Easter VII Year A: Staring Into The Sky

Acts 1:6-14
I Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11
John 17:1-11

One of the few things that Jesus told us to not do is to try to figure out when he was coming back. And so, one of the things that Christians have done most (at least in America back in the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st), is to try to figure out when he was coming back. It is a waste of time, and has always ended in embarrassment or worse.

One of the things that Jesus does want us to do is to be one as he and the Father are one. And so, one of the things that Christians have done most is to split apart from each other (at least organizationally). What is wrong with us?

Well, maybe we are not all that bad. There have been some notable mergings of Christian denominations in the past century: Evangelical Lutheran Church In America, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Church of South India, and the closer ties between the Episcopal Church and the ELCA. Nonvisible, unofficial church unity is not doing too bad in some spots: the guest ministry, Confraternity, and Oblate program here at St. Gregory’s are examples of that, as are the many “emerging church” activities around the world. But even with all that, those denominations just mentioned are constantly having members leave to form new churches in reaction to things going on in those denominations.

It is usually the case that denominations that tend toward openness to other denominations are much less prone to spend a lot of time trying to figure out when Jesus is coming back. Some might say that is because those denominations are wishy-washy in their beliefs about Jesus. I do not think that is the case. I think that more likely, it is because they are actually doing what the disciples did after Jesus physically left them: praying and waiting for power from the Holy Spirit.

Maybe we wait too much, or are timid to use the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit that has already been given us. We can use it for so many things other than figuring out when Jesus will come back – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead. We can all do it together, and when we do, we are united in a far deeper way than denominational record books can show.

All we have to do is stop staring into the sky, go home and pray, and then act in the power we have been given. We are one because Jesus is one.   AMEN

Easter III Year A: Two (Or More) Sides To Every Story

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
I Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

One of the interesting things about testimonies at court trials is the fact that even when people are telling the truth, almost every witness has a slightly different version of the events under investigation. That doesn’t mean that one person is right and all others are wrong; it means that all the witnesses are human and therefore have grasped only part of the truth about the situation. The gospel story today is an example of this: the two Emmaus-bound travelers tell their version of the story, and then Jesus tells his. The two travelers had the facts down fairly well; Jesus supplied them with the meaning and reasons behind the facts.

We are like the travelers – we can report what we perceive to be facts about the world, but without Jesus, the facts don’t always make sense. Sometimes we don’t even get the facts right, because our perception is skewed by our psychological makeup, physical condition, personal history, and cultural bias. Then we take what we perceive to be that empirical evidence of the world around us and try to make sense of it all, but then again our ability to construct a world out of those facts is tempered by those same conditions just mentioned. That is why we must see the world through the lens of Jesus, and also that is why Jesus must be the basis of our world. Only through and with and in Jesus can we hope to experience reality. Of course, sometimes, even with Jesus as the basis of and operating system of our lives, the world around us doesn’t make much sense. That is ok – things might make sense to us in the future, or they might not, but at least with Jesus we are grounded in reality and we can be at peace with our confusion, because we know that things don’t depend on us; they depend on God.

So we need to always have Jesus as our lens through which we perceive the world, and we must have Jesus as the logic by which we understand the world. But even our understanding of Jesus is affected by our personal and cultural history. That is why it is so important to always grow in our knowledge of Jesus –not just knowledge about Jesus (although that is helpful), but even more importantly in our personal relationship with the living Jesus who is not only Lord and Master of the Universe, but is also a frail human being just like us. We can grow our friendship with Jesus by hanging around him through prayer, scripture reading, serving him by serving others, and letting him serve us through others. Of course, our personal relationship with Jesus must always be measured against the community’s relationship with him to make sure we are not falling into a fantasy relationship with a fantasy lord.

That is why one of the most important ways of getting to know Jesus is mentioned in the gospel story this morning, and that is why it is the very thing we are preparing to do here and now – breaking bread together with Jesus and each other. It is an act which is both communal and individual. We as individuals gather together, we pray together and individually, we receive the meal as a group and consume it into our individual bodies. We come to the altar as a group and receive Jesus as our personal savior without the need to doubt our acceptance of him or his acceptance of us, because we hold the evidence and guarantee of it in our hands as bread and cup. That might not make sense to us, but it does not have to, because it doesn’t depend on us; it depends on God.

The world is a strange place, full of frightening events and dubious futures, just like it was to those travelers in the gospel story. But by walking with Jesus and letting him feed us, we can know that all will be well. That doesn’t change the facts of the world around us, but it will help us to perceive them more accurately and to understand the reason behind them. Of course, knowing the facts and understanding the reason behind them does not always make them less frightening, but the more we know Jesus, the more we realize that he goes through the frightening situations with us and is able to heal them and give them meaning if we allow him to. The road to Emmaus is a long one for some of us, but Jesus is on the same road, just waiting for us to ask directions. The first steps are the ones to this altar. Let us break bread together with Jesus and each other, so that our eyes may be opened, and let us not stop at this first step, but rather make it only one of many as our lives progress toward our final destination in God. AMEN

Lent III Year A: Water From The Rock

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-26,39-42

Here we have yet another story about Jesus breaking foolish taboos and customs by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Of course, not all customs are foolish. Rules help us live together. But there are some customs and rules that should be broken, and they should be broken in the name of love – customs such as racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, religious intolerance, homophobia, and xenophobia. Many of those things are often woven into the fabric of societies and are blindly followed by even the most loving, best-intentioned members of the society. We all have our bigotries and prejudices, and we always will – it is not good, but it is true. The mark of a mature person is one who knows her or his own bigotry and yet lives beyond it, breaking free from the harmful rules. For instance, getting a drink of water is more important than dying of thirst because of our need to cling to old opinions and beliefs. We all know that, but it takes this story from the gospel to remind us of the fact.

If we really mean it when we say that Jesus is fully human, then we should be open to the fact that he carried around emotional baggage from his own culture. Any thing other than that would be less than human. But we must also realize from the gospel stories that he viewed and treated people as the holy beings that he knew them to be, regardless of what the social and religious customs dictated. Any thing other than that would be less than human, also. He had his culturally inbred prejudices, just like all of us, but he did not let them get in the way of love and compassion, just like all of us are trying to do (and will one day accomplish). He did not need the woman at the well to inform him that she was a Samaritan and therefore he ought not to be asking her to share anything. He knew it, but he also knew that getting a drink of water, as well as offering the living water of the Holy Spirit to her, was more important than caving in to any social pressure he was feeling. And in the act of sharing both types of water, the cultural prejudices of both Jesus and the woman lost some of the control over their lives.

Even while they were sharing water they had a religious and cultural argument. The same thing might happen to us as we share with people different from us, It does not matter if we consider ourselves to be liberal or conservative, open-minded or firmly-anchored, on the left or on the right. All parties have legitimate questions, and all parties might never come to an agreement, but we can still share the water of life and love that we all need in order to live. We should always ask ourselves if protecting our opinions and beliefs is worth dying of thirst or letting others die. The water is the important thing – our opinions and perceptions of it are secondary.

We live in a desperately thirsty world. Withholding life and love for any reason is wrong. God freely offers us the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit, so that we can in turn offer it to others. This living water has many names and forms, but they are all simply aspects of God’s love and life, from which our love and life spring. Living water is evident in every simple act of kindness, in every word of praise, in every refusal to spread gossip, in every negation of self-indulgence at the expense of others, and in every tear of sorrow and joy. The living water of God’s love and life is shared every time we are joyful at another’s good fortune, as opposed to being jealous. It is shared every time we risk our social standing by defending a less popular person’s rights. It is shared every time we admit to others and to ourselves that we might be wrong about something, or that other opinions might be just as valid as ours, as opposed to desperately clinging to our political, religious, or academic beliefs and loyalties. The living water of love can dwell in us only when our over-inflated and fearful egos are brought under control and denied their desperate attempts to control everything so that they can nestle in their beds of false security. We must be empty enough to let the water in, but strong enough to ask for it and accept it out of love, rather than out of fear.

Having the living water of love in us is no good unless we also let it out. Giving it away is the only way we can receive it. We become channels of love; receiving it from God and giving it to others. But Jesus tells us in this story that we shouldn’t stop at being merely channels. We are to become sources of love and life ourselves – “springs of water gushing up to eternal life,” We are to fulfill our destiny as God’s children, and add our own infinite spring of love to God’s. If we are all honest, none of us could say that we are completely fulfilling that destiny right here and now, We are God’s children, but we are children nonetheless. We all have a lot of growing to do. Sometimes, we throw tantrums and refuse to accept the water of life offered to us by God and the other people around us. Sometimes, we are fearful or greedy and won’t give any of our love and life away. But there are those times when we do open ourselves enough to let God’s Holy Spirit flow through us, and we all know how good and right that feels, because it is in fact our true mode of life. Unfortunately, after that happens, we tend to once again shrink back in fear and close up. Doing that doesn’t mean we are evil. It means that we are human and we just forget how truly holy we are. We simply need to grow. Every time we open up and let the water flow, we grow a little more. What we need to do is keep reminding ourselves of our need for growth.

There are many ways we can use to remind ourselves to grow: prayer, scripture study, service to others, and giving money and time to good causes are all things that can bring us into a state of mindfulness. All of these are good disciplines on the road to maturity. They might seem difficult and inconvenient at times, but those are the times when growth has its biggest potential.

We can choose to dry up and shrink away, rather than overcome our fears and prejudices in order to accept the water of love from a dubious source, and we can choose to let others go thirsty because we are uncomfortable with their opinions and beliefs, rather than simply offering them water and a place to sit in the shade. Or we can remember that the important thing is the water. Our opinions of it and the person offering it are secondary and changing. There is a story from the Egyptian desert monks about a young monk walking with his elder by the seashore. The younger monk is thirsty, so the older monk prays over the sea water and it becomes fresh. After the monks have drunk their fill, the younger one begins to fill his water bottle. The older monk asks why he is doing that, and the younger monk explains that they will likely be thirsty again before their journey is over. The older monk tells him that is not necessary, as he says: “God is here, God is everywhere.”

God is here, God is everywhere. Just take the water as it is given to us. If we are worried about impurities, at least take the water and leave the impurities behind. The very fact that the water is offered to us in love makes it holy. And lest we start feeling all magnanimous and benevolent because of our acceptance of gifts from those deemed less acceptable, we need to remember that it just might be that in the eyes of the person offering it to us, we are the unclean Samaritans.

Getting a drink of water – sharing life and love, growing into our full potential as children of God and helping others grow – is much more important than our perceptions and opinions about the water. God is here, God is everywhere. May we share our love and life freely, and may we freely accept it from all of God’s children.    AMEN

Epiphany V Year A: Particle Or Wave?

Isaiah 58:1-12
I Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

Our gospel reading this morning is kind of a pep talk from Jesus; he wants his hearers to make the world a better place for other people. But then he turns the pep talk into a warning; if we don’t keep rules and laws even better than religious freaks do, then we won’t go to heaven. Maybe the pep talk and the warning are really the same thing – maybe we make the world a better place by keeping laws and rules, and maybe entering heaven is another way of saying “make the world a better place”.

Saying all that does not contradict the truth that we are saved by the grace of God. – we exist by the grace of God. But God is gracious and has given all of us free will and allows us to choose whether or not we will either join God in making heaven, or obsess on ourselves and make hell. We all know that we choose a little bit of both everyday (that is why the grace of God is so necessary to free us from those hell-bound choices). We also now that almost always, those choices are about tiny things: using or not using turn signals and letting or not letting people in our lane on the highway, cleaning up or not cleaning up our messes, repeating or not repeating gossip. We have the choice to turn all those situations into tiny bricks to build either heaven or hell. Maybe that is why Jesus says we are salt, because salt is usually not even noticed until it is missing, and you don’t need a lot to bring out the flavor of everything else in the recipe. But then again, sometimes those seemingly small choices have consequences that are bigger than we will ever know. Maybe that is why Jesus also says we are light, because we never know when our good actions will enlighten the path and show others the way to heaven, or our bad actions will darken our world and cause others to stumble into hell.

Our actions are important, because even though we exist only by the grace of God, God does not put us in a universe populated solely by God and ourselves. We have to live amongst other things and people, and the way we live has consequences for ourselves and those other things and people. If we act in a selfish way (in other words, if we sin), then everyone including us is hurt. Only the grace of God can undo that sin and hurt, and the grace of God does undo that sin and hurt, but if we would only listen to and obey Jesus and choose actions that do not cause the hurt (in other words, refrain from sinning), there would be less hurt in the world, and who would not want that? We do all try to live in a less sinful way, but we all know we fail a lot of the time. Even though the grace of God is growing us into less sinful people, none of us in this room are there yet. So we need to spend a lot of time and effort training ourselves to be obedient to Jesus and sin less. We need to spend a lot of time with Jesus in the scriptures, at the communion table, in prayer, and in communion with each other so that we do grow into full maturity as images of Jesus. But until we get to that full maturity, we need to work hard to ensure that our choices are ones that build up heaven around us, and spread the light of Jesus to our world, and spread the salt of goodness around us.

The prophet Isaiah whom we heard this morning is telling his listeners that they need to change their actions from sinful ones to righteous ones. Part of the sinful actions he describes are religious observances that don’t do anything to help the practitioners or the people around them. Some readers have taken those and similar descriptions as a decree that all religious observances are fake and the people who practice them are fakers, but that conclusion is not correct. Religious observances can be a very helpful part of one’s growth into the salvation that God’s grace has provided for us, but we do need to be mindful of the reason we do them: their purpose is to glorify God, not ourselves. The more we do things that glorify God, the less we are apt to do harmful actions. The more we do things to glorify ourselves, the more apt we are to do harmful actions.

And so we get back to the warning form Jesus in our gospel story: if we aren’t more righteous than religious freaks, then we don’t go to heaven. If our actions glorify ourselves, that means we are hiding the light of Jesus and souring everything and building hell for ourselves. If our actions glorify God, then the light of Jesus can shine through us, and the things we touch will have a good flavor, and we are making our small part of the world into heaven. Fostering growth by turning attention away from ourselves and toward God might not make sense in our consumer society that advocates self-fulfillment through material gain, but that might be just what Paul is talking about in our second reading when he mentions the wisdom of God and how much it differs from our conventional wisdom. It is not all about us, and as soon as we start living in that truth, life really becomes much better for us and for those around us. We won’t succeed living that way all the time, but we have tools to help us get better at it, and the grace of God will bring us to heaven eventually. We don’t have to understand it all, we just need to try to trust.   AMEN

Christmas II Year A: Happy Jeremiad

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

The first reading that we heard  this morning proves that Jeremiah has an undeserved reputation as a prophet of doom and gloom. There is even a type of literature named after him — a jeremiad — that is given to writings that emphasize the wrongs in society and forecast doom. But the passage we heard is anything but frightening; it is an announcement of good news and an assurance that even though bad things were happening, God was going to use those events for good. Jeremiah was not a prophet of doom and gloom, he was just honest about what was really going on around him. Jeremiah was just telling the truth, and it is to our advantage to listen to him, just as it would have been to the advantage of his listeners at the time.

We really can’t blame his audience for branding him as a man of woe and putting him into prison. We don’t like to listen to the truth of how hard life is, just as they didn’t. Their country was falling apart and being invaded by foreign powers. The popular prophets of the time were the ones who were pronouncing victory for Judah and defeat for everyone else. They were popular, but they were wrong. Jeremiah knew that Judah was no match for the empires competing for their land, and he knew that part of the reason for that was the fault of the people of Judah. They had turned away from trusting in God to trusting in the false gods of wealth, politics, and military might. They were soon to be conquered and sent into exile, but God was going to use that tragedy to make them stronger in the end. That horrible experience as a conquered and exiled nation turned them away from the misunderstanding that their status as God’s chosen people meant that they were God’s favorite people, and taught them the truth that God had chosen them not to be superior to everyone else, but instead had chosen them to bring the good news to the surrounding nations that all people are God’s favorites as his adopted children. If the tragedy of defeat and exile had not happened, the true understanding of their mission would not have occurred, and the entire world would be a worse place.

There is some argument as to whether or not God allows or even makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons or to test our faith and make us stronger. I sure don’t know about that. What does seem more certain is that God uses the bad things that occur to our eventual advantage, even though sometimes we are so involved in the tragedy that we can’t see that fact. Knowing that God uses everything, even the pain and grief in life, for our good does not make the pain and grief go away, or dismiss it as a passing phase or as an illusion. Bad things really do happen, and evil really does exist, unless you are a philosopher and want to argue about what the word “exist” means. We know that bad things happen to all, because bad things even happened to Jesus — God in our midst. The gospel story this morning tells about the time he was left by his family in Jerusalem as they traveled back home from a festival. To a twelve year old boy, being lost and abandoned in the city is a truly frightening thing, even though it was an accident, and even though he put up a brave front to his parents when they found him. That wasn’t the only bad thing that happened to Jesus, as we know from his later years; he was betrayed by friends, tortured, and executed. Just because those things happened to God in the flesh does not make them any less real or bad, in fact, it would seem to make them more real and painful, because God is the most real thing in the universe —everything else exists through God’s existence.

None of those painful things that happened to Jesus were good, but they were all necessary for his life and for ours. God turned them into a resurrection that gives hope and meaning for our lives. We can be assured that God knows our pain and grief, and suffers along with us, since Jesus was not spared any of it. We can also be assured that God will use those tragedies to help us in ways we could never imagine, such as resurrection. We tend to think of the birth of a baby this time of year, but we need to remember that the birth was only the beginning of a process of resurrection. That resurrection is the goal of all of us, and there will be pain and grief on the road there, but God has gone before us, in order to be with us on the way. We don’t need to either pretend that the road is not difficult, or that it is impossible to travel. We need to be like Jeremiah, acknowledging the trouble ahead, while also announcing that God will bring us through it better than we were before.

We are all chosen by God, just like Judah in Jeremiah’s day. But that adoption as God’s children does not mean that we are better than anyone else, it means that we are chosen to bring God’s message of love and forgiveness to all of God’s other children. Our second scripture reading from the letter to the Ephesians mentions a few things that are our destiny as children of God: wisdom, enlightenment, hope, and glory. Those things grow in us even as we go through the pain and grief of life. No one will be spared difficulties, but it is up to us to choose how we will react to them: either allowing them to make us bitter and closing ourselves off from God and our neighbors, or offering them to God to use as tools to change us into more open and loving people. It is not easy to choose the path of resurrection, but it is certainly better than choosing the path of ultimate death. May we follow the baby whose birth and growth we have been celebrating these last few weeks, and who has opened the path of glory for us. May we not pretend that all will be well on the way, but may we also never forget that all will be well in the end. Our God has gone before us and is with us on the way. AMEN

Advent IV Year A: Are We There Yet?

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The scriptures we just heard from Isaiah and Matthew are about waiting for a baby to be born, so that makes them perfect for today’s reading. It has always been hard to wait for Jesus to be born and Christmas to arrive. It was hard as a kid, because we wanted to be out of school and at our grandparents house so we could open our gifts. It is hard as a monk because we want all the extra work to be over so we can go to bed.

But Christmas takes time to get here because babies take time to be born. Life takes time – an entire lifetime. And we don’t know how things will turn out, either for babies being born or for our own life. We just have to wait, and unless we want the waiting to be torture, we have to trust – as Isaiah tells Ahaz and the angel tells Joseph. Everything is in God’s hands, so even though we might not like some of the short-term things that happen, we can be sure that in the big picture, everything will be ok. No need to worry about anything, ever.

Jesus will come – again and again, to ourselves and everyone else – and Christmas will break into our worlds, ready or not. And like the presents under the tree, sometimes we are in for big surprises when Jesus comes to us. Surprises are always full of tension and can make us happy as well as fearful. We never know what kind of surprise it will be when Jesus breaks into our lives, but since it comes from the all-good giver of gifts, we can always be thankful and know that in the long run, each surprise is in our best interest – so no need to worry about anything, ever. We just have to wait, trust, and work.   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