Sermon: 18 Pentecost, Proper 22A, Preached on October 8, 2017 at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Memorial Church, Berryville, VA
Text: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
I have a bit of a confession to make. You see, I had a perfectly adequate sermon on today’s Gospel reading practically ready to go. And then, last night, as I was working on my Bible study for this coming Wednesday, the Holy Spirit gave me a shake. She may have actually whispered, “You need to preach on the 10 Commandments,” in my ear!
In both the section of 1st Samuel that I was working on last night - and in the introduction to the 10 Commandments, God reminds the people that he brought them out of slavery in Egypt. In fact, I learned last night that God (and God’s prophets) remind the people of Israel that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt a whopping 125 times in the Old Testament. It’s why Samuel is pretty sure that it’s a bad idea for the people to have a king. (You’ll need to come to Bible study on Wednesday to find out more!) It’s the basis for so many of the reminders about God and God’s love for the people of Israel.
And today, it’s given as the reason for those words we’ve come to know as the 10 Commandments. It can be difficult when we get a passage of scripture like this one that is so well known. We think we know everything about it. Show of hands - how many of you had to memorize them as a child? I remember being asked to memorize them in the 5th grade. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be nice to your parents. Blah, blah, blah. We think we know them. But then, we stop hearing them.
To counter that today, I want to back up a bit. I want to start with the opening line about them. Why is it significant that these commandments come out of the Exodus from slavery? How does that help us to understand them? And then, what is it that they are actually asking us to do?
Since the summer, we’ve been hearing the story of how the Israelites spent a period of time living in Egypt. Eventually they were enslaved and Pharaoh treated them brutally. They were forced to work harder and harder - and they cried out to God for help. God heard their cry, saw their suffering and sent Moses to deliver them. After many travails and a bunch of plagues, they fled Egypt. Eventually, God delivered these Commandments to them to guide them in their new lives as free people.
And that’s important. Here’s something else important. Just before giving them these commandments, God calls them to be a holy people. That word holy isn’t only an adjective that describes God. It has come to be a word that is defined by itself - we think of holy as meaning, well… holy. But the word holy really means separate and distinct. God is holy because God is separate and distinct from humanity. And God’s people are called to be holy - that is separate and distinct - by behaving in ways that are separate and distinct from our surrounding culture.
Ultimately, the 10 Commandments call God’s people to live distinctly from the Egyptians. To live distinctly from the other cultures that surround them. In our own place and time, we are called to be holy by also being distinct from our culture. And the 10 Commandments can help.
I was taught to think of them as a rule book. Do this. Don’t do that. Really really don’t do this other thing. In fact, God doesn’t want us to have fun - so God made up some really hard rules - and we have to live by them, or else. Now, doesn’t THAT sound like a ringing endorsement for being God’s people?
I want to invite us to think about the 10 Commandments in a new way. And I want to start in the middle. I want to start with the Commandment about the Sabbath. The Israelites came out of Egypt as slaves. There was no Sabbath there. It was all work, work, work. The Sabbath commandment invites God’s people to take a rest. To enjoy the freedom of NOT being enslaved. The Israelites were to extend that freedom to those who worked for them and to their beasts of burden.
And we are invited to do the same. The sabbath isn’t about not having any fun. (I still remember the horror I felt as a girl reading about sabbath restrictions in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books!) The Sabbath is meant to give us a break - to encourage us to enjoy creation and freedom from bondage.
Today, I think it’s not so important that we take a certain day as a Sabbath, as much as it’s important that we find some time for Sabbath. If all we do is work, work, work and run, run, run - then it’s like we are still enslaved in Egypt, making bricks for Pharaoh. Instead, we are called to intentionally step off that particular treadmill and rest.
The commandments that come ahead of the Sabbath commandment are, primarily, about our relationship with God. They ask us to make God what we love and worship and to avoid misusing God’s name. Misusing God’s name can be done in more ways than just cursing. I’d say that using God’s name to put forth our own agendas is as egregious as cursing. Worshiping idols isn’t just about a carved statue. An idol is anything we worship that isn’t God.
These commandments about worship matter - because it’s in worship of God that we are formed to be people who can live out the rest of the commandments - the ones about our relationships with other people.
These are the commandments that come after the Sabbath commandment. They describe how we relate to others. Each of these commandments describe actions that harm another person. It’s certainly true that I do you less harm by simply coveting your iPhone 8 than I do if I kill you to get it. The reality is that coveting objectifies another person and robs them of their personhood.
It all comes back to Egypt. The people of Israel were harmed by the Egyptians in so many ways. The 10 Commandment are God’s way of calling God’s people to live in community with God and one another - in ways that are separate and distinct from the Egyptian culture of slavery. Think about it. The commandments call us to love God and love neighbor. Sound familiar? When you think of them in that way, you can see why Jesus said that on those two commands hang all the law and the prophets.
I want to close with some words from Elizabeth Webb. She’s an Episcopalian and a theologian. She writes:
“The Ten Commandments, and the books of the law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong... . It’s as if God is saying, ‘This is what you were made for. You were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. You were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with your God. Stay true to these commandments.’”
The same is true for us, as well. This is what WE were made for. WE were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. WE were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with OUR God. Stay true to these commandments. AMEN.
Quote from Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17,” found here.
Sermon Preached at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Memorial Church - 11 Pentecost, Proper 15A, 08/20/17
Text: Matthew 15:10-28
Note: I most often preach without a manuscript. I typed this up on Sunday afternoon, after several requests. It's close to what I actually preached, but I'm relying on memory. Also, this explains why I can comment on the congregation's audible response at one point in the sermon.
This morning, we heard a portion of the 15th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In this portion, Matthew describes two scenes to us. However, there are actually three distinct scenes in Matthew 15. In order to make sense of what we just heard, we also need to know what was in the part we didn’t hear.
This morning, I will walk us through all of Matthew 15, and help us to understand what’s happening in this section of Matthew’s Gospel. And then, we’ll talk about how what we find there can help us to understand how to be faithful in these challenging times.
The first scene in Matthew 15 finds Jesus being criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples are following the proper protocols for washing hands and vessels before eating. This is not a critique about germs or proper hygiene. This isn't about using hand sanitizer. Rather this is a critique about how one follows a religious ritual. First century Jewish people followed a number of procedures for washing before eating. Jesus’ followers could be a little lax in those ritual observations and these religious leaders were unhappy. They confronted Jesus about it.
In the second scene, Jesus responds by saying: it’s not what goes into our mouths that defiles, it’s what comes out of our mouths. Jesus goes on to name a number of things that can come out of our mouths - things like evil intentions, slander, false witness, and adultery. What these things all have in common is that they are things that come from our hearts, and out of our mouths. They cause great damage to the souls of other human beings. Don’t worry about what goes in, says Jesus. Worry about what comes out. And gosh, haven’t we seen that in the last weeks? We’ve seen lots of damaging things coming out of people’s mouths, causing harm to the souls of others.
Matthew 15 closes with a third scene. And it’s a hard one. When I was proclaiming it just now, I actually heard some of you catch your breath when you realized what you were hearing. In this third scene, Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a horrible name. It’s one we might use to name a female dog - a word that rhymes with “itch.” It’s horrible. Take a moment to just sit with that before we move on.
Now, we need a little background. Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, north of the geographic boundaries of ancient Israel. One commentator I read described Tyre and Sidon as a “toxic waste zone.” It wasn’t a safe place to go for Jewish people. And, the woman who needs Jesus’ help with her ill daughter was a Canaanite. Those of us who have been studying Joshua and Judges in our Wednesday Bible study know that there’s been a long history of bad blood between Jews and Canaanites. Those Canaanites were the ones the Jews had to boot out of the promised land to settle in the nation of Israel.
Jesus is in dangerous Canaanite territory, he meets a woman who needs help, and he calls her a racial slur. Wow. Just wow.
As you might imagine, scholars have spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this part of the story. For the most part, scholars fall into one of two broad camps as they describe what might be happening in this part of the Matthew 15. I’m going to share both viewpoints with you.
The first view says that Jesus uses this encounter with the Canaanite woman as an object lesson. He’s just told his disciples that it’s what comes out of your mouth that can defile. And then - BOOM - he defiles someone with what comes out of his mouth almost to prove the point. BUT, he is coming to a new understanding of his mission to bring about the Kingdom of God - and wants his disciples to have that new vision, as well. So he has to meet them where they are.
What do I mean? Today, Jesus says that he’s only here for the “lost sheep of Israel.” But, by the end of this Gospel, Jesus will be teaching that his disciples need to “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations…” [Matthew 28:19, emphasis mine]. And, in the book of Revelation, the vision John receives of heaven is one where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” [Revelation 7:9].
So, in order to move his disciples to that understanding (after all, they were all complaining that this Canaanite woman dared to ask something of Jesus), he needed to help them to see her humanity and help them to understand the spreading of the Gospel beyond Judaism.
The other view is more controversial. That view understands Jesus as a product of his own place and time. Like any first century Jew, from the time he was “knee-high to a grasshopper” (as my grandmother would have said) he was taught to disdain Gentiles. He was taught that they were no better than dogs. When this Gentile woman called to him for help, his first inclination was to ignore her and when that didn’t work, to belittle her.
But, nevertheless, she persisted. She refused to allow Jesus and his disciples to silence her and she kept pleading on behalf of her child.
I don’t know what it is about prejudice. Maybe at some point it served an evolutionary purpose, but it does seem to be something that we all struggle with as human beings. I struggle with it. And, it helps me enormously to see Jesus struggling with prejudice too. If even Jesus struggles with seeing the humanity of this Canaanite woman, well, maybe that helps to explain what’s happening in our world right at the moment.
These days, when racist thugs, and Neo-Nazis, and the KKK are out in the streets, and don’t even feel the need to mask their shameful behavior with hoods, we’ve got some work to do. And it is particularly important that those of us whose skin is white reach out to others and work to stop this travesty.
One of the ladies from St. Mary’s told me this morning that she’s been feeling very anxious this week. She said, “I can’t believe it’s 2017. I haven’t felt like this since the 1950s.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters are also afraid. Those hate-mongers in Charlottesville were openly anti-semitic, using language that the Nazis used in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
It is imperative that those of us with white skin get a handle on our own prejudices and act for the change we wish to see.
And, if I’ve got a model for this reaching out, it’s Peter. Peter moved from being one of those that called for Jesus to silence this Canaanite woman, to being a missionary. We hear that story in Acts 10. Peter was called to the home of a Roman centurion. This centurion wasn’t just any Gentile. No. He was a soldier in the occupying Army. Can you imagine Peter’s surprise when he arrived at Cornelius’ home and discovered that the Holy Spirit was already there? He baptized Cornelius and all his household on the spot. And then, he took some real heat from the other leaders in the early Christian community. This story is so significant that it’s repeated more than once in Acts.
Those first followers of Jesus needed to learn to move beyond their prejudices in order to extend the love of Christ to all people, from every tribe and language and people and nation. May we learn from their examples and do the same.
Get out of the Boat - A Sermon preached at Homecoming at Wickliffe Church, Berryville on Sunday August 13, 2017
1o Pentecost, Proper 14A - Matthew 14:22-33
In the midst of a storm on the sea of Galilee, Jesus calls Peter to get out of the boat. Peter and the other disciples had gone out fishing in the evening, when a storm blew in. Storms like that could happen suddenly on the Sea of Galilee. They’d worked hard all night and were far from shore. Early in the morning, when they were exhausted, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.
The disciples were terrified. Of course they were. I’d be terrified. Wouldn’t you be? Jesus offers assurance, but still they are afraid. Then Peter – I love Peter – impetuously says, “Jesus if it’s you, call me to come to you.” And Jesus calls Peter, “Come.” So Peter does. He gets out of the boat and begins walking towards Jesus on the water. And all is well, at least for a moment or two. Peter walks towards Jesus on the water. And then, Peter notices the storm around him, and he panics. He starts to sink. And Jesus reaches out to Peter and lifts him up, and they get back into the boat.
Now this storm that surrounded the boat was a literal storm on the sea of Galilee. But it could also have been a metaphorical storm. Following Jesus is a bit like that – it seems that there’s always a storm brewing. This story that we heard this morning is a literal storm right in the midst of two metaphorical ones.
Right before this story, Jesus feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. He fed 5000 men – along with women and children, so we don’t even know how many people really got fed! And that act causes some trouble for him. And, the very next story that Matthew will tell after this one, is a story of Jesus getting into trouble with the religious leaders of his day because they don’t agree with his attitude towards the Sabbath laws. Things get stormy for Jesus and his followers because they pick grain on the Sabbath. Things are regularly stormy for Jesus and his followers because of who they hang out with and what they do.
So, this storm, the one that Jesus calls Peter out into, is a literal storm. But as followers of Jesus, the disciples encounter some metaphorical storms, as well.
Friends, it’s been a rough week. Can we just sit here for a moment and acknowledge that? It’s been a rough week.
It’s been pretty stormy out there. There’s fear internationally on a number of levels, but most particularly with the situation in North Korea. And then, yesterday, unspeakable things happened right here in our beloved Commonwealth of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Not to mention that some of us are experiencing our own personal storms – things like the death of loved ones or surgeries and illnesses for ourselves and members of our families. There are positive storms as well, things like weddings and the start of a new school year. Those are great things – but there’s often a bit of storminess when we enjoy big events or embark on new things.
Friends, it’s pretty stormy out there. And Jesus calls us to get out of the boat. Jesus calls us to leave the relative safety of the boat we are in and to step out into the storm.
When I look out at all of us here this morning, I don’t know how Jesus is calling each of you individually. But I do know this. Jesus is calling each of us to get out of the boat.
Particularly when we are faced with an event like the one that happened yesterday in Charlottesville, we are called to get out of the boat.
Perhaps for some of us, getting out of the boat means being persistent in prayer. For others of us, getting out of the boat may mean showing up and standing up for peace. The Bishops of VA called on Episcopal clergy yesterday to come to Charlottesville and stand with them in peaceful protest of those evil hate mongers. My guess is that for most of us, getting out of the boat will be somewhere in the middle.
But, especially for those of us who are white, the time is past when we have had the luxury to sit silently while these things are happening. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat. It’s important for us to stand with our brothers and sisters. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and stand alongside our African American, Muslim, Jewish, and GLBT brothers and sisters. Many of them are afraid. And they need to know that we are with them. Jesus call us to get out of the boat.
Friends, there’s much that I don’t know this morning, but I do know three things.
First, Jesus calls us towards love. Jesus centered his ministry around the call to love God and to love neighbor. Love. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and love. If it’s not about love, it’s not about Jesus.
Second, Jesus calls us towards justice. From the beginning of scripture and throughout the Bible, there is a call towards justice. We’re called to care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the widows and orphans, and the strangers among us. Justice. Jesus calls us to get out of the boat and do justice. If it’s not about justice, it’s not about Jesus.
Finally, Jesus calls each and every one of us to get out of the boat. Jesus calls you. Jesus calls me. Whoever we are, Jesus calls us to get out of the boat.
In this morning's Gospel reading, we hear one of the hard sayings of Jesus. He tells us, "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword."
This isn't exactly comforting news. After all, I thought that Jesus was supposed to be the Prince of Peace. And here he is telling us that he's not coming to bring peace but a sword. And then he goes on to describe all the family strife that's going to transpire because of him. What the heck are we supposed to make of THAT?
Well, first, I think that a little bit of context is helpful. Jesus' words this morning are to his closest followers. The 12. They are the ones we heard about last week - when Robin York reminded us that they were ordinary folks, sent on a "mission from God." They were sent to the folks Jesus called "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and their task was to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons."
We get a sneak preview of this problem of "no peace" in last week's readings when Jesus says, "If they don't welcome you, shake the dust from your sandals and leave that town." There is clearly something about Jesus' message that some will find threatening, if the 12 need an escape plan!
So Jesus tells his closest followers that it's not going to be all sunshine and roses, following him. He warns them that the message that they bring won't always be welcome. That some people, on hearing it, will not call them heroes, but Beelzebul - Satan. He tells them that it's possible that their families, their parents, their children will turn away from them. It's possible that the Gospel message will not bring always bring joy and peace, but strife and discord.
This family strife happens to Jesus on more than one occasion in the Gospels. Members of his family, fearing for his sanity, come to try to silence him. Jesus responds to those telling him that his family has come to try to dissuade him from his ministry by saying that his family are the ones who do God’s will.
You can see this lack of peace in some of the stories about Jesus. Jesus treated vulnerable people, those shunned by society, with great compassion. Remember the story of the woman who was caught in adultery? She was about to be stoned to death when Jesus came upon her and her accusers. Rather than joining the crowd, he suggested that those without sin should be the first to throw stones.
But, in an exchange typical of Jesus, he also held her accountable. When her accusers had vanished, Jesus said to her, “Now, go and sin no more.” This compassion for sinners created conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Other “no peace” moments in the early days of the church had to do with the question of who this “Jesus movement” was really for. Were Jesus’ teachings meant to be solely a reform of Judaism? Or, were they intended for the wider Gentile world, as well? Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the birth of the church at Pentecost, the question of who was really welcome in the early church became a HUGE one.
No one wrestled with this question more than Peter. Initially, he saw himself as a faithful Jew - and looked at Gentiles with disdain. But following a dream in which God revealed that nothing God made was unclean, Peter was invited to the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and discovered that the Holy Spirit had preceded him.
Peter became a passionate witness for a mission to the Gentiles, despite the fact that many other followers of Jesus disagreed with him. The Acts of the Apostles relates the many conversations and councils held to decide the question - and how contentious they were.
It’s clear from reading the stories of Jesus’ own ministry, and of the early church, that striving to faithfully follow Jesus can lead to strife and division.
So, what do Jesus' words this morning mean for us? I think that there are two messages. One message is a caution and the other is an encouragement.
First, our world these days is one filled with strife and conflict. After our recent presidential election, I saw people from both political parties declaring that they could no longer interact with a parent or a child, a friend or an old college roommate, because of their political views. We call the people with disagree with idiots or snowflakes, extremists or libtards, hatemongers or commies. The words Spawn of Satan were even bandied about. We are seeing a rise in hate crimes and violence against those who are seen as different.
Let me be clear: Jesus is not encouraging this kind of behavior. I don't think he's telling us that it's OK to demean people or break relationships because we disagree on political points. He's certainly not encouraging violence. Jesus called his first followers to love one another - and to pray for those who might be considered enemies. Dismissing those we disagree with as snowflakes or extremists doesn't fall within the call to love.
Jesus warned his followers, "Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword." What he didn't say was that they should take up arms and fight. (In fact, he said, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword.").
But he did warn them his followers that following him and being faithful to him could lead to division. Here's how that might play out for us living today.
Jesus is encouraging us to take faithful stands. As we’ve already seen in my examples this morning, much of what Jesus taught: welcome for the stranger, acceptance of the sinner, healing for the sick, and food for the hungry, wasn't particularly popular in his own day - any more than it is now.
Jesus is calling us to be faithful. Be faithful to Biblical teaching. Be faithful to his call to love. And to do that whether or not we think it's going to be popular with our friends and family.
There are currently some pretty contentious debates happening in our country: What's our national responsibility about health care? How do we assure that every child in our country is fed? Who is really welcome here? How do we treat people who are different from us? Do black lives really matter?
How do we decide where we stand on these issues? How do we make sense of the ferocious debates currently going on?
As Christians, our call is faithfulness to Jesus and his teachings. We are called to return again and again and again to the words we find in scripture. And then we are called to use those words to inform our views and plans for action. Even if those views aren't popular with our friends and family. Even if those actions create tension in our relationships.
Let me be clear - Conflict isn’t ever the goal! Unfortunately (and this was Jesus’ point), it might well be a byproduct of our faithful and prayerful discernment and action.
At the end of the day, our highest calling as Christians is to follow Jesus and his teachings. Our mission from God is made clear in His teaching: love God and love neighbor. Treat the stranger with compassion. Welcome the sinner. Heal the sick. Cast out demons.
This morning’s teaching from Jesus isn’t an easy one. It’s frankly a passage I’d rather forget was in Matthew’s Gospel! But it’s an important one that serves to guide us in our discernment and in our decision making. And if others disagree - well, we’re to (metaphorically) shake the dust off of our sandals because our highest loyalty is to Jesus.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the word Gospel means Good News. And there are, alongside this hard teaching, words of comfort and consolation. Jesus reminds his disciples of their value in the eyes of God. God has numbered the hairs on our head. God values us more than many sparrows. And when we take up the cross of proclaiming our Gospel values, we might lose something in this world, but we gain new life in Christ.
My friend Christine at Brave and Reckless has posted a poetry challenge. While I'm not usually a poetry writer, this one spoke to me. Our instructions were to write about a life experience using only 10 objects. Immediately, I thought about celebrating the Eucharist. Here's my poem:
Brown pottery plate, with spiral center
Freshly baked bread and sweet port wine
Ancient words, spoken aloud
Hands hold bread and bless
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
This morning’s Gospel passage concludes with what sounds like an impossible command. Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I don’t know about you, but I know about me. I am far from perfect – and if perfection is the goal, I’m in big trouble!
I have good news. While there is no doubt that what Jesus asks of us is difficult, it’s not impossible. What Jesus is asking us to do in this passage is to love as God loves. This this morning, I’ll walk us through what’s happening in this passage and then, we’ll explore together what loving as God loves looks like in our own lives.
To begin, we have a translation problem. The word that our Bible translators give to us as perfect is the Greek word telios. And while perfect is one way to translate this word, it’s not the best or the only way. Telios can mean complete, mature, and having full integrity, as well as perfect.
There’s a version of the Bible called The Common English Bible. It translates this last phrase this way: Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete. Each and every example that Jesus gives in this short passage, from going the extra mile to lending to those in need, to praying for and loving one’s enemies all stem from that command to love as God loves.
We have been invited, in our own relationship with God, to experience God’s love first hand. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, God’s love and grace is extended to us. Through Jesus’ life, ministry, example, death and resurrection, we have been offered life-giving grace and forgiveness. We have been offered God’s unconditional love. In this passage, Jesus asks us to take that unconditional love and grace that we have been offered and to extend it to others. That’s how we love the way that God loves. That’s what it means to be perfect, to be complete, to be mature, and to have full integrity.
One of my favorite passages from scripture comes from the First Letter of John. In the 4th chapter, we read: Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8, CEB)
I don’t know about you, but I was raised to think of my life of faith as a win or lose proposition with no middle ground. It was either success or failure. Either I got it right, or I failed colossally. I eventually realized that God doesn’t operate this way. God is love. And God extends love to us again and again. As I walk through my own life, I am given many many opportunities to learn the lessons of love – and to extend love to others. If I get it right – good. If I fail, I have an opportunity to return to God’s love for me, receive God’s grace, and then try again.
Living and loving this way isn’t easy. The scenes that Jesus describes at the beginning ask us to receive being humiliated with non-violent opposition. Then he asks us to show compassion by giving and lending when we are asked. He concludes with asking us to pray for our enemies and to show them love. This is tough stuff. In my own life, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. But, then I get up, return to God’s love and grace, and try again. And again. And again.
What might this look like? Here’s an example.
Perhaps you remember the story of the school shooting in the Nickel Mines Amish Community in Lancaster County, PA in October of 2006. A man named Charles Carl Roberts IV shot ten Amish school girls, before killing himself. Five of the girls died and five were critically wounded but survived. The Amish made the news almost immediately because of their incredible acts of forgiveness. An Amish neighbor named Henry visited Charlie’s parents on the day of the shooting to offer forgiveness. Thirty Amish community members attended the funeral for Charlie Roberts, shielding his family from the news media.
One article I read about this event said that “not holding grudges” is a core belief for the Amish in living out their faith. Many outsiders were quick to judge the Amish for rushing to forgiveness too quickly. The father of one of the girls opened a window into what this experience of forgiveness is like. His daughter Roseanna was not killed, but permanently disabled. She cannot walk, speak, or communicate. He said that every day as he watches her struggle, he has to fight back his anger. Every day, he says, he has to forgive again. Several people described this decision to forgive as an active choice.
Another part of this story that you may not know is the story of Charlie’s mother, Terri. After she was shown forgiveness and care by her Amish neighbors, she began to reach out. She has developed a special relationship with Roseanna and her family. Until a recent illness forced her to slow down, she went to Roseanna’s house once a week to bathe her, spend the evening with her, and give her family some respite from her ongoing care.
What I hear in this story is a whole group of people who chose to love as God loves. It would have been easy for those Amish families to shut out their neighbors. It would have been easy for Terri Roberts to turn away from the pain her son caused. Instead, in that small community, neighbors reached across a huge chasm of pain to love one another as God loves.
Our world is growing ever more polarized. We disagree about so many things. We’ve lost our capacity for civil discourse. It’s so much easier to be snarky and dismissive than to engage in the actual work of love. We live in an age when we hang out in echo chambers that reflect our own views. Social media makes it easier to unfriend someone than to engage with love across our differences.
Jesus calls us to love as God loves. To resist violence with non-violence. To care for those in need. To forgive our enemies and to pray for them. We are to do it because God is love and God loves us. Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete.
This morning, our Scripture readings speak to us in one common voice. And that common voice tells us that God’s values are different from many of our default human values. Let me say that again. The common voice in our scriptures this morning tells us that God’s values are different from our default human values.
Think about it. Our society tells us that the most important thing we can do as humans is to have power. To have wealth. To have prestige. To be successful. To be great again. Listen to the news. Watch a commercial. See a movie. It’s everywhere we look. But, our readings from both Micah and Matthew remind us that those human values are NOT God’s values.
Speaking through Micah, God says to the people – I freed you from slavery. I brought you out of Egypt. I don’t want empty worship. I don’t care about the bulls and the rams and the oil in your offerings. I want you. And I want you doing for others what I have done for you. I want you DO Justice. I want you to LOVE kindness. I want you to WALK humbly with me.
What does that mean? It means that God wants how we live our lives to reflect who God is and God’s love for the world. And we do that through our DOING of Justice, our LOVING of Kindness, and our WALKING in Humility.
The words are tricky. We receive them in English, but because Micah 6:8 is translated from Hebrew, we miss the nuance. Let me try to explain.
Justice is an English translation of the Hebrew word mishpat. To us justice is a legal term, but that’s not its primary scriptural definition. Justice is something we DO to be certain that all the people of the earth have what they need for their well-being. Caring for our brothers and sisters is a scriptural imperative. It’s not optional. Exodus 22 explains it this way: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan…. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
The word translated as kindness is the Hebrew word chesed. It has no direct English translation. It’s related to love, loyalty, and faithfulness. Frankly, kindness isn’t nearly a strong enough word to convey the meaning of chesed. Chesed describes the key element in human relationships – whether that relationship is one of marriage, friendship, or community. It’s also meant to characterize our relationship with God. So, we are to LOVE loyalty, love, and faithfulness in all of our relationships – and to act out of that love. We don’t do it because we are manipulated or afraid, we do it because God loves the world – and we are part of the world that God loves.
And, we are to WALK with God. Our walk should be humble or circumspect (both good translations of the Hebrew), to put God first and live in conformity with God’s desires.
And, if we’re wondering about what God’s desires might look like, we can turn to the Beatitudes for some ideas. Jesus spoke the beatitudes to a crowd gathered around him on a mountain top. We know the whole speech as the Sermon on the Mount. They were Jewish people, living in an occupied country, experiencing daily oppression from their Roman occupiers.
Jesus had good news for those people – and it continues to be good news for us.
Because Jesus tells us who and what God values. Once again, we see that the world is turned upside down: Who’s blessed? Jesus says these folks are blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel.
Since August, it’s been my privilege to worship with you, work alongside of you, and partner with you for the sake of the Gospel. I’ve heard painful stories of how the racism that infects our country has impacted your lives in the past and continues to do so today. And, I’ve watched you hungering and thirsting for justice. I’ve watched you being peacemakers. And, I’ve heard amazing stories of what DOING justice, LOVING faithfulness in relationships, and WALKING humbly with God looks like in real life in our community.
Text: Matthew 4:12-23
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the story of the call of Andrew, Peter, James and John. They are preparing to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus calls them to follow him. Matthew tells us that they immediately drop their nets, leave their jobs, and follow Jesus.
This reading seems a particularly appropriate one for reflection as we worship together in advance of our Annual Meeting. It’s a reading that tells us our common destination as a congregation: The Kingdom of Heaven. And it’s a reading that tells us our common call: Fishers of People.
When Jesus begins preaching after John’s arrest, he uses John’s own words: Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Sometimes as Christians, we get confused about what Jesus means. Theologian N.T. Wright says that this Kingdom of Heaven isn’t about “our escape from this world to another one, but to God’s own rule ‘coming on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
At the end of this passage, Matthew describes how Jesus went about they work of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven near. He says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Teaching. Proclaiming. Healing. Those are the relational actions that help to bring near the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the common destination of this and every congregation.
Jesus tells Andrew, Peter, James and John that he will make them fish for people. That’s our common call. Often, when people think about this verse, they think about Evangelism. And that’s certainly one key way to “fish.” But, it’s not the only way. Whenever we reach out to love and serve others in Jesus’ name we are, in fact, fishing for people. That's the common call of this and every congregation.
The Sunday of our annual meeting is a perfect day to reflect on how we have been open to the call to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by teaching, proclaiming, and healing in 2016. And, how doing these things led us to fish for people. It is also a perfect time to begin to talk together about how we see ourselves continuing that journey in 2017.
Here are just a few ways that I’ve seen our congregation respond to the call to Teach, Proclaim, and Heal in 2016, thereby fishing for people:
WATTS - We've just finished up our time of service at WATTS - the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter. Members of Grace and St. Mary's helped set up the shelter, cooked dinner on Wednesday and breakfast on Thursday, worked at the shelter on Wednesday night, helped out again on Thursday morning, and finally worked to break down the shelter. Those actions were ways to proclaim and heal, thereby fishing for people.
Sunday School - I'm impressed with our Sunday School. We have 30 to forty children and teens participating in our program. They are guided and mentored by a number of adults who love and care for them. And they are supported in their learning by so many in this congregation who show up for activities and fundraisers. It's how we teach around here, thereby fishing for people.
Backpack Program - Every week, our church provides meals for 37 children in the Clarke County Schools whose homes are food insecure. On Fridays, they are sent home from school with enough food to feed them all weekend. This ministry originated here and has now spread to many of the churches in Berryville. All told, 97 children receive food every weekend. It's another way we proclaim and heal, thereby fishing for people.
As we look forward to 2017, here are two things we’ll talk about during the Annual Meeting. Our question will be, "How do we hear God’s voice calling us in for 2017?"
Shrine Mont Retreat - Clarke Parish has held an annual retreat at Shrine Mont for man years. This year, we will focus on our liturgy. We'll learn about the different parts of our liturgy, working in intergenerational groups. It will be one way we proclaim and teach together.
Mission Trip - I've heard from many of you that you miss the regular mission trips that have been part of Clarke Parish's history. This year, we will bring that tradition back! Plans are in the works to go to West Virginia to help rebuild communities devastated by last spring's flood. That mission will proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, and heal those whose lives have been devastated.
We are called to follow Jesus. To listen and discern his voice calling us to follow him. We are called to be his hands and feet in the world today to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven through our teaching, proclaiming and healing, thereby fishing for people. Will you continue to join together and respond to that call?
In today's Gospel reading from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of Jesus' first encounter with two of the men who will become his disciples. At the time he meets them, they are disciples of John the Baptist. John tells them about Jesus. Then, they decide to find out more, so they follow him. When they ask Jesus where he is staying, Jesus says, "Come and see."
This morning, I want to talk about these words: come and see. And, I want to talk with them particularly in the context of Evangelism. In the Episcopal Church, we have a lot of anxiety about Evangelism. The practice of Evangelism has been misused in some Christian churches, so we have tended to give it a pretty wide berth. In fact, there's a statistic that says that average Episcopalian invites someone to come to church with them once every thirty-two years!
So, this morning, I want to talk about what we mean by Evangelism in the Episcopal Church, and how these words come and see might inform our actions.
My guess is that many of us have had a negative experience with evangelism. Perhaps someone has knocked on your door to give you materials that tell you that you are not saved - and that unless you align yourself with this person's particular beliefs about God, your eternal salvation is in jeopardy. Or perhaps you've seen someone on a street corner, shouting about hell and damnation. While it's possible that those behaviors could fall into the loosest definitions of Evangelism, they are NOT what I am talking about here.
When Jesus says to Andrew and his friend that they should come and see, he's not using coercion. He’s not using power. He doesn't threaten them. He doesn't tell them that they will go to hell if they don't come. Rather he issues an invitation. And after they accept the invitation, they stay and talk and begin to develop a relationship. What Andrew hears is so compelling that he goes off to find his brother Simon (whom we'll come to know by his nickname Peter) and issues the same invitation: come and see.
Perhaps my thoughts turned readily to Evangelism this week because we've been working on the Annual Report for our annual meeting next weekend. As Robin and I made our way through all of the topics to be included in the Annual Report, I asked, "What did we do about Evangelism in 2016?" After several long minutes of silence, we both said, "Huh. Nothing." Later, when I was telling this story to another parishioner, she replied, "Do you mean like standing on street corners and talking to strangers?" Friends, the good news is NO! That's not at all what I mean.
But, during this year 2017, I am going to invite us to consider some simple things that we can do around Evangelism. And those simple things will be related to our words for this morning: come and see.
I have a colleague from my days of ministry in New Hampshire who created a whole process for Evangelism around these words. Charles described it like this: if you have a child who is in a school play, you might well invite your friends to come and see your child in the play. You aren't inviting your friends to join the drama group, or to take a part in the play, or to join the pit band, or even to sell treats at intermission. You're inviting them to come and see your child in the play. And you do so because you love your child and want to share your child's accomplishments with your friends.
To my mind, that's how the best evangelism works. You have found something that gives your life meaning here at Grace/St. Mary's.
Y'all come to church week after week - and it's NOT because you're bored and have nothing better to do on Sunday mornings! Perhaps you have a friend or neighbor or colleague who might also benefit from being a part of this community. Some Sunday, you might invite them to come and see.
There are two key things that distinguish a come and see invitation from other types of evangelism - and they are crucial. The first is that it's not about power. Your invitation doesn't come with some kind of threat or fear. And the second is related. Your invitation comes out of your own interest. If you invite someone to come and see, you do so from a place of sharing your joy - just like the school play analogy.
It was a little horrifying to realize that we had done nothing Evangelism related in 2016. One of my hopes for this year is to have a particular Sunday where we focus on and encourage one another to invite a friend to come and see. Stay tuned.
I want to end with a personal testimony. As some of you know, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. I was active in that tradition until after I graduated from college. In my new town, I visited the five Roman Catholic churches, and not one of them felt particularly welcoming. A work colleague expressed interest in how it was going - and when I was feeling pretty dejected, she invited me to come to church with her. I felt immediately welcomed in her UCC church, and quickly made their community my new church home. In fact, I joined three different churches as an adult before eventually going to seminary. In each case, I found the church I joined because someone in the congregation that I knew said something like come and see.
As we think about building a strong future for Grace Church, increasing our membership and strengthening our particular branch of the Body of Christ will be one important step. Maybe you'll invite a friend to come and see our backpack ministry. Maybe you'll invite them to come and see the Christmas Pageant. Maybe you'll invite them to come and see a bible study. Whatever it is that brings you joy and fulfillment through being part of this community – invite someone else to come and see.
Text: Acts 10:34-43
Professor James Thompson says that the conversion of Cornelius, the story we hear a small portion of this morning, is the pivotal text in the pair of books written by Luke – the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In the story, a Roman leader receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is baptized along with his household. It’s safe to say that this story changed the course of the early Christian movement, opening the practice of faith in Jesus to those who were not Jewish.
There are two related concepts that are important for us as we strive to understand this story and what it means for us. The first is that God shows no partiality because people from every nation who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. The second is that this good news about who is welcome came through Jesus, who preached peace.
This morning, we’ll start by looking at the whole story of Cornelius, since we pick it up in the middle! Then, after know the whole story, we’ll explore these two phrases and what they mean for us today.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, responsible for a group of 100 Roman soldiers. We are told at the start of his story that he feared God, gave alms, and prayed constantly. One afternoon, while praying, he had a vision and was told to send for Peter, who was in Joppa. The following day, while he was praying, Peter also had a vision. In it, he saw a sheet filled with animals considered to be unclean, being lowered from heaven. A voice told him to take and eat. After he protested, the voice repeated itself. After a repeated protestation, Peter head the voice of God say, "Nothing I make is unclean."
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. The Cornelius' servants were there to bring him to Cornelius. When they arrived in Caesarea, at Cornelius' home, Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision. Peter responded with the passage that we heard this morning. At the conclusion of his speech, the Holy Spirit entered the room and landed on Cornelius and his household. Peter then called for the Gentiles to be baptized.
This is a remarkable story. In the first century, Jews and Gentiles did not associate with one another at all. It was illegal, according to Jewish law, for a Jewish person to visit the home of a Gentile or to share a meal with them. And, Cornelius is part of the Roman occupying army – he wasn’t just any Gentile, he was literally an enemy to Peter. Imagine, then, what it would have been like to hear Peter say, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” and then go on to say that in EVERY NATION those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. These words would have been shocking to both Jews and Gentiles.
It was an important and pivotal teaching then – and remains one today. What makes us acceptable to God has nothing to do with externals and everything to do with who we are inside. It’s not about race or class or culture. What makes us acceptable to God is reverence (that’s a better translation of the word fear) which leads to our acting accordance with God’s will because of that reverence. At the very start of Cornelius’s story, we hear three things that Cornelius does: he fears God, he gives alms, and he prays constantly. Cornelius’ almsgiving and prayer follow from his “fear” or reverence.
Secondly, Peter says that this teaching came through Jesus, who was “preaching peace.” We tend to think of the word peace as the absence of war. The Hebrew word shalom has a much fuller definition. It can mean: completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, and safety. When Jesus came preaching peace, he wasn’t talking about an absence of war. In Luke’s Gospel, He begins his earthly ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the kind of peace or shalom that Jesus preached consistently in his Gospel.
It’s not a surprise then that Professor Thompson sees this story as so pivotal. Cornelius and his family are acceptable to God because of their faith, which informs their actions. Peter, going against all that he had been taught, recognized God and the Holy Spirit at work, and welcomed them into the Way of Jesus. The early church saw God at work, and opened the way of the Gospel to all people. Without Cornelius and Peter, the work of Paul in spreading the Gospel might not have happened. Without Cornelius and Peter, we might not be here!
What does this story mean for us? It seems to me that we are very good at dividing the world up into us vs. them. We are black or white. We are gay or straight. We are Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, legal or illegal, from here or away…. You name it, and we can place ourselves in one category or another and then take sides against those who differ from us. It does seem to a part of human nature. Maybe at some point divisions served an evolutionary purpose, but they don’t serve us now.
God shows no partiality. Those who fear God and do what is right, as shown by Jesus who came preaching peace, are acceptable to God. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to see God at work in the lives of people who are like us and people who are very different from us. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to recognize that worshipping God and doing God’s will are the two things that God requires of us and of all people. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to step out beyond our comfort to embrace those whom God finds acceptable.