Pentecost 15, September 13, 2020

Rev. Susan’s Sermon for Proper 19/Pentecost 15  – September 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

Divine math

You’ve got to love Peter.

So intuitive one minute, so thick the next.  No sooner has Jesus given detailed instructions about how to behave in community, and how to overcome differences and disagreement, than Peter wants to know how to get out of it.  I imagine Jesus shaking his head as he says ‘seventy seven times” then proceeds to tell a parable to explain himself.

So I say, you’ve got to love Peter, because we are exactly like he is: One minute we’re basking in God’s grace and mercy; the next, we want to make sure no one else gets it, or no one we don’t think is entitled to it, anyway.

We know this parable well.  

The king allows a servant to accumulate a great debt.  It’s an unimaginable sum.  Astronomical.  In Jesus’ day, a denarius was about a day’s wage, and one talent was about 6,000 denarii. “Ten thousand talents,” then, would be about six million denarii. Can you imagine that amount of debt?  He owes what a whole country might owe.  And that’s the point. He is so deep into the hole that it’s impossible for him to pay it back.

Perhaps he realizes this and so opts for the long shot: mercy.  

The king, realizing he’s not going to make good on the bad debt, decides to do good instead: he listens to the servant’s appeal and forgives him everything, no strings attached. He releases the servant from it all.

Note that in the parable, forgiveness goes beyond even seventy seven times! 

If the story ended there, we’d be talking about how the good king restores the in-over-his-head servant. We’d have a lesson in mercy and generosity.  We’d have a picture of how someone lives in the light of grace.

But no, for as soon as the servant is cleared of his incalculable debt, he demands that a reasonable debt owed to him be repaid, going so far as to putting the man in prison until the debt is satisfied.  The nerve!

The issue is, while it’s his right to be able to collect on the debt, following the letter of the law, he goes wrong in not following his master’s lead:  he’s been given the example and the power to forgive, he chooses not to. Even though he’s received mercy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he should be merciful –at least not in his mind.

It’s hard to figure the servant out. Clearly, he doesn’t need the money, clearly he hasn’t learned from his own lesson. His actions are not only disproportionate, they discredit the actions of the king towards him. And so, when found out, he receives what he was due all along.

Peter comes up with his own version of how to mete out forgiveness, and falls short. His calculation is –on the human scale– virtuous, even generous. He can forgive someone every day of the week! But on the divine scale it is miserly.  Similarly, we take God’s mercy towards us, showered on us abundantly, and then meter it out with a dropper. 

Forgive seventy seven times and then some, says Jesus.  

With the parable he’s not only showing the extravagance of God’s grace, he is attempting to overturn the very way we account for mercy.  It’s a new kind of ‘divine math’ one that seeks to overturn the transactional ‘eye for an eye’ dynamic of social relationships, but also an economy of revenge that plagues us.

The seventy seven times phrase Jesus uses as an illustration we might hear as “all the time.”  But, “seventy-seven times” is something Peter would have heard differently.  It is an allusion from Genesis  (4:24) to Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great grandson, and an heir to Cain’s violent, self-centered ways. Lamech boasts of how he takes ruthless revenge on anyone who hurts him: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” or an ‘eye for an eye’ to the seventh generation. Jesus makes sure that his hearers know this type of thinking has to stop.  The cycles of vengeance are seductive and endless. And deadly

So he tells a story of incalculable debt matched by even greater forgiveness, with a twist at the end so that everyone might think, reconsider what forgiveness is all about.

In light of this parable what do we think forgiveness means? I ask this with the full import of the 9/11 memorials just passed and its mantra: “Never forget!” As if we could! The wound still seems so fresh, the images so vivid. The crime, so unspeakable. 

Perhaps that’s why Peter wants to set some limits.  Don’t we all?  There are things that are unforgivable.  Which is why we need to be reminded over and again, of God’s mercy for us all.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that because God is merciful, God isn’t grieved and angered by injustice –indeed, the wicked servant ends up in jail and owing everything to the king.  It means that some judgements aren’t ours to make. It also means that to choose forgiveness is to be released from the tyranny and torture of bitterness and revenge. I think that’s the hardest lesson the parable tries to teach: once imprisoned, forgiveness sets us free.  

After being released from prison after 27 years, SouthAfrican Nelson Mandela wrote:  “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

What Jesus tries to teach Peter is that forgiveness isn’t about math because life isn’t a zero sum game. You can’t quantify forgiveness. Counting, after all, is an avenger’s game. Instead, Jesus calls each of us to leave the quantities behind, abandon tit-for-tat reconings and embrace forgiveness as a quality of mind and heart, a way of being in the world, a skill set for living, seventy times seventy times seven. 

For then forgiveness won’t be something we do, it’s something we live, the prison we escape by walking directly into the hands of mercy.

In Jesus’ name


Pentecost 14, September 6, 2020

Rev. Susan’s Sermon

Proper 18 – Pentecost 14 September 6, 2020

Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

“Why can’t we all just get along?”

The lectionary has us skip a few chapters this week and the jump is a little jarring because we’ve left the storyline of Jesus and his travels and landed abruptly, squarely, in a dispute of some sort.  Isn’t life like that sometimes? There you are minding your own business and then, bam! All of the sudden you are knee deep in conflict.

The gospel doesn’t give us the reason for it.  The passage just seems to be inserted in the narrative. Clearly something was going on that needed to be addressed and Matthew does just that.  I love this gospel because Matthew is the one writer who offers the emerging Christian church a clear view on discipline, law, discipleship and more. “The Matthean gospel provided an understanding of the past, present, and future that made sense of the emerging church’s ongoing life in the world.” (Duling/Perrin)

So we are not given the details.  What we do hear in the gospel today however, is a primer on how to handle disagreement, especially within the church –say what? There’s never conflict in the church, is there? These guidelines  may start in the church, but are useful in any situation. And nothing could be more appropriate for the times we live in than a reminder about how we, as Christians, are to conduct ourselves, no matter what the context.

I have met few people in my life who like conflict.  Yes, they do exist.  People for whom nothing is as stimulating as a good argument. People are energized by the push-pull of opposing views; people who seem to come alive in a disagreement; people who, like adrenaline junkies, just gravitate to the chaos that gets unleashed during a conflict.  And then they go to sleep at night, as if nothing happened.

For most of us, I imagine, conflict sets off alarm bells.  We would rather not seek one or start one.  We are philosophical about disputes, “they will figure it out.” or, noncommittal, “it’s none of my business,”  and hope that a disagreement dies down on its own.

That being said, sometimes conflict is inescapable and unavoidable. So how can we recognize, engage in it in a healthy and life-giving way?  How can we disagree and still be whole?  The passage –amazingly– provides us the step by step process, but it’s up to us to recognize how we are being pulled into a conflict and contributing to it.  

Jesus starts out with a rather innocuous statement, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him” it’s a short passage, but it packs a powerful punch: work it out between the two of you.  If he listens, you’ve made a friend.  If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again.  If he still won’t listen, tell the church.  If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” (Petersen/The Message)

Notice the multitude of steps.  They clearly point to the behavior of the offender, but it also calls the offended to engage the situation in a healthy way, most importantly, by refusing to escalate the confrontation itself.  

In fact, it calls on the offended to resist several temptations that would undoubtedly make things worse. Consider the many temptations conflict offers us:

First, we’re tempted to avoid it. Second, we’re tempted to gossip: to tell others about the person or behavior that’s offended us, rather than to take our concerns directly to the person or people involved. Third, we’re tempted to gang up on each other, to recruit like-minded people to our side, to create echo chambers of grievance. Fourth, we’re tempted to air our grievance only in front of like-minded audiences where accountability is minimal. And fifth, we’re tempted to regard our opponents as if they are unwelcome or better off elsewhere, outside our community entirely. Undeserving of our love and support. (SALT) To be sure, there are situations that are so toxic that a dissolution of a relationship is necessary, but that is an extreme and last recourse, after all the other steps have been taken.

I look at this and think, “wow, this is a lot of work!” It is. But consider the alternative.some might say we are living it. There is a willingness to villainize others, to hold them beneath contempt; a rush to demean and objectify people; a lust for violence -verbal and physical- as a way to resolve differences.

Jesus reminds us that the stakes are high – indeed, higher than we might think. Jesus puts it this way: Heaven and earth are closely linked, such that what we do here resonates with what happens there. Our arguments – whether wise or contemptuous, healthy or unhealthy – have profound consequences, near and far.  “Take this seriously: a yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is a no in heaven.  What you say to one another is eternal…” (Petersen/The Message)

Why can’t we just get along? The truth is, we just don’t.

Conflict is a symptom of our brokenness, individual and community, but it doesn’t have to rule or ruin our lives. This passage aims to give us the clarity we need to work our way through it, with each other, and come out healthy and whole on the other side.  It is clear that if we don’t, the consequences may be irreparable.  Yet, Jesus is with us when we are willing to do the hard work of navigating conflict humbly, respectfully and open to his direction and wisdom.

We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to each other, we owe it to the world, most importantly, we owe it to those who died for us, as St. Paul puts it: ours is a debt of love. So love your neighbor as yourself.

In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Pentecost 13, August 30, 2020

Pentecost 17/Proper 13

Matthew 16:21-28

Christ and the Cross.

     Today we hear the second part of the story of Jesus’ revelation to his disciples as the Messiah. It brings to completion the way of Jesus: not only is he the Son of God, but his kingdom is over and against the ways of the world. 

      The gospel last Sunday focused on the question, “and who do you say that I am?” This one begins with teaching and wrestling with the hard truth of what that means.  If you recall, the background was the  ostentation of Cesarea Phillipi, where Herod the Great built a temple dedicated to Augustus, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire – and a man who was so over the top, he added the phrase Divi Filius, “Son of the Divine” to his title.

The story is a turning point in many ways.

Here, Jesus, the true and only divine son goes from a mission of gathering and building, to preparing himself and his followers for the next chapter, as he begins to lay out the differences between a kingdom on earth and a heavenly one. Here, he intentionally speaks about necessary suffering and even dying to accomplish his mission. 

Here, Peter, who gets the first part –the divinity– right, reels at the second. He is astounded about Jesus’ dark tone. What kind of Messiah is this? Peter’s disbelief is understandable. How do you win by losing? How can you ever describe a loss as a gain? How is it possible to die and live again? It defies all logic, wordly one anyway.

So if the previous scene is one in which the disciples were tempted with the false gods of imperial splendor and power, in this one, Jesus is tempted by an appeal to human complacency: do what’s easiest, compromise to get ahead, do anything to win followers.  Jesus recognizes Peter’s words for what they are, and he rightly suspects the devil behind it. 

Not that Peter is being evil, rather he is being manipulated by his fear into presenting Jesus a false choice: one of accommodation with the powers of the world, over one of divine truth. One that actually maintains the status quo of earthly power, albeit with a regime change. One that allows for change, but not radical transformation.

Jesus rejects that temptation and sets Peter straight. The cross, a weapon of torture and repression, he will transform it into a symbol of hope. But until that happens, he instructs, his followers are to take that symbol of human failure, that fearful weapon, and put it front and center.  

One commentator puts it this way: “Take up your cross” is meant as a contrast to “vanquish your enemies,” whether those  are military, personal, or otherwise; “deny yourself” is meant as a contrast to “seize power for yourself”…  In other words, Jesus discerns at the heart of the conventional view of messiahship is a self-centered, Caesar-like attempt to take advantage of others –and he will have none of it.  The journey that he will take them on will not be a triumphant march, and it will undoubtedly include suffering, as all movements of love, kindness, and justice do.” (SALT)

We, however, would rather have Christ without the cross.

Today, we still stand in the middle of  those two powerful statements: “Who do you say that I am?” and, “If anyone would be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me.” One becomes an articulation of faith, the other, a commitment to action. In the interplay of both we find our way of life. So if you acknowledge Jesus in your life, claim him as Lord, it’s also worth asking yourself, what is your cross to bear?

Though the symbol of the cross has been transformed, it seems the meaning hasn’t changed much. The gospel tells us that poverty is a cross, oppression is a cross. Violence is a cross. Injustice, disease, racism, inequality, those are crosses to bear. 

Those of us who neither live in poverty or oppression, who are not routine victims of violence, who do not wonder about their next meal, have no need for shelter, who are not ravaged by disease, need to be reminded that discipleship is costly, sacrificial, unconventional, vulnerable, unapologetically generous, merciful and ultimately, transformative. It defies all logic, but what does it profit us to have so much, when we could lose it all?   

Debi Thomas writes: “To take up a cross as Jesus did is to stand, always, in the center of the world’s pain.  Not just to glance in the general direction of suffering and then sidle away, but to dwell there.  To identify ourselves with those who are aching, weeping, screaming, and dying.  To insist that our comfort isn’t worth it unless the least and the lost can share in it, too.” (Journey with Jesus, Current Essay)

There is no Christ without the cross.

To take up our cross, to follow Jesus is more than experiencing a bit of discomfort and unpleasantness from time to time. It is to let go of all self-centered grasping, all desire for power and domination, all sense of entitlement, for the sake of Gospel. It will not happen if we are more invested in ourselves than in each other. It will not happen if Jesus isn’t at the center of all we do. We can’t claim one and not do the other.

Perhaps no better way to articulate and live the demands of cross and discipleship is to embrace the words of St. Francis’ famous prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace

Where there is hatred, let us sow love

Where there is injury, pardon

Where there is doubt, faith

Where there is despair, hope

Where there is darkness, light

And where there is sadness, joy

O Divine Master, grant that we may

Not so much seek to be consoled as to console

To be understood, as to understand

To be loved, as to love

For it is in giving that we receive

And it is in pardoning that we are pardoned

And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

Pentecost 9, August 2, 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

Growing up, my kids used to hate watching TV with me.  It was because I am good at figuring out plot twists, I would often spoil the show for them. I didn’t mean to, but often I couldn’t help myself.  Part of the reason why it was easy is that all the important clues are given in the first five minutes, almost as a rule.  If you pay attention at the beginning, you can usually figure things out before the end.

Today is an example of that.  No spoiler alert here, it’s one of the most beloved stories in Scripture and we know it well.  But I have to tell you that the clues at the beginning are missing and we really need that to understand it fully, to figure out the end.

In their infinite wisdom, those who decide on these things, chose to tidy things up, to leave out the one sentence in the portion that we heard this morning.  It is the connection between the verses of this chapter. A small thing, really.  But it’s the entire motivation for what comes next.

We’ve learned about, and thought of the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes as one stand-alone, amazing event.  It is not.  It is part of a narrative that gives us insight into Jesus and the story of salvation.

So what got left out? “Now, when Jesus heard this…”  that’s it?  Yes.  so the sentence should read “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there on a boat to a deserted place by himself.”  You might not think it makes a difference, but doesn’t it make you wonder what did Jesus hear that he reacted this way?

What he heard about was the terrible, gruesome death by beheading of his cousin, friend and mentor: John the Baptist.  John who had leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice; John, who foretold of Jesus’ advent, who had baptized him in the Jordan, John the prophet, had been killed by Herod in a spectacularly cynical way.

This is what makes Jesus withdraw.  To escape a similar fate, maybe; to gather himself, I’m sure; to pray, most certainly.  Filled with sorrow and shock, he does what any of us would do until he’s ready to face such awful reality.

But, he’s not alone in this.  No, the murder of John the Baptist is a major event for everyone. As a prophet, a man of God, he was not popular with the establishment, which is why he had been jailed.  Killing him was something else, over-the-top. Compare it to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, or JFK. something of that scale.

That’s the reason for the crowds.  They’re not out there because it’s a nice day.  They’re out there because something terrible, unimaginable, has happened and they don’t know what to do next. That explains why they have no food. They seek Jesus because they feel vulnerable, crushed, lost, and hope that he might have the answer, might be able to comfort them somehow. 

When he sees them, their pain, their confusion, their anguish, Jesus is gutted.  The text says: “he has compassion for them.” but the Greek word is closer to a gut-wrenching reaction.  His heart goes out to them.  John the Baptist’s death crystallizes and propels him into mission: there is no going back now.  He is on his own.  

Well, no, he has his disciples who dutifully remind him of their own inadequacies and the hazards of managing an uncontrolled crowd: they need to go home, fend for themselves, figure it out.  

I wonder how long it took Jesus to take in that piece of information.  

I wonder how long it took to reply: “no need, you feed them.”

I know my answer would have been out of my mouth almost before He finished speaking. Everytime I read that part of this miracle, his words leave me gutted. I imagine it was the same for the disciples. You want us to do what?

Now here’s the point where, if this were a TV show, the main character comes up with a MacGyver solution, and says: “here’s what we’re gonna do…” or maybe this is where the show got its inspiration: Jesus takes a meager offering of fish and bread, blesses and brakes it, and all are filled. We know the rest.

But Jesus is no TV hero. This is not about saving the day, it’s about saving our souls. 

Do not overlook the implications of what he does: his alignment with the crowds, feeding them, healing them, comforting them, increases his visibility and popularity and makes him a wanted man. Miraculous though it is, his actions are profoundly destabilizing when added to his speaking about the Kingdom of God, he becomes a challenge to those in power.

And so it has been ever since.

Because we have power, too.  Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to feed the crowd in vain.  “You feed them,” is an invitation to participate in something grander than our small versions of salvation. It is a call to look out onto the crowds and, though gutted by their need, to have enough compassion, creativity and energy to do something about it.  We may not know it will go a given moment, but Jesus does.

The miracle is only part of the story.  

Right now, there are crowds gathering and reeling from racial injustice; there are crowds decimated by poverty; there are crowds facing unemployment and evictions and eventual homelessness.  There are crowds that live in fear of deportation; crowds wallowing in loneliness and abandonment. Crowds that are hungry for a little kindness. “You take care of them,” Jesus says, and then he shows us that we are not alone in this ministry, not by a long shot.  In fact, discipleship is full of possibilities, sometimes even miracles.

This story starts in sorrow and distress, but how will it end? 

Spoiler alert: we already know the ending.  Through Jesus we find our life among the vulnerable; we give whatever we’ve, ourselves, our souls and bodies, even if it seems inadequate; when overwhelmed, we can count on him being always by our side. Through him we are blessed to be a blessing. And what a miracle that is!  Amen. 

Pentecost 8, July 26, 2020

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

The kingdom of Heaven is like…”Good trouble”

Where on earth do we get our ideas about heaven?  What do you imagine? Clouds, angels, golden thrones, music? It is impossible to talk about the kingdom of heaven without conjuring some sort of picture in our minds. Most of these images we think of come to us from the Book of Revelation, amplified by liturgical art across the centuries.  But is that what the Kingdom of heaven is really like?

Episcopal priest and writer, Barbara Brown says “How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can human beings speak of God?” Perhaps we do best if we use the most ordinary things or the most ordinary of beings. (The Seeds of Heaven)

And that’s just what Jesus does.  

Soil and seeds, flour and yeast, pearls and fish; gardeners and bakers, fisherman, laborers and entrepreneurs; men and women, this is what Jesus uses to speak of the Kingdom of heaven.

Rather than point to a future place or final destination of some sort, Jesus tells a variety of parables utilizing everyday images, so that his hearer might connect with an image. What he describes isn’t a mythical, pie-in-the-sky place. The parable’s images reveal a sense of immediacy, something in the here and now, not something fantastic and far away, or  inaccessible.

These parables change our rosy vision of the Kingdom of heaven, grounding it, as it were in our everyday lives. The lives of the crowds and disciples who followed him, and ours, making the kingdom of heaven something possible, not just imaginable. It is as if he’s saying: “Look for signs of the kingdom everywhere — it hides in plain sight, it’s overlooked among the delusions of grandeur, it only becomes visible when you’re among kindred spirits, rising to the top.”  

The Kingdom of Heaven, while not fully realized, is not like a dream deferred, or something that is outside our human experience. In fact, Jesus affirms with his presence that he is breaking down the barriers, clearing out the obstacles, removing everything that stands in the way of the establishment of his kingdom.

Perhaps that’s the need for the parables themselves, because we can’t see what’s emerging in front of us; because to see it, we need to reframe our notions of heaven. And that will take work, discipline, vision and faith.

But God does not disappoint.

Believe that something insignificant could become something mighty, something grand. Jesus says. Invest in something that doesn’t seem worthwhile. Get your hands dirty, work hard, tirelessly for something unappreciated by others. Try something new, break with ‘the way we’ve always done it’ to uncover the treasure hidden in plain sight.  

Make no mistake, the parables of the kingdom offer us images that are powerful, beautiful and absolutely disruptive: they tell us there is another way to see the world.

Consider that Jesus’ audience would have thought a mustard bush a weed; they would also have thought to add any kind of leavening something unclean, even corrupting.  The foolishness of selling everything to own only one thing could only be compared to the foolishness of sowing seeds in rocky soil. Letting the wheat and the tares grow together?   Crazy. Jesus used such language and such images to offer an alternative vision, breaking through the customs, structures, norms and traditions that kept people from having an authentic relationship with God.

Because that may be the point: It’s not the what, it’s the how

 Arland Hultgren writes, Jesus says that “the kingdom” isn’t so much like the objects themselves (mustard seed, treasure, leaven) but more like the actual process of what happens in these little stories, the mysterious and powerful things that happen right beneath our eyes, even if our eyes can’t seem to see [or our hearts comprehend] what’s happening (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). We make a mistake to think of the kingdom as a reward at the end of our lives.  It is in fact a call, a vocation to live out now. The more and harder we work for the kingdom, the more it’s truth is revealed as: the shrub that shelters a diversity of birds, the bountiful bread, the pearl of great price, the wonderful catch of fish.  

The  parables all talk about taking on a specific –though strange or  difficult- action to achieve a specific –but worthy– result: sometimes it means divesting oneself of the unnecessary things, in order to reach something greater; sometimes it involves sorting through and letting go of things that are toxic; sometimes it means taking risks, traveling in uncharted territory; sometimes it means trusting in ways we’ve never trusted before; sometimes mixing things up, resorting to ‘good trouble’ so that others may reap the reward. 

I keep thinking this morning about Congressman John Lewis: a giant of the civil rights movement, an icon for nonviolent change, the moral “conscience of Congress.”  He lived an incredible, storied life.  One that begins as a sharecropper’s son and ends in the highest halls of government, but not before enduring the oppression of segregation.  He labored on even though he was arrested, beaten, incarcerated, as he worked tirelessly and single mindedly for the great pearl of justice.  Because of his work, laws were overturned, people’s dignity restored.  His legacy is one in which many will rest and find shelter.

Few of us will be able to accomplish what he did. Few of us will be able to inspire others like he did.  His life was a parable, a parable of hope, showing us that humble can be great, that ‘good trouble’ is not a contradiction in terms, that non-violence is the path to peace, that the kingdom of God is here breaking into this world, into our time, into our lives, making it a reality for us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like…Good trouble

It’s like nothing you have ever imagined, but everything you’ve hoped for. In Jesus’ name. amen.