Teeth Gnashing, Ear Covering, Anxiety Moments

A sermon for Easter 5: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

 

I am in a quandary this morning. Today is mothers’ day. It is also the Sunday we read about St. Stephen being martyred. Stephen is a good man. He is one of a few who are chosen to ensure Greek-speaking Christians got a fair share of daily food distribution. He is far more than a counter clerk or table waiter. Stephen has a powerful Spirit and an eloquent voice. He is not afraid to share the first, with skillful use of the second. His verbal joust with the Freedmen’s synagogue leads to false charges of blasphemy and an appearance before the council. There he there he openly talks about Israel’s history of failure to follow God’s law, naming the Temple authorities, Pharisees, Sadducees, and historical figures all the way back to Moses. His fearless spirit, eloquence, and power stir up such passions that the Jews stone him to death. (Sakenfeld) In addition to Stephen’s personal qualities, he is also a mother’s son. And I know she would be proud of who he was. So, how am I to preach about a son’s death, and pay homage to Mothers’ Day. Maybe by reflecting on how Jesus and the disciples say good-bye; because Stephen left us with more than a story of spirit and strength; Stephen leaves us with the challenge to live life differently (Lewis). To do that we begin by being honest with ourselves, by examining the behaviors of Stephen’s adversaries

We pick up the story in mid-action. After the Stephen is taken to the council, he retells Israel’s history, with an emphasis on their unfaithful behavior. Then he charges them:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).

That sent the crowd over the edge. Luke writes “[they] ground their teeth at Stephen.” Grinding teeth is a sign of the anger of those who oppose God’s servants; an example is Psalm 37:12 The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them. Matthew uses the phrase to tell about those excluded from the kingdom. and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42). Here it is an expression of righteous outrage (Wall). This is one of those biblical expressions that does not get proper attention. We tend to envision it as something an actor might do to express a feeling. But it is deeper than that. I know several people who have dental problems because they grind their teeth. The causes can an abnormal bite, missing or crooked teeth, a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea; but it can also be caused by stress and anxiety (WebMD). I’m not casting any judgments, but stress and anxiety can be related to stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth you just do not want to face. I suspect people’s habit of clenching their teeth as a physical expression of an extreme effort to control anger qualifies for biblically grinding teeth.

A bit later we hear they cover their “uncircumcised ears” referring to a stubbornness that prevents the council from hearing the true word of God Stephen spoke (Sakenfeld). When you think about it, they have doubled down, by covering their ears so they cannot hear, with ears that are already unable to hear the truth.

This is another expression that reveals common behaviors. Our kids could never hear us call them unless it involved something they were excited about. Angie tells me I never hear her unless she is saying “dinner is ready.” You get the idea; we are very good at not hearing what we do not want to know.

We now have two traits to look for in our self-examination: anger expressed in grinding or clenching teeth, and voluntary deafness. I expect all of us can tell at least one story involving us clenching our teeth or choosing not to hear. I am sure all of those stories involve some sort of emotional angst, some deep sorrow or trouble. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that we are not all that different from the mob that stones Stephen. Maybe we are not; but, ~ we can be.

Part of my seminary experience was Clinical Pastoral Education. It is a program where you go to a big hospital, or some large ministry center to learn how to be pastoral. What you do not know go going in is that this is not a skills development experience. CPE, as it is known, is about developing the self-awareness that allows you to identify your physical response to past experiences which provoke an emotional response that gets in the way of your immediate pastoral relationship. For ten or fifteen years of my 23 years in ministry, I have spent some continuing education time exploring Family Systems Theory which puts the same events into a theoretical and practical structure of our family history. The short-hand for all this is getting to know yourself so you can control yourself. Jesus has a similar idea, with a slightly different emphasis.

A point of order here; story order that is. The lectionary is structured in such a way that we are experiencing a flashback. This is not a post-resurrection story from John’s Gospel; this is a pre-crucifixion story. This is the night before. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He has revealed that one of them will betray him; which introduces all kinds of anxiety. He has told Peter that he will deny him, not once but three times. “Troubled hearts” is very much an understatement. Nonetheless, this is where Jesus starts.

I expect Jesus starts by naming the disciples “troubled hearts” so they could recognize their emotional angst. Jesus did not have ten or fifteen years, and neither did the disciples. Jesus’ next step is to focus on the relationship steps. He and God know each other so well, they are one. Jesus and the disciples know each other very well. Their relationship is so tight that in knowing Jesus they also know God. Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and that includes you ~ and me, to remember their relationship, to keep their belief in him and through that, they are in a relationship with God; not might be, not can be, not will be, but are in a relationship with God ~ right here, right now.

The shorthand for these verses is that the words ‘house’ or ‘dwelling place,’ ‘the way’ and ‘I am’ are all traditional Jewish references to a relationship with God or the revelation of God (O’Day). All of them are inclusive. This means the phrase “No one comes to the Father except through me” is not a road map any more than Thomas’ understanding of “the way” is a road map. It recognizes a particular way of being in a relationship with God, i.e. through Jesus; it does not express an opinion about or exclude, any other relationship with God (O’Day). Jesus’ saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” marks the beginning of a new age, and assures the disciples “nothing, not even death, can separate Jesus and his “own” from God” (O’Day).

One defining characteristic of the God-Jesus relationship is trust. Jesus trusts God enough to die. All this is Jesus’ effort to help the disciples trust God as much as Jesus trusts God; in this particular moment, but also in the moments to come that as we know, will be nearly as anxiety producing. It is also Jesus’ effort to remind us to trust God/Jesus/Spirit in the midst of our teeth gnashing, ear covering, anxiety moments. Jesus is assuring the disciples he is still the way to the peace of God. The rest of the bible story reveals the truth of Jesus’ assurance.

Today, this story is assuring us that Jesus is still the way to the peace that passes all understanding. It is not easy to remember. Which is why we need a faith community to help us remember when worldly affairs drive our anxiety meter to the top. And helping each other is one of the greater works, Jesus assures us we will do. We will help each other, and others, and we can help them because we remember the us-Jesus-God relationship connection is:

  • our strong rock,
  • our castle safe hold,
  • our tower of strength.

Now we flash forward; all the way forward to this very moment. Our world is as troubled as the disciples’ world is troubled, each in its own particular way. Jesus asks the disciples to believe, to trust him just as he trusts God. Through the story, they shepherded we know Christ died. Through their continuing story, we know Christ is risen. Through our mutual trust in the story, we now shepherd we know Christ will come again.

So, do not be afraid, be believing.

 

References

Aymer, Margaret. Commentary on Acts 7:55-60. 14 5 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Bratt, Doug. Easter 5 A Acts 7:55-760. 14 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 5 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 14:1-14. 14 5 2017.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 14:1-14. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher Saying Goodbye.” 14 5 2017. Working preacher.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles (NIBC) John 21:25. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

WebMD. oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism. n.d. 10 5 2017. <http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism#1&gt;.

 

 

Middler Sheep

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter:

Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30, Psalm 23

 

Thursday Liz Cato buried Joyce, her mother. Friday Moreland White, from Osceola, buried his mother, Peggy. Saturday morning, my brother in law, Gene died following a complicated recovery from bypass surgery. And as the 23rd Psalm is often read at funerals, and with all these funerals around us I am feeling remiss if I didn’t say something.

I remember about fifteen years ago when my mother died after a twelve-year spiral into the darkness of Alzheimer. My siblings and I had begun to speak of her already being dead because she couldn’t remember anybody or anything. And so I was taken aback, I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt at her funeral, and sometimes later; until today. Peggy and Joyce and Gene lived long lives; Gene’s not quite so long. And for some time, their lives were diminished in a variety of ways. Their death was a released of sorts. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if their families were surprised by a sense of loss, today, and in future days.

The 23rd psalm is an expression of trust. It reminds us that we will lack nothing. We hear again that God sustains the flock’s life. More than “goodness and mercy” following us, it actually reads that “goodness and mercy” are pursuing us (Murphy). The 23rd Psalm is that perpetual assurance that we are never ever alone (Lewis).

So, I do not know what valley you find yourselves in today. I do not know what shadows may be moving across your lives at this moment. But, as we were just reminded, I do know that you are not alone, you never have been, and you never will be. The spirit of the Lord God is all of us. The God who made us from the dust of the earth, the God who breathed ruach, life-giving spirit, into us is always present.

Now to today’s reading and setting; both 23rd Psalm and the reading from John 10 are images of the shepherd, the good shepherd to be more precise. However, a couple of things that I read this week sort of tugged me toward a different direction. Remember when Jesus calls his friend Lazarus out of the tomb, he tells Lazarus’ friends to unbind him (John 11). Since we now see Jesus as the shepherd, we can now see how Lazarus’ friends are sheep (SSJE). A colleague of mine wrote a blog titled On Being Sheep (Pankey). One of the commentators, read every week, wrote on the nature of belief, pondering how much of our belief is dependent on God’s agency, and how much is up to us (Lose)? Another wrote that the Jewish leaders had no ability to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice (Hoezee). And another exhorts this morning’s preachers to help their congregation hear the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the others; acknowledging that the voices are legion and that often we do not perceive how contrary they are (Johnson).

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Both Psalm 23 and John 10 are clear; we are God’s, we are Jesus’ sheep. But the tug in the different direction for me this morning was: What does that mean? What are obligations of being a sheep? Sometime in the last 25 years or so, someone said that reading the Bible in the church is simply a matter of giving voice to God’s words. I can see how being sheep is similar; as sheep we vocalize Jesus’ voice, as sheep we manifest Jesus’ presence. Both of which are vitally needed in today’s world. Two Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times this week illustrate how.

In How to Fix Politics, David Brooks notes that after WWII, our community mindset began changing to an individualist mindset. Today’s primary ideology is that we can do whatever we want to do so long as we do not interfere with someone else’s doing whatever they want to do. This has led to a disintegration of community relationships. In one survey 47% of the people did not know their neighbors by name. Brooks writes that we spend less and less time in that middle-ring of community relationships such as the PTA, the neighborhood watch, volunteer fire and rescue, youth football, baseball and soccer leagues, sorority and fraternity organizations, all of that. And so frequently we hear the complaints about not being able to find anyone to help. One of the results of this of increasing isolation is the growing vitriolic speech that we hear in disagreements be it political or whatever. It turns out that these middle ring relationships are where we develop the skills to deliberate differing opinions of all kinds. Because even though you disagree with your neighbor, you still get stuff done together week after week after week that is to the benefit of both your neighborhood and to your larger community. (Brooks).

The importance of the middle was actually proven in a failed Air Force Academy effort to improve the worst performing cadets. The plan was to put best and worse cadets in the same squadron, building on the observation that the best have a tendency to help the worst. It failed, and the Academy went back to the to the traditional mix, that happened to have a bit of everyone, best, middle and the worst, in every squadron. It turns out that the middle cadets are the social glue that held the best and worst together in relationships with each other. And it is the relationships that allow the best to influence the worst (unknown). Without the middle social glue there are no relationships and without the relationships, there is no influence.

 

We are very good at getting together with people like us. But we are not very good at building bridges, to those who are different than we are. As we’ve become more and more isolated, for a variety of reasons, we’ve turned to politics to fill that void. Brooks notes that politics is now at the center of our psychological, emotional and even spiritual lives (Brooks). I would much prefer that our spiritual lives be the center of our psychological, emotional and political lives.

In another opinion column, Roger Cohen in The Death of Liberalism makes similar points. He cites Francis Fukuyama writings that the liberal emphasis on individuality which is not interfering with others too much, “is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats.”

However, such feats are required for the defense of liberty. Liberty stresses the need for us to accept each other’s differences; even when they appear incompatible. Cohen writes that a major contributor to the failure of the Arab Spring was the absence of a middle class ready to accept and mediate multiple truths. As inequality grows and angry discourses rant across social media, intolerance and the unwillingness to accept and mediate competing truths grow, and so does the threat to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Cohen). We are so distracted by the cacophony of voices promising us perfect freedom and self-fulfillment that we are losing the vital foundation of our neighbors and our communities (Brooks).

So what does all of that have to do with being sheep? Well, it occurred to me that perhaps our calling is to be sheep in the middle. It is not about figuring out the compromise that will make it all workout; it is about allowing ourselves to be that middler glue that builds relationships that allow influence to do its work and for surprising solutions to arise. And we can do this because we know we are in that fold. We can do this because we know everything depends on belonging to Jesus. It is not how we feel; it is not about having the right experience, or being doubt free, or what we have accomplished, or what we have avoided, or always having the right liturgy; we know that the only thing that matters is that we are known by the shepherd (Johnson). And we should do this because we know Jesus is the shepherd to everyone (Lynch).

It also occurred to me, that to be middler sheep is going to require us to learn some things. Like how to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd in the midst of a cacophony of voices that pull us in a million different directions. It is not easy. We may have to stop some old stuff. We may have to start some new stuff. But I think mostly what we are going to have to do is to trust. Sheep trust the shepherd. We are going to have to:

• trust that we will lack nothing
• trust that just as God sustains the flock’s life, God also sustains our lives, even when            we wander away
• trust that goodness and mercy pursue us • trust that we are never ever, ever, ever                  alone
• trust that being in a relationship with God on the one hand, and being in a                                relationship with any other sheep on the other already puts us in the middle
• trust that ~ we are already middler sheep.


References

Brooks, David. “How to Fix Politics.” The New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/opinion/how-to-fix-politics.html?ref=opinion&gt;.

Cohen, Roger. “The Death of Liberalism.” The New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/opinion/the-death-of-liberalism.html?ref=opinion&_r=0&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. John 10:22-30. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 10:22-30. 20 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Protection. 17 4 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Easter 4 C: The Electing Word. 17 4 2016. <http://www.davidlose.net/2016/04/easter-4-c-the-electing-word/&gt;.

Lynch, John J. “The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016.” 17 4 2016. Sermons that Work. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2016/03/28/the-good-shepherd-easter-4-c-2016/&gt;.

Mast, Stan. The Lectionary Psalms 23. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Murphy, Kelly J. Commentary on Psalm 23. 17 4 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “On Being Sheep.” 17 4 2016. Draughting Theology. <https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/on-being-sheep/&gt;.

SSJE. 14 4 2016.

unknown. “unknown.” (n.d.).

 

 

 

Lead Us Not To Temptation

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent; Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13, Psalm 91:12, 9-16

GS’s family has had a very hard time lately. Some three weeks ago, a grandmother had by-pass surgery. The surgery went well; the by-passes are fine; her heart is fine. However, her lungs have almost quit working, she is still incubated, was recently moved to special bed that flips over so the patient is suspended, which may take some stress off the lungs. And this past week ~ an adult child was killed in an ATV accident.

The specifics are unique; however, the circumstances are not. I know families of St. Stephen’s who face significant challenges, sometimes from multiple sources. I expect it may feel as if they have been led into the wilderness. In my experience, I know there is a temptation. In my experience, I know people ask “Why?” I believe that Jesus’ encounter with the devil has something to share with all of us as we find ourselves in the wilderness, or tempted from a time to time. So off we go into the wilderness.

It has been 40 days, and Jesus is famished from fasting. He has already faced the devil twice. From the top of the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, in the City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish political and economic life, the devil taunts Jesus (Jones). He says:

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you, up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

I’m certain the taunt sounds familiar; after all, we just heard it; the devil is citing Psalm 91 verses 11 and 12. It is possible to get into a debate about using scripture to fight scripture or how important knowing scripture is to face temptation (Rice, Jones). But, I want us to take a look at verse 2 of Psalm 91:

 “You are my refuge and my stronghold,
my God in whom I put my trust.”

How interesting it is to see, that the same Psalm the devil uses to tempt Jesus is one source of Jesus’ defense; which is Jesus’ trust in God. This is one of those places where we ought to be careful. We know Jesus is fully human, and also fully divine. It is tempting to think there is some sort of divine fail-safe that prevents Jesus from human frailty. Historically the church says no. Jesus’ humanity does not influence his divinity, and importantly for our story this morning, his divinity does not influence his humanity. What Jesus has, and so do we, is the presence of the Holy Spirit (Hoezee). What Jesus has, that we can develop, with the help of the Holy Spirit and each other, is trust in God. The Spirit does not give trust to Jesus though she may whisper reminders from time to time. Jesus’ trust grows from his life’s experience, how he witnesses his family’s and community’s worship discipline. Jesus trust is affirmed in his baptism, which comes just before this morning’s story.

We now see Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations because he trusts God. We also know his trust grows from his knowing the story of God, which is nurtured by his family and faith community and the presence of the Holy Spirit. So now let’s take a look at temptation.

We tend to think that temptation is the enticement of something to do, or to have, that is morally offensive, or those things the world loves and values, that the world defines as power, as opposed to a behavior or position that is morally righteous (Lewis). Temptation can be things that are normally good for us but become the singular focus of our lives (Expertly). Richard Rohr writes that temptations are those things that fling us away from the center of ourselves luring us into chasing stuff on the circumference of being (Rohr). And while this is what temptation is often made of, it is not what temptation is. What temptation is, is a diversion of whose we are and what we are. Temptation seeks to tell us:

 we are not God’s,
we are not made in God’s image,
that God does not really love us,
that we can be like God,
and that we can be independent of God (Jones).

Temptation entices us to change our identity. Jesus resist the temptation to give up his identity for an illusion or false promise, by trusting in God’s eternal love, by remembering that he is God’s and God’s alone (Rice, Jones, Rohr).

So, now we have some inkling of what temptation really is. We have some idea that Jesus’ trust enables him to resist temptation. We have a notion of how that trust develops, and we know that everything that Jesus had is available to us. There is one more concern, and it also arises from Psalm 91; verse 10 begins “There shall no evil happen to you.”

What about GS? What about all the tragedy that has befallen families in St. Stephen’s, and around the world? I know, you know that they are people of faith, even if it different from how we express ours, they are people of faith. So WHY? What have they done to bring such wretched calamity into their lives? Matthew writes that Jesus says for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). In John’s story of the man born blind the disciples ask him “Who sinned?” Jesus answers “No one.” (John 9). In Luke Jesus says the folks, who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, were no less righteous than those not killed (Luke 13:4). This reminds us that the events of life are not a measure of righteousness. There are no guarantees in life. When we pray our external reality may not change as we ask (Expertly). Somewhere along the line, Angie and I realized that life happens. The question is: will you let the vagaries of life define who you are, or will you reach back to eternal power to garner the strength to respond to the vagaries of life? In the language of today’s lessons: Will you let the vagaries of life tempt you away from God or will you trust God to help you discern and empower your response to the vagaries of life?

Luke’s wilderness temptation tale ends with the devil waiting for “an opportune time.” So, when the illusions, false promises or the vagaries of life are threating to fling you off into circumferential existence, trust the remembrance that you are created by God, in God’s image, who always has and always will love you. Know that you have everything Jesus had in the wilderness, you are marked as God’s own in your Baptism, and you are full of the Holy Spirit. And when temptation persists, seek out the faithful who will journey with you as you rediscover meaning, wholeness, and the shalom of life God wishes you to live.

 


 

References

Ellingsen, Mark. Lent 1, Cycle C (2016). 14 2 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 2 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Lent 1. 14 2 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 4:113. 14 2 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Filled With the Holy Spirit. 14 2 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Rice, Whitney. “Driven by the Spirit, Lent 1(C) – 2016.” 14 2 2016. Sermons that Work.

Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. New York: The Crosssbook Publishing Company, 1999.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

To pluck up and to pull down.

A sermon for Epiphany 4; Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

 

I was surprised that the phrase today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down. It is not the missional or love based thought Christians associate with the Bible. It is not about justice and reconciliation you often hear preached. It doesn’t sound like it meshes with the Jesus movement and the preaching of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, I find so powerful. Perhaps the context of the reading will help.

Jeremiah lives in tumultuous times. The Babylonian Empire is on the rise. Israel splits, some seek to associate with the rising power, others seek to stay loyal to Egypt. In 597 BC Israel revolts against Babylon, triggering three invasions, that result in the deportation and exile of most of her people. The book of Jeremiah is a conversation between communal voices seeking to come to terms with the tragedy that destroyed so much of their life. It is intensely political. It is very focused on rejecting the thought that God abandoned Israel. It is biased towards exiles over those loyal to Egypt and those who were left behind. The first half of the book explains why Israel fell; the second half reveals how Israel can survive, indeed how they can prosper. The verses we heard this morning reveal that Jeremiah is not a self-proclaimed prophet, he is called by God, over his objections, just as Moses was. We hear how he will be a destroyer and a rebuilder (Harrelson).

At some point in my ponderings, I wondered how Jesus would go about pulling down and building up. You are familiar enough with the Gospel story to know he challenges many of the existing Jewish traditions. You know about his tirade in the Temple. You know he predicts that the Temple, the center of Jewish life, will be destroyed. You know this prediction includes it’s being rebuilt in three days. But how does Jesus actually go about tearing down and building up?

Today’s Gospel story and its first half from last week are an example. One trick is to see that the order is reversed, first Jesus builds up first, and then tears down. Last week Jesus read from Isaiah, how he is bringing: good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee. It’s all heard with welcome ears, at last, God is acting to restore Israel. As one commentator notes, if only Jesus had stopped talking. His didn’t.

Today we hear that at first everyone is excited. We also hear him talk about Elijah being sent to the widow of Zarephath in a time of a great drought. He goes on to say that in Elisha’s day, of all the lepers in Israel, only Naaman is cured. Suddenly the crowd ruthlessly turns against Jesus. It reminds me of the shift in Holy Week from the jubilant welcome on Palm Sunday to the brutal “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. What we may miss, is the divine blessings Jesus names explicitly go to outsiders, by God’s direct action, tearing down Jesus’ hometown expectation of divinely selected privilege, right along with the ruling classes expectation for divine privilege.  So now we see, specifically, how Jesus tears down and builds up, in a particular instance. However, it is important for us to understand the principles Jesus stands on from which his action emerges. It is not motivation nor justification I’m pondering; it is his state of being from which Jesus acts that has my attention. Every now and again you look to the future to understand the past. So it is this morning.

The first remembrance is a training conference. I don’t recall where, or what the training was for. I’m not even sure I was there or if this is a story I heard. It doesn’t matter; it makes it the point. The trainer walks out onto the stage. There is no superlative greeting. There is no introduction of who he is. There is no announcing what the training is all about. The very first words spoken are: “If you not here because you love these people, leave!” There was an uncomfortable profound silence. I don’t recall anyone leaving. And the trainer did have our everyone’s attention.

And the trainer raises a good point. When we go, into the world, to minister to the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, the blind, or the prisoners, why are we there? Are we there to punch our good deed card? Are we there to help someone?  or to meet a need? Are we there to be in a mutual relationship with another of God’s children? Are we there because we love them, as God loves us, a gift unearned and unmerited?

You can hear how all this emerges from Paul’s letter to the quibbling church in Corinth. Last week we heard him argue that all gifts are from the Spirit, that all gifts are intended for the common good, that all gifts are equally important. This morning we heard him proclaim that all gifts are useless ~ unless we use them in love. Paul is not referring to the romantic relationship between spouses, or the paternal love for children, nor the friendship love of fraternity, sorority members, or between fishing, hunting, gaming or other friendships. No, Paul is referring to love written in the scripture as ‘agape.’ It’s Old Testament roots are: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself (Deut. 6:5 & Lev. 19:18) (Sakenfeld). It’s New Testament roots are:  love of neighbor (Matt. 22:40), love of enemy (Matt 5:44), loving each other as Jesus loves his disciples (John 14:23) and love of God (Sakenfeld). As a familiar hymn says, love how deep, how broad, how high …  that the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortals’ sake (Hymnal 1982, 448). [pause]

Today our challenge is not so much who we welcome. After his visit Bishop Benfield remarked that we are the most diverse congregation in the Diocese. We are welcoming to people of all sorts and in all conditions. I’ve seen rich and poor, folks of all political stripe, folks in varying states of mental and physical health, you name the variation and I expect they have been welcomed by St. Stephen’s. The challenge we face is. How many of you know what I’m going to say? [pause] You are right. The challenge we face is: how are we going to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now? That is a building up question. The hard bit is the addition of a preface:  As our financial resources are playing out, how are we going to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now? In the context of today’s reading, how do we go about this discerning in love?

Way later in Jeremiah’s story, in the middle of a siege, that will lead to the conquering hoards once again ravaging Jerusalem, Jeremiah has a vision to purchase a piece of property from his cousin. He makes the purchase. And he does so because he knows God sees what he cannot see (Epperly). He does so because he loves God and his love engenders trust. The Greek word translated ‘belief’ also means ‘faith’ and also implies ‘trust.’ To love God is to trust God, especially when we cannot, for the life us, see the future.

In our annual meeting, you will be invited into a conversation the vestry, and I have just begun. For the moment know it will involve some tearing down, and it will include some building up. We may well experience an emotional surge similar to Jesus’ neighbors. My prayer is that what is spoken is spoken in love; that what is heard is heard in love; and that over the time to come, and it will be a fair length of time, our love for God engenders trust of God, that enables us to hear God’s call. It is my prayer that as we have lived through our baptism in our hospitality, that we will live through our baptism in our discernment (Bates). My prayer is we do not fear plucking down and building up, rather that we trust God to lead us into the life to come.

 

 


 

References

Bates, Barrington. “Living Eucharistically, Epiphany 4(C) – 2016.” 31 1 2016. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 31 1 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 4CCenter for Excellence in Preaching. 31 1 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. “Old Testament Lectionary.” 31 1 2016. Working Preacher.

Lectionary Epistle. 31 1 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Love Never Ends. 31 1 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Epiphany 4 C: Moving Beyond Mending Our Walls. 31 1 2016.

Peterson, Brian. Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:113. 31 1 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Reese, Ruth Anne. Commentary on Luke 4:2130. 31 1 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church, Hymnal 1982. 1982.

Tull, Patricia. Commentary on Jeremiah 1:410. 31 1 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

You are about to die and be raised in Christ!

A Sermon for The Easter Vigil

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation], Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea], Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all], Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people], Romans 6:3-11, Psalm 114, Matthew 28:1-10

This evening Sarah will be baptized. The Vigil readings give us the opportunity to explore how Baptism’s roots   go far beyond Jesus all the way back to creation.  The place we’ll start is Paul; he tells us we are baptized into Christ’s death, not a real comforting thought. Paul’s reasoning is simple:    when we die because we are connected to Jesus death by baptism, by baptism we are connected to Jesus’ resurrection, and we will as Paul writes: walk in newness of life.  It’s a story captured in a baptismal liturgy of a remote people whose fonts look like small water-filled coffins; and whose children are plunged into them as the priest shouts:  “I kill you,” and who witness their children are raised high as the priest proclaims:  “and raise you in Christ!” It’s dramatic;  almost as dramatic as the connection baptism has with all of scripture. So, off we go, and plunge into the darkness of chaos.

And that what it was, all darkness and chaos, but also the lack of reason the lack of relationship the lack of love. The first thing God does is to show up, ruach – wind, spirit, or breath; and then God sings, harmonics of love burst forth first in light, not illumination, but presence a declaration I am here! And then there was all sorts of stuff, including the light of illumination, by which we see the world, and by which we perceive truth.

On the very last day we are created. Two bits are critical. One is that we are created in the image of God; that doesn’t mean we look like God; it means we bear, or carry, God’s image into the world. Imago Dei Signifier, it’s not as poetic as I’d hope, but you get the point.  Second: God makes us male and female in God’s image. I, she, we, are all forged as Imago Dei Signifier; none more so than any other, for sum of us all is less than a mere passing of infinite love.

The last thing God does is to call us to vocation. We are to:  fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over … over every living thing… Remember this is an agricultural vocation, tilling the earth. To subdue and dominate is to bring forth earth’s bounty. This is a calling to be stewards, the care takers of every living thing.

Famine drives the Hebrews into Egypt. They survive, they grow in to an overly prosperous people, and the new Pharaoh enslaves them. God calls Moses, to lead the Hebrews from slavery to freedom. It requires a dramatic set of signs, including the death of every first born Egyptian. They are making their way out of Egypt when Pharaoh decides: Nope this isn’t going to happen. and sets out after the Hebrews, who panic. Why? Have they already forgotten all those divine signs, I guess so, Pharaoh seems to have. Or do they not quite trust God and faced with death, reflexively turn back to the deceptive ways of worldly power? Moses tells them: Do not be afraid, stand firm, and witness the salvation God will provide for you today. They do, and witness a massive technological failure, it’s amazing what mud will do to the best we can think up, and the Egyptian army drowns as they dance to Miriam’s song on the shores of the sea. You would think it be unforgettable.

And it was ~ sort of. They enshrine Miriam’s song in liturgy, but pretty much forget everything else. Half a millennia later Isaiah is preaching to Judah, who’s trying to establish their own destiny. Isaiah questions their tactics, their reasoning, and their theology; here they go again, not trusting God. He asks: Why do you spend your money at Macy’s, Dillard’s or Land’s Ends? Why do you seek bargains at Wal-Mart, or Dollar General? What do you think you’re really going to find at Amazon or E-bay?  Thirsty? God provides living water, ~ no charge. Hungry? God provides bread and milk ~ no charge. Isaiah is pointing to the covenant that originally linked them to God. He’s telling Judah God wants to reestablish that covenant. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s God’s way.Isaiah also lets them know God has no worries, what God seeks, God will see.

Another hundred years and this time Zephaniah is speaking to God’s people. The message is the same, trust God, the emphasis is different: God is in your midst, gathering the outcast, healing the sick and broken, transforming shame to praise darkness and chaos to light.

And now we are three days after monumental divine failure, the messiah is dead, crucified at the request of his own people, at the hands of Rome. Mary and Mary go to the tomb. They witness: an earthquake, the appearance of an angel, the guards freeze in fear. They see Jesus and he tells them to go tell his disciples, he will meet them in Galilee.  

We do not know what they expected; none of the above was on the list. I’m not sure what we expect, yes we know about Jesus’ resurrection, but we don’t expect Mary and Mary to be the first apostles, but they are, they are the first people sent to bear witness to the resurrected Jesus.

All of this is what we are baptized into. The end point for us is the promise of resurrection. Our entry point is our sharing in Jesus’s death. But the foundation, is laid all the way back in Genesis, with light that brings light, that shapes us as Imago Dei Signifier, that calls us to tend every living thing. At the Red Sea we witness God’s continuing refrain:  Do not be afraid, stand firm, and witness the salvation God will provide for you today. Through prophetic voices we hear God’s offer of living water, bread and milk, and covenant life. Through prophetic voices we are prompted to trust God to take care of all the details. And just as God provided a vocational calling so does Jesus’ we are called to follow Mary and Mary to go and share Imago Dei in a crucified messiah now risen from the dead, who brings us into complete covenant relationship for all eternity.

It’s not a job I’m up to, but neither was Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or Zephaniah, or the disciples, or Mary or Mary; but that’s God’s way. And the truth is they carried God’s image, after all we have it, that being said, we can trust God to trust us.

Sarah, you are about to die and be raised in Christ!  so welcome to the church, the body of Christ, as Imago Dei Signifier, to live in light,  stand firm, trust God and go about tending to all creation. It’s not what anyone would expect, but God’s ways are not our ways, and our risen Christ, is the eternal witness.

 

 

 

Temptation, knowledge, wisdom and trust

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11, Psalm 32

A workman is killed in an industrial accident; it’s all the more unusual, because the industry breeds dinosaurs. Investors get nervous and demand an independent evaluation. Dr. Ian Malcom, a mathematician who specializes in applying chaos theory to complex issues, is a part of the evaluation team. As he is introduced into the laboratory, he fascinated by the work, impressed by the science, unimpressed by the theories of control, [i] and somewhere along the line he mutters to himself: … just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Jurassic Park, dare devils, breast cancer, fertility, DNA splicing, Genesis and Matthew, are all interrelated.

We know the story in the garden, with Eve, the serpent and an apple. At least we think we do.

Eve gets involved in a conversation with a snake, Adam is in the background. The snake entices Eve into a conversation, the subtle focus is death. The outcome is her and Adam’s relationship with God changes from intimacy to shame. Their shame does not come from their disobedience but from the knowledge they gained in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Now they know they are naked, they know that they are not God, how much more naked can you be. In making loin-cloths they are hiding from themselves, just as they later hide from God.

The snake enticed them by saying they will be like God. That temptation reframes their relationship with God. Until this moment, Adam’s and Eve relationship with God was trust; from this moment on its generic, its about, its theoretical, and boundary laden. Before all this, knowledge arose from their trust in God. Knowledge is no longer automatically rooted in wisdom, the stuff of the tree of life.

There’s a version of the Cyclopes’ story, where they are offered the ability to see the future for the modest cost of one eye. They strike a bargain, and give up an eye. In return they can see the future. However, the only future they can see is their own death. [ii]

The Cyclopes tried to be more than they were, and in the end they were less than they were before. It’s a similar fate that befell Adam and Eve, who tried to be like God. It’s a fate that still befalls humanity, as we make our own attempts to be like God. It is the boundary between divinity and humanity that Dr. Malcom is pointing to: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

This week four articles from the New York Times caught my attention, with respect to the story of Genesis 3:
            The Genetics of Being a Daredevil,
            The Breast Cancer Racial Gap,
            F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That
                        Raises Ethical Questions,
and
            A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA.
All the stories are about some aspect of our understanding of DNA and humanities developing ability to manipulate it.

It turns out high risk athletics may not just be a learned skill. The willingness to engage in very risky behavior, as many Winter Olympic sports are, has an identified genetic component. [iii]  An interesting bit knowledge, perhaps with applications for recruiting, but otherwise innocuous. Right?

The story on breast cancer reports on multiple studies on the difference in mortality rates of black and white women with breast cancer. For some time it was believed there was a genetic factor that explained the difference. Tara Parker-Pope reports:

The research also dispels the notion that black women face a higher risk of breast cancer because of genetic differences. While they are at greater risk for some types of breast cancers, that doesn’t explain the widening mortality gap developing in a relatively short period of just two decades. [iv]

In the article on fertility Sabrina Tavernise reports on a technique that uses parts of three people to create an embryo. It is a treatment to correct a mitochondria defect, by replacing defective mitochondria with mitochondria from a healthy egg, either prior to, or after fertilization. Tavernise reports excitement about the science, and great concern about the implications and ethics. It’s an open question if this is a cure for disease or the beginning of designer babies. [v]

The final article is about a new way to edit DNA using bacteria. The process adapts parts of the immune system that makes vaccines work. Andrew Pollack quotes Emory University’s David Weiss:

The pace of new discoveries and applications is dizzying.  All of this has basically happened in a year … It’s incredible[vi]

And it is incredible, or is it the latest temptation to be like God?

Do not get me wrong, I am not against science, technology or modern medicine. If you’ve heard me talk, you know how excited I can get about science, and technology. And you see every week how much technology I use. However, as the article about breast cancer reveals such knowledge, for varied and vastly complex reasons, is not universally available. In itself that should give us cause to stop and ponder how such knowledge changes our relationships with each other, our relationship with creation, and our relationship with God. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness reveals at least a place to begin pondering.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven in to the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days. Every temptation Jesus faces, the Hebrews faced in the wilderness, and early days across the Jordan. They fail every time. Jesus, succeeds where Israel failed. Underneath the temptations, to turn rocks into bread, to test the angelic command to keep him safe, and the lure of worldly power and wealth is the temptation to be like God, but more seditiously to not be who Jesus is ~ the Son of God. Judith Jones writes: Jesus defines “Son of God” not by privilege or power but by obedience to God. [vii] Jones also notes the temptations are not over:

            After Peter acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of the living God, he rejects the possibility of Jesus’ death.

            On his way to crucifixion religious leaders taunt him, Son of God?  ~ Prove it!

            On the cross: Doesn’t God love you enough to rescue you?

All the temptations go right back to the snake’s twisting of Adam’s and Eve’s relationship with God. They could not obey, could not trust God. Jesus does. Can we?

Lent is a season of penitence, when we are to make concerted efforts to reorient our lives to God. From Genesis and Matthew, we learn that that basically means to trust God. It’s more complex, because ‘we’ is not the numerous ‘I’s in the room, we is the people of God, which is every human-being. So yes, we have our individual work to do, we also have our communal work, as a church, a city, a county, a state, a nation, and a world, in a vast cosmos to do.

Everything begins with: Is this who I am?  who we are? Does this improve relationships between ourselves? Does this improve our stewardship of the earth? Does this reflect the relationship God seeks to have with us? If there is any doubt that one answer is not a resounding YES we should pause, until we receive the wisdom for said knowledge to contribute to everyone living life on earth as it is in heaven.

 


[i] imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0002031/bio, Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park, 1993
[ii] Krull, 1983, imdb, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085811/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Genesis:
New Interpreter’s Bible, TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS,
Interpretation, Genesis, Walter Bruggemann
Scott Hoezee , cep.calvinseminary.edu, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php, This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next sunday is March 09, 2014 (Ordinary Time), This Week‘s Article: Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Juliana Claassens

 [iii]  The New York Times, GRETCHEN REYNOLDS, PHYS ED FEBRUARY 19, 2014, 12:01 AM 37 Comments, The Genetics of Being a Daredevil
[iv] The New York Times, TARA PARKER-POPE, THE WELL COLUMN MARCH 3, 2014, 5:23 PM 68 Comments, The Breast Cancer Racial Gap
[v] New York Times, Sabrina Taverinse,  F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That Raises Ethical Questions, 2/25/2014
[vi] Andrew Pollack, New York Times, A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA, March 3, 2013
[vii] Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11 Judith Jones

Matthew
Hozee, ibid, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 4:1-11
New Interpreter’s Bible, M. EUGENE BORING, THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
Interpretation, Matthew, Douglas R.A. Hare

Ashes and the Storm

Ash Wednesday’s orders of service – done.

Ash Wednesday’s sermon – done.

Ashes on Main – location secured.

Ashes on Main – handout – done.

Ashes on Main – paper article, front page!

Ice, sleet, snow, and frozen stuff all over the place.

Thousands still without power.

I55 south bound traffic at a  s-l-o-w crawl.

Police Chief tells people without four-wheel drive to stay off the roads! If you find yourself in a ditch, towing and impound fees will be assessed.

And so for the second time since December and only the second time in twenty years services are being canceled and rescheduled. Tonight’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper has been postponed. Tomorrow’s 7 am Ash Wednesday service is canceled, conditions will worsen overnight. We do plan to offer Ashes on Main, though conditions are still a concern, and so we will offer imposition of ashes just prior to Sunday’s Eucharist, for those whose desire to begin Lent so be-smudged.

All of which is very disappointing. However, Sunday’s reading from Genesis causes me to ask Why? The great challenge in the garden is to trust God, or not. Eve and Adam chose not. We can allow our customs, traditions and liturgies to grow to such magnitude they are no longer iconic, but either idol or something akin to occult. So, we are ensnared in a winter storm that has trapped thousands in their homes and cars and our treasured traditions and liturgies will not happen, but if we trust God then all is well. If we trust God, we will not presume we are so important we can ignore request of officials who are doing their best to look after everyone; we will have inquired how we can help those in need.

In it’s own way this winter storm is an interesting way to begin Lent. The disruptions it causes should cause us to first ask: Do we trust God? and then decide what actions to take. That is a good Lenten exercise.