Proper 9 Year B: Do What’s Right, Not What Looks Good

Ezekiel 2:1-5
II Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In our gospel story this morning, the people in Jesus’ hometown balk at his words and actions; their closed minds and hearts prevent them from receiving the full gift of healing that Jesus offers. Since he was fully human, that rejection probably hurt Jesus. Maybe he was a little angry or flustered at the suspicion of the health he gave to the people. Hopefully, his main reaction was sorrow and grief at their closed hearts and minds. However, whatever his listener’s attitudes and no matter his feelings, he still did what he could to bring God’s peace and joy to them, and then he went on to other towns (and sent his apostles as well) to bring it to others. He did not let either the actions of others or his own emotions prevent him from doing what he knew to be right. He knew it is more important to do what is right than to do what looks good in the eyes of others.

Ezekiel and Paul make similar points in our other scriptures today. God even warns Ezekiel that he will be met with trouble, but that should not prevent him from spreading his message. Paul has already experienced the rejection that Ezekiel is warned about, and he talks about his life as an apostle in this way: “ I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

That last part about being strong when he is weak makes sense only when we remember what Paul heard from God in the preceding sentence: “My grace is sufficient for you”.  In other words, Paul has learned that safety and security are found only in God. We are in the most danger when things seem the most secure, because in those times, we tend to rest in our own power, rather than in God’s grace. We tend to forget God when we think we have done well and saved money for the future and made a good name for ourselves. We tend to rest in the false belief that we are safe and secure, rather than in the truth that nothing is permanent except God.

Everything will change but God. Our financial and political situations, our family life, our health, our feelings and emotions will all change whether we want them to or not, and nothing we do can prevent that. When we finally realize the fragility of our man-made situations and admit how weak we really are, then we can allow God’s power to be the basis of our lives, and we understand God’s assurance to Paul: whenever we are weak, we are strong, because God’s grace is sufficient for us, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We are safe only in God’s hands, and that is why it is so comforting to know that is exactly where we are, whether we know it or not, or whether we like it or not.

We might not always feel that we are safe in God’s hands, and we might not always act like it, but that does not change the fact, because it is the only fact that never changes. Our situations and feelings are temporary; God is eternal. So with that in mind we can go ahead and be more confident about doing what’s right instead of doing what looks good or seems safe. We can live secure in God’s love, rather than on doing or saying things merely to impress others so that they will like us or take us in their circles of power. We can rest in God’s arms, no matter what path our ever-changing emotions take. We can search our own hearts and minds for God’s truth, whether or not in fits any party line or popular agenda.
That does not mean that we ought to be our own source of truth or wisdom. We should still pray, learn from others and from history, and inwardly digest scripture. We ought to be always willing and able to admit when we are wrong, and humble enough to admit when others are right.

We need to realize that others have the Holy Spirit guiding them also, and that our own stubbornness rarely allows us to be fully guided by the Spirit anyway. But once we do all these things, we can tell the truth as we see it – always in a loving, humble, helpful manner. We can be God’s prophets and apostles, like Ezekiel and Paul, carrying God’s love, peace, and joy to the world around us whether or not anyone listens and regardless of our physical situation. We can be Jesus to the world around us, loving them and healing them, but never forcing it upon them. And in those times when our love is rejected, we don’t have to deny our hurt feelings, but we also don’t have to let them determine our actions or keep us from loving. There is an entire universe to love, and we need to get busy loving it, rather than wasting time worrying about ourselves. We will be OK, because we are in God’s love always and everywhere.  May we rest in God, rather than in our own instability. May we realize that God’s grace is the only thing that is sufficient for us. May we be prophets and apostles, bringing God’s love to others, and may we gratefully accept it from all the other prophets and apostles who surround us everyday.   AMEN

Mutual Shepherds: Peter & Paul 2012

Ezekiel 34:11-16
II Timothy 4:1-8
John21:15-19

The prophet Ezekiel tells us in our first reading this morning that God is our shepherd, and God will take care of us sheep. God will feed us and protect us and heal us. Although God is our true shepherd and pastor, today we celebrate two of God’s deputy or assistant pastors: Peter and Paul. By celebrating two of God’s most famous assistant pastors, we also celebrate ourselves, because we all serve as pastors to each other in some way. We all lead others by example, and we all follow others’ examples.
In many ways, those of us who are not official pastors actually fill a more pastoral role than those who are, because we tend to think that church officials are too different from us to be seen as example to follow. We often unconsciously dismiss what the preacher says, because we think he is merely telling us what he is supposed to say, and we are merely listening because we are supposed to listen. However, on another unconscious level, we all have people whom we observe and try to emulate, and we all have people who are watching us and taking our lead. We rarely know who is molding their lives on our pattern, and we rarely know who we are imitating.
That gives us two reasons to be careful of our actions and our observations. We need to be careful of our observations, because we need to make sure the people whom we idolize are good examples for us to follow. And we need to be careful of our actions, because we do not know who is following us. We might not want to be role models, but all of us are to someone. So, like Peter in the gospel story, if we say we love Jesus, we need to make sure we are feeding his sheep good examples to follow. Paul goes into more detail about feeding our fellow sheep in his letter to Timothy that we read today: “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching…be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
That last attribute of a good pastor is the sum of the whole list: “…carry out your ministry fully.” In other words, living our vocations fully (no matter what our vocation may be), and being the most honest and mature persons we can be (no matter what our particular strengths and weaknesses are) are the most important things we can do as God’s assistant pastors. Others will then see our fulfilment and be encouraged to grow into their own true selves and live their vocations, maturing in the fullness of Christ as they take their honored place in his body.
Of course we all know instances where we have failed to live up to our potential, or when we have not met our duties as Christ’s ambassadors, unintentionally leading others astray by our actions. There are also times when we have been unwittingly led astray by those whom we follow. That is why it is so important to set good examples for others, and that is why we need to be more conscious of the people whose lead we are following, realizing that God is our head pastor, so we must follow God always, especially in those times when we – his assistants – fail in our tasks. God will overcome all of our blunders and set us in the right path to joy and peace. God is our shepherd, as Ezekiel reminds us. We merely have the honor of being his helpers. May we fulfill our tasks with joy. May we set good examples and follow good examples. May we remember our task is simply to do our best and not worry about the outcome. Results are God’s job.   AMEN

Proper 7 Year B: Out Of The Whirlwind

Job 38:1-11
II Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Job is one of the most famous persons from the Bible, mostly because of the phrase: “the patience of Job.” However, if one reads the Book of Job, one sees that he is not patient at all. Job wants God to answer him and explain why God has allowed Job to suffer so much after being so righteous. It is Job’s friends who might be considered as being patient – they sit around and talk about God and explain to Job why he should calmly accept what is happening to him. After many pages of complaints by Job and scoldings by his friends, God finally joins the conversation by telling Job that God is the boss and does not need to answer any of Job’s complaints. However, God goes on the say that it is Job’s friends who are wrong, not Job.

On the surface, that does not make sense – if God is the boss and does not need to answer to us, then aren’t Job’s friends right for telling Job to accept what has happened, and isn’t Job wrong for complaining? Maybe God is more concerned with how the characters are dealing with the situation than with their words. While Job’s friends are talking about God, Job is actually talking to God. And even more importantly to a person in a monastic setting, Job spends a lot of time listening to God – the first part of which we heard in our first reading this morning.

So maybe the answer to all our questions about God and the universe are answered not by solutions, but by relationship. God does not solve all our problems the way we want or tell God to. Instead, God goes through our problems with us  – by being in relationship with us and also even more concretely by being one of us, and experiencing human life first hand as Jesus of Nazareth. We can talk about God all we want (there is nothing wrong with that – theology can be very helpful), but talking with God is where we grow into our full personhood. And we must remember that it is usually good to let God do most of the talking, although it is true that sometimes God uses our own words and thoughts to show us the answers – as William of St. Thierry says: “Let your question be your prayer.”

Maybe Job’s words do not seem patient, but in the long run, his approach does take more patience than his friends’. Anyone can claim to have all the answers about God and in a comparatively short time write books containing all those answers. Anyone can read all those books in a comparatively short time and claim to have learned all the answers. But listening and talking to God with no expectation of any answers takes a lifetime. In fact, it takes more than a lifetime, because lifetimes are finite and God is infinite. So, the way of Job – the way of relationship with God is slow, and often seemingly useless, but it is really the only way to the real answers in life.

Although “patience” may or may not be a good way to describe Job, we should strive to be patient. Even more than “patient”, we should strive to be “constant”, because “patience” often implies that we are waiting for things to get better, while “constancy” implies that it does not matter whether or not things get better – we will abide in God and trust God with our lives no matter how good or bad things get. Paul talks about constancy in our second reading this morning, and like the disciples in our gospel story this morning, we need to remember that Jesus is in the same boat with us. He may or may not do what we want him to do, but he will always do what we really need him to do (even when we do not perceive it that way).
We don’t and can’t know the whole story of life and the future and the universe and why things are the way they are. But we can talk about it and try to figure it out, like Job’s friends, and we can also do even better and (like Job) talk and listen to God, even though the answer is beyond us. Out of the whirlwind God answered Job. May we, with patience and constancy, listen to God, even if confronted with a whirlwind.  AMEN

Easter VI Year B: Punch The Clock

John 15: 9-17

We just heard Jesus say we are his friends, not his servants. That is not as freeing as it might seem. Friendship is a lot more work than servanthood, and there are fewer tangible rewards. If you are a servant, you either get a job description or are told what to do, and then after you do a good job, you either get paid (if you are a hired servant), or you get to be not beaten or killed (if you are a slave servant).

Friendship comes with no job description, and sometimes it is hard to figure out what to do to be a good friend. It also has no schedule, so you are never really off-duty. And there are no tangible rewards involved, except that of the friendship itself. But the intangible rewards of friendship are really greater than any salary or wage, because when we befriend someone, we are given the amazing chance to affirm that person’s legitimacy and integrity, and we in turn have our existence confirmed and affirmed. Such a need for existential assurances might be selfish, but they do seem to be necessary for human growth and happiness.

So, when Jesus says we are his friends that truly affirms our right to exist. We respond by doing what friends do, but with Jesus it is a little complicated, because he makes it clear that we respond to him by responding to all others. So, we have to treat everyone as friends: trying to do the best for them, even though we are often confused as to how to go about that, knowing we are never finished with the job of friendship, and often being ignored, harassed, or taken for granted. But all of that is ok, because the rewards of friendship with Jesus are like the rewards of friendship with others, only better, because the work is so much greater and more difficult.   AMEN

Easter II Year B: Troublesome Gods

Acts 4:32-35
I John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Our first two readings today talk about living in peace and harmony – true life centered on God  – instead of the false sense of life that we sometimes think we have when we think the world is centered on us. Just because real life is centered on God, that does not mean that God minutely manages every detail of everything that happens, even though God is in fact in control of everything. God is in control because God is love, and love allows and encourages the integrity and individuality of every part of the universe. We can sometimes think of God as sitting on a throne making decisions that we must follow if we are not to face his wrath, but that is an immature notion. As silly, but telling example of that attitude was shown in an episode of Star Trek – one of the staff members of the garrison on Deep Space Nine was having some personal problems and decided to stay at a Klingon monastery for a while to work through them. Another of the soldiers was surprised to hear that Klingons had any kind of religion, and the reply he got from a Klingon was: “We have a religion, we just don’t have any gods. We used to, but we killed them thousands of years ago because they were so troublesome.”

This may come as a shock to some people, but there really are no Klingons. It will probably come as a bigger shock to more people to know that the true God of the universe is not an arbitrary lawgiver who punishes people for not following his whims. God is love, and so fashions the universe in such a way that all parts of creation find their fulfillment in becoming their own unique self, rather than in bending to our desire to become what we want them to be. That frees us to become who we truly are instead of always worrying about controlling the world and people around us. The will of God is love – it is the way of the universe ( the underlying law of existence), and if we follow it, we thrive; if we fight against it, we are crushed by our own movement against the flow of the cosmos, and we create painful and destructive eddies that bring sorrow to the people around us. It is we, not God, who form the wrath of God. Going forward in peace is love; going backward into ourselves is wrath.

We fight against God and against grace because we are scared when things are out of our control, because we think we know what is best and we think we can make what is best come about. Both of those assumptions are wrong. We don’t know what is best – not because we are stupid, but because we simply don’t have all the information. Only God knows everything, so only God knows what’s best. We can’t make the best come about because we don’t have all the power. Only God is all-powerful, so only God can make the best come about. Our job is to cooperate with grace, not to second-guess it. We can understand this by using our hindsight – remembering times when we desperately wanted something and prayed for it to happen, but it never did. Now we look back at those times and are extremely grateful that what we wanted did not happen, because we realize how much better things turned out instead. God answers all prayers, and sometimes the best answer is “NO.” Actually, the answer is more likely “NO, I have much better in store for you.”

Realizing that God has much better in store for us than we could ever imagine is hard to see when we are in difficult circumstances. The gospel story this morning talks about that. The disciples were in a difficult situation: their master had been executed and they were hiding behind locked doors. But in that situation, Jesus appears to them and brings them peace. He had better things in store than they could ever had imagined. In fact, not only could they not have imagined it, they had trouble convincing others of Jesus’s resurrection. Even one of their own, Thomas, did not believe it.

Thomas’s doubt does not make him a bad person, just a sane one. How could the disciples ever have understood the resurrection without seeing and touching the proof? How can we ever believe God has better thing in store for us when we cooperate with grace and live in love than when we try to wrest control away from God in order to make things and people behave the way we think is best? It is not easy, it is simply necessary. We must allow God to rule, no matter how bothersome it seems sometimes. We must not try to get rid of God and ask for something else that we can more easily manipulate, like the crowd in Jerusalem asking requesting Barabbas, or the Klingons, or every other culture and society that has replaced love with fear and control. God’s ways are usually strange and scary to us, but in the end they bring about far better things than we ever could have imagined. May we rest in the fact that security come only in God. May we cooperate with grace, no matter what form it takes. May we realize that all our prayers are answered, and sometimes the most merciful answer is: “No, I have much better in store for you; you are worthy to receive much better than that; you are worthy to receive better than you could ever imagine.”   AMEN

Lent I Year B: Remember

Genesis 9:8-17
I Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

We have heard a lot this morning about remembering. We began with a story telling how God promised to remember a covenant made with Noah. It seems strange for God to promise to remember something, since God knows everything. It is precisely because God knows everything that he promises to remember, because one of the things God knows is the fact that we need reassurances of God’s love for us. The promise to Noah was that God would never again destroy the world with water. Actually, the story makes it clear that it is not only to Noah, but to every creature that came out of the ark that the promise was made.

In our second reading this morning, Peter mentions Noah, but does not mention the promise to Noah. Instead, he mentions another promise God makes to us involving water. God promises to bring us to himself through Christ, and the reminder of that promise is the water of baptism. Our translation calls it “an appeal to God”, but many translations call baptism “a pledge from God.”

Our gospel story this morning from Mark also talks about baptism – the baptism of Jesus. We might wonder why Jesus was baptized, but we might never know the reason. The important thing is that we can be grateful for what it shows us. Like Noah, Jesus came safely through the water. Like Noah, Jesus had a dove bring him good news. Like Noah, Jesus went through a difficult forty day period. Like Noah, Jesus was given a pledge from God that has been passed down to all who come after him: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” After Jesus heard this good news, he went out into the wilderness, where the scripture says he was tempted by Satan. We sometimes think of Satan as an evil prince dressed in black, plotting against God and causing us to sin. That image may or may not be correct some or all of the time. Actually, the word “satan” is a legal term meaning “accuser” or “one who gives false information.”  Maybe the main way that Satan was tempting Jesus those forty days after his baptism was by trying to get him to doubt what he heard at his baptism: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

We don’t put a lot of emphasis on Satan as a dark prince, and that is probably good, because that was over-emphasized in the past and used too often as an excuse to take the blame of our wrongdoings off of our own shoulders. The fact is, we are usually our own worst satans, casting doubts on our relationship with God – either by telling ourselves we don’t need God, or by telling ourselves that God would not want us. Sometimes it seems we are like Jesus in the wilderness for a long time facing these temptations, hoping and praying that God will give us a sign of his love for us. Yet the whole time, God does give us a sign, or as Peter says, a pledge. Like Jesus, we need only to look back at our baptism to know that God has called us to be his children in whom he is well pleased. As one of the psalms we recite every day at Lauds says: “the Lord takes pleasure in his people.”

God takes pleasure in us as his children, and also as his bride, his friend, and his own body here on earth. God takes so much pleasure in us that God freely chose to become one of us. Whenever we feel lost in the wilderness, falsely accused of uselessness and abandonment by God, we can always remember our baptism and Jesus’s baptism and say: “Yes, I am a child of God. God is please with me. I know it because I was told so at the water.” But we can’t stop there, because baptism also involves promises that we make to God. Sometimes, they are made out loud, sometimes they are implied, sometimes they are made on our behalf, depending on the tradition of the denomination. The promises usually involve forsaking Satan and choosing to follow Jesus as our only Lord, recognizing and working for the dignity of all whom we encounter, and continuing to grow in faith and knowledge by meeting with other baptized people to pray and break bread together. We have the choice of keeping them or breaking them. We also have the choice of merely paying them lipservice, which is the most dangerous choice of all, and is the one we do most often.

However, God is still there, keeping his promise. It may seem that we are the ones asking God to remember his faithfulness and love, but more often it is God pointing to the water saying: “Remember my covenant. You are my child. I take pleasure in you.” God remembers. We forget. We might wander in the wilderness, falsely accusing ourselves and the people around us, but God remembers. God remembers what it was like to be tempted by false accusations, and God remembers his love for us. We are God’s – always accepted and beloved, and pleasurable.   AMEN

Epiphany IV Year B: Puffy Or Firm?

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
I Corinthians 8:1b-13
Mark 1:21-28

What we do matters. It matters to God, it matters to us, and even though we might not know it or like it, it matters to other people, even if they don’t know it or like it. That is what Paul is talking about in our second reading. He knows that following Jesus is not about following rules, but he also knows that not everyone else knows that. He also knows that no matter how mature one becomes in Christ, we are all still human, and we all still have something in our psychology that makes us want rules. It is good that we want rules, because rules help us do good things. The problem comes when we confuse the rules with the good things we are supposed to do. In Christian life, rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is growth in Christ. One way to grow is by lessening the frequency of some actions and attitudes, and increasing the frequency of other actions and attitudes. Maybe the most important way to grow is to always trust God more and more and rely on what we think are our own possessions and abilities less and less.

We are all different, and we all grow in different ways and at different rates. Some people need more discipline to foster growth, some people need less. Neither group is superior or inferior, only different. The trouble comes about when those who need less discipline flaunt their more relaxed lives, and when those who need more discipline try to impose their needs on others. We see this happening in church history, in political life, in families, and in monasteries. It is, of course, perfectly ok for those who need discipline to lovingly exhort others to a more regulated life. It is, of course, perfectly ok for those who need less discipline to not follow those exhortations. What is not good is when more relaxed people become smug and belittle the stricter people to the point that those who need it give up their discipline out of embarrassment or confusion and become stunted in their Christian growth. And even though the more relaxed people might not be doing it on purpose, their more relaxed ways can sometimes cause others to drift away from love of God. That happens because whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not, we are all role models for others, and we model our lives on others.

As our first reading stated, God gives us prophets, and some of our most influential yet hidden prophets are the people we see everyday, either in person or in the newspaper. And we are influential and unknown prophets to others who see us everyday. We need to be careful about whom we emulate, and we need to make sure that we do it willingly and purposefully, not blindly as we usually do. We also need to make sure that we set good examples to those who emulate us (knowingly or unknowingly). We should not be fake about who we are, but we can be discreet about some of our actions and attitudes depending upon our audience. We do not have to act the same way around everyone – that is not hypocrisy, it is loving care for those around us.

Our gospel story mentions people who knew that Jesus had integrity in his actions. He did not flaunt his religious freedom, nor did he rebuke religious people who were truly loving God and their neighbors. He had some very religious habits (he was baptized and went to the synagogue regularly), and he did other things that made religious leaders mad enough to kill him. Yet, it seems that every time someone asked him how to have eternal life, he gave a different answer, tailored to the inquirer’s needs. He told people to follow him, not to do everything exactly as he did. He said to pick up our own cross, not anyone else’s.

So we must not succumb to a superior attitude and think that we need no discipline, nor should we be overly scrupulous and neurotic in our approach to growth in God. We should be careful in the examples we show others, and we should be careful about whose examples we follow. As Paul says in our second reading: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” May we not be bloated know-it-alls. May we instead be loving servants.   AMEN

Shining Star, No Matter Who You Are: Epiphany 2012

Epiphany 2012
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Paul just told us in our second reading that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That is good to hear, but it would also have been good to have heard that the wisdom of God is being made known to the rulers and authorities in earthly places, as well as in heavenly places, because we all have been given at least a little authority over some earthly things, and we sorely need the wisdom of God in order to wisely and justly fulfill our duties as stewards instead of as the capricious tyrants that we usually are. Matthew told us a story this morning about one capricious tyrant who was not pleased to be told of the light shining in the darkness, showing the way to be free of our own tyranny.

We are like Herod in Matthew’s gospel story this morning, because like him, we don’t want to give up the rule of our own petty worlds. But we must, because before we can bring the good news of the light shining in the darkness to others, we ourselves must wake up to that light. We must listen to what Isaiah told us this morning and “arise and shine, for our light has come.” We must “lift up our eyes and look around, see and be radiant, for the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.” We must abdicate our pathetic little thrones and freely allow God to rule our lives so that we can become truly alive and fully human the way we are created to be. Once that happens, we can then be light bearers to others who are in their own dark worlds created either by their own self-centeredness and self-righteousness or by that of others around them. We can be like the wise men, leading others to Jesus by our own search.

Of course, we swing back and forth between the light and the dark; sometimes joyfully letting God reign in our lives, at other times miserably and mistakenly living under the false assumption that we can do a better job and so pushing God off the throne of our hearts. We don’t usually push God away on purpose. Instead, we most often crown God out of our lives by cramming so much of our own self-importance inside us. It might be better to say that instead of chasing God away, we block our view of God, because God is always there, waiting for us to stop dreaming about ourselves so that we can open our eyes and see the real world bathed in the glory of God. When we do that, we also see ourselves bathed in the glory of God as we are meant to be.

That is why we are here today. We are practicing opening our eyes, our hearts, and our lives to God by seeing God in the scriptures, in the bread and wine, and in each other. Once we get used to seeing God in those things, we will start seeing God in all things and treat every person and object with the same respect that we give things to in the church. (The monks will remember that Benedict tell us to do just that.) We know we don’t do it yet, or we don’t do it all the time or consistently yet, so we need to keep practicing opening our eyes to God not only when we gather together, but also in our own daily private prayer, scripture reading, work, and encounters with other people. We will slowly start seeing Jesus more fully in everything the more we train our eyes away from ourselves. We will see his star rising and slowly loosen our grip on our own petty kingdoms so that we become less like Herod and more like the wise men – joyfully and freely bringing him our treasures as he becomes the treasure that we bring to others. AMEN

Proper 28 Year A: Judgement Day

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Our scriptures this morning all touch on the topic of judgement day, or the day of reckoning, or the day of the Lord – whatever we want to call it. The basic idea is that we do things, and those things have consequences, and we will one day meet with those consequences. However, we don’t need to think of that happening in the future, because really, every day is judgement day (and therefore every day is the day of salvation, as well as the day of condemnation).

Everything we do effects everyone in the world, including ourselves. Our reading from Zephaniah talks about the bad effects of bad actions, while our reading from Paul adds mention of the good effects of good actions. Both writers do talk about a coming day of consequences, and how God’s justice and mercy play a roll in judgement day, and I do think they are right – God’s justice will heal all wounds, and God’s mercy will heal all wounds. However, we can cooperate with God’s grace and make the world a better place even before judgement day rolls around. We can do more good things and fewer bad things and so produce more good consequences and fewer bad consequences. We can make every day judgement day as we confess our harmfullness and take the harm back upon us, as well as humbly submitting our good actions to God and enjoying the benefits of those actions along with everyone else.

Every day can be the day of salvation, as well as the day of condemnation. Every day our actions effect everyone. And even though we are effected by the actions of everyone else (good and bad), we can do nothing about the actions of anyone other than ourselves. We can choose to do good rather than selfish actions, and we can choose to follow disciplines to foster those good actions (as well as to help us be more receptive to the grace God is always giving us to help us). We can choose how we react to the actions of others and the consequences they bring upon us, but we can do nothing to change anyone else, and so we can stop wasting time and effort to do so and spend that time and energy working on ourselves, allowing the grace of God to heal us of our selfishness and harmful actions.

As our gospel story tells us, we do not have to think we have a lot of resources to do good things. W e have all been given exactly what we need to do what we need to do to make the world a better place for us and for everyone else. We can’t do it all by ourselves, but working together, we can. That is why it is so important that, no matter if we think we have been given only one talent, or two, or five, we never stop doing good because we think we are unimportant or do not have what it takes to do any good for anyone. Even the smallest helpful actions, if done well and with good intent, produce good consequences, which help others do good actions, which have more good consequences, which help ethers do good actions, which have more good consequences. Like a snowball, it gets bigger and bigger, and yet it starts with our seemingly inconsequential loving action. Of course, the flip side of that is the fact that even our smallest selfish actions grow in effect until more people are harmed that we ever intended. Another word for that is “sin”, the wages of which is death.

It is not easy to be always mindful of what we are doing and why we are doing it, but it is necessary. It takes work to choose the path of helpfulness rather than the initially seemingly easy path of selfishness, but the work pays off, because in the long run, the selfish path brings only heartache, while the helpful path brings joy. So, we must live our lives and do our work with constancy – always doing the helpful thing no matter if it seems we never see the benefits, and no matter how tiring it becomes. The constancy itself will produce joy that helps us further on the path of good actions. And the most important thing to remember is the fact that it is by the grace of God that we choose to do the right thing in the first place. God’s grace is always there for us, but it is up to us to accept it and put it into action. Today is judgement day. Today is the day of condemnation, as well as the day of salvation. Every hour, every moment we have the choice of what to do. Every hour, every moment we can make life better for all, or worse for all. May we choose wisely.   AMEN

Proper 24 Year A: Two Emperors And A Parish Church

Isaiah 45:1-7
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Our scriptures today are about God using what we would consider unlikely agents to do his will: two pagan emperors and a young, struggling church congregation.

The first emperor we read about this morning from the prophet Isaiah is Cyrus the Great – head of the Persian Empire as it conquered many other nations of Asia and the middle east, creating what was one of the largest empires in history. One of the rival empires that Cyrus subdued was Babylon, and because of that, the Jews who were in captivity in Babylon were allowed to go home to Judea and eventually rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. By causing those things, Cyrus was seen as a servant of God, and in our reading this morning is even called the Lord’s anointed one, which in other languages is “messiah” or “christ”. Not only is Cyrus one of the first persons to be given the title of messiah and christ, one of his other titles was “king of kings” or in Persian “shah en shah”. So here we have someone walking around being called king of kings, messiah, and christ, centuries before the one usually associated with these titles, doing things shunned by the one usually associated with these titles. The Iranian tribes whom Cyrus was leading had gone through a religious revolution from the worship of many gods to the worship of one God – Ahura Mazda (Good Lord). Unfortunately, the worship of this good lord preached by Zarathushtra soon devolved into a belief in two opposing gods – a good one and an evil one. Apparently, neither of these two gods were the same one whom we recognize today as the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe. As Isaiah records God saying to Cyrus: “I call you by your name…though you do not know me. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” So here we have Cyrus the Great Shah of Iran, being used to build an empire that will be an instrument for spreading the knowledge of God, all the while never recognizing or realizing the fact.

Then we skip five hundred years to the second emperor we read about this morning in the gospel story – Caesar (probably Tiberius Caesar). The caesars were also given a title normally associated with Jesus, namely that of “savior”. Unlike Cyrus’s titles, this one was not given to the Roman Emperors by scriptural authority, but rather by some of their own people, who sometimes worshiped them as gods. The Roman Empire did do many good things for most of the people it controlled, and some of the emperors were good rulers as well as good people, but many of the emperors took the worship offered to them as savior of the world a little too seriously, and scripture has little good to say about them. In the gospel story today, the question about paying taxes to the empire is answered by Jesus in a saying that is used a lot now as a defense of the separation of church and state: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s”. Some people go further and interpret the saying to mean that if they give the taxman his due and give God Sunday morning, then everything else is all theirs to do with as they wish.

But what we need to remember is that even though it was the emperor’s image stamped on the coin, the truth is that since we are all made in God’s image (including the emperor), it was really God’s image on the coin. So when Jesus told them to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, he was really telling them that everything belongs to God, so everything – even the most crooked governments – belong to God, and so can be used by God to carry out his purposes (so God can use the Caesars just like he used Cyrus). It also means that since we are all made in the image of God – God’s image is stamped on us like the emperor’s image was stamped on the coin – then every part of our lives belongs to God, not just Sunday mornings. Every business deal, every family function, every interaction with other people or with nature: all belong to God, and therefor we should be careful how we treat the people and the world around us. We should treat them as the holy and beautiful things that they are, and we should treat them all, and ourselves, as God’s property.

The third specially chosen agents of God’s will that we heard about today are the Thessalonian Christians – our second reading was part of a letter from Paul addressed to them. It is not as odd to think of a church congregation carrying out God’s work as it is pagan emperors, but this church is not like the ones with which were are familiar now – with money and program committees. The church was new – only a few decades old at the most – not enough time to build up a bank account or an enrollment of rich members, and of course there were no denominational headquarters to give support. Instead, our reading mentions that they had only recently given up idolatry to become Christians, and they might have been the only church for miles around. If one reads the rest of the letter of Paul to them, as well as the other letter that follows, one hears about their struggles. They were being persecuted, although the letters do not say by whom. But even in the midst of persecution, their faith and joy was an example to others in the region, who were strengthened by the example. In almost every way, this young endangered church had less means to be an agent of God’s will than either Cyrus or Caesar, but the one thing they had was willingness, which is more valuable than the armies of Rome and Persia put together. The Thessalonian church wanted to do God’s will, and so was given the joy of doing it, while the emperors wanted to impose their wills on the world around them, and so were never really satisfied with what they accomplished.

So we don’t ever need to worry about being either unworthy or too weak to do God’s work – we just need to be willing. If we think we are unworthy, remember that if God can use emperors bent on having their way, then God can use us. If we think we are too weak, then remember that if God can use the young, inexperienced, endangered Thessalonian church, then God can use us. We must also be careful to never become proud or smug about being instruments of God’s will; we need to remember all the times throughout history when Christians have spread their own fear and hatred, rather than spreading God’s love and peace. Whenever that happens, God can raise up pagans to do his work, and will eventually even turn the hatred of us so-called Christians into something that can be used for good. We don’t always see how God does these things, but we don’t need to worry about it – God’s love will prevail, no matter how bad we mess things up. Saving the world is God’s job. All we need to do is be willing instruments and agents of God. It doesn’t matter how high or low is or rank, income, or education, or whether we are emperors or slaves – we all have the same status in the kingdom of God. We are Children of God and heirs to the throne of the only empire that will last. May we willingly spread the love, joy, and peace that are the foundations of that empire, and may we give all others and ourselves the respect that our common dignity as heirs to the throne deserves.   AMEN