Jesus loved him: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year B, 2018

I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot recently. It’s stewardship season at Grace, so there’s that of course, and we focused on stewardship and gratitude at recent diocesan clergy and leadership days last month. But it’s more than that. As we see growth in our congregation and new efforts to reach out into our community and to develop deeper relationships among our community and most importantly with Jesus Christ, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the people here and our shared ministry and mission. I’m grateful to have been called to this congregation nine years ago; I’m grateful for our amazing staff and committed lay leadership, I’m grateful for the challenges presented us by an uncertain future in a changing world… Well, I could go on and on but I hope you see my point.

We have begun our stewardship campaign for 2019. We are in a strong and exciting place in our common life and our community and I pray that together we will develop the resources that will make possible new ministries and programs, and strengthen our current offerings and deepen relationships among us.

To mention stewardship on the Sunday when we hear this gospel reading is perhaps ironic, if not exactly offensive. This story is challenging on so many levels but it confronts with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our financial assets, and the connection between our relationship with Jesus, discipleship, if you will, and money. And those challenges are also present when we think about how we will support Grace’s ministry and mission in the coming year.

Today’s gospel confronts us with two questions. The first question is asked by a rich man: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ disciples ask the second question after hearing Jesus’ words: “Then who can be saved?”

Committed Christians reside in the interstices between these two questions, seeking salvation but profoundly challenged by Jesus’ words. Because Jesus’ words are so unsettling, because they amaze us, even as they amazed Jesus’ disciples, as Mark reports. Over the centuries Christians have done any number of things to soften the edge of his words: “It is easier for a camel to go pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those words are so difficult for us to hear, because, like the disciples, we wonder. These are hard words that Jesus says, words that put is in a hard place. If it is the case, if it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, then salvation is impossible. So we try to weasel out of the hardness of the place. We tell ourselves, we aren’t rich, not like the really rich, not like Bill Gates. So Jesus wasn’t talking to us.

Then we look for another escape route. There’s always the possibility that Jesus didn’t mean what he said or didn’t say what Mark has him say. Or my favorite interpretation, that there was a gate in Jerusalem, called the “eye of the needle” through which a camel could squeeze with difficulty. In other words, these difficult words aren’t meant for us, we’re middle class, not wealthy; and camels can get through the eye of the needle after all. So let’s all breathe a sigh of relief and go about our business.

It’s important to remember that the man did not come to Jesus in search of financial advice, or in response to Jesus hitting him up for a donation. He has come for help. He approaches Jesus because he wants to know how to attain eternal life, how to enter the kingdom of God, of which Jesus preaches. He addresses Jesus with humility, bowing down before him, calling him “Good teacher.”

Jesus’ response is challenging—not simply because he challenges the rich man, but because he challenges us as well. His response to the man is to remind him of his obligations under Jewish law. In a nutshell, Jesus is saying, keep the commandments. The man asserts that he maintains his obligations to the Jewish law.

From a traditional, twenty-first century Christian perspective, the whole of this interchange between Jesus and the man is jarring. Things don’t seem to make sense. Jesus’ response to the man ought to be, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior;” or “have faith in me,” or even “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Instead Jesus tells him, keep the law. Furthermore, when the man insists that he does keep the commandments, that, in essence, he is a good Jew, Jesus doesn’t respond with words to the effect that keeping the law is impossible, righteousness under the law doesn’t work. Instead, he gives him another command: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” Doing that will give the man treasures in heaven, it will bring him into the kingdom of God.

But of course, the man finds those commands much harder to follow than the 10 commandments. Now we learn something new about him. Mark tells us for the first time, that he has great possessions and he can’t give them up. So he leaves Jesus. His desire to share in the kingdom of God, his desire to walk with Jesus, to be a disciple was not as intense as his desire to continue living the life he had, to enjoy his possessions.

There’s another detail in the story that is very important. After Mark reports the man’s response to Jesus’initial statement, Mark tells us that “Jesus loved him.” At first hearing, we may find such a statement completely unremarkable, but in fact, it is almost unique. Only one other time in the gospel of Mark does the writer use the word “love”—that is when Jesus recites the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. In other words, Mark never says elsewhere in the gospel, that Jesus loves someone.

Jesus loved him. So his challenge to the man “to go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me” is not a condition of Jesus’ relationship to the man, but a response to the possibility of such relationship. Jesus loved him, and because he loved him, he told him to sell all that he had and to follow him.

These simple words challenge us, and challenge every interpretation of this encounter that we might have. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t simply tell the man, follow me. No, he adds conditions. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ calling of the disciples, Jesus words are simply, follow me. But here, Jesus adds conditions, demands. Go, sell, give, come and follow me. For this man, it seems, it’s not enough to follow Jesus, he must also turn his back on all that he has, publicly renounce it.

But then, even though he turns away from Jesus, we are told that Jesus loves him. Does it mean simply that Jesus feels sorry for him, that he has compassion on him? But no, it isn’t because the man turned away in shock after Jesus’ words. Jesus loved him and then said to him, Go, sell what you own.” Jesus commands were in response to his love of the man.

The man stood on the edge of a great opportunity. Having asked Jesus a question of eternal significance, he received an answer of equal significance. But it wasn’t simply a matter of the man’s eternal fate. It was also about a relationship. To give up his possessions would have meant to accept, in radical and complete openness, the love of Jesus Christ.

Like the man, we kneel before Jesus, full of questions and uncertainty. We are drawn to him, to his words of love and hope, to the possibilities of forgiveness and healing, in gratitude for all we have received from God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps the little exercise at the beginning of the sermon opened your hearts in a new way to how you experience Christ’s love at Grace Church and through Grace Church.

May we in these weeks and months filled with planning for the next year, may we hold in our hearts and minds the awareness of Jesus’ love for us, that we are called to follow him, and to share that love with others. May our giving and commitment to Grace reflect that love and mission.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Creation, Relationship, Blessing: A sermon for Proper 22,Year B, 2018

Today is our Annual Blessing of the Animals. We do this on a Sunday close to October 4, which is the Feast of St. Francis, the anniversary of his death in 1226. Francis is of course among the most beloved and popular saints in the Christian tradition, as popular today as he was in his own lifetime. He is famous for his life of poverty, his simplicity, and his desire to imitate Christ. His imitation of Christ was so complete that he received the stigmata. For the last year or so of his life, he bore on his body the wounds Christ suffered on the cross, bleeding from his hands and feet. Continue reading

Grace and favor to God’s people in distress: A sermon for Proper 21A, 2018

 I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve sung our opening hymn “Praise my soul, the King of heaven.” But today was the first time I really noticed the first line of the second stanza “Praise Him for his grace and favor to his people in distress.” I don’t know about you, but I am distressed today. Distressed by events in our community and in our nation. I’m full of fear, anger, and despair and I struggle to find comfort in scripture or in the Good News of Jesus Christ, whether we can even hope or pray for, God’s grace and favor to us. Continue reading

Sometimes, crumbs are more than enough: A Sermon for Proper 18B, 2018

In addition to today being the Wisconsin Ironman Triathlon, it is in church parlance, the beginning of the program year. Our choir is back after its summer hiatus and Christian education for children and adults begins as well. This week, we are beginning something we’ve not done in quite some time at Grace, at least not on a regular, consistent basis. We will be offering two bible studies—one begins today, between the services; the other takes place on Thursday evening at 5:30. I hope some of you will take advantage of these opportunities, for engaging more deeply with scripture is essential to deepening your faith and your experience with Jesus Christ. Continue reading

Pure and Undefiled Religion: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year B, 2018

 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:

 

to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

What is pure and undefiled religion? What is religion? You might be surprised to know that this latter question is one that is much debated among contemporary scholars of religion. There’s an overwhelming consensus that what we in the west call “religion” and which we distinguish from other areas of life and culture, is very much a modern western concept that has been imposed on other cultures and peoples. So, for example, there is no term for religion in the languages of India, and when the British Empire came to the subcontinent, it categorized a certain number of activities and practices as religious and defined Hinduism as a religion.

No doubt you find it odd that I might begin a sermon by questioning the term religion. It very likely is, but as many of you know I was a professor of Religious Studies for fifteen years before becoming a full-time parish priest, and as a teacher and scholar, I was very much interested in the way scholars and ordinary people thought about the material I was teaching and studying How we as a culture define religion has an enormous impact on how we organize society and its institutions, how we negotiate among competing claims and values (think “church and state” for example, and how we regulate individual and community behavior. As individuals, how we define religion for ourselves, shapes not only our self-understanding, but helps to shape our identity as individuals and members of larger groups, and where we place our ultimate trust and value.

When I taught Intro to Religion, I would usually begin the first day by distributing to the students a handout with around 15 definitions of religion, derived from theologians and scholars of religion, anthropology, and sociology. It was an exercise intended to get students thinking about this cultural activity we call religion, and to challenge the way they thought about it. So, for example, the image posted above, the scene outside the church today, where we have a shrine erected to Wisconsin’s true religion.

I know this sounds all terribly abstract, but let me point out something important. The word “religion” in the verse I quoted a few minutes ago actually means devotion or worship. That puts a rather different spin on things, doesn’t it? “Worship that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for widow and orphans, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

That translation may be more puzzling than clarifying, because to us in the 21stcentury, none of that, caring for widows and orphans, or maintaining purity from the world, sounds like worship to us. Ethics, morality, maybe, derived from prior religious beliefs, but certainly not worship. I’d wager that when most of you heard that verse the first time, you got all excited, because James confirms the views of most progressive Christians. What matters is justice, outreach, advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, challenging new immigration policies, all of that.

The terms pure and undefiled, even unstained strike us strangely in our contemporary world, even if in the case of their appearance in the Letter of James, we can easily interpret them in ways that make them less, indeed even support our own personal preferences and commitments. When we see the same English word in the verses from the gospel of Mark that we heard this morning, we may have a slightly different reaction.

After all these weeks, we’re back in the gospel of Mark, where we will remain for the rest of the liturgical year, until the end of November. To recap a bit, so far in Jesus’ public ministry, we have seen him heal a number of people of their diseases and infirmities, cast out demons, walk on water, calm storms, and feed five thousand people. We haven’t been introduced to much of his teaching or preaching, one or two parables and that’s about it. As fast-paced as Mark is, the gospel will pick up in speed and intensity as we move inexorably toward Jesus’ final confrontation with the Roman authorities and their Jewish sycophants in Jerusalem. And in today’s reading, we see another aspect of the conflict between Jesus and other Jewish communities and leaders.

What’s at stake here, as it almost always is when Jesus is in conflict with other Jews in the gospels, is the interpretation and authority of Torah, Jewish law. The Pharisees were a group within Judaism that sought to extend the role of Torah to the daily life of ordinary people. Their interpretation of Torah was intended to offer guidance in what to do so that the central precepts of Torah were maintained. They called this “building a wall around Torah.” Take the 10 commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Well, that’s great, but what does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy? The Pharisees explained that by offering guidance on what constituted work, and how much work one could do on the Sabbath.

In today’s gospel, the issue at hand is hand-washing. The Pharisees understood ritual hand-washing as keeping oneself ritually clean before eating; other Jewish groups saw things differently and Jesus’ disciples, apparently, couldn’t be bothered. It’s worth pointing out that the word translated as “defiled” here is a different word than the one used in James. Here, the word literally means “common” as distinguished from “sacred” or set apart.

Jesus’ answer, as it so often does, changes the terms of the debate. The issue is no longer whether or not to maintain ritual cleanliness, but the deeper meaning of defilement, or being “set apart.” Jesus points out that what matters is what is in the heart, not the particular ritual action, and here he lists all the ways in which we might defile ourselves by our thoughts.

And that may be where we come back to the letter of James and to our own context. In addition to the two funerals that played out in front of mass audiences over the last two days, religion has been very much in the news the past few weeks. There was the spectacle of a White House dinner for key evangelical supporters of the president early in the week; and the ongoing and deepening crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the former case, many people question the political choices of many Evangelical leaders. In the latter case, that of the Roman Catholic Church, with the crisis and cover-up extending to the highest levels of the Church, the institution is shaking to its very foundations, and the faith of many ordinary Catholics is wavering.

We might think that none of this matters to us here. But it does. All of it affects the general perception of Christianity in America and attitudes toward the institutional church. And we in the Episcopal Church are not immune either from the sin of sexual misconduct and cover-up or the temptation to cozy up to power and privilege.

The world is watching. As we struggle to make sense of what’s happening in this nation and around the world, as we struggle to find our own way in these difficult times, James offers us some simple advice. He reminds us where our focus should be and what the pitfalls are. It’s easy to look in a mirror, he says, to focus on ourselves, instead of looking to God. We should avoid criticizing others. He says that unbridled speech is worthless religion: good advice in the face of the noise, hate, and anger all around us now, that too often escalates from rhetoric to hateful action.

And he reminds us of our duty to care for the marginalized: widows and orphans, yes; but also all those who our society despises, rejects, and leaves behind. And finally, he admonishes us to keep ourselves unstained by the world. It may be unfamiliar, troubling language, but it’s worth exploring whether even this might provide us with guidance. Can we, by our actions, our words, our disposition, bear witness to the love, grace, and mercy of Christ, to a world that too often sees Christians and Christianity in very different terms. Can we, by our actions and words, change our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces for the better?

 

 

 

Where would we go? A Sermon for Proper 16, Year B, 2018

 

 There’s something about natural disasters that brings out the best in people. Of course there are always scammers, those who seek to take advantage of vulnerable people but the reality is that we tend to come together when we are faced with difficult situations brought about by events that are out of control. We help each other, but we also want to share stories, tell of our experiences and listen as others share their experiences as well. We do it on social media but we also do it when we’re going about the daily business of life. We chat with cashiers or fellow customers about what we’ve seen and experienced, and what’s happening elsewhere.  Many of us also volunteer, filling sandbags, or helping to clean out neighbors’ or family members’ basements after the flood.

Such spontaneous community is increasingly rare in our society and culture. In our divided nation, and with the fragmentation brought on by the many cultural changes that we’ve seen over the last decades, it often takes a natural disaster like a flood to draw our attention away from the immediate concerns of our own lives and focus for a time on the larger questions and larger drama of human existence.

As we have read John 6 these last few weeks, we have seen a somewhat similar dynamic play itself out. The chapter begins with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Imagine the excitement, the conversations among those who experienced the miraculous appearance of food. Imagine the stories they would tell to their children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends!

But the scene and the energy quickly shift. We see dialogue, conversation, and finally, conflict, as Jesus’ dialogue partners become increasingly critical of his statements. And now finally this:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 

We’re told that the scene has shifted in another way. Whoever Jesus had been talking with earlier in the chapter—when was he addressing the whole crowd? And when did it become a smaller group? Now he has moved into the synagogue and is speaking with the congregation gathered there.

And another set of characters is introduced—the disciples. So the group of those with whom Jesus had been talking has become smaller, more intimate, more deeply connected with Jesus. They were those who had been following him since the beginning, or had joined the group along the way somewhere. But this is a hard saying—it’s more than a “hard saying” it’s a scandal, an offense, the Greek word from which we derive scandal is used here.

So some of them turn away—not the vast crowd that had been fed bread and fishes; nor even those who had listened to Jesus speaking in the synagogue. Now, some of those who turned away were his disciples—men and women who knew him, had followed him thus far, had listened and learned. But the circle grows even smaller. Jesus gathers his closest companions to him, for the first time in the Gospel, there’s a reference to the “twelve.” It’s a term that appears very infrequently in the Gospel of John. Jesus turns to them and asks: “Do you also wish to go away?”

In the last two verses of the chapter, there’s an ominous note-a reminder that not even the twelve could remain with Jesus to the end—The gospel writer mentions Judas by name and his betrayal of Jesus.

The reference to Judas is a reminder to us that when Jesus speaks of his body and blood, he is not speaking only of the Eucharist, but also of his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s no accident, nor is it insignificant that in our Eucharistic prayers, going back to Paul’s account of it in 1 Corinthians, we begin the words of institution with “On the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…”

But there’s more for us to think about here. Jesus is not speaking only of the Eucharist. He is also speaking of himself. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me and I in them. Discipleship in the Gospel of John is about relationship with Jesus. Throughout the gospel, from the very first chapter, those who follow Jesus are invited to abide with him, to be with him.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ listeners are presented with a choice. They can turn away or reject him, or they can listen to him, hear his words, and follow him. It’s not a yes or no choice. After some of those who had followed him walk away, Jesus asks those who remain, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Peter’s answer isn’t yes or no. Having walked with Jesus thus far, he can’t imagine life without him. “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter has already experienced relationship with Jesus, abiding with him, and the prospect of life without him is incomprehensible. Jesus’ words are eternal life; his words are spirit, all else seems empty in comparison.

Now the Gospel of John has the characteristic that simple ideas, words, concepts can suddenly seem to be remotely abstract, foreign to our experience and lives. Spending time in the gospel of John can be disorienting and alienating. The words wash over us. We have, after all, been spending five weeks hearing this chapter from John’s gospel. If you read it through in one sitting, it comes across as repetitive, to some, even nonsensical. Many of us, including your preacher, will be happy to return to Mark next week, whose language and message is much clearer, though perhaps equally difficult to make one’s own.

What matters above all in John, once we cut through the verbiage, is relationship. What matters is the life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, offered by Christ. What matters is the experience of abiding with him as he abides with us. John is trying to help us understand, but more importantly to experience, the life that he experienced with Jesus Christ. All of the language, all of the discourses, all of Jesus’ miracles, are directed toward this.

Most of us struggle with our faith. Most of us wonder at times, if God exists, whether Jesus was the Son of God, or whether he truly was raised from the dead. We wonder about heaven and hell. We have lots of questions, doubts, uncertainties. Some of us probably aren’t even sure why we bother coming to church. Does any of it matter? Is any of it true?

But there is something that draws us here, something that speaks to our deepest yearnings and hopes. We might not even be able to articulate or name what it is. We come here and find something. For the Gospel of John, what we find here is relationship, life. We experience in the community gathered, in the bread and wine, in the word read and proclaimed, in all of that, we experience life. Jesus offers us that life. He invites us to stay, to abide with him, to live in him as he lives in us. When we say yes to him, we are not proving an argument or saying yes to a proposition. We are inviting and experiencing relationship. When say yes to him, we say yes to life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eating Christ’s body, being Christ’s body: A Sermon for Proper 15, Year B, 2018

 Note: This is the text as I prepared it. However, the preaching moment was rather different. Instead of sharing a bit of my story in the second half of the sermon, I invited the congregation to ask questions about the Eucharist. At both services we had lively conversations about transubstantiation, about what happens if one receives “unworthily” (I Corinthians 11), about communion without baptism.

Jesus says many strange things in the Gospel of John. Many of these sayings are so strange that we don’t pay attention to them anymore. Often, the Christian Church has interpreted them in such a way to make them less strange and those interpretations have become so fixed, that many of us don’t experience or encounter their strangeness. And when we encounter people in the text puzzled by what Jesus is saying, we think they are being willfully obtuse. So in chapter 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again (or from above)” And Nicodemus responds, “How can someone enter their mother’s womb again?” Continue reading