Despite the Evidence to the Contrary: a Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

This sermon, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on February 18, 2018, is built around the readings assigned for the First Sunday in Lent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

Here is a recording of the  sermon

 

And a transcript of the recording

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Please be seated.

So here it is the first Sunday in Lent, a penitential season, and so it’s probably a good time for me to make a little confession to you all.   Every year about this time, as the season of Lent approaches, I, Mother Dorota and I, and clergy all across the country, start to think about and look for ways to make you all uncomfortable in church.  We stop saying Alleluia, we take away the flowers, change the words of the liturgy that we’ve been using…  We try really hard to make church feel strange and just a little bit unsettling starting on that first Sunday of Lent.

But this past week as I pondered the limited resources that are available to me as I seek fulfill this goal, it occurred to me that we probably didn’t need to do anything special at all to make you all feel like you’re in the wilderness.  All you have to do is turn on the television, turn on the radio, and you see things that we use as guideposts, as markers along the way, being obliterated.  We see people hurting one another.  We see people screaming and shouting at one another and fighting over things that we would never have imagined that people would argue about in the first place.  People whom we know and love are falling sick.  People whom we know and love have died, just in this past week.  And so we are already in the wilderness.

In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that life in this world is life lived in the wilderness, because this world is broken and hurting, and people all over, even we feel lost.

That, I think, can make it really difficult to remember the words that were spoken to Jesus in his baptism and the words that are spoken to us in ours.  “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased.”

It’s easy, I think, to lose track of those words and that truth with all of the evidence to the contrary that’s thrust upon us every single day.  How do we remember we are God’s beloved?  I think in Jesus knows full well how difficult it is to keep track of that reality.  As he come out of the wilderness and strides purposefully in to the region of the Galilee he is proclaiming “The time is fulfilled. and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

Jesus was walking in to a world, having just left the wilderness, that was no less broken hurting or lonely than our own. it is the human condition and his people were being oppressed by an invading army.  People were being marginalized.  People were hurting one another and fighting over details that seemed insignificant in the face of those words – you are my beloved.  With you I am well pleased.   So he knew that he was called the claim and proclaim the truth of God love.

Listen to what he says.  “The time is fulfilled…”  so all of our Scriptures, everything written, everything handed down, everything treasured by our people are pointing to this one moment when God will break into the world in a new way and set all things right.  We will be restored to right relationship with God and with one another.  And all of creation, and all people will be reconciled one to another and to God!  That’s what Jesus is proclaiming as he walks into the Galilee!

He’s also saying that “the kingdom of God has come near.”  It’s not something far-off, something up in the heavens.  It’s not something to experience after you die.  The kingdom of heaven is here and now, and we can experience it together, as a community.

Pretty radical things to say.  And especially radical in light of all of the evidence to the contrary.  How do we cling to those truths?  How do we remember those things that have the power to give us the “peace that passes all understanding” when all we have to do is walk out the door and be reminded the world is still a broken, hurting, and a lonely place to be?

Jesus says “…repent, and believe in the good news.”   Now the word repent carries a lot of baggage because it gets misused a lot.  But what it really means is to turn away from the things that are distorting our nature; that are stealing our joy, and our life. and our love.  To turn away from things that alienate us from one another, and from ourselves, and from God, and to turn back to the God who wants us to live life abundantly, joyfully, boldly, and lovingly.

Jesus says turn back to God and believe the good news, believe a better word here is trust.  Believe is a verb.  Believe means embrace, internalize, accept, know.  Trust the good news.

Trust that you are beloved of God and that with you God is well pleased.  Trust that the time is fulfilled and God’s promises are coming true.  And trust that the kingdom of God is here and now, for you and for me, and for all of us.  And do all of that despite all of the evidence to the contrary.  Not an easy thing to do.  Jesus knew that.  Jesus shows us a way to hang on to what is at the core of our being.

Before Jesus strides purposefully into the Galilee proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  Now I’m not suggesting that any of us do that.  That would be a difficult thing, I think, for any of us to endure.

And I also want to point out that in the other gospel accounts of Jesus is like there’s a lot of detail about what that temptation looked like and the conversation that Jesus had with the tempter.  But here in Mark’s gospel it’s very spare, a few short lines, which leaves room for our imaginations.  And in fact, I think, leaves room for our own stories.  So if we were to step into the wilderness to be tempted what would that look like for us; to be tested, what would that look like for us?

Just a couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we stood in this place and listened to the Invitation to the Observance of the holy Lent, and in that invitation we hear,

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance…”

We are called during this season to look for the obstacles that we have erected between ourselves and God; the things that keep us from turning back to God; the things which we carry around in our past and in our memories that leave us hiding behind the bushes and sewing clothes out of fig leaves for fear of encountering the God who loves us.

The invitation goes on,

“I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent… by prayer and fasting and self-denial…”

to engage in a conversation with God that’s stripped of its distractions.  To find a place to be quiet, to be alone with God, to speak what’s in our own hearts and to listen.

And then finally the observance of a holy Lent

“…through reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Going back to those promises.  Remembering what God has said to us.  Remembering what God has said to us through the person of Jesus Christ, and claiming them as truth.

We are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased!

This season of Lent is a time for us to resource ourselves.  To build ourselves up, to claim those promises for our own, so that when the world tries to counter that truth with evidence to the contrary we can be strong in what we know and what we believe.

This season is a time for us strengthen and fortify ourselves with the truth; time for us to focus on what is holy, and true, and life-giving, and the beautiful, so that when the world floods us with images that aren’t any of those things we have something with which to balance them.

The world can very quickly take away the peace that passes all understanding and this season of Lent is about building ourselves up in that Peace, finding it again and claiming it for our own. I have to tell you that that’s not the end of the story.

This season isn’t so much about us, as it is about the world that would try to steal this peace from us.  Jesus hears his identity proclaimed in his baptism, and he goes out into the wilderness, and he successfully resists the temptation.  He’s strong in who he is.  And he’s also strong in what is called to do.

And so he walks out of the wilderness into a world that would deny everything that he says and is, and begins to proclaim,

“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”

All of the peace that we find this season and in one another, and in this place, is preparing us to follow in his footsteps… and to go out those doors into a world that is broken, and hurting, and lost, and proclaim a different narrative in the one year on the evening news; to tell one another, to tell everyone we meet “You are beloved, and we are one.  And we can live together, respecting each other’s dignity, recognizing what is holy in one another, and working to serve each other and to serve God here in this place.

The season of Lent, it’s like boot camp!  We are being prepared to be sent out.  In the process of that we will find a peace that passes all understanding, and then we’re called upon to jeopardize and to risk that by going out that door.

Thanks be to God that we have one another and this place to which we can return; to be strengthened, to be filled, to be taught, to listen, and to teach one another, so that together we can bring those prophecies to realization and fulfillment.

The kingdom of God has come near.

Amen

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A Moment of Shocking Clarity: Honoring the Life, Work and Ministry of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This sermon, offered on January 14, 2018  by the Very Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin is  built around the Lessons Appointed for Use on the Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr.

You can find those lessons here.

 

Here is a recording of the sermon:

 

The following is a transcript of the recorded sermon:

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Please be seated.

It catches us up short.  Startling, sometimes even frightening us when it happens.  We’re making our way through life.  Maybe we’re not paying attention.  Maybe we’re making excuses.  Maybe we are in denial.  But then a moment of clarity strikes us. Something happens and the truth becomes too obvious and to plain to ignore, and we have to finally deal with it.  We had just such a moment here in this last week.

Just a week ago, as we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord, we stood here in this place and we promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We promised that we would strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.  All people.  Every human being.  That’s a tall task for anyone.  It’s easy to love the people who love us, who look like us, who dress like us, who believe like us.  But these vows don’t give us that option.  We have to go beyond that and love all people, respect the dignity of every human being.

Now we renew these baptismal promises all the time.  Every time there’s a baptism in this place we stand and renew our baptismal vows.  We do it when we celebrate the feast of the baptism of our Lord.  But I wonder how many of us walk out the doors of this place really thinking about what those words mean… All people.  Every human being.

I think it’s possible that we walk around ignoring the implications, pretending that we haven’t said those words, or even in denial about the words all and every.

And here we are today with this moment of clarity.  Jesus tells us that we have to go beyond all of that, and love our enemies.  It can’t be more explicit.  It can’t be clearer.  Love your enemies.  And the difficulty of what we signed up for becomes absolutely, undeniably clear.

Jesus even acknowledges that.  He says anybody can love the people who love them.  Anyone can do good for the people who do good to them.  Anyone can lend money if you expect to get it back with interest.   But you, you, we, God’s children, followers of Jesus Christ, are expected to do more!  We are expected to love all people as we love ourselves and to respect the dignity of every human being.  It’s a terribly difficult thing to do but it is our calling.

So how do we, as the church, as followers of Jesus, accomplish these tasks?  We spent some time this morning in the forum talking about ways to gather community, to draw people together, to make sure that people feel welcome and loved, so that we might link arms and work together to bring about God’s vision and dream for all of creation.  And I think all of those are powerful witnesses and testimony to the narrative that we uphold.

For a long time, I’ve held to that narrative as a chief way for us to love all people.  To proclaim that countercultural narrative to the world; that we are all created equal, that we are all one, that we are all beloved of God, is to speak against the voices in this world and this culture that diminish, demean, and denigrate.  I have thought that maintaining that narrative and proclaiming it was a great way to stand against the powers that the oppress, and dehumanize, and destroy God’s creatures.

But I had this great conversation with a very wise person whom I respect very much this week, and that person helped me to recognize that in today’s world there are so many narratives being spoken, there are so many stories, there are so many ways to interpret this world, being promulgated through platforms that we might not have imagined twenty years ago, that it’s hard for that narrative to reach people.  It’s hard for that narrative to stand out against all of the narratives that are being voiced, and people are holding, so we need to do something more.  Because anybody can tell a story.

So what is it that we need to do?  I think that when we hear people speaking in ways that diminish, demean, and denigrate, we need to speak up in that moment.  It’s not enough to acknowledge that those words are wrong.  Anybody can do that.  We need to take the extra step and say “No this is wrong!”  We need to speak up against systems that oppress, and marginalize, and destroy God’s creatures, and say that those systems are wrong.  We need to make sure that all of God’s children have what they need to flourish, and to be whole.  We need to work for reconciliation!   So when we see that there are systems in place that aren’t upholding that dream and vision for creation that God has entrusted to us, we need to work for change, to lobby for policies that uphold us all.  We need to carry our values, and our belief, and that narrative, into the voting booth.  We need to stand up and proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ and no wait for someone else to take action on our behalf.

Today we are using the proper’s that are assigned for the celebration of the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who was assassinated for daring, for daring to take action against these very systems, and these very words, fifty years ago.  We may have told ourselves in the past years that we have come a long way.  And that may be true.  But we are in danger of sliding backwards.

The narrative that we uphold is being over shadowed, and it’s not being proclaimed in ways that are effective.  And so we, we, each and every one of us, this community here in this place, this city, this nation, needs to speak.  To speak.  To name what’s wrong when we see it.  To hold up what is good, and right, and life-giving.  To seek and serve Christ in all people, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We, we need to be active and strive for justice and peace among all people.  And respect the dignity of every human being.  It’s hard, it’s scary.  And we may have spent a lot of time in denial, and ignoring that responsibility, but my brothers and sisters this is what we have promised to do.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we have promised to walk in his footsteps, and to walk in the footsteps of prophets like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and call for peace and justice, for equality, for life giving systems and policies that govern and rule us in this community, and in the nation, and in the world.

Tomorrow at the capital we’ll celebrate.  We’ll sing songs.  We’ll hear powerful speeches.  And we’ll remember something that happened a long time ago.  But if we don’t step into that vacuum and continue that work, then that celebration is hollow.  If we don’t step into that vacuum and continue that work, then what we’re doing here this morning is just as hollow, because we are called to hard work.  We are called to do more and everybody else around us.  Because we’re not allowed to opt out of the promises that we have made.

Amen.

In the beginning was the Word: A sermon for Christmas Day

This sermon, offered on Christmas Day 2017 by the Very Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin is a slightly updated version of a sermon offered on Christmas day 2015.

It is build around the readings assigned for Christmas III in the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

 

What a difference a few hours can make.  It’s hard to believe that we are in the same place.

Just last night we were gathered here in a dimly lit stable, resonating with the sound of donkeys, sheep, heavily breathing cows, and softly wuffling creatures.  The air was sweet with the smell of hay and of straw.

And there was a baby lying in a manger, a child whose coming had been foretold, and about whom a multitude of the heavenly host sang  “Glory to God in the highest!”

This morning, in the bright light of day, we leave the stable, the animals, the familiar and comforting smells, even Mary, Joseph, and the baby far behind.

This morning the powerful poetry of the Prologue to the Gospel according to John sweeps us up and propels us into that swirling chaos when

the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

John says:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”

(John 1:1 – 5).

This is John’s version of the infancy narrative.  No stable.  No manger.  No shepherds, sheep, angel choirs…  Not even a travel weary couple and their newly born child.

Coming here expecting Christmas this morning this Gospel reading can feel pretty disorienting.  Maybe it is supposed to.  Maybe that’s the point…

Think about it.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to us this season.

We came here on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ, and the crèche was empty.  Instead of hearing about the child that was to be born in a manger we heard about the Christ who will come again.  Instead of hearing about events of 2,000 years ago we heard about… the end of all time.

Today, on Christmas Day, we come here again, the crèche is full, the baby is lying right there in the manger, and instead of hearing about the child who is “good news of great joy to all the people…” we hear about…  the beginning of all time and all things!

Maybe the framers of the lectionary have chosen this reading for us today because they understood that there is a danger in focusing too closely on the familiar… sheep and shepherds, straw and hay, mothers and babies… things we can touch, smell, hear…

The story that we know and love so well; a story remembered in painting, song, and made for TV specials is so familiar, so sweet, so gentle… so domesticated that, on this day when we gather to mark the birth of Christ, we are in danger of forgetting the rest of the story…  the part of the story that had the shepherds trembling in fear.

That’s why the writer of today’s Gospel has brought us here…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good;”

In the beginning was the Word,”

 “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’….   And it was so. God called the dome Sky.”

In the beginning was the Word,”

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.”

In the beginning was the Word,”

And five more times, eight times in all, the word of God was spoken… and through him all things came into being.

“Through him all things came into being and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

We need to remember that what we are talking about, what we are celebrating; the moment that leads us to sing “Glory to God in the highest,” is too big, too expansive, too much… to fit into a story, the elements of which are comforting, recognizable, and familiar.

We are talking about the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega, the very breath of God forming the Word, bringing order to the chaos, and giving life and light to all people!

But that’s the real beauty of the story that we tell.  It is a simple story, one that brings us great joy and comfort, filled with things that we know and understand and at the same time… all of that enormity, the breadth and scope of all time, from the beginning to the end of all things, rushes together, as if it is swirling through a funnel, and ends up right here, in a stable, in a manger, enfleshed, one of us.

Last night was a time for tenderness, for love; a time to press our cheek to the soft, downy head of a newborn and breath deep the sweet smell of new life, a life that comes to us with a story that will change the world.

Today, today is a time to lie in solemn stillness, a time for awe, for the wonder that comes from the realization that in the coming of this child

“the Word has become flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“Glory to God in the highest!”

Amen

 

A Terrible Proposition: A Sermon for Advent 4B

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings for the 4th Sunday in Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Good morning.  And what a morning huh?  This day is just packed!  December 24th The Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve!  There’s almost too much to do!  We’ve gone to just one service this morning so that we can hang the greens, decorate the church, and be ready for Christmas Eve; two more services, with a pageant this afternoon and a dramatic and beautiful telling of the story and a round Silent Night by candlelight later this evening.  All over the church clergy and congregations are dealing with the same time crunch and wondering if it really is possible to get it all done today…

It would be awfully easy to just jump straight into Christmas Eve.  After all, we know how this story ends.   And we’ve been waiting such a long time…  Time is so short…  There is a baby on the way!

But for now, at least for another hour or so, gathered here this morning, it is still Advent, we are still waiting, hoping, wondering…  And it’s a good thing too.

Because today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, there is someone who is here to offer testimony, to speak truth to power this morning.  She will not be silenced.  Her voice rings out across the centuries, and we are here today to honor her, to hear her testimony, and to grapple with her understanding of what is… and what is to come…

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David…”

Luke 1:26-38

In a world oppressed by empire, among a people conquered, downtrodden, diminished…

The Angel of the Lord comes to someone with no power, someone with no status or rank, someone who is the property of her father, someone soon to be the property of a husband…

The Angel Gabriel comes to a young woman, whose name is Mary, and makes an astonishing claim:

“…you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

Jesus… Jesus will be his name…

But Mary knows that she wouldn’t be the only one to name this son.

Ringing in her ears, even as the light shining from the angel threatens to overwhelm her senses, is the echo of the promise, made through the Prophet Isaiah, crying out to a people lost in the darkness:

            “For unto us a child is born

A son given to us

Authority rests on his shoulders

And he is named

Wonderful counselor, mighty God

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Isaiah 9:6

And in her heart Mary knows that this child, the one whose birth the angel is foretelling… this child will come to:

“… bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1

A sharp intake of breath.  Does her heart skip a beat?  An aching in the core of her being?

Mary is engaged to Joseph but they aren’t married.  If she becomes pregnant…  The scandal will be ruinous for her and her family!  In fact, Joseph would be within his rights to have her stoned!

And then there is Herod the Great, the Roman Puppet King of Judea, whose tyrannical reign was characterized by the use of murder and terror.  Threats to his authority, and to the authority of Rome, Empire, are crushed without mercy.

When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

She has to see this future as fraught with danger, for herself, for the child, and for the people who live under the rule of Herod and the iron fist of the Pax Romana.

This moment, when Gabriel, an angel of God, arrives as an emissary to a young woman, someone who might walk through the streets of Nazareth without drawing any attention to herself, and asks her to bear a child in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by sheep and oxen…

…This moment is charged with a level of political danger and consequence that is unmistakable to anyone who is paying attention and willing to see the narrative being developed through the angel’s overtures….

Mary is being asked to offer herself, her reputation, her safety and that of her family, maybe even the safety of her people, in order to make God manifest in the world; to set in motion a movement, a revolution that the principalities and powers that hold sway over us and this world will do anything in their power to suppress and destroy.

The angel has asked, God and all of history are waiting… what will she say?  How will she respond to this…     and let’s not romanticize this…   to this terrible proposition?

She asks, “How can this be…?”

One question?  That’s it?  One question?”   That’s all she needs?  She doesn’t ask for assurances, for guarantees?  Maybe she’s stalling for time.

And then, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

In just a few hours we will gather here again and it will be Christmas Eve.

There will be a pageant, this space filled with children, children telling the story of a miraculous birth, a birth to the least likely of parents, in the least likely of places; the birth of the one who brings new life to all the earth.

And then again, still later, we will gather, in the dim light of the stable…  We will glory in the miracle of new birth, in the tenderness of mother and child, in the voices of angels and heavenly hosts, and in the excitement and wonder of shepherds.

We will stand and sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo to celebrate Emmanuel, God With Us and we will hold our candles high as we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

But for now… for now it is still Advent.

And while there is still time, before we crowd around the manger to ooh and aah at the child wrapped in bands of cloth, we need to hear the testimony of a young woman who will not be silenced.

A young woman who, after the angel departed, after the luminous vision had faded, embarked upon a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth; whose song of exultation describes her understanding of what is and what is to come; whose song interprets and explains without flinching from their political implications the events we will celebrate in the few short hours ahead…

A young woman whose testimony calls us to take our part at the manger this evening as informed participants, as disciples, aware of the political implications and dangers of following the child who will lead us…

Jesus, Emmanuel, Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – who will be great, who will be called the Son of the Most High, who will sit upon the throne of his ancestor David. Who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of whose kingdom there will be no end.

And so now honoring the voice of a young woman who had the courage to speak truth to power, to offer her testimony and utter God’s Word of love to the world, I invite you to open your prayer books to page 91, and stand as we once again proclaim the Song of Mary.

The Song of Mary        Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

“I knew that you were a harsh man…” A sermon for Proper 28A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on November 19, 2017, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 28 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

This past Sunday morning I was struggling to balance an argument about the pedagogical method behind the parable with the good news it conveys.  I didn’t do a very good job balancing the two at the 8:00 service, leaning more heavily on my argument that Jesus uses a familiar narrative to draw out and question our assumptions about God than I did on the good news he was offering by pointing to a different truth.  I am not sure I did a great job adjusting the balance in the 10:30 version of the sermon but I think I got closer…

Following,with apologies to those who heard my attempt at the early service, is a recording and a transcript of the sermon I delivered at10:30.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

So some Sunday mornings the task of the preacher is made more difficult by the need to reach back into the customs and traditions of two thousand years ago and make them understandable and relevant to us today living in a much different place and time.  This isn’t one of those Sundays.  As difficult and as distressing as this story is, it’s something that I think we can all grasp and hear pretty easily.  What if the story went this way…

A group of investors gathered together three of their employees and gave to each of them a huge sum of money, a huge sum of capital to invest, and then they went away for a long time.  They came back later to settle the books, to prepare their tax returns, and they summon their three employees.  The first in front of them and says, “I took the money that you gave me and I’ve invested it all in subprime mortgages, and I’ve doubled your money, and here it is!”  And the investors are so delighted they promote that person.  They put them in a corner office with windows on two walls, on the top floor of the building!  The second employee comes and says, “You know I took all that money you gave me and I invested it in payday lending operations, storefronts all across the city, and I’ve double your money, and here it is!  And they’re so excited they promote him too.  He doesn’t get the top floor of the building but he gets a corner office and he gets his name plate on the door.

The third employee comes back says, “I was so afraid that I would mess up, so afraid that I would invest this in something something that would fail, you know the market is just so tenuous right now, what I did was I locked away in the file drawer in my desk to save it for you.  And I’m so glad you gave it to me to keep safe in this way.  Here it is.”  Suddenly security appears in the office with a cardboard box full of everything from this  guy’s office and he’s escorted to the door, and his security card is taken away, and he invited never to come back again.

A story that we can understand and grasp.  Except that once we started to hear the story in this way just like Jesus’s original hearers did, and find ourselves comfortable with the familiarity even if it’s harsh, Jesus is God us right where he wants us.

Because Jesus started this story by saying the kingdom of heaven is like….

Oh… Wait a minute…  the kingdom of heaven is like venture capitalists who abuse people and take advantage of them, and raise money, and were being called to go out and do just that.  That’s what God wants… Ok.  Something else is happening in this story.

Who is it that is the master in Jesus’s parable?  I mean this is a parable.  Jesus says it’s a story about the kingdom of heaven.  So.. it must be God.  Right?  But it doesn’t make sense that God would behave in this way.  So let’s dig back into this story for just a minute.

There is nothing that we know about the first two slaves, the first two employees.  I made up all that stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending offices.  I added those details.  But they’re not there in the Scripture.  The only person in the story that we know anything about is that third slave, and what we know about that person is that they are terrified.  They think that the master is a harsh person who reaps where he didn’t sow, and gathers where he didn’t plan seed…  But there’s nothing in the story that affirms or validates that view.  In fact, what we do know is that the master handed over these huge sums of money, entrusting them to these three people, and had enough confidence in them digest leave town.

The first two slaves come back and they’ve multiplied the money but there’s no sense that they were afraid.  There’s no sense that they did this out of fear.  So there’s just this one person who’s terrified of the master.

So what is Jesus doing in this parable?  Is he telling us what we need to do with our talents our gifts, the resources that we have?  Yeah I think he’s doing that.  But I think there’s something more important happening here, that we have to examine first, and that is what our idea is of God.

How do we think God behaves?  How do we think God interacts with us… because I think that the really outrageous moment in this story isn’t when the master takes everything that the third slave has and gives it to the one with the most.  I think the outrageous moment in this story is when this slave doesn’t recognize the true nature of the gift, and the generosity and kindness, of the master who gives it.

Ok.  So I made up a bunch of stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending.  Let me make something else up just to sort of round things out here.

So that third slave he takes the talent that he’s been given, and he goes home, and he buries it in the ground in the dirt spot where his kid’s feet hit the ground under the swing set.  The grounds already bare there, nobody will notice that there’s a new patch of earth in the yard.  He buries it there and then every night while he’s washing dishes, standing at the kitchen sink, he’s looking out the window at that spot in the ground, and worrying about that talent that’s buried out there.  Is it still safe?  Has somebody found it?  Does somebody know what’s out there?  Is somebody going to come steal it?

And so once everybody’s asleep and the streetlights come on, he sneaks outside into the backyard and he checks just make sure that the soil’s not disturbed.  Something really awful has happened to the gift that was given to this third slave.  It’s suddenly become curse.  He’s so obsessed with losing it, is so obsessed with somebody else finding it and taking it, that he’s buried it somewhere where it’s no good to anybody, and he thinks about it all day long, even when he is at work.  And all of this is happened because of his understanding of who the master is, an understanding that’s not validated anywhere else in this story!

So, how do we understand, how do we relate to God and gifts that we’ve been given.  Do we hide them, hoard them, stow them away somewhere, for fear that we might make a mistake and be judged for using them incorrectly?

I talk to people once in a while who are making big decisions about their life, their vocation, their work, and often folks will tell me that they think there’s only one right answer to the equation that sits before them; that they have to figure out exactly the right thing to do here and now, and they have to have that trajectory mapped out for the rest of their life.  I wonder sometimes if that’s because they have an understanding of God that’s similar to the understanding that this third slave has.  What if instead of a single point on the horizon, a single right answer, God was the entire horizon, not just that one point.  What if there were multiple paths to that horizon and at the end of any of those paths you would find God and God’s joy, and God’s delight in what you have done with those gifts.

Suddenly we stop acting out of fear, out of concern for making a mistake, and we get the ability to revel in, to be excited about, to explore the possibilities that God has laid before us.  And we know that any one of these paths that we might choose will make God happy, will bring God’s delight, will raise God’s joy.  And all of that is true, I think, because we know that God is already happy, and delighted, and already finding joy in who we are.  Here’s why we know that.

We know that God came to us as an infant born in a manger, an infant born helpless needy, dependent on us.  God loves us so much that God was willing to put God’s self in our hands.  That’s about as far from this money grubbing, greedy, angry, judgmental master as you could get.  And God did all of that before we had a chance to do anything with any of the gifts that we’ve been given!  God is already here loving us, delighting in us, finding joy in who we are, and just watching with delight, and probably a good sense of humor, to see what it will do with all of these things.  Kind of like a parent of a newborn child.

So here we are at the end of the season after Pentecost, about to enter into the season of Advent, and I think that child born in a manger, out there on the horizon, should be creeping into our minds already as we examine the way we feel about the God whom we come to meet in this place.  Do we kneel at this rail seeking connection, seeking acceptance, worried that we are not part of all of this?  Or do we come to this rail and Neil and hold out our hands to receive the sign and symbol of God’s ongoing presence in our life knowing, knowing, knowing that we are beloved?  I think the answer to that question makes a huge difference in the way we walk into the season of Advent.

Amen

 

Denying the Claims of Empire: A Sermon for Proper 24A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Madison Wisconsin, on October 22nd, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings assigned for Proper 24A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This sermon was preached without notes from the center aisle.  What follows is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 celebration of the Eucharist and a transcription of that recording.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

Whew…  Well you couldn’t have written a better made for TV drama scene then this one.  Imagine how it felt to all of those people gathered there in that place when the Pharisees and the Herodian arrived together.  Two groups of people representing different power bases, with different interests, and different backgrounds, they never reached across the aisle to work with one another.  You know they say politics makes strange bedfellows but this was pretty shocking.  So in they come, the Pharisees and the Herodian, and everybody took a deep breath.  And then they approached Jesus.  And everyone knew that Jesus was really getting under their skin.  So something was going to happen.  And then they asked him this question that was so clearly a trap.  It must’ve sucked all the breath right out of the room.   “We know that you speak for God and that you treat no one with partiality.  Tell us what you think.  Is it right to pay taxes to the Emperor or not.”

There is no good answer to this question.  Say no and you are speaking out against Rome, and you’re liable to be charged with sedition, and we all know what kind of punishment empire metes out.  Say yes and all of the people who followed you here to this moment are likely to turn their backs on you in disappointment and disgust.  So everyone held their breath to see what Jesus would say.  And then he comes up with the perfect non-answer.  “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperors, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

Everybody took a deep sigh a deep breath of relief.  And the Pharisees and the Herodians left amazed at Jesus’s rhetorical dexterity.  And the story moves on.  Except that there’s something else happening here.  There’s something beneath this non-answer that’s really an indictment if you think about it.

It’s only a non-answer if you believe that there are things in your life that don’t belong to God.  It’s only a non-answer if there are parts of your life that you can wall off, and stand behind, and say God’s not over here.  God’s not watching.  Or, you know, God’s not entitled to this piece of me so I’m just going to hold this in reserve, and I can do what I want with this, and I can give it to the Emperor.

The fact that they had a coin with them, there in that place, with the Emperor’s likeness and title on it, was a sign that they had somehow figured a way to bifurcate their lives and hold God in abeyance in places where they weren’t comfortable with God’s presence.

We will, in just a few minutes, when Mother Dorota invites us, we’ll all stand here around this font, with this child in our arms, we will renew our baptismal covenant. The book of common prayer holds out for days there especially appropriate for baptism and this isn’t one of them.  We baptize babies whenever there are babies to baptize.  Those four dates in the prayer book aren’t always convenient for out-of-town family, and it’s such a joyful thing to baptize people into the body of Christ, we’ll do it pretty much any time someone asks.  But the fact that this isn’t one of those four dates means that we rarely get to hear this story on the same day that we reaffirm our baptismal covenant.  That lends a certain urgency and sense of intention to what we’re about to do.

Jesus was preaching a subversive gospel: that all people are worthy of dignity and respect, that all people are beloved in the eyes of God, that all people should have what they need to thrive, and to live, and to flourish.  In the face of Empire Jesus was preaching that true power comes from giving power away, not from taking it from others.  It was a subversive gospel then and it’s a subversive gospel now.

We all know how scary it can be to bend a knee to something other empire.  The truth that Jesus taught was true at the beginning of all things.  It was truly in first century Palestine.  And its true now.  And it is every bit as dangerous to defy empire now as it was then.  Bending the knee somewhere else can get you sidelined and left out of the game.

But that’s what we’re being asked about today.  Jesus is standing here with a coin in his hand and he’s asking us “Whose face is this and whose title?”  And he’s asking us if we are prepared to bifurcate ourselves and to say there are some parts of our lives where I don’t have to pay attention to the things that I’m about to promise.  There are some parts of my life where God is not invited.  There are some parts of my life that we can hold apart.  How can that be?  When we stand in just a few moments to baptize Carolyn Elizabeth into the body of Christ, and reaffirm our promises to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being, to work for justice and truth…  We are making the choice about where and to whom we will bend our knee.

So I hope that as we reaffirm these promises today we are cognizant of just what it is that we’re doing.  We are proclaiming a subversive gospel that seeks to turn the world upside down and to make into this… make this world into vision, God’s dream: life, light, and love.

When you come forward this morning to receive communion there will be water in this font, and having just made those promises anew, I hope that you will dip your hand into this water and remember your own baptism.  Remember the promises that you have just made.  And to know that there is no part of this world no part of our lives, that this water cannot touch.

Amen

 

Are You Envious Because I am Generous?: A sermon for Proper 20A

This sermon, offered on September 24, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, by The Very Rev. Andy Jones , is built around the readings for Proper 20 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. 

You can find those readings here.

This sermon was preached without notes from the center aisle.  What follows is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 celebration of the Eucharist and a transcription of that recording.

Laying the Gospel Book on the altar, turning and wandering down the center aisle, and then turning to come back…

Oh!  I’m sorry…  Everybody sit down.

I just so distracted and upset I don’t know what to do.   I mean yesterday started out just like any other day.  Me and my crew showed up at the parking lot at the Home Depot early in the morning.  And Eli showed up just like he always does.  And hired us to come work in his vineyard for the day.  So we got to the vineyard and we’re out there making our way up and down the rows plucking the grapes off the arbors… and at about ten after nine Eli showed up again with the more people.  Now that’s happened before.  It’s not that unusual but usually that happens when it’s been rainy and wet and there are lots and lots of grapes and there’s an order in and we need to really get everything picked that day.  But that’s not the case right now.  It’s been dry and so there weren’t that… we could’ve handled it…

Well then, about noon, he comes back with another bus load of people.  Some of these people, you know, I just know…  They didn’t speak the language.  They didn’t know what they were doing.  I don’t know why he needed them.   And then at 3 o’clock… some of the people he brought back… some were even tall enough to reach the grapes!

We didn’t know what to think of all of this.  We have this relationship with you…  We worked for him forever.  We trust him.  He knows us.  He knows we can get the job done.  But if that wasn’t bad enough… the crew that he brought back at about quarter after five to work the last 45 minutes of the day… they could hardly make it off the bus.  They stumbled down the steps.  They struggled to get across the parking lot.  They hadn’t even picked a row worth of grapes before the bell rang and we were all called to the paymaster to pick up our day’s wages!

So me and the crew, you know we’re in good with Eli, we walked right up to the front of the line but the manager said,  “No, no, no.  Take your folks to the back of the line.  You guys are getting paid last today.”  Well we didn’t know what to make of that until we saw that those people that arrived at quarter after five… they got paid a full day’s wage!  And so we were pretty excited.  Not sure what’s going on here.  Maybe Eli’s come into some inheritance or something.  But if they’re getting paid the full day’s wage we must be in for a bonus.  This is going to be really good!  Well we got to the front of the line paid the same as the people who worked for less than 45 minutes.  Well needless to say we were pretty unhappy.   I mean, we’ve known Eli forever.  He’s always been there for us.  So how can this happen, that we weren’t treated any better than these people who showed up at the end of the day?   And then, and then Eli heard one of my guys complaining and he got right in his face and he said, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

I have to tell you, I have to tell you, I felt set up, because he could’ve avoided all of this if he just paid us first and let us go on our way.  But he made us stand in the back of that line and wait to get ours and see how well he treated the people before us… just so we could ask me that question!  I really felt set up.

 

Yeah.  Set up.  Here’s a situation that we can find ourselves in all too easily, that we can imagine. in the marketplace working, being called out to work, and in the end… not receiving what we believe is our due.  And all of this designed just ask us that question.  “Are you envious because I am Generous?”

That’s what parable does.  A parable gives us a story that feels very familiar, that feels very solid, where we think we can navigate our way through the narrative and the characters who are involved, and suddenly there’s this little twist… that gets you, that makes you think.  Oh!  What’s really happening here?   What’s really going on?

That’s where we are.  Here we are and people who have only worked for the last 45 minutes are being invited into the vineyard: people without the proper documents, people who don’t speak the language or know the customs, people who may not have even worked in a vineyard like this before, people with preexisting conditions, people who may need to take extra leave to bear children…

And Jesus is standing here in this moment and asking us that question.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

There seems to be this thing within us that evaluates ourselves, that ranks ourselves, that tells us who we are based on the way we’re treated compared with other people.  And so when other people are getting something that we think we have worked to earn or deserve, and they haven’t measured up… it rubs us the wrong way.

The first time I caught a confirmation class I took the kids in that class to visit all of the downtown of mainline churches, and we looked at their architecture, and we looked at what was in their building, and asked the question “what can this tell you, what does this tell you about this community and the way they worship?”  It was a great Saturday morning!  But the next week I had older siblings of those kids and their parents confront me in the parking lot and say,

“this isn’t a real confirmation class.”

I said, “Well, what do you mean?”

“Well here’s the book that I had to memorize.  And here’s a checklist of all the things that the Bishop was prepared to test me on.  This is confirmation class lite!”

I said “Oh.  So you want me to haze them the same way that you were hazed?”  I said, “Ok.  Right here on page 3.  Answer this question…”

“Wha… Well I can’t answer that question…”

“Oh.  So it was really effective… Yeah.  Okay.”

Why is that we get so upset when someone else is getting something that we think we deserve? Now, clearly this is a parable about the marketplace, but Jesus tells parables to help us to understand something about God, and the kingdom of God, and Jesus is telling us how it is that God operates, and relates to us God’s children.   And what Jesus is saying is that it doesn’t matter when you come to the vineyard.  It doesn’t matter how you get there.  You are beloved and will receive God’s grace and love and favor just like those who have been here, part of the tribe, forever!

But I think that this parable also reaches in to our own lives in a way that we need to pay attention to, because as Jesus is describing to us the way that God behaves, he’s also describing the way that we are called to behave.

So how can we become as generous as God?  How can we let go of that piece of us that wants to grumble, complain, or be envious?  I think the solution to that is gratitude.

Gratitude…  If we think that all that we have is the result of the sweat of our own brow, our own hard work, the strength of our own back, for the twinkling of our own intellect… then we are in danger, at any given moment, of losing all of it; because the strength of our back can fail.  Our mind can betray us.  And if the only way that we have value or worth, the only way that we get what we need is through our own effort, then we are at risk of losing it at any time.  And if someone else is getting some of what we want or need through less effort than ours then that can be pretty irritating.

What if we see everything that we have, whether it be the goods we need to survive or the love we need to feel whole, as gift, something that is showered upon us because we are beloved…

I don’t think that’s too big a stretch even if were talking about the marketplace because the things that we have and the things that we are given are in large part an accident; an accident of our birth, of our complexion, of the gifts and skills that we might have, the language that we speak, the customs to which we adhere…  All of those things play into our ability to get the things that we think we need.  So if we can begin to think of them as gift… then instead of fearing their loss we can begin to rejoice in the generosity that has showered them upon us, and feel a sense of gratitude that’s not threatened when somebody else get some too.

Here this morning Jesus is telling us a parable, a parable about the marketplace and the ways that some people are included and some people excluded.  But at the same time he’s telling us a story about the kingdom of God where everyone is included, where everyone is nurtured and sustained, where everyone gets a daily wage that will nourish and support them so that they might flourish.

It is God’s dream and vision for all of creation that we are called to facilitate and to enable. By embracing a sense of abundance and gratitude, by forswearing a sense of scarcity, and by opening our arms and allowing others to enjoy the fruits of our labor, the fruits of God’s love, the fruits of a world remade, as we follow in Jesus’s footsteps.  Amen.