seems that it will never end; I cannot even remember what it was like to be whole. But in fact, nothing lasts forever.

Peter promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace…will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The promise is not only that the time of testing will end, but that you will be stronger for it.

My father, now long dead, once said to me in the middle of some difficulties I was having, “The ladder to success is made up of rungs of failures.” This was cold comfort at the time, but he was speaking to the same profound truth that Peter is promising—that facing the trials that are attacking us, and claiming them, is where growth comes from.

The evil one would have us refuse responsibility for our condition; he would encourage us to throw the blame on others; he would have us become the victim. This is the ultimate degradation, the destruction of the soul, killing any human dignity.

Please remember that Jesus, in his time of trial, when he desperately wanted to avoid the cross, asked the Father to “take this cup from me;” then he faced the trial and took it on. And in claiming his test, he was given the crown of resurrection.

To God be the power forever and ever. Amen.