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

Proper 20 Year A: Paycheck

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Jonah and Paul and the laborers we all heard about in our readings this morning all have work to do, but only Paul has the right attitude about it. In the first reading, Jonah is mad not only because he lost the shade bush he thinks he deserves from all his hard work, but also because his work helped bring about the salvation of Nineveh, and Jonah does not want Nineveh to be saved, because he thinks they don’t deserve it. The laborers in the gospel story are mad because others were paid as much as them, and the disgruntled laborers don’t think the others deserve it. In other words, Jonah and the laborers think they have earned good things because of their good actions, and the others have earned bad things because of their bad actions. They don’t care that the reason Nineveh has been wicked is because no one told them their deeds were bad until Jonah showed up; or that the other laborers have not worked as long because no one hired them until late in the day. All they want is to have their goodness affirmed and their backs patted while watching others suffer.

Paul takes a different attitude in our middle reading. He knows that if anyone deserves punishment, it is himself. He persecuted others whom he thought deserved punishment; he was like Jonah and the disgruntled laborers in that way. But Paul knows what it’s like to be confronted by one’s own evil deeds. He knows what it is like to be thankful for the chance to change and do good instead. Like the citizens of Nineveh, he was full of wickedness but did not know it until he was told about it, and like the idle laborers, he was hired late in life after spending too much time doing nothing of use. Like Jonah and the disgruntled laborers, he also knows he has rewards waiting for him for all the good he has done since his conversion, but he also knows the importance of continuing his work, rather than resting on his laurels. Unlike Jonah and the disgruntled laborers, he is glad to see others getting the same rewards he is to receive. He wants to give others a chance to change, just like Jesus gave to him, because he understands that his own life is only one thread in the story of God’s love and grace. Jonah and the laborers were thinking only of their own little piece of the pie – wanting their reward from God and content to let others go to hell. What they didn’t realize is that the greatest reward is the opportunity to help others escape their own pride and anger so that they can also find true joy in God.

Of course, we are a lot like Jonah and the disgruntled workers, and we need to be more like Paul. We tend to take a superior attitude toward those whom we think are not as deserving of God’s mercy as we are. Sometimes we play the part of the beleaguered missionary to what we consider the heathen world around us (that is to say; anyone with different opinions or habits than ourselves), and we do it with a superior attitude, when we should instead simply live our lives humbly abiding in God’s mercy, bringing God’s love, peace, and joy to our small part of the world with no self interested motives or expectation of reward or acknowledgment.

And of course, we are a lot like the citizens of Nineveh before their conversion and the idle laborers before they were finally hired and Paul before his conversion. We do not deserve salvation; neither did Nineveh, but God chose to save them anyway. We do not deserve the same reward as those who have done good deeds all their lives; neither did the idle laborers, but the owner chose to give them the full pay anyway. Like Paul, Jesus comes to us to turn us away from our chosen road to the hell we have made for ourselves, rather than to push us further down that road. We don’t get what we have been trying to earn all our lives of pettiness and greed, and we should be grateful for that. Instead, we get what God wants to give us, and God gives us nothing less than God’s own self. That self is complete love, forgiveness, and acceptance. We have no excuse to be upset when anyone else receives the same gift. Instead, we have every reason to be thankful and joyful that God does not give people what they deserve. We work to earn hell, and yet we are offered heaven. All we have to do is accept it.

The choice of accepting heaven or making our own hell comes to us everyday and every moment. Jesus is always trying to get our attention as we travel to Damascus to persecute others. Shade bushes will come and go, but Nineveh will always be full of people desperate to hear of God’s love and mercy. We will be smug in our own self-righteousness, and then be surprised on payday when others get the same amount of love that we do. May we be thankful for the shade when it comes, and let it go when it leaves. May we be thankful for the gift of heaven and leave behind the earned income of hell. May we walk the road to heaven with Jesus, along with all the citizens of Nineveh, and be grateful for their company.   AMEN

Proper 16 Year A: Words And Actions

Isaiah 51:1-6
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Many people have said many things about Jesus, and usually what is said is true: reformer, critic of the status quo, revolutionary, philosopher, kind man, good example, devout and pious prophet. Jesus is all those things (and many more), but the more we get to know him, the harder he is to describe. Maybe the reason for that is because the reality of who Jesus is is so different from our normal experience of others that we just don’t have the words, concepts, or ideas to describe who he really is. In our gospel story this morning, Peter makes an attempt to define Jesus, and he could so only in thoughts with which he was familiar. A “messiah” or “christ” or “anointed one” would have been familiar to Peter as someone who was chosen by God for a special task or kinglike position. “Son of God” would have been a slightly more bizarre concept, but there are hints of the term in the Psalms as someone (once again a royal person) who will carry out justice in God’s name.

We are still trying to say who Jesus is. Maybe one way to express the reality of Jesus is to say that he is the bringer of God’s own life to us – real life – and that all the prophets and teachers in the world can tell us what they think about God, but only in Jesus do we actually experience God. Jesus is God as a human. That description might make some people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, almost every attempt at defining the ultimate reality of Jesus throughout history has made someone uncomfortable, and that leads to refutations and anathemas and councils and more anathemas and sometimes executions and wars. Maybe we should just stop putting so much effort into talking about Jesus, and start living in Jesus, as Paul urges us in our second reading this morning. Theology and Christology are not bad, they can be helpful and good, but they are not the complete story.

Isaiah reminds us in our first reading this morning that God is the one who brings things to fruition, and God is the only stability in the universe. Its all about God. Maybe we can define Jesus only by living in such a way that we show our complete dependance on him rather than on ourselves as the source and sustainer of our lives. Jesus makes it clear in his response to Peter that Jesus builds his church – it is not our construct. Only the church that Jesus builds will stand against the gates of hell. Any facsimile that we try to produce will crumble in that situation. Our desires and wills must be transformed into the desire and will of Jesus in order for us to carry out his work of bringing God’s own life into the world around us. Any time we try to follow our own desire the result is only wheel-spinning.

But maybe we are back now to the beginning of the sermon; in order to know the will and desire of Jesus, we must know who Jesus is. Fortunately, we have the scriptures left to us from the people who saw him closest – we can read and ponder them and compare our findings with others. We also have God’s Holy Spirit in each of us – the Holy Spirit will pray through us and show us more about Jesus if we only give the Spirit room in our lives. We have others in the church around us whom we can observe from their attempts to live in the will of Jesus. We also have the table up here where we gather to be fed by Jesus from his own self. All of these things will teach us more about Jesus and transform our own lives into his, but we must take advantage of the opportunities we have been given – it is our choice. If we do so, then slowly but surely we will know more of and more about Jesus. We may never be able to put what we know into words, but maybe we can put it into actions, and that is what really matters. We don’t have to give up the attempt to theologize (our words can be of great help to others trying to know Jesus), but we do need to make sure that our actions reflect our words. They won’t always, but with God’s help, they will slowly start to match up more and more.
Who do we say that Jesus is? Will we ever fully know, and can we ever fully know? All we can do is our humble best, and allow others to do the same. No one will be completely correct, and we can all learn from each other.   AMEN

Supermodel: St. Mary The Virgin 2011

Isaiah 61:10-11

Mary is a model for all of us who want to bring Jesus into our world, because that is what she is most famous for. When the angel let her know it was going to happen, Mary questioned it because she was not a stupid girl. She knew where babies come from, and she knew she had not done what it takes to make a baby. The angel told her not to worry about that – God would take care of it. So, Mary said ok – Be it into me.

So it is with us. We can have a million reasons or excuses why we can not bring Jesus into our world, and none of those reasons or excuses are too big or complex for God to handle. All we have to do is say ok – Be it unto me. Mary’s story does not stop there – she was not a stupid girl. We get hints that she had family support (her fiance‚ does not dump her, and she visits her cousin), so she probably had the usual prenatal care for the time and place, nurturing the child inside of her.

So it is with us. Once we take Jesus inside of us, we need to nurture him. That is where disciplines (or if we would rather call it “discipleship”) come into play. We need to feed ourselves well so that Jesus can grow in us by prayer, scripture reading, and other classic Christian disciplines. We won’t lose Jesus if we don’t do those things, but we won’t be able to bring him forth into our world unless we do those things.

Eventually, Mary finally gave birth. It was not in a fancy or important place, and it was not among fancy or important people. So it is with us. We can bring Jesus only into the world that we know, not the world we do not know. Our families, schools, businesses, neighborhoods, parishes, and monasteries are where we bring Jesus forth. We do not need to save the whole world, but we do need to let Jesus into our part of the world to save it.

Mary was not a stupid girl, and she was not a stupid woman. She let Jesus grow and when the time came, she let Jesus go. The only story we have of the two of them as adults before his crucifixion is the story of the wedding at Cana. There was a problem, and she let him know, but she did not tell him what to do.

So it is with us. Once we let Jesus into our world, we need to not tell him what to do. We need to let him know the problems, but he is much better at solutions than we could ever be.

Mary – the supermodel for us all. May we be like her – let Jesus into us, nurture Jesus in us, let Jesus out of us, and then let Jesus go to do what he needs to do.   AMEN