Advent 1 (Year A)
Matthew 24: 36-44
St. John’s, West Seneca
November 27, 2022
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ. Amen.
We have just completed a liturgical year, and now come to a new one. The new year brings with it the gospel according to St. Matthew. This year is designated “YEAR A,” with Matthew as the gospel we will focus on this year. The church has a three year lectionary: one for Matthew, one for Mark, one for Luke, with sections of John’s gospel spread through all three.
The problem for most people is that we don’t differentiate between the gospel writers. Most of the time in film or television we get what is called a “harmonized” version of Jesus’ life, meaning that for maximum effect, a bit is taken from each gospel to show a fuller version of Jesus’ life. It makes for a great movie. The problem is that if you go looking for that script, you won’t find it.
But the church – in its wisdom – attempts to lead us into a fuller understanding of each of the gospel writers and so, has come up with this lectionary. Matthew is my favorite gospel. Some have referred to Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as the great teacher, and since I have always loved school, that may be one reason why I love Matthew.
So, who is the author? Tradition says that it is Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus. It may have been him, or a community strongly identified with him. Whoever he was, he wrote for the Jews, and a Jewish community. Luke wrote for a Gentile audience, and is careful to make historical notations so that a non-Jew could identify the time and the place. Not so with Matthew. He wrote for the his people. No one loved the Jews more than Matthew, and no evangelist was harder on them, either. Matthew is the one who adds the terrible words after Pilate washed his hands: “His blood be on us and on our children.”
Matthew may be the first book of the New Testament, but it was probably not the first written. That honor goes to Mark, the shortest of the Gospels. But when the canon was put together, Matthew was placed first because of all the verses alluding to the prediction and foreshadowing of Jesus’s life and mission. Matthew contains no less than 65 references to the Old Testament, 43 of those being direct verbal citations. It is Matthew who:
· quoted Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel,”
· quoted Micah who had predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem,
or Hosea, who predicted the flight into Egypt
· and Zechariah who said the Messiah would come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
I want you to think for a moment on Matthew, and a few passages will come to mind:
· The visit of the Wise Men
· The Beatitudes
· Some of his unique parables
· His use of the term “kingdom of Heaven,” 32 times, as opposed to the "Kingdom of God" used in the other gospels.
While in Mark, Jesus is portrayed as a healer and teacher, almost like anybody’s son, Matthew does not do that. For example, in Mark, Jesus is moved with pity when he sees and then heals a leper, Matthew leaves out the pity. He also leaves out the anger, or grief at the hardness of heart shown by others. Jesus is the Son of God. For Matthew, Jesus is the next Moses, and just as Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 commandments, so Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew’s resurrection account has an earthquake.. But there is also a placing of a guard at the tomb to make it secure. It is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who go to the tomb. Then comes that earthquake and the angels who roll away the stone from the tomb.
Matthew’s gospel ends with the Great Commission to “go 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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Today Matthew speaks of the end. But we are not at the end, but rather the beginning. It may seem out of place, but there is method here. Advent is the season of preparation, a time to get ready. In these days, we prepare ourselves for Christmas, the birth of God’s son. For Matthew, these words speak of Jesus coming again, as do we. For both: Keep awake and be ready.
So, the question is how? I would argue that being ready is being reasonably prepared for a contingency. I usually have a contingency plan, if not two, in place for some situations. Here is what others would say.
Abraham Lincoln: “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.”
Stephen King argued that “There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”
According to Ben Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
And JFK said that “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
And most Buffalonians would definitely argue that it is better to buy a shovel before the snowstorm.
It is about preventative maintenance, and whether it is your health or your home, machinery, or roads and infrastructure, the same rule applies. As one theologian argued this past week: “When a bridge collapses, as one did in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, there’s usually one reason: neglect. The Flint water crisis can be attributed in part to poor maintenance and inspections that never happened. When a dam bursts, someone didn’t see the warning signs. How many communities are not in a state of readiness in the event of a school shooting, a tornado touching down, or a gas line rupturing?”
Good insights. So turning that to this season, how do you prepare for Advent, for the birthday of Jesus and his second coming? What do you do for your spiritual maintenance? The task for Advent is simply: Be ready. And if you take anything from this sermon, those are the words. BE. READY.
Turning back to the Gospel. The first verses of the Gospel are interesting, and have caused much discussion and have fed into many ideas – some good, some awful – about Jesus’s return. Some are so fascinated by these words of the end times, that they focus entirely on these passages from the Gospels, Daniel, Thessalonians, and Revelation. And there are a whole host of thoughts and isms attached: post-millennial optimism, or amillennial pessimism, dispensational premillennialism. And yet Jesus himself says that the day will come like a thief in the night and adds that He does not know the day or the hour. We may speculate all we want about the said time. My advice is to listen to Jesus. And Jesus says to be prepared.
But how? How do we do this in our crazy, “everything has to get done mindset” that is a reality of our far too busy world? How are we expectant for two events – Christmas and the second coming – with all the chaos around us, much of which is our own making. In short, how do we celebrate this season?
One of the illustrations that I use at least once a year is the story of the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain. It was constructed in the year A.D. 109. "For 1,800 years, the aqueduct carried cool water from the mountains to the hot and thirsty city. As many as 60 generations depended on this marvel of engineering for their drinking water.
"Then came another generation …who said to each other, ‘This aqueduct is an architectural marvel. It’s a historical treasure that ought to be preserved. We should give it a well-earned rest.’
"That’s exactly what they did. They detoured the water flow away from the ancient stones and channeled it through modern pipes. They put up historical markers so tourists would know who had constructed the aqueduct, and for what purpose. They celebrated the fact that their city’s water system was now modern in every way.
"But then, a strange thing began to happen. The Roman aqueduct began to fall apart. The sun beating down on its dry mortar, without the constant flow of water to cool it, caused it to crumble. In time, the massive structural stones threatened to fall. What 18 centuries of hard service had not been able to destroy, a few years of idleness nearly did.”
I use this illustration hoping that you will take it to heart and tend to your soul. With God and His Word in our lives, we are like that aqueduct, with God’s grace and mercy keeping us in good shape, useful. When we neglect God for the idols of our world, we too begin to crumble and if we are not careful, we too fall apart, no longer able to serve God or others.
Advent calls us to be ready and it is far easier than you think. Advent calls us to take time, prepare and be ready so that we are able:
to welcome God’s presence in our lives.
to continue to be a faithful servant of God.
to be ready to live as we’re supposed to live.
Those who are ready are always looking for new ways to serve, new ways to teach and be taught. Those who prepare are aware of the pitfalls of the season, and they don’t ignore the signs that tell you it’s fine to overspend or plan for perfection. We know whose birth we await, whose return we expect, and we save the true celebration for Christmas. And we continue to practice love and kindness to those we meet.
It goes against the grain of our culture, but it did two thousand years ago as well. And so let us prepare for God coming to us as a child, as we from Buffalo prepare for a snow storm. Amen
Soli Deo Gloria
Pentecost 23 (Year C)
Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Saint John's, West Seneca
November 13, 2022
We need (to be) a little Christmas
Folks, Jesus is coming; there’s no question about that.
According to our liturgical calendar, the season of Advent, the season of preparation for the Nativity of Christ
starts just two weeks from today. According to our friends at Amazon and Walmart (and Wegmans and the Home Depot), the countdown to Christmas started about three weeks ago - sometime just before Halloween.
My son Sam and I were just out taking the dogs for a stroll through the neighborhood this past week, and Sam
saw in one neighbor’s lawn a whole head of those lit-up reindeer decorations – and he said, completely
deadpan, “Well, they held out a good three days longer than I expected them to.”
The grass is green, the sun is out, and yet, as we speak, you can turn on at least one local radio station and
hear the “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Now folks, this is not my Grinch speech. I am not judging this longing for Christmas. I get it. These past few years – what is it? three years? feels more like 30 – we have been through the wringer. The pandemic turned our lives upside-down. Work doesn’t look the same. School doesn’t look the same. Church doesn’t look the same. We’ve lost people. The economy is a mess.
And even though it’s actually been brewing for quite some time, our political climate has just become
unbearable. Different opinions and perspectives are good. Passionate debate about issues is good. But we
have just devolved and become polarized to the point where people are calling each other “evil” or “enemies of
democracy.” We’re routinely calling for politicians we don’t like to be locked up and committing real, actual,
physical violence against them.
So I can totally understand it if, as Auntie Mame said, we need a little Christmas right this very minute.
I don’t think we’re wrong at all, to ask Jesus to hurry up and get here. But what does that look like? This morning, we get a glimpse of the time when Jesus comes back.
For starters, the psalm sounds pretty nice: sing a new song, let nature clap its hands, God is coming to judge
the world with righteousness and equity.
The prophet Malachi says some nice things, too, about the sun of righteousness and frolicking - but there’s
also a bit in there about a forest fire?
In the Gospel, speaking to the Disciples about the coming of the kingdom, Jesus mentions wars, famine,
disease, earthquakes and persecution at the hands of the government – and your friends – and your family. Now I think Jesus was trying to help us understand that the kingdom won’t come as fast as we hope it will – and the road between here and there is going to be tough. I think his message here is, “whatever happens, don’t give up hope.” And that’s certainly something we can stand to hear this morning.
But then the Epistle, 2 Thessalonians, suggests maybe there’s something worse than losing hope.
Now, at first glance, Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the
kingdom or with Jesus coming back. It sounds more like the general advice we give our kids, and that our
parents gave us: Don’t be lazy. Mind your own business and earn your keep. In fact, this includes a famous line: “Anyone who doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat.”
Some people like to point to this one little verse to “prove” that God loves capitalism. A “preacher” in one of
those great big “churches” the size of a basketball arena might say, “Aha! We shouldn’t have welfare or any of
those socialist programs, because the Bible says you need to work to eat!“ (Of course, those preachers won’t mention that 2 Thessalonians 3:10 also appears in the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union. You see, the socialists like that bit about “he who does not work should not eat,” too.)
But instead of worrying about capitalism or socialism, maybe we should ask, why is Paul so concerned with
If you back up a little to 2 Thessalonians chapters 1 and 2, it becomes clear that the people in Thessalonica
thought they were living in the end times. They thought that the world had become such a mess, that things
had gotten so bad, that Jesus must be coming back like literally any minute.
And so they checked out.
Because if you imagine this world is passing away before your very eyes, you might think, why bother? Why
should I go to work today, or worry where I throw my trash, or brush my teeth for that matter, if it will all be gone
Of course, we know the Thessalonians were way off. We can see that they were not living in the time of the
Second Coming. But on the other hand, have we actually learned anything? Or are we making the same mistake they made? Are we out there, occupied with work for the kingdom, or are we sitting around, waiting for God to save us? Do we imagine that we can just keep pumping industrial pollution into the air, because God will at some point
come along and just fix our climate disaster for us? Do we imagine that we can ignore the people at the margins, people we have the power to help, because God is coming to save them? Do we imagine that we can be “color blind” and just go about our business as if there were no such thing as historic and structural racism, because God is coming to make everyone equal? Do we imagine that God is Santa Claus? When we pray for the kingdom to come, do we imagine it wrapped up in pretty paper and tied with a bow? That we’ll wake up one morning and everything will just be okay?
I know it sounds harsh, but, if we don’t work, we don’t eat. If we don’t work for the good of our neighbor and work for the good of this beautiful world that God made, we will not see the kingdom.
Thinking about this text, both the Luke and the 2 Thessalonians, I keep hearing “People Get Ready.” It’s a
great, old song by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, about a train going to the Promised Land. It says you
don’t need baggage and you don’t need a ticket to ride, you just need faith. But it also talks about getting right
with God, so that there will be room for you on the train.
But at the end of the day, the title says it all: Get Ready. Waiting for Jesus isn’t passive, it’s active. We have to
go out and meet Jesus.
We need a little Christmas, right this very minute. We need to BE a little Christmas, right this very minute.
All Saints Sunday (Year C)
St. John’s, West Seneca
November 6, 2022
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, Jesus is approached by the Sadducees with a question. Of course, rarely is a question just a question, especially when posed by the Pharisees, or in this case, the Sadducees. Luke’s chapter 20 includes all sorts of challenges. First Jesus is questioned. “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” Jesus turns that on them with a question of his own regarding baptism.
Then comes the parable of the wicked tenants, then a question on paying tribute, or taxes. You know that line: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Of course, they are amazed at Jesus’ teaching, and worse, couldn’t trap him.
A brief history of who is who. During the time of Jesus, there were several prominent branches of Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes. “The Pharisees and Sadducees were similar with respect to their conservative views in relation to the keeping of Jewish religious law, but they differed in at least two key respects. First, the Pharisees upheld an oral Torah alongside of the written Torah in the belief that these oral traditions were revealed to Moses along with the written law that was codified in the Pentateuch. Though these traditions remained oral during the time of Jesus, many of them were later preserved in written form in the Mishnah.” Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not believe in the authority of the oral tradition and instead used only the Torah.
The second difference – and important for this day - is that the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection of the dead.
In what seems an odd tactic for those who do not believe in a resurrection, they present Jesus with a made-for-tv scenario: seven dead brothers and one wife inherited between them. Since all would be raised to life in the kingdom to come, to whom would this wildly unlucky widow be married?
Another definition is needed here. In the Torah, there was the legal tradition of levirate marriage. Genesis 38 and the book of Ruth come to mind. If a woman’s husband has died, and she is childless, this levirate marriage provided a way for her to remain a part of the family and to carry on the name of her dead husband. So, rather than just leave a woman single in the marriage market, which was not assured, levirate marriage tried to ensure her a place in the family. For women, there were few choices, and this – at the very least - provided the security of family and hopefully, sons to carry on the name.
We have seen how Jesus works with all sorts of questions, and he does the same here. He sets out to show this is all mixed up. He begins his response with the basic idea that "those who belong to this age" differ from "those who are considered worthy of a place in that age." And you will notice that Jesus speaks of God and the divine, whereas the Sadducees speak only of the earthly. The issue is not about a human choice, as the Sadducees seem to assume. It is about God and what God will do. The Sadducees have been asking the wrong question.
And one more thing. The Sadducees had been hoping to trap Jesus into saying that the resurrection was incompatible with a belief in the Torah. Kind of a “gotcha” moment. Jesus instead demonstrates that the resurrection was, in fact, already in the story of Moses itself. Jesus refers to Scripture in the last verses, so that the Sadducees have to agree that Jesus’ view is in the same Scripture that they quote. Jesus's point here is that the concepts of dead and living as the Sadducees understand them are at odds with the ways in which Moses himself seems to understand them. Moses is addressed by God in the burning bush who is called the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, in the present tense.
Jesus’s answer is on the nature of the resurrection, pointing out that the hypothetical widow would have no need for the security promised by levirate marriage once she became a child of the resurrection. Neither would any of her former husbands need to concern themselves with the demands of family responsibility. Resurrection existence is not like earthly existence.
The Sadducees believe they are engaging Jesus in a discussion of whether or not resurrection from the dead exists. Jesus takes it in another direction and uses their question to teach that the resurrected life will not be like this life. If you think on it, it makes sense. In the resurrection, all will experience a new type of relationship with each other and with God.
Now all this was fun for me to review, but for the rest of you? Here is my point. We may think the Sadducees’ question is strange, but a closer look reveals that we do employ this type of thinking.
My best friend in high school was Jodi. We were part of a smaller group of girls who were good students, in band and choir, but not sports. There were six of us and Jodi and I paired off. Jodi had been born with a heart defect and had a lung issue as well. She couldn’t do certain things, and a short jog left her gasping for breath. She was small and thin as well, and I remember her lips and nails often looking blue, and her skin was not as glowing as mine. She went to appointments at the University of Minnesota where she was seen by specialists. Cardiologists were not found in Willmar. Not related to this, she also had scoliosis and had to wear a body brace from neck to her hips for two years. She could not catch a break.
We grew apart after graduation. We both went off to college, but not in the same town. I would see her in the summer. Our lives just went in different directions. However, she did call me before my Ordination to congratulate me.
It was always rumored that Jodi would not live a long life due to this heart issue, and that she might die in her early 20’s. But I learned in 1997 that she had been on the heart/lung transplant list, and a donor had been found that fall. The surgery went well, but Jodi died about six months later from pneumonia, a month before what would have been our 20th high school reunion.
In the months and years after, I began to think about the Sadducees’s question. And their line of thinking became mine. Would Jodi be like she was, or would she be pink-skinned and glowing, with plenty of blood pumping with a new heart. Would she be able to run and play? Do all those things she hadn’t been able to do while here? In my dreams, that is how I saw her.
And admit it, most of you have wondered about that as well. We are human and with our limited human capacity, when we consider the resurrection and heaven, we tend to think in human terms, all those things we know and experience in the here and now. We are like the Sadducees that way.
But Jesus tells us that eternal life will not only be different, but beyond what we can imagine. All will be changed; all will be made new. We may carry the love we have, and the relationships we have, but the focus will change and I believe we will have a new understanding. In other words, the things that matter here, like who is married to whom, and who can run and play, will probably not matter then.
On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember those who have died since last November 1. This Sunday is a reminder that they have entered the “church triumphant” and this new life. And so we remember our loved ones, the lessons they taught, the joy that was shared, knowing that we too will one day inherit the promise of eternal life.
The hymn “Borning Cry” comes to mind in the last verse:
When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I'll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise."
Of course, my hope is that we will recognize those we love when it is our turn. Until then, it is best to remember what Jesus said. God is the God of the living. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Reformation Sunday (Year C)
St. John’s, West Seneca
October 30, 2022
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ. Amen.
A good look at the Zacchaeus’ text reveals more than we know. For so many, it is a fun story of a short man who desperately wants to see Jesus and the lengths he goes to do just that.
But beyond that, look at the details. Luke goes out of his way describing Zacchaeus as a tax collector and as a man of wealth. It could be that he may have a contract with the Romans and hired other tax collectors to work for him. We know how these people were not well liked and that was more about them being in league with the Roman Empire. They were seen as co-conspirators in the oppression of the Jewish people.
In addition, tax collectors were notorious for cheating the people. Indeed, previous to chapter 19, Luke highlights the disdain directed toward tax collectors. In chapter five, Jesus calls Matthew to follow him and then proceeds to have dinner at Matthew’s house. The Pharisees protest Jesus’ actions and group tax collectors with sinners. Jesus responds to that with “Those who are well have no need of a physician …” In the eyes of the Pharisees, these two groups are people with whom the “righteous” should not engage. In chapter seven, Jesus repeats the Pharisees’ depiction of him as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And from last week, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to pray. In his prayer, the Pharisee boasts about not being like other people, especially the tax collector, whereas the tax collector humbly asks for mercy.
In any event, Jesus is on his way and Zacchaeus wants to see him. Of course, he is short, and for those of us not blessed with height, we know how hard it can be to pick out someone in a parade. So Zacchaeus finds himself up a tree, literally. No doubt it gives him a good vantage point to see. Although, there are those who suggest that he is in the tree because he has been chased there by the crowd. Whatever, Jesus sees him, calls him by name, and says that he would like to have dinner with him…at his house. Zacchaeus was overjoyed to do just that, to have Jesus dine with him. Of course, there are the grumblers who complain about Jesus eating with sinners. Doing such a thing makes one impure.
Most remarkable is that Zacchaeus wants to do what is right, and not tomorrow, but today, offering half of his belongings, as well as paying back four-fold if he has defrauded anyone.
So what to make of all this, especially on Reformation Sunday?
When Luther nailed those 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, he was asking for a debate. By the time of Luther, the church had become corrupt and was in desperate need of change. Nepotism flourished, as relatives were awarded the highest offices in Christendom. Relics were a source of scandal, as all new churches and religious houses were required to have a relic in them, causing a black market when the demand outstripped the supply.
But it was the sale of indulgences that really set Martin Luther off. The sale of these indulgences was to fund the building of St. Peter’s, which had been begun by the previous pope. And it was a scandal. An indulgence was simply a payment to the church to pay off future sins. I realize that sounds crazy to us, but it was a practice and like so many things, originally, it was an act of faith, but had gotten out of hand. It was all part of “good works” theology, the belief that doing good would make you right with God.
And so Martin Luther called for reform, a renewal of the church. Luther – reading and re-reading his Bible – came to realize that righteousness does not depend on works, but on faith alone. He rejected the “good works” theology and argued that we are saved by God’s grace, by His invitation, and of course, our faith in Him. We can never do enough and Luther realized that in Jesus God breaks through all this isolation and sin, and seeks us to be His people.
Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “I must stay at your house today.” He breaks through the rules and the isolation that sin causes. One of my colleagues wrote: “When Jesus comes to Zacchaeus’ house, his life is transformed. His priorities change. He becomes a giver instead of a taker, sharing his resources with the poor. Jesus announces, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’” But salvation was not the act of giving to the poor. It was that Zacchaeus allowed Jesus to come in and stay. Salvation came to his house when his relationship with Jesus became a priority in his life. The generosity comes as a grateful response to Jesus’ presence.
It is about renewal, about knowing and understanding that Jesus wants to be in our lives, a part of every day, of every decision. And isn’t that what we want? Don’t we desire to have the very presence of God with us…always?
In Luther’s time, all you had to do was good works to make yourself right with God. But Luther discovered that with all his works, with all his prayers, with all his confessions, he never felt righteous. One confessor told him to come back when he had something to confess. That is how diligent he was in listing his sins. One anecdote says that Luther would kneel on the cold stone floor, praying until his knees bled.
And then he realized that it is God who makes us right. It is a gift from God; it is grace, and faith. Luther found that the answer was not simply doing good things, checking off a list.
Just as for Zacchaeus, it was time to embrace a new story,— the one God has been calling us toward all along. The same is true for us today. God wants us to know him, not just argue about what we know about him. God does not throw away the Law, but rather enhances it. God’s word through Jeremiah travels from our heads to our heart, from religion to a relationship with God. 505 years later, the Reformation has moved on, but the work continues. The Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages; we worship our own way, and it varies from tradition to tradition.
But the work is not done. We need renewal. We need reformation. We need to strengthen our relationship with God. Think about it: Jesus did not give Zacchaeus a list of what to do; he offered a relationship.
What about our new times, with social media, where everything moves so fast? How do we take the Word out to a world that is increasingly fractured, where the poor still exist, where there is prejudice and discrimination, where many simply have lost faith in the church? How many have seen what we are doing and say to themselves: “that doesn’t seem like the Jesus I read about.” The work goes on and the Reformers are with us still as we struggle with renewing the church and spreading the Gospel.
That is what this day is about. The good news is that Jesus is looking for you, for all of us, to enter deeper into our faith and trust. The liturgical year is coming to a close, let’s renew now.
“Richard Cardinal Cushing writes about the kind of people who could start a revolution if only they would return God's call:
"If all the sleeping folks will wake up,
and all the lukewarm folks will fire up,
and all the dishonest folks will confess up,
and all the disgruntled folks will sweeten up,
and all the discouraged folks will cheer up,
and all the depressed folks will look up,
and all the estranged folks will make up,
and all the gossipers will shut up,
and all the dry bones will shake up,
and all the true soldiers will stand up,
and all the church members will pray up -
and the Savior for all is lifted up -
You can have the world's greatest renewal." Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
20 Pentecost (Year C)
St. John’s, West Seneca
October 23, 2022
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ. Amen.
In Luke, the kingdom of God is full of surprises, beginning with the Magnificat. The first are last; the humbled are exalted. It is the great reversal.
Today we have a Pharisee, whom we presume knows how to pray, compared with a tax collector, or publican, one of the lesser respected of Jesus’s time. Last week we heard of the widow going to the judge over and over for justice and Jesus saying that is how prayer should be. But today, prayer takes center stage in a different way. Yes, praying is good, but how we pray is important as well.
As with Jesus, the irony is that the Pharisee is not the example we are to follow. Yes, he is observant, even unfailing in prayer, but what he gets wrong is the intention. This Pharisee is not looking to make himself right with God, but rather to glorify himself, showing himself to be a righteous man. He compares himself with others, those he calls thieves, rogues, adulterers, in other words, the typical sinners of his day. What this Pharisee is doing is putting himself above others, giving thanks that he is not like that sinful tax collector. He even lists his acts: fasting, tithing. He is all consumed by them, and while he may begin by giving thanks to God, in the end, he is all about himself.
The tax collector, on the other hand, does not dare talk to God in such a manner. He knows who he is and that he is a sinner standing before a holy God. It’s interesting that by their posture, Jesus is telling us everything. Both go to pray, but the tax collector stands far off, away from the holiest section of the temple. He knows that he has missed the mark. He knows that fasting and tithing are not enough to make a right relationship with God. He asks for mercy. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” God hears the prayer of the one who wants to make things right. God vindicates the tax collector who goes home justified, and the Pharisee goes away exactly as he had come — only thinking that he is righteous.
This parable would not be entirely shocking to those who first heard it. Not all tax collectors were terrible people. Not all Pharisees were “holier than thou.” Not only does Jesus eat with tax collectors, but next week, we will see another reversal when we meet Zacchaeus.
And this is not Jesus’ first time looking askance at the Pharisees. In fact, Luke introduces the parable in verse 9: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” In the sixteenth chapter, Jesus condemns the Pharisees: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” Ultimately, the Pharisees, who claim to know God, and are charged with teaching, fail to recognize the kingdom of God in their midst.
Luke here gives us a lesson in the power of humility and the desire to make things right. The tax collector put his faith in God completely, asking God to grant him forgiveness. He takes a long, hard look at his life and wants to move forward with a purer heart.
The good news is that most people want to do the right thing, and God is always more willing to listen than we are to pray. God stands ready to forgive so we can turn our lives around and begin again. That is the definition of repentance, “turning around.” And when we turn around, we are moving in a new direction.
Luther says: “It is the nature of God that he makes something out of nothing... God accepts no one except the abandoned, makes no one healthy except the sick, gives no one sight except the blind, brings no one to life except the dead, makes no one pious except sinners, makes no one wise except the foolish, and in short, has mercy upon no one except the wretched, and gives no one grace except those who have not grace.” In other words, we need to see ourselves as we are, and to do that, we have to be honest with ourselves. And when we do that, that is when the blessing begins.
“The British writer and humorist, Max Beerbohm, has a story called ‘The Happy Hypocrite.’ It’s a sort of parable. The main character is a notoriously self-centered individual, named — appropriately enough — Lord George Hell. After many years of overindulgence in pleasures of the flesh, Lord George is a wreck of a man — as can be seen most clearly in his face, which is bloated and unhealthy looking.
"Something happens one day that changes George’s life forever. He sees a beautiful young woman and falls in love. It’s a singularly pure attraction for such a corrupt and degenerate man. With every good intention, he wants to make her his wife — but he knows she would never accept his offer if she knew what he really was like.
"There’s an element of magic to this story. Lord George Hell puts on the mask of a saint to hide his sinner’s face. As far as anyone knows, he is a kind and virtuous man. He courts the young woman and marries her. They live happily together.
"That is, until a woman shows up from George’s past. She’s not fooled by the mask. She knows the man underneath it (or thinks she does). One day, in the presence of George’s wife, she confronts him and tears off his mask, expecting to reveal the bloated, pockmarked face of the old degenerate. What she reveals is something quite different. The mask was magical in more ways than one. Behind the mask of a saint is now the face of a true saint — the saint Lord George Hell has become, by wearing the mask.”
That is what God does. Jesus loves turning things upside down and here especially, we see that those who have humility are the ones who receive the greatest praise. For them, the valleys are made level, the mountains brought low. On the other hand, those who believe themselves to be superior need to re-evaluate their priorities. That Pharisee never even asked God for forgiveness.
A Seminary professor once remarked that people may not live what they profess, but they will always live what they believe. It is a very easy thing to say you are a Christian, very easy. How many live it? How many times have we been like the Pharisee? How many times have these words slipped out of your mouth: “I’m glad I’m not like that.” Be honest, I know I have said that.
I’m reminded of the time a good friend of mine was complaining of how warm it was. This was in the 80’s when suits were the order of the day especially in law firms. I suggested that she take her jacket off. She looked a bit embarrassed before admitting that she couldn’t because her blouse was a mess. She had only ironed the collar, the cuffs and the front placket. The rest of it was not ironed. I have to admit, I’ve done that myself. That partially ironed blouse is the Pharisee. The part people could see looked great, but rest was a wrinkled mess.
It all comes down to knowing who we are. The tax collector knows he is a wrinkled mess, but he also knows who God is. The Pharisee – while looking the part - has no idea who or what he is, he knows only his title. So it is with us. We are both the Pharisee and the tax collector, and as Luther put it, both saint and sinner together.
We need to know who we are and be able to accept that we do miss the mark, and then own up to it. We need to live what we believe. Because, when we do that, life’s burdens become blessings. Last week I posted something from Richard Rohrer, one of the best out there:
“Many religious people never allow themselves to fall, while many ‘sinners’ fall and rise again. Our greatest sin is not falling or failing, but refusing to rise and trust ourselves — and God — again. Make sure you are always in need of mercy and you will never stop growing.”
And that is the good news. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
19 Pentecost (Year C)
St. John’s, West Seneca
October 16, 2022
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week presented your pastor with a dilemma. From Monday on, I had been thinking about Jacob, wrestling through the night with God, coming out of that encounter with a new name – Israel – and a limp. Persistence was the word that came to mind. I was thinking of how I could add in the persistence of the widow in the Gospel reading.
And then, for some reason only God knows, I turned to my online magazine that I subscribe to. The editors had chosen the II Timothy text to write about, and what was the title? ”WORD DEATH.” I love words and am often found researching a particular word, where it came from, how it is used.
Word death. And life. One of the illustrations included some selections from the Oxford English Dictionary’s New Words List, issued in March 2022:
“anti-ageing, adj.: ‘Designed to counter or slow the process of ageing; esp. (of a product or technique) claiming to reduce or reverse the effects of ageing.’
first gentleman, n.: ‘The most important or prominent man; (with of) the leading man in a particular activity or profession.’
gaslighter, n.: ‘A person who deceives and psychologically manipulates another (esp. a spouse or partner) into questioning his or her own perceptions or sanity …’ \
siblinghood, n.: ‘The state, condition, or fact of being a sibling; sisterhood or brotherhood.’
tweakable, adj.: ‘That may be tweaked (in various senses of the verb); (now) spec. able to be finely adjusted.’
vax, v.: ‘transitive (often in passive). To vaccinate (a person, animal, group, etc.).”
And then there are words such as “manny” and “emoji.” A manny is a male nanny, while an emoji is a picture in a text message, expressing what you are feeling at the moment. Remember, those words didn’t exist before the 1990’s.
Words are born; words also die. “Old English had a pronoun ‘wit’ that meant we two. If you were dining with just one other person, you could use the more intimate pronoun, “Wit had a meal together.”
“English professor Anne Curzan knows that words in English don’t last forever. Writing in The Washington Post, she says that ‘word death’ is a natural part of a living language such as English. ‘Ellen’ used to mean courage, and now it is simply a woman’s name. ‘Wer’ used to mean man, but now it doesn’t mean anything in English.”
Probably the best example of word death is to consider Shakespeare. The first lines of the play Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” That is how the play begins, a story of forbidden love and violence, involving the Montagues and the Capulets..
Now, in West Side Story: “Knock it off! Settle down.” That’s Officer Krupke, scolding the members of the Sharks and the Jets, two rival gangs on the West Side of New York City. This line by Arthur Laurents launches another story of grudges, star-crossed lovers, and violence in the streets.
And then there are words that were once used and I believe should be brought back. There are two mood-related words from former centuries that I think would be perfect today: mubble fubbles and chantepleure. The first was used in the 16th and 17th centuries, refers to a state of mild depression; the second is from the 14th and 15th centuries and one would use it to speak of that odd feeling when you are both happy and sad. Wouldn’t it be great if you could describe your feeling as mubble fubbles?
All of this fun trivia is to say that language has a life cycle with natural births and deaths. Language comes into style, then goes out. Just think of what you used to say when you were a teen-ager. There is but one exception, and those are the words of God, and especially those spoken by Jesus, words that speak of love and hope; words that bring us forgiveness, and promise us new life. These words do not die. The translation may vary a bit, but those are the words we hold dear for centuries.
But what to do with all these words? Most Christians can’t agree. For example, Lutherans believe that Scripture is the inspired word of God, not inerrant with no mistakes. For some, the Bible gives us the stories and symbols that speak to our deepest longing to know who God is, and it links us with all those who have gone before. And in our “throw away” world, that is precious. For still others, the Bible is an “identity story”, so that we remember who we are and whose we are, and how our community is seen to all who see or visit.
On to the Second Reading, and if Jacob is persistent, as well as the widow, so is Paul as he urges Timothy to continue the ministry. Paul’s letter to Timothy is a very personal one, and here Paul is advising him on what is good conduct. Paul expects this from Timothy because he has lived the tradition and has a good knowledge of Scripture. Plus, he has been brought up and nurtured by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. Paul has been important in his life as well.
He says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
Sacred writings have importance and will forever because they are connected to Jesus, and inspired by God. The Bible, these words, are so valuable because they do train us to know what is right and what is wrong. And they give life, even when it seems hopeless.
Some individual words will die along the way. It’s natural. In the King James Version of the Bible, some verses are hard to understand, such as the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: “I die daily.” What?
But turn to another translation and it is: “I face death every day!” That is a message I can understand. We constantly talk about a situation where we say something like – I thought I was going to die.
Scripture contains the words that tell our story and light our path. From the first five books of the Torah, which lays out the Law, along with the Ten Commandments, to the words of the prophets, to the writings like the Psalms, these words, although ancient, speak of God’s love for the creation and for His people, a love that never dies, for all the falling away our ancestors did repeatedly. As we do.
And then, we have the Word made flesh in Jesus as John writes in his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Because the Word became flesh as Jesus, we now see God face to face. God’s message became more clear to us because of Jesus and his life, his teachings. He is “the way, and the truth, and the life” showing us the grace and truth of God.
Today, the First Reading tells of Jacob’s encounter with the divine, wrestling through the night before going to meet his long-estranged brother Esau. Jacob is a true rascal, stealing his brother’s birthright and the blessing. Yet after this night, he is given a new name, along with a few words of blessing.
In the Gospel, like the First Reading, there is persistence in a widow who is determined to have justice. To that end, she just keeps reminding – or bothering – that judge until he gives in.
There is the same theme today in Paul’s word’s to Timothy: “I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching… 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
Those are our marching orders.
Words are born, then die. Not the Word of God. These are the words that will sustain you, give you hope, remind you that there is One who neither slumbers not sleeps.
My order to you is to make a verse or a story your own, that line that will give you hope and fill you with joy. One of the priests at Mercy told me once that his favorite verse was: "The crowds followed Jesus.” For whatever reason. For me, I am partial to Mark’s resurrection story when the angel tells the women that Jesus has been raised: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” He is always going ahead of me and will meet me there.
You may not think you know enough, but I argue that we always know more than we think. Think of your favorite verse, or story in the Bible and let that guide you. Maybe you are drawn to this persistent widow or Peter’s audacity. Think of Ruth going on a new adventure with her mother-in-law. During a stressful time, remember Elijah sitting in a cave. Remember Nathaniel asking if anything good can come out of Nazareth, and Peter swearing he would never deny Jesus. Let those stories and their examples be part of your story, words that will be will you always.
And then, remember that your words need to be lived out. Attributed to St. Francis: Preach the Good News, use words if necessary.
Words live and die and yes, word death is a real, natural thing. But the Word of God – Jesus – never dies. He is the Word that has remained true and will remain true, come what may. Even if you have the “mubble fubbles” or are feeling “chantepleure.” And so I end with a word that has never gone out of style: Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
17 Pentecost (Year C)
Luke 17: 5-10
St. John’s, West Seneca
October 2, 2022
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ. Amen.
The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.” 6 But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it. “Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
When the disciples went to Jesus and said, “Lord, increase our faith,” they were asking for something they knew they needed. Or so they thought. To put some perspective here, Jesus had just told them - in the previous verses - that they were expected to reprimand sinners and then forgive them whenever they repented. To put it simply, the disciples didn’t think they had the resources to do that. They didn’t think they had the faith. So they ask Jesus to “Increase our faith!”
They couldn’t imagine that they could do this on their own, they needed more. That is when Jesus replies: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
With this extravagant language, Jesus assured his apostles that they already had sufficient faith, and that, to forgive others, they did not need to look outside of themselves. Jesus tells the disciples that they do have the tools they need to do the job.
Then Jesus goes on to speak about the master-servant relationship and speaks of a scenario that the apostles would immediately recognize as utterly ridiculous, for no master would ever invite his servant to join him at the table. Instead, the master would order his servant to serve him. In addition, the master would not thank his servant for doing what a servant was expected to do.
Jesus speaks of this tiniest of seeds to symbolize the type of faith we should embrace because we already have it. We don’t need more. And our faith, like the seed, starts small and grows gradually, steadily, intentionally. You may not see it, but like the plants that are suddenly in bloom, there it is.
Still and all, life gets hard and it doesn’t seem as though answers are coming as quickly as we would like. And so, like anything you set out to do, there needs to be some patience and trust and most importantly, to keep on the path. We do it all the time. If you want to do well in school, you have to study. If you want to be a musician, you have to practice…a lot. If you want a project to succeed, you have to plan. It’s the same with faith. We continue to do what we have always done, so that if there is a dry spell, you will get through it. And with God, even the biggest dream or setback can be turned into something wonderful.
Jesus said that even a little faith could cause a mulberry tree, a shrub known for its deep and entangled roots, to be uprooted and “planted in the sea.” That is extravagant language and that’s the point. Of course, Jesus doesn‘t say how long pulling up those deep roots will take. It may take a few minutes, a few months, even a lifetime, but with faith even the most stubborn lives can be changed and the biggest obstacles overcome.
So, where could you use some mustard seed faith? What are the seemingly impossible tasks in our lives?
• Forgiving others — over and over again, as the disciples did?
• Budgeting our time and treasure?
• Getting to the root of relationship problems?
The good news is that each of these can be done with faith, because faith doesn’t hinge only on our ability to get the job done. It’s what God can do. With God’s constant assurance, all things are possible.
When Jesus’ followers ask for faith, they didn’t quite understand that they had it. It was new to them. But we are here, some 2000 years later, and it strikes me that rarely do we see faith as something we already have because of our trust in God. When we ask, what is it that we truly want? Do we want the ability to forgive, as the disciples did?
We throw the word around a lot and it isn’t always for the right reasons. For some, faith is about certainty, superiority. How many times have you heard that if you had faith, then this, or that will happen/ Well, faith is not an accomplishment, nor does it make you superior to anyone.
For others, faith is an experience with the divine, sometimes just a drug to get us through the ordinary, or not so ordinary, challenges of life. But even Jesus had to come down from the mountaintop and continue his ministry. Faith is not based in those “mountaintop experiences,” and it is not a drug either.
There are those who want faith as an antidote to struggle. With enough faith, why we can conquer doubt, illness, even economic hardship. How many have bought into that? More importantly, how many have left the church because they were told they didn’t have “enough faith?”
Mustard seed faith brings modest, humble discipleship and that is just what we need. By God’s grace, discipleship does not require perfect confidence or spectacular accomplishments, or even mystical experiences. For us, discipleship is most often found in the ordinary. Faith is:
· Praying, even when you’re really tired;
· Attending service, even if you are at a low. The very practice of coming here is an act of faith.
· The continual practice of loving one’s neighbor.
· Going to school or work every day, and being the best version of yourself.
That’s it. It doesn’t have to be spectacular. The mustard seed is proof of that. What God is looking for is not necessarily the “superstar of faith”, but rather you and I doing what we do daily, and as the text says: “doing what we ought to have done,” with no headline, or reward, or a Facebook posting. The problem here is that we like the spectacular. We thrive on it, even demand it at times. When Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness,
“…the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, you shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.” Jesus knows that one spectacle will simply create the demand for a bigger spectacle. Unfortunately, our culture has acquired a taste for spectacular spirituality. That is not faith either.
One of the illustrations I used in my devotion this week was one I think we should all put to use because it tells us that we already have what we need.
“The Art of Possibility,” by Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander … claims that life is full of wonder and possibility if we just let ourselves out of the box of our power-hungry, judgmental, ‘bigger is better’ worldview.
It suggests such things as ‘giving yourself an A’ before you even begin a project. Look at where you are headed and where you want to go and then claim in advance that you are going to achieve it. Give yourself the A and then watch yourself live up to your own expectations. That is mustard-seed faith.
It also suggests that we remember ‘Rule Number 6’ at all times. Rule number 6 says we should never take ourselves seriously. Never. What are the other rules? There are none! That is mustard-seed faith.
Finally, or rather, one more thing, it suggests that we imagine our lives are perfect just as they are. We have challenges to face, yes. Some of them are truly daunting. But no matter the challenges, we have the power of a loving God walking every step of the way with us.”
You are here today. What you were told to do, you did. You get an A. Because, like the disciples, you already have it. That is the faith of a mustard seed. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria.