This sermon, offered at both the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee’s, and St Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s online liturgies, on September 13, 2020, is built on the readings assigned for Proper 19 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
This sermon, by the Reverend Andy Jones was offered during St Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s online service of Morning Prayer on July 12, 2020 in Madison Wisconsin.
The sermon is built around the texts assigned for Proper 10 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
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.
It’s been another difficult week. Bewildering, frustrating. It’s hard not to be dismayed and discouraged. It seems so clear. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; care for the widows and orphans; clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, lift up the poor. Care for one another. Love one another as God has loved us; and in doing so realize the gift that is all around us: a life that is infused with God, colored with the eternal, characterized by peace.
So why is it that some of us won’t wear masks? Why is it that some of us deflect the pain and dismiss the history implicit in the cry, black lives matter, by saying that all lives matter? Why don’t we have healthcare for all people? Why do we continue to chip away at the social safety net, leaving people hungry, homeless, without hope, and on the margins? How is it that we continue to turn our backs on God’s dream, God’s vision for creation, on the gift that God longs to give us. It’s bewildering, dismaying, frustrating, discouraging.
I’m sure that the disciples felt the same way as they sat there on the beach listening to Jesus speak to them from the boat that morning. They had given everything that they had. They had walked away from their homes, their families, their vocation, their livelihood; all because the words that Jesus was offering, the narrative he was constructing, the vision he was sharing, was so beautiful and compelling that they couldn’t imagine not following him, not doing everything they could to live the life to which he called them.
But the whole chapter of Matthew’s gospel preceding what we just read this morning is filled with conflict, with people resisting what Jesus is offering, and what Jesus has to say. Again and again, the religious authorities seek to trap him, to get him to say something for which they can condemn him, which they can use to discredit him, that they can use to condemn and convict him. They must have been every bit as dismayed and discouraged as we are right now. So Jesus has a few of them take him off from the shore in a boat and he offers us a parable.
Now I’m sure that this parable is familiar to almost all of us, the parable of the sower and the seed that lands on different kinds of soil; good soil, rocky soil, the path, soil that’s already choked with weeds. But I think it’s important to take note of the fact that Jesus offers us this parable with no judgment. He doesn’t say some of the seed falls on that wonderful fertile ground where people respond and live according to the word, not like that awful rocky soil, and the people whose lives are so filled with distractions and other priorities and concerns… There’s no judgment in his parable. There’s simply a description of what is. He’s telling us what he sees and how the world works.
I think that in that lack of judgment, there’s an opportunity here for transformation. Because when we are freed of the sting of rebuke, when we’re freed from the fear that God will somehow find us lacking and decide that we are the hardpacked soil of the path that the seeds can’t penetrate, then we are free to take a step back and look at ourselves, honestly, openly; to look at our lives and to see where we have been good soil, and where we have been packed so tightly that nothing can penetrate and grow within us.
Am I the good soil? Am I the bad soil? What day of the week is it? What time is it? Have I slept well? Have I had enough to eat? Did I have a fight with my partner or my children this morning before I left the house? Did somebody cut me off in traffic? I think that all of us are all of the soils that God describes in this parable. We can be any of them at any given moment. We can even be all of them all at the same time. But when we take away the sting of rebuke and the fear of judgment, we are in a place of transformation. We can take a close look at those moments when our soil has not been open, has not been well watered, and we can work to be different. We can look for the seeds that God is sowing in our lives and make sure that we notice them, make sure that the furrows are open, that the ground is rich, and that we are watering and tending those seeds, so that we are the good soil more often than we are the dry and rocky ground.
That’s a great transformation to experience. It gives us hope. It gives us a place to move. It gives us space to breathe. But that’s not the only transformation that’s available here in this story. It gets even better. Focus on God for a moment and not the soil. God is doing something extraordinary, something almost foolishly extravagant; sowing seed, a precious resource in a subsistence agrarian society, sowing seed on places where it may not grow! That would seem foolish to the people that Jesus was telling this parable, and when we think about it, it seems foolish to us today. Why would God waste God’s seed on places where it might not grow? And then suddenly we wake back up again to the transformation that’s been affected in us, and we realize that that’s us, God is sowing that seed in us and on us, even when we are unreceptive, when we are packed to tightly to receive it.
Then we recognize that God is doing the same with the people all around us in our lives. If there’s no judgment for us when we are bad soil, then how can we judge others when their soil is too dry, or too rocky, or too tightly packed to receive the seed that God is sowing? God is sowing seed everywhere, all the time, and it’s not up to us to judge those in whom it’s not taking root, and growing.
Transformation, freedom, liberty, a place to grow a place to breathe, that’s just the beginning. The transformation goes on. When we find ourselves in that joyous place then we can’t help but want to nurture the seeds that are being sown, the seeds that are being sown in us, the seeds that are being sown in others, the seeds that are being sown around us. And what we know, if we think about it, is that we can’t nurture seeds if we are at the same time judging the ground in which they’re sown. The only way to nurture those seeds is to water them, to shed light on them, to help them work their way into the soil; through an encouraging word, maybe even a challenging word offered in love; through deeds and examples that provide fertilizer to help those seeds grow where they are; to tend and nurture the seeds in the people around us.
It’s been a bewildering time and it’s easy to be frustrated, dismayed, discouraged. It’s even easy, I think, to be angry with the people around us who don’t understand or don’t seem to share the truth, and the values that we hold so dearly; who don’t recognize the beauty of the gift that’s being offered to us, if only we can love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, drink, and our neighbor as ourselves. But the transformation that we have experienced, the freedom that we have been given, the space to grow and to breathe, instills in us a sense of joy and commitment and love for the people around us, and it calls us to help them to experience the same thing that we have experienced.
If it feels like too much. If it feels too hard. Remember, if you will, the words that Matt read to us from the book of the prophet Isaiah, where God promises that those seeds will in fact take hold and grow,
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy… (Isaiah 55:10-12a)
Therein lies our vocation or calling our project and our joy.
It is built on the Gospel reading for Proper 6 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Here is an audio recording of the sermon:
Here is a transcription of that recording:
“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Amen.
Curing every disease and sickness… that might sound a bit fanciful, or even far-fetched to us today, but I think it’s important for us to understand exactly what it is that Jesus is doing in this moment. In curing every sickness and disease, Jesus is reconciling. The fear of disease, the stigma that anything that befell you was the result of your own sin, or the sin of your parents, or someone before you, drove people who fell ill into exile, into isolation. So, when Jesus cures disease, casts out sickness, he is restoring people to community. He’s allowing people to come together and be a family again. He does all this as a manifestation of the good news that he has been proclaiming in all of their cities and villages; that we are all one, that we are beloved of God, that nothing can separate us from God’s love, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
All of this is such good news, that this sort of community is possible, that this sort of communion can happen between the people around us and between us and God, that people are flocking to the streets to hear what Jesus has to say, to be in his presence and to be reconciled one to another and to God. Jesus sees those crowds, he sees us flocking to the streets longing for that sort of community where justice and mercy are extended to all equally, where we recognize that we are brothers and sisters, and where we care for one another. People are flocking to the streets in great numbers. And Jesus looks upon us, and has compassion.
Compassion, that’s not just a toss off, throwaway, greeting card word. Compassion means that Jesus was moved physically in his inner being. He felt that love and that solidarity with us in his guts. Really, the word expresses the kind of feeling that a woman would have in her womb for her own child. It is a deep and abiding connection, and love, and care. And that’s what Jesus feels for us as we gather in the streets, longing for the sort of community that Jesus is proclaiming when he proclaims the good news of the kingdom.
I think it’s really important for us to recognize that Jesus has compassion for us in this moment, because this has been a very difficult time. Between the pandemic and the safer at home order, between the fear of going to the grocery store, or to the gym, or to the hair salon; between the fear we have about greeting one another with a hug or a kiss; in the turmoil and unrest, the heartbreak, the anger and the rage that we feel at the death of George Floyd and many others in our streets… it might be a little bit hard to feel compassion or to believe that anyone has compassion for us.
There are lots of versions of this same sentiment. In case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to help others. You can’t give what you don’t have yourself. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus knows that in order for us to feel compassion for others, in order for us to love one another, in order for us to be able to lend aid to those around us, we need to feel that we ourselves are loved, that someone has compassion for us, that someone is moved deep in their guts, deep in the root of their being, with care and concern and love for us. So Jesus in this moment expresses his compassion for us, helping us to know that we are held in the palms of God’s almighty hands.
Think about that for a moment and let that sink in. Safer at home is no barrier, no obstacle to God’s love and care and concern for us. As we travel to the grocery store, wondering if we’ll come home infected with a virus, Jesus is with us, caring and loving. Jesus has compassion for us. As we walk into the street to give voice to our love for one another, and our anger at the systems that oppress some in our midst, Jesus is there with us, having compassion for us. That’s an awesome and a powerful thing to know and to integrate into our very being. But if you read this story today carefully you’ll also see that that’s not the end. That’s not the end that God or Jesus have in mind.
Jesus expresses that compassion for us by healing and curing, by restoring us to community with one another, by manifesting God’s kingdom in our midst. Then he sends us out to do the same thing; to cast out demons, to cure and heal every sickness and disease. Now if I put it that way that might sound a little difficult, and strange, and foreign, and might be easy to shrug off. But remember what Jesus is really doing here. Jesus is restoring us to communion with one another. Jesus is calling us to the kind of community that God dreams of for all of us, the kind of communion that exists in the kingdom of God. That’s what Jesus sends us out to do. Our Book of Common Prayer, in the Catechism, asks, “What is the mission of the church?” And the answer is, “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with one another and to God through Christ.” In this gospel reading today. Jesus calls the 12 apostles and sends them out to do his work as his representatives in the world. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do.
So, here are a couple of things that I think we can all do right off the bat. If you find yourself on the Beltline, in a long line of traffic, and you turn on the news and you discover that you’re in that place because someone is giving voice to their anger and their pain, their justified anger, then know that you are beloved, and offer the same compassion that God offers to you, to the people who are inconveniencing you in this moment. If you’re trying to get to the far east side and you find yourself on E. Washington St. or out there on Route 51, and suddenly traffic comes to a stop, and you turn on the news and you discover that you are sitting there, not moving, because a group of people have gathered at the intersection up ahead to try and draw attention to the injustices in our society that have, for so long, oppressed and hurt so many of us. Know that you are beloved and that God has compassion for you in this, and then share some of that compassion and love for the people who are doing their very best, to move us, to pick up the mantle that God has given us, and to work for reconciliation and justice and peace. Sitting in that place, remember whose you are. And remember who you are. And then, we might consider pulling our car into the nearest parking lot and joining that crowd of people standing there in that intersection, standing there on the Beltline, gathered around the capital on the square, standing in State Street, and raising our voice to do the work that God has called us to do.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus sends his apostles out. He gives them authority over unclean spirits. He gives them authority to cast out and to cure every disease and every sickness. There is a pandemic in the land, and we have been asked to stay safer at home. There is another pandemic in the land, but to curtail the effects of this pandemic we cannot stay at home; for some of us aren’t safe even at home.
Remember as you wrestle with these realities, God has compassion for us, for you. We may be called to make difficult choices in the days ahead, and we may find ourselves wrestling mightily with the decisions we have to make. But know that in the midst of it all, God loves you. That reality and that truth will give you the strength, and the joy, to love your neighbor, to love yourself, and to go, to be sent as God sent Jesus to us in Jesus sends us out. We go to bring into fruition the good news of the kingdom of God.
 Mt 9:35. (NRSV)
 Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church : Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. (New York: Church Hymnal Corp, 1979), 855.
God is Still Speaking: “I Can’t Breathe”
A sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year A
This sermon was offered by The Rev. Andy Jones, during St Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s online service of Morning Prayer on June 7, 2020, Trinity Sunday.
A recording of the entire service can be found here. The sermon begins at about 20:40 into the recording.
May the words or my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
I’d like to ask you all to imagine that you’re in a movie theater, that the opening credits have concluded, the titles have gone by, and the opening scene has begun, and that scene invites you to engage all of your senses, to enter into what lies before you; a series of images, captured in this poetic narrative
“The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Is this a post-apocalyptic movie, is it a primordial scene? Where are we? Darkness over the face of the deep, a wind rushing over the waters, and a deep void. All of those images bespeak chaos, a lack of order, no space to breathe, no space to be.
And then, into that chaos, a voice speaks, “Let there be light. And there was light.”
That voice continues to speak. Having separated the light from the darkness, that voice separates the sky from all that lies beneath it, the dry land from the waters, the day from the night. Order is spoken into existence. Space to be is created. There is room to breathe.
Rowan Williams, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, in his book On Christian Theology, call this the generative event. And he describes it as that moment that “breaks open and extends possible ways of being human.” A word is spoken into the chaos. Order is called into being; and we are given space to breathe, space to be; extending the possibilities of what it means to be human.
Fast forward in our movie to the next scene, where people are walking in darkness. Violence and revenge are the order of the day. Oppression and exploitation of people for personal profit, for the establishment of hierarchy and power have swept the face of the earth; and a voice speaks once again.
“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.”
Again, a word is spoken into the darkness, into the void, into the chaos. The wind from God sweeps over the waters and the people; and a new way of being is created, a new narrative to define how we relate to one another and to God; a narrative that changes the world.
Leaning again on Rowan Williams, he describes this moment in this way:
“So to come to be in ‘in Christ’ to belong with Jesus, involves a far-reaching reconstruction of one’s humanity: a liberation from servile, distorted, destructive patterns in the past, a liberation from anxious dread of God’s judgment, a new identity in a community of reciprocal love and complementary service, whose potential horizons are universal.”
It’s remarkable perhaps, that Williams sees creation, that generative moment that created new ways of being human as ongoing; not complete with that poetic narrative that begins the Book of Genesis, but picked up and moved forward by the Christ Event; by God coming into the world once again, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and speaking a new word, a new narrative, a new way of being, that allows us to reconstruct our humanity, and liberate us from servile, distorted, destructive, patterns of the past.
You all have heard me, on more that one occasion, say that I wish that the Episcopal Church could claim credit for the sign that often appears on our neighbor on Roby Road’s front lawn. It says, “God is still speaking.” I think that, given what Rowan Williams has said to us this morning, we might also say that God is still creating. Creating, trying to bring to fruition and reality a new way of being human, one that liberates us from servile, distorted, destructive patterns; one that frees us from exploiting and oppressing others for our own benefit, or to raise our own position, status, or stake in the world.
God is still speaking. Williams, in his discussion of the Trinity, talks about the Holy Spirit as a partner in this ongoing project of creation. It is the Holy Spirit that brings new revelation, that helps us to remember all that Jesus has taught us, to remind us of what he has said, and to reveal the truth that we were not prepared to receive when Jesus walked among us as one of us.
A word was spoken into the darkness at the beginning of that generative project in the Book of Genesis. A word was spoken into the darkness when Jesus, the Christ, came into the world and walked among us. And I believe that the Holy Spirit is speaking words to us, even now, trying to liberate us from servile, distorted, destructive patterns.
“I can’t breathe.” I can’t breathe. Words spoken into the darkness. Words spoken into the chaos. Words that just might help free us from those patterns of the past that destroy and corrupt the creatures of God, that lead us into places of darkness and chaos, that corrupt our lives and keep us from participating in the ways of being human that God lays before us; the ways of being human that will hep us all live together in God’s creation.
These have been difficult times. And I am sure that when Jesus spoke his words in first century Palestine, they were hard for some people to hear, because those words required that some of us give up our grip, loosen our hold, on the power that we have. They required some of us to examine the things that we have accumulated, and to acknowledge those who have contributed to our possessions, our treasure, through labor and sweat that has long gone unrecognized and unacknowledged.
Jesus called us to a new way of being human and the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new way of begin human now. Jesus’s words have been repeated through the centuries, not always begin heard, and not always followed. But they are still with us because people have continued to say them. People have continued to share their message. People have continued to uphold the way of being that Jesus manifested in our midst as the way of truth, and life, and light.
It’s hard, I think, for some of us to hear “I can’t breathe. Black lives matter,” but that’s ok. Because that’s what God does. That’s what Jesus does. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. They speak into the darkness. They speak into the chaos. And they bring order to our lives and to creation. They lay before us ways of being human that we might not imagine on our own; ways of begin human that might be difficult enough that we would turn our backs in dismay, or fear, or just plain laziness. But those words are ringing so loudly right now that we dare not, and cannot, ignore them.
And if we are to do what Jesus says in today’s Gospel, to proclaim his message to all the earth, to create disciples, to baptize in the name of the Father who speaks a word into the darkness, of the Son who reconstructs our humanity and gives us a new way of being, and of the Holy Spirit who is speaking to us now, then we must take up that mantle and repeat those words as long as we have breath. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. We are called to love God, and to love our neighbor, with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and the way that we do that right now is to show up, and to speak up.
On this day, Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after the Day of Pentecost the birthday of the Church, we are called to go, to be sent as God sent Christ, and to speak those words into the darkness, and into the chaos; and to invite others to join us in God’s way of being human.
 Gen. 1:2 (NRSV)
 Gen 1:3 (NRSV)
 Williams, Rowan. On Christian Theology. Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000.
 Ibid, 136.
 Jn 1:1-5 (NRSV)
 Williams, On Christian Theology, 138.
“This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes….”
In the movie The Matrix, placed in a moment of extreme peril, Neo had a choice; go back to the life he had constructed for himself, the fiction that had been constructed to keep him in line, or to open his eyes, to see the world as it truly was, to know the truth.
We, here in Madison, Wisconsin, have been in this place before. Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile; The Race to Equity Report and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Report naming Dane County the worst place in the country to raise African American boys. And then, then there was Tony Robinson. Confronted by this seemingly endless litany of pain, grief, and justified anger, we were offered a choice…
“You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes….” Make no mistake. This is a moment of extreme peril. If we take the red pill, if we make our way into the rabbit hole, we may find that we need to change. We make need to recognize some hard truths about the society in which we live, about the myth that is American Exceptionalism, about the ways that many of us are denied access to that elusive American Dream… We may even have to recognize some hard truths about ourselves, about the ways that we wittingly or unwittingly support the systems which benefit from the oppression of others, about the advantages we have had because of the accident of our birth, about the people whose lives are bent and broken in ways we can’t even imagine, in support of our position, rank, and status. Taking the red pill might push us into a corner where we can no longer deny the need to relinquish some of our power and privilege, the knee that is on the neck of our black and brown brothers and sisters. It’s no wonder that so many of us have chosen to take the blue pill, choosing to wake up in our own beds, continuing to believe that which makes us comfortable and secure.
Neo had a choice. I don’t believe that we do. Not anymore. We might have been able to write those moments off as anomalies, the work of a few bad actors; to turn a blind eye to the systemic injustice and racism… and to pretend that in doing so, we weren’t refusing to believe the lived experience of the people in our communities who were suffering… Neo had a choice. But we don’t. Not anymore.
Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was shot to death on February 23 by two white men who pursued him in their pick up truck, blocked his way, and accosted him while carrying a shotgun. Ahmaud Arbery was jogging. It took two and a half months for the men who hounded, attacked and shot Ahmaud Arbery to be arrested. Officials in the local judicial system in Brunswick, Georgia, repeatedly advised the police department that no arrests should be made. The men involved in Arbery’s death were not arrested until the video of the encounter went viral and the public demanded an investigation. They were arrested on May 7th, two and one half months after they murdered Ahmaud Arbery.
Breonna Taylor was asleep in her own home on March 13th when the police executed a “no knock” warrant, bursting into the apartment, and in response to a shot fired by Taylor’s terrified boyfriend a licensed gun owner, fired 20 rounds of ammunition, hitting Taylor eight times, killing her in her own bed. The warrant that the police were serving was for a man who did not live in Taylor’s apartment building and whom the police had already arrested. Taylor’s boyfriend was arrested and charged with attempted homicide. The officers involved in Taylor’s death have not been charged or dismissed from the Louisville Kentucky Police Department. Breonna Taylor, an EMT who aspired to be a nurse, is dead.
On Monday May 22nd, Christian Cooper was bird watching in the Ramble, section of Central Park in New York City when he asked a white woman in the area to please comply with the rules and leash her dog. That woman, Amy Cooper told him that she was going to call the police and tell them that an African American man was threatening her and her dog. She made that call with a voice edged with hysteria and begged the 911 dispatch officer to “Please send the cops immediately. The horrifying aspect of this incident was in her clear understanding that she, a white woman, could weaponize the police against an African American man whom she knew the system would assume was guilty. Neither Christian Cooper or the woman who called the police were still in the park when the police arrived but the video of her calling the police has gone viral and been viewed over 40 million times.
Last week, on May 25th, George Floyd died, on video, with a while police office kneeling on his neck. Three other officers stood by for over eight minutes while Officer Derek Chauvin chocked the life out of Floyd, who repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” The only way you might have missed seeing that video in the last week was to have turned your eyes away for fear of seeing something so ugly that it will leave scars on our eyes, our consciences and our souls. The four officers involved were dismissed from the police force the next day, but Chauvin wasn’t arrested until the 29th, four days after he had murdered George Floyd in the street in front of a convenience store, filmed in the act by a bystander who cried out for his life..
Is it any wonder that the movement to establish justice in this country goes by names like Black Lives Matter and Justified Anger? Murderers go unpunished, investigations are squelched, and the life of a black or brown person doesn’t seem to matter until thier death becomes an inconvenient public attraction.
Neo had a choice. We don’t. To take the blue pill, to choose to wake up in our own beds believing whatever we need to believe to alleviate our anxiety and maintain the status quo… is just not an option. And thanks be to God, the people whose lived experience we have been denying, the people whose lives have been bent and broken by our unwillingness to see and hear them, the people whose anger is justified beyond measure, they are stepping up to make sure that we can’t look away, we can’t deny what has been right in front of our faces for so long; that we can’t just pop another blue pill and go back to sleep. To do so at this point would be an offense from which we can never escape. With the events of the last week, the events of the last year, the four hundred year history of racism in this country laid bare, there is no claim of plausible deniability left to us.
In this country, the deck is unfairly stacked against black and brown people, people of color. The things that we, the white majority have, are not ours because we have done better than those we name as other. We have them on the backs of the people whose lives we have decided do not matter as much as ours. The racism in this society is systemic. It is built into our constitution, our legal system, and our social codes, written and unwritten. And that systemic racism is killing our black and brown brothers and sisters, even as it accrues benefits to us that we have been all too happy to receive, never asking why or questioning who was losing as we were winning.
It is time, a moment of great peril. We need to reach out our hand and, of our own volition, take the red pill and then with our eyes wide open, do the hard work. We need to listen to the stories, the lived experiences of the people around us and to accept them as the truth. We need to use the power we have to dismantle the system that gave us that power. We need to step to the margins and let the people who have lived there for so long fill in the gaps we leave behind. We need to make room for the rest of us to become all of us, so that we never need to turn avert eyes from the evening news for fear of seeing the truth, so that we never need reach for that blue pill to dull the pain in our consciences and in our souls, so that we might live together in peace.
Look to the leaders in the Black Community. Pay attention to what they are saying. Pay attention to the causes and issues they are talking about. Don’t go offering to be a friend. Friends aren’t what is needed right now. Go offering your help, your connections, your resources, the power that the system has bestowed upon you. Start making phone call to your elected representatives. Start writing letters. Go to the rallies and demonstrations, lend your body to the movement and shout “This must change and it must change now,” because until all of us can breath, none of us will be able to draw breath!
The sermon preached by The Rev. Andy Jones, on May 24, at St Andrew’s Episcopal Churchs, online service of Morning Prayer.
You will find a video of the Morning Prayer service on St Andrew’s web site on the 1833 Online page. The sermon begins at 11:30 into the video.
From the Gospel assigned for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year a of the Revised Common Lectionary:
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
So much has changed in these last few weeks, in these last couple of months. Sometimes it seems like nothing has been spared. Everything has changed. And that has even extended, at least for me, to my prayer life. There’s so much to pray for, so much to pray about right now. I pray for family and friends, that they stay healthy and safe. I pray for my aging parents, that they stay home, and stay safe. I pray for this community, that we may stay bound to one another. I pray for our leadership: national, state, and local governments, that they may make wise decisions. And I pray for all of you. I pray for the members of our community who are home alone, people who are sick, and even for a few of us who are dying. There’s so much to pray for. Sometimes it feels a little overwhelming. And so, there are days when I am so overwhelmed, I seem to have lost my voice. I don’t know how to pray, or for what I should pray.
That’s one of the reasons why I am so grateful for this gospel passage today. Here on the last day of the Easter Season, here on the last Sunday before we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, we get to hear Jesus pray. We call this chapter of John’s Gospel The High Priestly Prayer, twenty six verses in which Jesus prays for us. I think that we can find some direction for our own prayer, in the words that Jesus says today.
The last line of our reading this morning, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” So that they may be one, as we are one… In the twenty-six verses of chapter seventeen of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays three times that we may be one. Just a few verses after the line we heard today, Jesus prays, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” And then “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” Three times Jesus prays that we may be one as he and God are one. That’s a powerful prayer, and a powerful prayer to repeat over and over again. May we be one as Jesus and God are one. What exactly does that mean? What would it mean for us to be on as Jesus and God are one?
Early theologians liked to talk about the Trinity, the connection between God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, as a connection of movement, as a dance of three persons, so united in desire, and will, and being, that they move effortlessly together, like a couple that are so used to dancing together that they glide effortlessly across the dance floor, and it’s hard to tell who’s leading and who’s following.
Jesus isn’t praying that we all agree. He’s not praying that we all come to the same conclusions, or that we find our way forward with the same sorts of paths. I think that what Jesus is praying for in this moment is that we learn to dance together. That we learn to accommodate one another. That we give and receive both identify and understanding in that movement that flows back and forth between us. That we may be one as Jesus and the Father are one.
Now what Jesus doesn’t say here, but which should become obvious as we think about Jesus’s movement in this dance, is that in order to be one with someone else in this way, we have to be ready to give, to bend to move, to allow the other to lead. There is some sacrifice involved. I may be entitled, it may be my right, but that might not be the best thing for the ones with whom I am dancing. So, I need to be ready to give, to give way, to allow the other to be and to breathe. When we all do that together we are participating in the dance that is the inner life of the Holy Trinity; moving, flowing effortlessly together; understanding that the others agenda needs to become ours, even as ours becomes theirs; as the needs of the other become our needs, as our needs become theirs. I think that this is a particularly powerful and profound way for us to pray right now; that we may all be one; and recognizing that we are all bound together, and that there are no disposable people.
As we continue to move through these difficult times, and our federal, state and local governments begin to remove the restrictions that have kept us Safer at Home, we need to consider the needs and the agenda of the other before we jump in with both feet, stepping on their toes, asserting our own rights, privileges, and agenda.
I think this is particularly true of us in the church. It may be that Dane County, Madison, say that we can open our doors and come back together in our building, but that may not be the best thing for all of us. And if it’s not the best thing for all of us, I’m not sure that it’s the best thing for any of us. What will it look like to gather with no more than ten people in our building? What will it look like when we are allowed to have as many as fifty people in our building, but because we need to maintain six feet of separation, we may only be able to accommodate thirty at a time? If only thirty of us can come to church then is it really appropriate for us to open the doors and gather in that way? And even when we are allowed to gather, there will be those in our community who will be prevented from joining us because they are in a high-risk population. I say that with some real trepidation as I approach my sixtieth birthday this summer, and will be joining that group of those officially designated as at risk. Someone told me earlier this week that whether or not I want to admit it, I am part of that group.
So how will we gather in a way that brings us all together and allows us to be one as Jesus and God are one. One of the things we know is that we will not stop live streaming our services. In this time of pandemic, we have been forced to try out some new tools that we may not have explored if not for the urgency created by our current context. And so as we figure out how we can come back together in or building we will work to make sure that we all have access to the community that we love and depend on.
Our Bishop, Bishop Steven Miller, has a Task Force assembled and they have been working on guidelines for reopening our parishes. He has submitted those in draft form to the clergy and the wardens in the diocese and we’ll be meeting with him on Tuesday to discuss them, and then we will be ready to share them with you all. Mother Melesa and I have gathered together a Task Force of St Andrew’s Parishioners so that we can figure out how those guidelines work with our architecture, in our space, within our walls; and we will be working and sharing our progress with all of you as we think this through. The Task Force will then make a proposal, or some recommendations to the Vestry for their approval. All of this will take time. And whatever we do, I imagine that we will be behind our state and local government, watching to make sure that it is safe, that they have made appropriate and healthy decisions for all of us, as we strive to do the same for our community.
One of the things that Jesus says in his High Priestly Prayer, is that he hopes and prays that we will be one so that the world will see us and know that it was God that sent Jesus into our midst. Jesus hopes that by our unity, by the depth and strength of the community that we form and sustain, the world will see Gods presence, and be moved, and be changed. This is a moment for the Church to lead. This is a moment for the church to say that we might be entitled to gather in this moment but we will not do so until it is safe, and we know that we can all be one in ways that are healthy and life giving.
If you’ve been paying attention to this discussion on the internet, you will know that Bishops across this church, clergy across this church, have been saying that the government did not close our doors, and the government cannot open them. We closed our doors. We chose to stay home, because we know that that is the best way for us to love on another in this moment.
Jesus prays that we may all be one. We can’t gather together as a body in our building right now, but by staying home and protecting one another, we are one. God has given us a way to be one even when we cannot be together; and that is by honoring and respecting the needs of all of the members of our community, by loving one another, by staying safe, and by doing all we can to keep each other safe at this time.
It has been a difficult time and there has been a lot to pray for. I hope that you will add to your prayer list and not feel like I am imposing on you when I make this suggestion, but I think it would serve us all well if we close our prayer time in the days ahead by echoing Jesus’s words.
Heavenly Father, makes us one as you and Jesus are one; Jesus in you and you in him, and us in you and you in us, so that we may be one, and continue to love one another in ways that only you can show us.
On the first Sunday of each month at St Andrew’s, we work to make our worship accessible for all our members young and less young. We do this through an intergenerational sermon and opportunities for children and youth to take on leadership roles.
This sermon was preached from the center aisle, without a transcript. The sermon is built around the readings for he First Sunday in Lent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Here is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 service on March 1, 2020
Here is 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.
Please be seated.
Church looks pretty different today, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but the first thing I noticed when I came in here this morning is that there were no flowers up front. All of the beautiful color that’s usually right there at the top of the steps missing today… well, except for the purple. For the last couple of months, we’ve had a short green super frontal across the front of the altar, but today we have this great big beautiful purple linen hanging off the front. And we have this purple cloth up here on the cross. And then, as if that wasn’t different enough… we started out with a parade this morning! We came up the center island back down the side and back up the center… It was like a big figure eight here in the room. Church is very different today, isn’t it?
That’s because this is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. And this is a season where we remind ourselves that we might not have been doing all that we can, to walk in the path that Jesus walked before us. We spend the season thinking about the ways that we may have hurt other people, the ways that we may have hurt ourselves, and the ways that we may even have hurt God; by the things that we’ve done, and the things that we haven’t done. And the point of all of that is to be better at doing the very thing that Jesus came to do. Jesus came here and walked among us as one of us to show us how much God loves us, and to teach us how to love God back, and how to love one another, even how to love all of creation, the world around us. So in this season of Lent, we look for ways when we might not have been doing the things Jesus taught us as well as we might have. And this purple cloth, The purple cloth on the cross, the flowers missing, that great parade we had at the beginning… we do those on the first Sunday of Lent every year.
But there’s another thing that we do on the first Sunday of Lent every year. Every year on this Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus in the wilderness. So, let’s just put that story in its place in the narrative.
Jesus goes to the river Jordan where he’s baptized by John the Baptist. And in Matthew’s gospel, the one we’re reading now, there is a voice from heaven that says “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus knows beyond a doubt who he is, and then all of a sudden, he goes out into the wilderness, to figure out how to be God’s beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased. Jesus knows that it’s his job to show us how much God loves us, and to help us love God it in return in the same way; and to help us to love one another, and the world around us in the same way that God loves us. And so, he goes out into the wilderness to figure out how to do that.
The gospel tells us that he didn’t eat or drink anything at all for 40 days. Can you imagine how weak you would be, how tired, how desperate you would be for something to eat or something to drink? That’s the moment when temptation comes along. Matthew tells us that the devil shows up and says “If you are the son of God… if you are the person that that voice from heaven just proclaimed you to be, turn these stones into bread.” Now Jesus is here to help us to love God the same way that God loves us, and I think in reality, even though Jesus is really hungry and this may feel like it’s about him, Jesus knows that the devil is tempting him to feed all of us with the stones around us, to win us over by providing the things that we need, by meeting our every need. In essence, to buy our allegiance. But Jesus knows that love that is bought isn’t true love. You can give people gifts. You can give people presents. You can give them everything they want, and they might follow you around for a while because that and of a nice thing. But that’s not the way to get someone to really love you. So, Jesus tells the devil “no, go away.”
devil is not finished yet. The devil comes and tries again, and takes Jesus up to the highest tower of the temple in Jerusalem, and says if you are the son of God, throw yourself off. Because Scriptures say that the angels will catch you before you hit the ground. And when that happens, and people see they’ll know who you are. It would be silly not to believe you. They’ll get in line and they’ll do whatever you say. But that’s not what Jesus wants. Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him because it’s logical. Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him because it makes sense. Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him because it would be foolish not to. Jesus wants us to love him. Jesus wants us to love God. Jesus wants us to love one another and the world around us. And so Jesus knows that proving can never lead to love. Arguing, proof texting, showing the facts, logic, that’s not going to lead to what Jesus wants; the ability to love one another and to love God. So, again, Jesus tells the devil to go away.
Devil says, I’ve got one more card up my sleeve, takes Jesus up to the highest mountain and says, if you will fall down and worship me, I will put you in charge. You will be the master of all you can see, everyone will obey you, obey you. That’s about as far from love as you can get. You can’t force someone to love you. You might be able to force people to do what you want. But when you do that it’s not very likely that they’re going to love you in the process, and you don’t learn how to love other people, or God, or the creation that God made, if you’re being forced to do that. So, once again, Jesus sends the devil away, and at that moment the Angels came to take care of him there in the desert.
During this season of Lent, we are working, we’re trying to understand the ways that we have failed to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and we’re working to see the ways that we’ve failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. And I think that we hear this lesson every year on the first Sunday of Lent because Jesus gives us the model. How do we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength? By loving others the way that God loved us; not by buying their allegiance, not by proving that we are right, not by forcing them to follow us. But by engaging in acts of self-giving and sacrifice, recognizing that love is built through trust and ongoing relationship, and commitment to holding one another up. That love comes through being together and recognizing another person’s needs and agenda as equal to our own, and by making sure that the least among us have what they need to thrive and flourish.
Here in this season of Lent, we learn something very important about our God. Our God wants more than anything for us to love God and to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. And God loves us so much that, even if in the end it might be good for us, God will make us do what God longs for us to do. And even though sometimes it might make us feel better about life, God won’t meet our every need; turning stones into bread when we need bread. Because God can’t afford to buy our love. Because that’s no love at all. And even though it would be nice, maybe, if we had a clear set of standards and beliefs, and some solid evidence that God is who God says God is, and that Jesus is who Jesus says he is; what really makes us human, and what makes us like Jesus, is our ability to love and to believe despite the evidence to the contrary.
God doesn’t want automatons. God doesn’t want blind followers. God doesn’t want people who are following because they had their fill of the bread on the other side of the lake. God wants us to follow God because we are so deeply in love that we can’t bear to be out of God’s presence; that we can’t bear to live our lives in ways that are outside of God’s vision and dream for all of creation; and all we want in our hearts is to step more fully into that relationship, leaving behind the things that distract us or drag us down.
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we take away the flowers. We change the frontal. We hang a purple drape on the cross to remember, or to remind us of Jesus’s sacrifice, we listen to this story about the true love of the one who makes, creates, redeems and sustains us, and who gives us a clear path for walking in God’s light footsteps.
Welcome to the season of Lent.
It’s not often that a preacher has four hours between the first and second delivery of a sermon, but a 7 am and a 12 noon celebration of the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday afforded me that opportunity today. The sermon was delivered without notes from the center aisle at the seven o’clock, and after four hours of work, delivered from the pulpit, with a text at noon. I offer that second version of the sermon, and my apologies to those who helped me work through the draft I preached at 7:00.
This sermon is based on the texts assigned for Ash Wednesday, and uses the option from Isaiah as the first reading.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Please be seated.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
We’ve gathered here this day to hear those words and, kneeling at this rail, to enter the season of Lent; a season of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and self-denial, of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In this season of Lent, we do something that we are usually loathe to do. We work to identify those places in our hearts and in our lives that we long to place in quarantine; that we long to hide from the people around us. The places that we somehow believe that through denial and self-deception, we can hide from ourselves. That we hope to hide, even from God.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
It is a remarkable thing that we come here, in the middle of a work week, to hear those words, an acknowledgement of our own mortality, of the reality that are dust, and to dust we shall return.
It is perhaps, even more remarkable that we come here today to enter into this space, this season, of our own free will.
Why would we do that? When all of the world around us is seeking to deny its faults, to mask its blemishes, to claim innocence even in the face of undeniable evidence… Why would we risk coming here today, and daring to reveal ourselves to the light of God’s truth and the judgement of God’s gaze?
We are here today because we know that in this season, through these disciplines, through this honest appraisal of ourselves and of our lives, we have an opportunity to let God into the places in our lives and in our hearts which we dare not show to anyone else; and with all of our scars and warts on display, to discover that we are loved, that we have always been loved, and to realize once again the promise that nothing, nothing we have done or left undone; nothing we have thought, or said; nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Because of that promise, we enter this season willingly, with hope and even with some sense of joy, because we know that God promises us absolution and forgiveness; and because we know that, if we are faithful to this work, at the end of this season, we will be nearer to the one who loves us beyond measure; who loves us in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine or understand; who loves us in ways that can set us free to be the people God created us to be, the people we long to be, the people the world needs us to be.
There is great promise in this season, in these practices; in self-examination and repentance, in fasting and self-denial, in reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. God’s love and forgiveness can set us free to the people God created us to be, the people we long to be, the people the world needs us to be… but the path is not without some danger. Even the greatest gifts can be distorted, can be used in ways that pervert and twist them in ways that God never intended.
Listen again to the passage from Isaiah assigned for Ash Wednesday. God says to the people of Israel:
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist…” (Isaiah 58:3b-4)
“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:5c)
In the reading from Matthew assigned for Ash Wednesday Jesus recognizes the danger to which Isaiah points and warns his followers,
“whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others…
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others…
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”
While they have the power to set us free to be the people we long to be, the people God created us to be, we don’t, we can’t engage in self-examination and repentance, fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, with an eye to accruing some benefit, some advantage to ourselves. We don’t engage in these practices, these disciplines, for ourselves alone.
Let’s return to Isaiah for a minute. God says to us:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Jesus urges us to fast in secret and to greet our community with oil in our hair and our faces washed, because the point and purpose, the end and goal of our fast, of our Lenten practices and disciplines is to set us free to love the community around us; to draw us into God’s path and God’s ways so that we might serve others, and love others as God has loved us.
In The Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent, which Mother Melesa will read to us in as few minutes, we will hear the history of this liturgical season. We will hear that for the early church:
“This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.” (BCP p. 265)
A season of preparation for entrance into the community through the rite of baptism; a season of restoration and return to community; a season of fellowship.
These are the true meaning, end, and purpose of this season and of the practices and disciplines in which we engage during Lent.
Yes, this season is an opportunity for us to identify and tear down the walls we build to hide the parts of ourselves that we are afraid to reveal to the people around us, to God, and even to ourselves. It is an opportunity for us put aside the things that hold us back, that pull us away from God, and distract our attention from the one who loves us beyond all measure.
It is an opportunity for us, through God’s grace and forgiveness, to be set free to be the people we long to be. But the meaning, end and purpose of Lent doesn’t end there with our own absolution and forgiveness.
The point of God’s absolution and forgiveness is to set us free to love one another as God has loved us. The point of God’s absolution and forgiveness is to restore us to community, so that we, as the beloved community, as the Body of Christ, can open our arms and welcome others to a life set free from fear, shame and bondage. The reason that God restores us, reconciles us, and sets us free, is so that we might do the same for others and build a world that brings God’s dream for all of creation to fulfillment here and now.
In a few minutes we will come forward to this rail and receive the mark of our mortal nature, ashes on our foreheads, so that we might enter this season well aware of who we are and whose we are, and there’s always some question as to whether or not we should wear the ashes on our forehead as we leave this place.
I can’t answer that question for you. That is a decision you will need to make for yourself.
But given what we have heard today, if we do wear those ashes into the world, we need to bear them, not as an emblem of our own piety, not to show others that we have participated in this fast day, not in an attempt to accrue some benefit to ourselves; but as a mark of our commitment to draw closer to God and in that process to draw closer to those around us. As a mark of our commitment:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.
… to share our bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into our houses;
to cover the naked when we see them,
and not to hide ourselves from our own kin…
our own kin… our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus… all of God’s beloved children.
This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, on August 25, 2019, is built on the readings assigned for Proper 16 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Here is a recording of the sermon
Here is 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.
Please be seated
The parish that sponsored me to go to seminary back in 1999, boy that sounds like a long time ago, was situated across the street from the municipal sports complex; soccer fields, softball fields, there were bleachers and a little bit of a stadium up there. There must’ve been fifteen or sixteen fields, and a very limited amount of parking. I don’t know what happened after our first couple of years of that parish, but something changed, and suddenly the city started scheduling games at that complex on Sunday morning. And we would arrive at church and find that our parking lot was already full of the cars of people that had come to watch their kids play in these games. We grumbled, we complained, we wrestled back and forth with the city. We tried to decide whether or not we should put up signs that said parking for church members only, or have people standing there checking ID cards at the gate as they came in… But I don’t think that our complaints in our discontent over that moment holds a candle to what’s happening in today’s gospel story.
Jesus walks into the synagogue and sees a woman who has been crippled and bent over for eighteen years. He heals her, in clear violation of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue is incensed and keeps saying to the crowd, “there are six days on which work may be done come to be cured on one of them, but not on the Sabbath!” You can almost hear him saying, “We are a nation of laws!” They were…
The people of Israel, when they escaped from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness with Moses as their guide, are given a great gift. Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai and comes back down with tablets of stone on which are carved the Ten Commandments. Now it’s clear that these commandments were the requirements for earning God’s love, for making your way into God’s grace, because God chose the people of Israel long before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. God made covenants with Abram and told him that his descendants would be as many as the grains of sand on the shore and the stars in the sky and; that his descendants would be a blessing to all people. God already loved the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments were the way that the people could live fully into that relationship, to experience the depth and the fullness of God’s love, and grace, and mercy. So, when they received those commandments they were a gift. And the psalmist, later on, writes about the Commandments, that they are sweeter than honey from the comb. They weren’t constraining. They weren’t confining. They weren’t meant to punish or to judge. They were given as a guide to life in God’s light, and grace, and love, and mercy.
They also set the people of Israel apart from the other people in the land. As Moses is about to confer the Commandments upon the people, in the book of Deuteronomy, he tells them that other nations will look on them with awe and wonder and say,
“‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6b-7)
Adherence to the Sabbath became especially important to the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon, and they felt their identity as a people’s slipping away. The Sabbath was what held them together, and helped them to remember who they were, and whose they were. So when Jesus walks into the Temple this morning and violates the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy, there’s a lot at stake here in the mind of the leader of the synagogue.
You have to know that this isn’t the first time in Luke’s Gospel that this has happened. Way back, early on in Luke’s Gospel, we’re in chapter 13 now, back in chapter 6 Luke records a story where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, in the temple. He does it on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees go out and plot how to destroy him as a result of his violating that law. The same thing happens in Matthew and in Mark, the same story, the same consequence, the religious leaders are so incensed the Jesus has healed on the Sabbath that they plot to have him killed.
I think Jesus is here this morning helping us to remember who we are, and whose we are. He’s helping us to remember the place from which the law springs. The summary of the law that we sometimes say to begin the service in Lent, says you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. That is the core and the foundation from which all other laws are derived, the core and foundation from which all laws spring. And it is out of God’s love for us, God’s compassion for us, God’s desire that we experience God more fully, that God gives us these laws. The laws in and of themselves… they’re not the end, they’re not the goal, they’re not the purpose. The purpose is God’s love, and the laws themselves are just tools to help us realize and experience it.
So what’s happened here this morning, and what happens in all the instances where Jesus heals on the Sabbath, and people complain and object, is that they have mistaken the laws for the end and the goal. Jesus tells us in Mark’s version of that story of the man with the withered hand,
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
The Sabbath is a gift to us. It was a gift to the people of Israel who’d escaped Egypt where they were told to make bricks without straw and didn’t have any time to rest, to pray, to worship, just to be. The Sabbath sets us free, just like all of God’s commandments set us free from the things that would bind us, and tear us away from God.
Jesus’s mission is to set us free. We know that because in the fourth chapter of Luke, when he returns from his temptation in the wilderness, he quotes the prophets and says, “I have come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to set the captives free, to give sight to the blind.” God’s goal, Jesus’s mission, is to liberate us and set us free so that we can live fully into the relationship with God that God offers us. Love, grace, and mercy, come first.
Now Jesus recognizes that even the leader of the synagogue, and the people whom he’s chastising in this moment, know that that’s the truth. He says, look, if any of you have an ox or a donkey, on the Sabbath you untie it and you take it to drink. You show that level of grace and mercy to your animals, when it’s convenient to you. But here in this case, there is a person, a woman standing in front of you who has suffered for 18 years… Why is it that you are willing to deny that same grace and mercy to her? Why is it, that when it’s not convenient to you, the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of the law.
Jesus, I think this morning, is offering us a caution and calling us to account. When we pass and enforce laws that don’t set people free; that don’t offer them life, and love, and grace, then we have made the law an end and a goal in and of itself. And we’ve forgotten that all of those laws need to spring from God’s love.
I think that we need to think deeply about this moment in Luke’s Gospel, especially when we consider the fact that of all the nations on the earth, we have the highest incarceration rate per capita of any of them. We have more people in prison now than any other country in the world. So how is it that the laws that we have passed, the laws that we have embraced, find at their core, in their center, love, and Grace, and mercy? Something is wrong.
And we know that the laws that we do have are not applied consistently. We know that there are populations in our midst who suffer at the hands of the laws that we have passed, who don’t receive grace and mercy at the same rates that others do. The differential of incarceration rates between African-Americans and others in this state is astounding; almost 4 to 1, and nationally 3 to 1. If Jesus were here this morning he might be standing in the space and calling us hypocrites.
The good news in all of this is that Jesus is here calling us to account. Jesus is here because God loves us, to remind us of who we are and whose we are, to remind us of the function that law serves in our society and in our communities, and to remind us that the law needs to be designed to set if we are free. If we are free, we need to work to make sure that others are as well.
Jesus is here this morning because God loves us and wants us to be free; pointing out that we need to apply justice, and grace, and mercy, evenly across all populations. This wasn’t news to the people that Jesus was speaking to. The prophet Micah says to the people in his community, why do you bring these gifts to the altar, and burn incense? God hasn’t asked you for those things. But God has told you what is good
“…to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b)
Those words are ringing out to us today across the centuries. And Jesus is standing in our midst calling us to account, and offering us the chance to turn, and to share with others the gift of freedom that we ourselves enjoy. Because the truth is, that unless we are all free, none of us are free. And if we would be whole, our neighbor must be whole. If we would stand in God’s light and love, without fearing the shadows on the periphery, then we need to know that everyone is standing in the same light in which we stand. Jesus is here today because God loves us and is calling us to return, to remember who we are and whose we are.
This sermon, by the Rev. Andy Jones, was offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 11, 2019 at the 9:30 service. It is based on the readings assigned for Proper 14 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
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.
Please be seated.
Every week, when the preacher stands in this spot, or stands there in the pulpit, it’s their job to interpret the Scriptures and to interpret the world around us, through the lens of those texts that we call authoritative. It’s the preacher’s job to break open the text; to give some sense of what was happening where and when they were written; and then to relate those texts to our lives today; and look for God’s word speaking to us through those words of our Bible. Now sometimes it’s really hard to make those connections. People living 2000, 3000 years ago had a different understanding of the world around them and how the world worked. Their context was very different from ours. And so sometimes it’s really difficult to relate the things that they were saying and doing to what we say and do today. Other times those connections are so blatant and so clear that they’re just unmistakable. Now you would think those would be the easy moments to preach, but that’s not always the case, and it’s definitely not the case today. The connection between our lives today and our Scripture is so clear that we’re forced to address them, even though we spend an awful lot of time trying to avoid them. I’ve been up since 2:30 this morning trying to think of a clever way into this, a clever way to bring the Scriptures around to us, and to start the Scriptures, but I just can’t do it. The only place to start is with us here and now.
It’s been a really difficult couple of weeks. The pain and to which we’ve been exposed; the pain that we’ve seen in El Paso and in Dayton, and in those chicken processing plants and in the communities where they are planted… that pain is real and deep; part of an ongoing malaise that affects us… that affects us deeply; that affects us at parts of our being that are so deep and fundamental that they keep us awake at night. They hurt us deeply, and we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to make a difference. We know that those things are happening. We know that they are there. And then we walk into church this morning and we hear the words of Isaiah, a prophet, the son of Amoz, speaking for God he says to us,
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
the connection between Isaiah’s world, there in the middle of the fifth century BC, and our world today is so clear that we can’t avoid it. God says to the people of Judah as he makes these statements to them,
“When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.”
It’s like God is saying, “Enough of your thoughts and prayers, do something!”
God is calling us this morning to do something!
the problem is it so hard to know what to do. The problems are so deep, and so entrenched; they seem to be built into the very DNA of this country. They drive us to despair and they drive us to ruin.
At the end of the prophecy God says,
“…if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;”
(Isaiah 1: 20)
If you think about it for a minute, think about those children along our southern border, think about those children who live in the towns where their families have been called to work in chicken processing plants, think about the people whose lives have been deeply scarred; and you’ll know where the next violent acts will come from.
The more we contribute to this destructive cycle, the more we participate in it, the more we turn our backs and let it go, the deeper the spiral goes, and the more entrenched in violence our society will become. God doesn’t need to threaten to punish us God’s self. we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction by our complacency and our failure to act.
Isaiah does hold out hope for us. God says, “Come let us reason this out. Let us argue it out.” Even though our sins are scarlet and red, they can become clean like wool. There is the opportunity for us to remedy things and to reconcile with our neighbor, and with those on our borders, and on the margins; with one another, and with God.
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
Those are the values that need to drive our political and our social life. Those are the values that pervade all of our Scripture; love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Defend the widow and the orphan. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit those who are in prison and the sick. God calls us to love one another.
So what are we to do in the face of these problems that seem so insurmountable and so intractable. The place to start is right here at home; to love our neighbors, to hold out our hand, to clothe the naked, and to feed the poor, right here in Madison. But that’s not enough. God is speaking to the whole nation of Judah, not to individuals but to a whole nation whose identity and life is at stake. And here in this moment God is speaking to us as a people, and as a nation. So we need to talk to the people who we have elected to represent us. If our Christian values are not being upheld and supported by the people who have the power to change the policies and to write the laws that defend the poor, the widow and the orphan; to unite families to make them stronger; to lift people out of poverty and out of the darkness; if they’re not doing those things and we need to let them know that we are not happy with the job that they are doing. And if they won’t represent our values, then we need to make sure that we carry those values into the voting booth with us.
This isn’t a matter of politics. This is a matter of ethics. This is a matter of love. This is a matter of theology. It is our Christian vocation and calling to support the least among us, and the way that we do that in a system like the one that we have is to elect people who will do those very things on our behalf.
This morning the connections are easy to see. Isaiah the son of Amoz, speaking in the middle of the fifth century, is speaking to us in a way that we can avoid or ignore. So we have to speak of these things that are difficult. We need to speak of them perhaps in places where we ordinarily would not. But we need to speak. All over this country bishops in the Episcopal Church and leaders of other traditions are standing up. Bishop Marianne Edgar Budde, of the diocese of Washington DC, was part of a group at the national Cathedral that wrote a letter in response to some language that was uttered about the place that I was born, Baltimore Maryland. And in an interview after that letter she said that she believes, that if the church would stand united with one voice, things could change. If the church would stand united with one voice things would change. We are the body that is called to speak with this moral imperative, and we need to stand, and we need to speak; to our neighbors, to our siblings, and our children, and our parents; to the people with whom we work, to the people whom we send to the state capital and to Washington DC to represent us. We need to stand as the church and speak God’s word the same way that Isaiah son of Amoz is speaking it to us this morning.