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

 

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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.

 

The Story in Which We Live, and Move, and Have Our Being

The following sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, on September 3, 2017, is built around the readings for Proper 17 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This sermon was preached from the center aisle without notes.  The following transcript is a slightly edited version of this 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.

This is one of those terrifying moments for preachers, one of those days when at 3 o’clock in the morning your eyes slam open and you realize you’ve been writing the wrong sermon all week.  So this may be a little rough, but I hope that you’ll be willing to dance with me a little bit today as we work this through.

Just last Sunday in our Gospel reading, in fact it’s just the verses immediately preceding the verses we read from Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”   Peter finally says it.  “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says to him you are the rock upon which I will build my church.  Today Jesus says to Peter  “Get behind me Satan you are a stumbling block to me.”

From rock to stumbling block, that’s quite a fall from grace.  We know that Peter wasn’t expecting a Messiah who would die on the cross and so Jesus’s words have shocked him, and upset him deeply.  I’ll tell you that I spent most of this week trying to figure out how to exonerate Peter in some way for his response.  It wasn’t until 3 o’clock this morning that it started to fall into place for me.

Peter was a person trapped by his own context, by the narrative in which he lived, and moved, and had his being.  In that narrative your armies come and conqueror mine, and then come and enslave and deport my people.  You oppress my religious liberties.  You tax me to the point of starvation.  And I suffer under this oppressive rule until somehow, I can raise a stronger army than yours, and can fight back and inflict upon you the same damage that you have inflicted on me.  It is what biblical scholar Charles Hefling refers to as the Cycle of Retributive Violence and Peter was locked into that narrative, that mentality.  He was expecting the Messiah to come as a warrior king who would defeat the armies of Rome, chase them from his homeland, and reestablish the people of Israel in their rightful place, there in the land that God had promised them.

So when Jesus, the person whom Peter has now confessed to be the Messiah, exhibits this vulnerability, what Peter sees to be weakness, and says that he is about to die on the cross, Peter has no frame of reference to help him understand or interpret those words.   He doesn’t, he can’t even begin to conceive of how this might work out.

Some 20 years later Paul is writing his letter to the Romans and he gives us some explication of Jesus’s statement that he is about to be crucified and raised, and that we, we must take up his cross and follow him.  Paul says, “If your enemies are hungry feed them.  If they are thirsty give them something to drink.  For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.  Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

By allowing himself to be crucified at our hands Jesus steps into that cycle of retributive violence, refusing to repay evil for evil, but repaying evil only with good, and breaks the never-ending cycle that keeps us bound to conflict, pain, and suffering.

So Jesus is, in this moment, asking us to step outside of the narrative that defines us, to expand and broaden our imagination, and to see something bigger than what we are prone to see.

And I do mean prone to see.  It doesn’t take much to find that that narrative of retributive violence is still prevalent maybe even at times the dominant narrative in our culture and society.  For me to win you have to lose.  And for me to win I am entitled to diminish, demonize, and destroy you.  If you disagree with me then you’re not just wrong, but there’s something wrong with you.  And if I am to get what I want and need then I must take it from you. That narrative still rings loudly in our ears.

Paul is working some 20 years after Jesus’s resurrection to help blow open that narrative and get us to think and imagine in another way, and in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus, Jesus stands there telling us he will die on our behalf to rescue us from this cycle of violence, and begging us to heed his example and walk with him.

Paul says by feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink when they are thirsty we will be “heaping burning coals on their heads,” and I have to tell you that line always makes me giggle just a little bit.  It’s like he’s stepping outside of the narrative he’s trying to teach and succumbing to that other narrative for just a moment.

But I think what’s really happening here is telling us that if we can change that narrative others will be changed by us.  If we can love our enemies, if we can show them compassion and kindness, then it will work its grace upon them and they will be changed as well.  And this I think points to another shortcoming in Peter’s imagination and his ability to find a different narrative.  You see Peter thought that the Messiah would come to liberate, to rescue, to save the people of Israel.  And in his imagination, and in the narrative in which he operated, that meant that the people of Rome would have to be enslaved or defeated or beaten down.  What Peter couldn’t imagine was that the Messiah was coming to liberate, to save, all people.  All people.

And so as long as there are winners and losers, as long as there is us and them, as long as it’s a zero-sum game, that old narrative is still in control.

I didn’t read the collect that’s appointed for this Sunday this morning I read instead the collect for Labor Day and I think it really works in our context this morning.  “O God you have so bound us one to another, that all we do affects for good or ill, all other people.  We are one body.  And when any member of that body hurts or suffers… we all heard or suffer, even if we are inclined to think of that member as “them” or as “other.”

Jesus uses very extreme language when he’s talking to his disciples this morning, talking to us. He says if you want to save your life you must lose it.  And those who want to keep their life will have it taken from them.  Jesus is the only one who has to die on the cross to break this cycle of retributive violence, to shift to the narrative in a way that is life-giving instead of life stealing. But I think these words point to the difficulty in following this other narrative.  Because sometimes the retribution we seek, the restitution that we seek, seems just.  It seems due us.  It would seem to us, by our way of thinking, that it is right to take vengeance upon those who have hurt us.

Jesus tells us pretty clearly this morning that that’s not ours to take; that we are to love our enemies, to feed them, to give them water when they are thirsty; by our love to urge their conversion, and their stepping out of that narrative that binds us all to pain and suffering.

So here’s the question that we need to confront this morning.  Why is it that that old narrative is still so prevalent still so dominant?  Is it because we have been shy about proclaiming the narrative that has Jesus incarnate, living among us, crucified and resurrected as its core.   Have we been reluctant to name the truth that we know, and that is that we are all one people.  Or is it that we are afraid?  Because to follow in Jesus’s path requires vulnerability.  It requires a willingness to feel pain.  It requires a willingness to let go of some things that we believe might be ours or due us so that others might share in them, and have them for their own.

Jesus stands here this morning telling us that he is prepared to die to set us free.  And he asks in turn what we are willing to give up, to let go, and to do, so that we all my experience that same joy and freedom.

Amen.

 

Yeah, that time Jesus got woke!

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on August 20, 2017, is built around the readings for Proper 15 in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

It has been a terribly difficult week.  Things that I never thought to see in my lifetime, things that I imagine many of you had never thought to see again, have filled our newscasts and our television screens.  Swastikas have been marched through our cities.  People have been beaten, and killed, and ugly, ugly chants have filled the air.  And in the midst of all of that, as if it could get any worse, our leader has uttered unthinkable things.  How could he say that?  It leads me to wonder about who we are and where we are going.

“It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?”  How can Jesus have said those words?  This woman came to him in agony, pleading for her daughter who was being tormented by a demon.  And at first he refuses to acknowledge her presence at all.  And then he says I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And he utters those words that call her a dog.

It’s not what we would expect from the person who died on the cross for all of us.  But I think we need to notice or at least acknowledge for a moment, that it’s exactly what his disciples would have expected in that moment.  It would have been outrageous, first of all, for a woman to have approached Jesus on the streets like this.  And that outrage would have been compounded by the fact that she was a Canaanite, a foreigner, someone despised just because of her origin.  And so Jesus was responding very much as a first century Palestinian man, a Jewish man, here in this moment.

So how do we reconcile those words?  How do we understand what he said?  It may be that our first tendency is to think he probably didn’t really say these things.  But think about that for a minute if you are the person proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, writing a gospel narrative, an account to explain to people who Jesus was… why would you make up something like this?  You wouldn’t make up something that seems so mean-spirited and nasty and put it in your account.  So I just can’t believe that these words would have been included if Jesus hadn’t actually set them.

So the next step, the next question for me is… why these words?  Of all of the hundreds of thousands of things that Jesus must have said during his lifetime why would you choose to include this story?  Both Matthew and Mark include this in their narrative.  So somehow, for some reason they thought these words were important.  Let’s look a little bit further.

The last words of Matthew’s gospel “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and commanding them to obey everything that I have taught you.”

Here in chapter 15, where we read today, Jesus Says, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”  By the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’s vision and understanding of his mission, and who he’s called to greet and serve has expanded to include all nations.

As we examine the gospel narratives, as we think about Jesus’s life, and we struggle to reconcile the words that he’s spoken today, biblical scholars and commentators have come to the conclusion that this is the beginning of a change in Jesus’s understanding of who he is and what his mission is about.  It might be difficult think about this but Jesus is learning.  Jesus is learning, his self-understanding, his self-awareness, his understanding of his mission and what he’s called to do, is evolving and growing as he experiences the people in the world around him.  What do you think the juxtaposition of the human and the divine would look like?  I could make up lots of templates and models but the one that we choose, the one that we recognize, is in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  What the Scriptures tell us is that that juxtaposition of two natures doesn’t erase the human need to learn and grow through experience and exposure to other people and other ideas, and so this story marks the beginning of a change in Jesus’s thinking and understanding.

So let’s take a step back, or maybe forward, to our context today and think about learning and exposure to other thoughts and other ideas.

If you’re if you’re on Facebook, if you’re on the Internet at all you probably have seen it memes this week that show young children of all races and colors playing happily together and a caption that says something like “hatred is learned or taught.”  I believe that with all my heart, that hatred and bigotry are not a part of who we are naturally.  they an accretion, a distortion, they are like a tumor that needs to be excised.

So the implication of this meme is that we need to unlearn.  We need to unlearn the hatred, and the bigotry, and the racism that’s instilled in us by the world around us.  None of us can escape it.  It happens through the media.  It happens through people that we know.  Our own fears and concerns plant that fear of others within us.  And we need we need to unlearn those things.

But in the collect today we pray that we be given the grace to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’s most holy life.  So as we work through this moment, in this conversation unlearning isn’t enough.  We also need to do some learning.

Jesus a first century, Palestinian, Jewish, man arrived in the region of Tyre and Sidon and he encounters someone outside of his common daily routine and life.  He discovers something in that encounter.

Now this might be pushing it too far so I’m not going to say that Jesus learned something about himself and his own prejudices, but I am going to assert very firmly that Jesus learned something about her.  In this encounter, he discovered her faith, her humanity, her commonality with him.  He saw her as a person, and heard her pain, and understood her perspective and experience.  that I think is the learning to which we need to be open today; to listen to the story of the other, to hear about their experience of the world, to try and step in just for a moment to their perspective, and see the world in the way that they see and experience it every day.

There’s a word that’s recently come into use to describe this kind of learning: woke.  Getting woke means suddenly coming to the realization that other people’s experiences, their valid experience and perspective of the world, is not the same as our own, to understand it and empathize with it, and to see the world from their perspective.

So when I put this sermon online later today the title is going to be, “Yeah, that time Jesus got woke!”

That’s what we are all called to do, to get woke!  I think that’s the only way that we can find our way forward out of the mess in which we find ourselves today.  We need to get woke; to believe the stories that we are hearing from people who are different from us are in fact true.  They are their stories and their experiences. They represent their perspective.  And those experiences and perspective are every bit as valid and as important as our own.

Jesus left the Galilee and traveled north and west towards Syria to reach the region of Tyre and Sidon.  It was that movement, that journey that put him at risk of encountering the other, and to be woke, to come to understand the world in a larger way.  It is that moment that leads from him saying “I came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  We too are being called to take the risk traveling beyond our comfort zones to move into places where we risk encountering the other, and where we risk being changed by those encounters.  Jesus calls us out, calls us out of our comfort zones, calls us to engage with the other, to experience their humanity, to acknowledge recognize and affirm their stories.  It’s not until we can see the world through other people’s eyes that we can truly stand with them and they with us, and the horror that we have experienced in our streets in these last weeks will begin to dissipate like shadows that are penetrated by the light.

Amen

The Sower of Seeds: A sermon for Proper 10A

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in Madison, Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on July 16th, 2017 is built on the Gospel reading assigned for Proper 10 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. 

You can fund that reading here.

Here is an audio recording of the sermon.

Here is a transcript.

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 I just want to take a quick poll here.  Anybody who’s heard this story before raise your hand.   Anybody who thinks they can tell this story almost from memory raise your hand.  Anybody who thinks they know what this story means raise both hands!

Wow!  Parables…  Jesus sat there in the boat and taught them many things by parables.  Well the intent and purpose of a parable is to grab us with something with which we’re familiar to hook us in and then to twist it just a little bit.  Just enough to make us wonder… “What?” What does that mean?  And then to leave us wrestling and struggling, playing with those words.  And that twisting of something so common and ordinary leaves us sort of twitchy and uncomfortable until we think we have it figured out.

Now I’d be willing to bet that as I started to read that story all of you who raised your hand and said you’ve heard this before jumped right ahead to Jesus’s interpretation of the parable.  This is what falls on rocky ground, the people…  This is what falls on the good soil, the people.  You started to do that thing that we are so good at.  You started to worry about yourself.

That’s my first response to this story. I hear the story and I wonder “Well..  What kind of soil am I?”  And what do I need to do?  Do I need to fold a little organic matter in here to improve the soul level that I am?   I don’t think that’s the first thing that the people to whom Jesus originally told this story heard; even the disciples to whom he gave his interpretation.

So I’d like to ask you to do something difficult, to erase your previous history with this story.  Just set it aside.  Set aside your conclusions about what this means, and start over again.

Imagine if you will that you are a subsistence farmer.  You struggle all year long to raise enough crops to feed your family and maybe, maybe have enough left over to sell and buy things that you can’t produce on your own.  You walk in to the seed store I don’t know… in Maryland it was called Southern States.  I don’t know what it’s called here, where you go and buy agricultural supplies.  But you walk in and there’s one of your best friends, another subsistence farmer, and he’s standing there at the counter, and he’s haggling with the seed seller over the cost of seeds.

You know I need the seeds to feed my family and we had such a rough year last year.  I hardly have enough money to afford the seeds I need.  Can’t you please cut me a break?

The guy behind the counter, who’s had to pay more for the seeds that he’s selling because the guy he bought them from had to pay more for them himself, is driving a hard bargain.  Trying to get every penny he can for these seeds.  But finally, the two of them, back and forth; It’s my family that’s at stake; It’s my livelihood that’s at stake…  come to an agreement.

Your friend turns from the counter with these precious seeds, and he walks to the door into the parking lot, and he starts flinging them on the asphalt amongst the cars; there are in the antifreeze that the leaked out of somebody’s tractor;  there in the brake fluid that’s in that corner of the parking lot.  Those seeds are landing where they will never produce fruit.  You look at your friend.  You ask him “what in the world are you doing?  And he’s giggling.   He’s laughing.

He has this great smile on his face and he’s clearly enjoying himself.  And he says “Who knows? They may grow!  And won’t it be beautiful?”

That’s what’s at the heart of this story.   It’s not about whether or not we’re good soil.  It’s not about judging ourselves.  It’s not about becoming better soil.  This story is about God!  A sower with such a sense of generosity and abundance that God sows these seeds everywhere.

That wouldn’t make sense in the “real world.”  So this parable has taken something that Jesus’s hearers would’ve been completely familiar with and twisted it just a little bit to teach them something about the unexpected abundance and generosity of God.  And it’s so important that we get to this point in this story.  It’s just crucial.

So to backup just a little bit.  Just prior to this story in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is being confronted by the religious authorities who were trying to trap him and trick him.  And people are rejecting his message, and putting him aside.  Imagine what his disciples felt like as they watched all of this happen.  Jesus tells them this story not to judge them, not to judge the people who aren’t believing, but to explain something about the human condition.

So I’m sorry I’m going to do this to you.  I’m going to take us back to that first understanding of this parable.  And I’m going to look at you like this , and I’m going to say,  “So what kind of soil are you?”

Well… what day of the week is it?  What time is it?  Have I had my third cup of coffee yet?  Did I eat breakfast?  Am I sick?  Have I just experienced a loss?

The truth is that any one of us can go from being good soil, to the path, to being rocky soil, being choked by thorns, and back again multiple times in a single day!   So Jesus isn’t about judging the kind of soil that we are here.  He’s just describing who and what we are.  And the reason that is so important is God is spreading those seeds anyway.

So you wake up in the morning, and you’re feeling pretty good, and you’ve got your first cup of coffee, and the birds are singing, and you’re there on the porch, and oh you are fertile soil tilled wide open ready to receive the seeds…  And then your kid comes downstairs and says, “Did I tell you I’m supposed to take two dozen brownies to school today?”

And suddenly that furrow slams shut.  You’re hard packed.  You’re the path where the thorns are rising up and choking you.  But God is still up there saying, “Hey!  Have some seeds!  Have a little more!”  And later in the afternoon, when the brownies are done and your kids off at school and you’re thinking “Wow! I did it! I got it!  It’s OK!”   And you start to be open again… The teacher calls and says “You were supposed to bring juice too!”   God is still spreading those seeds.

I think that’s what this parable is really all about.  After all Jesus doesn’t tell parables to help us understand ourselves. Jesus tells parables to help us understand God, and the kingdom of heaven.  So any time our interpretation of a parable stops with us… we haven’t finished working yet.  We have to go back and look and ask ourselves “What is God doing in this parable?  What does this parable teach us about God?”  That’s where the real heart the story is.

So sounds pretty good.  Even, even when I’m not the best of possible soils God is still planting seeds in me.  But there’s something even better, more exciting.

Because that sense of barrenness, that sense that we’re being choked by thorns, or that we are in the midst of a rocky field, isn’t just about our interior life.  That can be true about the way we perceive the world around us.  And so this parable is also telling us that God is strewing those seeds all around us.  Why don’t we see them?  Why don’t recognize that those seeds are landing to our right and to our left, in places where we would never imagine that God would be sowing seeds?  There they are!  They’re landing right next to us…  If only we would stop judging ourselves, being so consumed by our own place in the story, and start paying attention to God and what God is doing, we might just find that we have the energy, and the time, and the vision, to see God springing up in the least likely of places all around us.

We might even find that we have the energy to nurture and tend those tender shoots as they start to come forth.  We might find that we have a cup of cold water to spare to water that growth.

Suddenly we are liberated.  We’re set free.  God has not and God and never will abandon me, no matter how barren I feel.  And God is at work in the world all around me.  And I’m invited into this incredible adventure of tending the garden.

Hmmm.  Maybe there’s a little bit more going on in this parable than we first thought.

Getting in there and wrestling with those words, hearing them afresh, letting them grow anew… That’s our project.  That’s how we tend the word of God within ourselves, as fertile soil, working here in God’s vineyard.

Amen.

 

On the Road Between Jerusalem and Emmaus: A sermon for Easter 3A

This sermon, offered on April 30, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached from the center aisle without notes.  What follows 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.

 

So I don’t know if it feels this way to you. It feels to me like it was forever ago… But in reality it was only two weeks. Two weeks ago we gathered here three times on the same weekend, Saturday night and twice on Sunday, there were beautiful flowers on the ledges up front here and in all the windows, we had extra musicians up front and the choir sounded amazing. There was a palpable sense of the Spirit in this room, and between those three services 400 people came to church here at St. Andrews. It was amazing. It was just two weeks ago.

Now I don’t know about you, and I’m sure that people say this every year, and I may have said this last year too, but this past year has seemed particularly difficult to me. And so my guess is that those 400 people came here that weekend with a lot of questions in their hearts and minds;

Wondering if the tomb was indeed still empty;

Wondering if we could continue, in the light of all that’s going on around us and the world, to put our faith, our trust in, to continue to believe in the one who came to show us that we are beloved of God and that God is well pleased with us;

Who came to teach us that we are all worthy of dignity and respect;

To show us beyond doubt that nothing could ever separate us from God’s love;

And that we will never, never be alone.

There was a lot at stake that weekend: our faith, our trust, our belief… and we came here to this place to reaffirm what long to know and believe and to trust… two weeks ago… two weeks ago.

Well, in today’s gospel story we have Cleopas and his companion, so let’s just assume for the moment that it’s Cleopas and Mrs. Cleopas, and it is the exact same day that the tomb was discovered to be empty. Not two weeks later. This is the same day and Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas received the same message that we heard two weeks ago. The women who had gone to the tomb came running back to say that the tomb is empty and we’ve seen a vision of angels who told us that Jesus has been raised from the dead!

Now a few lines before the passage we read today we hear that all of the disciples gathered together heard the women’s testimony as an idol tale. And if you go back and look at the original Greek what they really thought it was, was nonsense. Nonsense. It was so far beyond what they could imagine or believe they decided that it was nonsense. And here are Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas on that same day making the 7-mile hike from Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus defeated and broken. When Jesus encounters them on the road they say, “but we had hoped…” “But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” And now their hopes are dashed. The same day!

So here we are, two weeks later, and I think it’s fair and appropriate to do a little check in… “How you doing?”   We all left here two weeks ago enlivened, lifted up – I mean we were so excited we went outside and we hunted for Easter eggs. We went home and ate chocolate Easter bunnies. We made ham and lamb and all sorts of things and had meals with the people that we love… But here is two weeks later and I’m wondering if the world around us has started to kill that buzz yet. So how you doing?

I think there’s something really important in this story that only Luke shares with us. And that is the reality that it’s hard. Even for those early disciples who were there in his presence, who heard this word from Mary and the rest of the women, it’s hard cling to that state, and that trust, and that hope, in the face of the pain and the suffering that we experience and that we see in the world around us.

Something remarkable happens in that story. Jesus encounters them on the road to Emmaus in the midst and depth of their grief but he doesn’t leave them there. And this is how he pulls them out.

He shows up and they say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard the things that have happened?” And he says, “What things?” Tell me what’s on your heart. Tell me what’s bothering you. Tell me what you are struggling with. And they tell him the story… and then he proceeds to remind them of different story, a larger story, the story that describes who they are and whose they are. He digs into their sacred Scriptures and points to all of the things in those sacred stories that describe the necessity of what’s happened in the last three days.

Then they invite him in to spend the night, and they sit down at the table, and Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks, it and gives it to them. So there’s a pattern, there is a rhythm there. There’s an order you should recognize.

Yesterday morning when we were here rehearsing with the choristers who are up there in the balcony supporting us in worship this morning we walked through the ordo, the order of our worship. And here’s what we talked about.

We gather together and we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!” We declare God’s presence and we start to pay attention in a very specific and intentional way. And then we say, “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” We open ourselves up. We open our lives to God, and offer what’s hurting, what’s broken, what needs to be mended and reconciled.

And then, we hear from the Old Testament the stories that describe who we are and whose we are, and we responded by saying a psalm together.

Then we hear a story from the New Testament and we respond to God’s missionary outreach through those words by singing another song.

Then we hear the story from the Gospels, the stories of Jesus’s life. And we try very hard to break those open and make those relevant to who we are here and now.

And then we will stand up and will say the Creed. Here’s what we believe about the God with whom we’ve been in dialogue and conversation.

Before you know it were taking that bread and we’re blessing it, and were breaking it, and we’re sharing it.

For Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas this was such an eye-opening moment, it was such a revelation, that they dared to make that 7 mile journey, after dark, back to Jerusalem to share with the rest of the disciples how the whole world had been changed for them by this meal that they shared with Jesus; how their eyes had been opened and they knew the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

So a couple of minutes ago I said we needed to check in, we needed to see how everybody’s doing two weeks after we celebrated the feast of the resurrection. If you feel the never ending gray skies, and the events of the world around us; wars and rumors of wars, and all of the stuff that fills the news, bearing down on you, threatening to squash the joy that we felt on Easter day… then this is the place to be!

This is the place to be, where we can offer to God our struggles, our doubts, our fears, our pain, our loss; and our joys, and our successes, and our celebrations, and our loves. And then be in dialogue with God through our holy Scriptures; being reminded of who we are, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being… And then we participate in that sacred meal; the taking, and blessing, and giving of bread.

I think there are a couple of caveats to all of this, to this process. First of all we have to be prepared to say what things… what it is that we have on our hearts, and in our minds. We have to be prepared to open ourselves and be vulnerable. To say I’m struggling, I’m wrestling, I have doubts, I have fears. And then to engage in those Scriptures as if they were our own story. And then to come to this table ready to be fed and to be sent on that road back to Jerusalem, back to share the story, back to give to others what has been given to us.

The most important thing I think though in all of this is the sanctification, the acceptance, the embrace of how difficult this path can be. Walking from Emmaus to Jerusalem, and back to Emmaus, and back to Jerusalem. We’re bound to go back to Emmaus and have to make our way back to Jerusalem yet again.

Maybe there are some people for whom a switch is thrown, a light comes on, fingers are snapped; and all of the doubt, and pain, and struggle that we experience in this life goes away. But I haven’t met that person yet. I wish I could tell you that was my story but it’s not. The thing is we don’t have to feel bad or guilty for finding ourselves back in Emmaus.

What we need to do is come to this table, to come to this gathering and share those stories, and hold out our hands, and receive that bread, so that our eyes can be reopened, and we can be reminded; we can come back to ourselves, and go back out into the world.

So here we are this morning. I don’t know if you’re still in Jerusalem. I don’t know if you are in Emmaus. I don’t know if you’re somewhere on the road in between or even which direction you’re facing at this moment. But wherever it is that you are Jesus will meet you in that place. And you are beloved, and with you, no matter where you are on that journey, God is well pleased.

So come to this table. Be nourished and fed for the journey. Take a look around you at your companions on the way. Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas… I see a lot more people on the road than that…

Amen

Finding Our Home: A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

This sermon, offered by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on April 23, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built on the readings assigned for the Second Sunday of Easter, year A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached without a text form the center aisle.  What follow is a transcript of the attached 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.

I don’t know about you all but I feel a little sorry Thomas. We have a three-year lectionary cycle and so our readings for any given Sunday change every year on a three-year rotating basis, with the exception of just a few, and today being one of them. Every year on the Sunday after Easter, when we celebrate the feast of the resurrection, we trot Thomas out and let him say these difficult words.

Now, I don’t know if we can imagine what it was like for him in that moment but I’ve got an idea for a way that might get us close. So I want to try something, and it’s a little interactive so you’re going to have to participate…

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

But unless I see the mark of the the nails in his hand…

(faintly from the congregation)  But unless I see the mark of the nails… (laughter)

Ooooh! See! You guys were right there… You can imagine what that would be like! It would be really hard!

Thomas walks into the room where all of his friends, his companions for these past three years are gathered and they greet him with this joyous news, tell him about an event that he wasn’t a part of, and he doesn’t want to believe them. He asks to see some evidence; “Let me see the body, show me the flesh and blood, show me the wounds, and then I’ll believe what you’re telling me.

It’s really interesting how all of this moves forward. It would seem that Thomas doesn’t believe that this was the same person who hung on the cross, whom his friends have met, and who has been raised from the dead. He wants some factual evidence.

But sometime later when Jesus shows up for a second time, Thomas now present in the room, and Jesus offers him the factual evidence he’s required, Thomas doesn’t say “Oh wow! There are the wounds! It really is you! You’re the one! Wow! My friends were right and you’ve been raised from the dead!”

What he says instead is, My Lord and my God!”

That doesn’t sound like a response to factual evidence to me. It doesn’t sound like some switched has been flipped for him, some Christian apologetic has finally convinced him that this is all true. Something much deeper has happened in this moment. I think that in this moment Thomas has come to trust, to trust.

Ten years ago Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, wrote this book called Tokens of Trust and here’s how he opens chapter 1.

“A few years ago the British philosopher Onora O’Neill, argued in some broadcast lectures that our society was suffering from a crisis of trust…”

 

“It isn’t simply that we have become remarkably cynical in many of our attitudes, that we approach people in public life with unusual levels of suspicion, it’s also, more disturbingly, that we don’t feel the great institutions of our society are working for us. This means we are unhappy and mistrustful about our educational system, our healthcare service and police – let alone our representatives in government.”  (Tokens of Trust p. 3)

Ten years ago… suffering from a crisis in trust… maybe we can understand what’s going on in Thomas’s mind in this moment.

So we need to talk a little bit about the word “believe.” Thomas says unless I have this evidence I won’t believe. Jesus shows up and says, “See my wounds. Put your hands in them. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas says, “My Lord and my God. I trust in you,” and Jesus credits him in that moment with belief.

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Have you trusted because you can see me?”

All throughout John’s Gospel the words believe and belief are relational words. They are verbs that have to do with trusting in… Not so much believing facts, not so much in believing in data and evidence, but coming to trust in someone in some thing.

Shortly after the introduction that I read to you from Rowan Williams’s book he’s talking about the fact that we, as a community, gather every Sunday and we say these words together

 “We believe in God the father Almighty…”

And he tweaks that word “believe” the same way that John would have us tweak it. Williams says

“It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find in the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, where I find home.” (Tokens of Trust p. 6)

In a world and a culture where trust is a difficult thing, where we can’t believe, or we need to question the sources of information that we once relied on, where we’re not sure who’s telling us the truth and who is working to forward their own agenda, we need to have something in which we can trust, an Anchorage, solid ground, home.

And so what we do every week is come here together, to this place, and say, “We trust, we find our anchorage, solid ground, home it’s here in this place, and in this person Jesus of Nazareth, and in the God whom he made manifest and describes, whose behavior he exhibited here in this world, that we trust.

Jesus says to the disciples there in that upper room “Just as the father has sent me I now send you” and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. And so having been shored up, having been rooted, having been given our ground where we live and move and have our being, Jesus sends us out in the world to invite others to come home, to hold tightly to what it is that we trust, and to share that with others.

Now just in case you started to roll your eyes a little bit in the last few minutes, we need to acknowledge Thomas’s presence in the midst of all this and our ability to relate to him. Because Thomas, and we don’t know how he’s been wounded or how he’s been shaped by his culture and his time, he’s often credited I think with being a scientist and needing some scientific evidence. Maybe that’s what’s going on here, but I think fundamentally what’s happening in him is an inability to trust. Sometimes life comes at us in ways it makes it difficult for us to trust. That’s why I’m so grateful for Thomas’s presence in this story. Jesus could have taken any route, any measure, to help us to find our way to recognize the importance and value of trust. John the gospeler or could have crafted his story differently and moved us to the same point, but if they had excised Thomas from the story then I think we would’ve all left here afraid at the possibility that life would somehow steal away from us, even for a fleeting moment, our ability to trust.

So Thomas stands here in our midst, Thomas with whom we’ve discovered we can in fact identify, and asks for what he needs. “I need Jesus to come back and to show me, to show me! I know you all say you’ve seen him but I need him to show me! And Thomas authorizes, empowers, gives us permission to say those same words.

So I’d like to tell you that in 30 seconds I’ve arranged to have Jesus come through the locked doors here, and stand in our midst, and offer us his wounds. That would be great but I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

What we do have however in this space, gathered together, are the wounds of people we love, people who have been hurt, people who have survived that hurt. We ourselves who bear our scars into this place and dare to stand up every Sunday and say we believe! We believe in a God who loves us beyond measure, who has proven to us that we will never be abandoned and never be alone, a God who has told us that we all have value, and are worthy of dignity and respect; a God who tells us that what God wants for us more than anything is life in his name.

Thomas took a great risk by standing up in the middle of that room and saying I won’t believe unless I get to see this list of things. I think we take a similar risk when we stand up together and say, “We believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain that I have experienced, despite the pain that people I love are feeling right at this moment. We believe. We trust in the one who came to set us free, to allow us to walk in the light, and to give us life tinged with, suffused with, glowing with eternity.

Thanks be to God for Thomas who helps us to see. Thanks be to God for Jesus who comes back to us again and again. And thanks be to God for this community where we can wrestle and struggle find God in one another.

Amen.

 

Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Print.