Friday, July 18, 2008

On Vacation...

... until August 14.

Next sermon posted will be that of August 17.

I shall be "tanned and relaxed."


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Showing My Work, Part II

(See here for Part I.)

A week after first reading the propers for a Sunday (in this case, Proper 17, to be used on August 31st), my custom is to consult exegetical commentaries to get an academic take on the readings. I've already decided to focus on the gospel this time (Matthew 16:21-28), so I didn't do any exegetical work on the other readings. That should have happened last week, but other exigencies intervened. That's why I stretch out the process! Here's what I distilled from the commentaries:


  • From a literal historical perspective, Jesus expected the sort of tribulation that any prophet should expect (pace today’s OT reading), and also eventual (speedy?) vindication by God as part of a general resurrection of all the righteous. The post-Easter church then modified these statements by making them specific references to the Passion as they remembered it.
  • Peter’s response is an expression of his representative role, and is a theological, not merely a personal objection to what Jesus has just said. He has a wrong idea of what messiahship is.
  • “Get behind” does not mean “Go away!” but “Fall in!” (See Gk. formula as “follow me”). “’Behind me’ is not mere location, but the posture of a disciple. Jesus is going to the cross; a disciple is to follow.”
  • “Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate an alternative kingdom, a radically way of exercising rulership and authority. Here his opponent is none other than the rock on which he will build the new community. … Despite his revelation from God, Peter continues to think as good human beings are accustomed to think: reasonably, egocentrically, and in terms of human friendship and ‘success.’”
  • Re taking up the cross: “These words are not an invitation to discipleship for outsiders, but reflection on the meaning of discipleship for those who have already responded to the call of Christ.”
  • “Matthew’s church was aware that some had already been martyred, including by crucifixion. In view of the shortness of time before the parousia, Matthew anticipates that the eschatological tribulation will intensify; so the call for disciples to take up their cross can be understood quite literally in this situation.”


  • “To [take up one’s cross] in following Jesus signifies open allegiance to Jesus the Crucified One. Such allegiance will expose one to the hostility of the world and entail the risk of losing one’s life as he lost his.”


  • This pericope follows immediately on the heels of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. Now it is appropriate for Jesus to explain just what messiahship entails, not only for the Messiah, but for the Messiah’s followers.
  • “We are to understand that Jesus’ death was so central to God’s plan that to try to avoid it was to do the work of none less than the evil one himself.”
  • “Jesus is not saying that anyone who focuses on his own selfish concerns will be punished by having his life taken from him. He is saying that, by the very fact that he concentrates on his own selfish concerns, that person has lost life in the best and fullest sense.”


  • “For Matthew, it is the Church that will be judged—a theme that he hammers home again and again, right up to the parable of the sheep and the goats. The Church will be judged according to the fidelity of its discipleship, even at the cost of taking up the cross and following Jesus, in its readiness to lose its life for his sake.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A: Proper 10 (13 July 2008)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

For me, yard work is a chore, a necessary evil. So I’m lucky that I’m married to someone for whom gardening is a joy and a privilege. As soon as the weather warmed up, Brenda began to devote herself to the flower beds and other areas of the rectory grounds. And she’s had no shortage of wise counsel, as St Anne’s is blessed with a handful of people who have earned the (undoubtedly coveted) designation ‘Master Gardener.’ When we lived in California, I endured what felt like no end of complaining about the quality of the soil in our yard; it was mostly clay, very hard to work with and hard to make anything grow in. But I’ve heard loads of exuberant praise for much of the soil that Brenda is finding in Indiana. Soil quality isn’t the only factor influencing the success of a garden, but it’s certainly a major one.

On our plate today is a very familiar parable about soil. Indiana is an agricultural state—and many who aren’t farmers are gardeners—so I don’t expect most of us will have too much trouble relating to the image of scattering seeds on the ground. Of course, first-century Middle Eastern agricultural practices were a little more low-tech than they are today. Picture a Jewish Johnny Appleseed with a pouch slung over his shoulder broadcasting handfuls of seeds as he walks methodically through the field. It’s not exactly a precision operation, so some of the seeds inevitably fall on the very path where the sower is walking, which is packed down hard, so they become immediate bird food. Others happen to fall on ground that has not been very well worked over by the plow, and there’s just a thick enough layer of soil that they sprout quickly and show great promise. But they have trouble putting down roots; there’s too much gravel and clay for them to get the nutrition they need. So, after an impressive start, they wither and die. Some of the seeds fall into what looks like decent soil, but it also looks attractive to all kinds of weeds, and since it’s near the edge of the field, the farmer may not be too careful about pulling the weeds, so eventually the sprouted seeds lose out in the competition for water and sunshine and soil nutrition. Some of the seeds, though—most of them, one hopes—fall into ground that is well off the beaten path, well worked by the plow, and weed-free. The result is that they yield an abundant harvest, reproducing themselves many times over.

Like many stories Jesus tells, there are multiple layers of potential meaning here. It depends on what element of the story we choose to identify ourselves with. If we identify with the sower, the one who’s tossing the seeds around, then the “moral” of the story, so to speak, is to sow the seeds of the gospel generously and widely. A lot of them are going to land in not such good places, but a lot of them will, and the gigantic size of the harvest is going to outweigh any concern about “wasting” the seeds that get eaten by birds or choked off by weeds.

Now, you may be thinking, there’s only one person in the parable—the sower—so who else is left for us to choose to identify ourselves with? That’s true enough, but with a little imagination, I do think we can find other ways for us to ‘see ourselves’ in this story. In effect, there are at least four other “characters” in the narrative—namely, the four different kinds of soil that Jesus talks about. Are we hard clay? Are we sand? Soft loam? Pebbles? Some combination of the above? How receptive are we to the seeds of good news that God is scattering around and among us, hoping that they will take root?

I doubt that anybody here is truly the packed-down soil along the path on the margins of the field. You wouldn’t be here if you were! But soil changes and moves over time. Maybe you once were, or are moving that direction. How does soil gets hardened? By being walked on, trampled on, packed down until nothing can penetrate the surface. Could that perhaps describe the experience of someone you know? Life certainly has a way of making people feel walked on and packed down! So we develop a protective shell to keep ourselves from being hurt further. Unfortunately, our firewalls and spam filters sometimes delete a legitimate piece of email, and we miss out on something that would be refreshing and life-giving. The seeds of good news that fall on such soil have nowhere to go, so they are carried away.

What about the rocky soil? Over the course of my life, I’ve known several people who hear and receive the proclamation of the gospel of Christ and are immediately turned on, pumped up, and on fire. They remind me of the sausage connoisseur who waxes eloquent about the joys of sausage until he gets a chance to watch a batch get made—then makes a180 degree turn and never wants to look at, much less eat, sausage again. There are people who embrace the gospel with enthusiasm, and expect the Church to consistently live up to the ideals it espouses. Then they discover that the Church is full of sinners and hypocrites. They discover that Christians don’t always practice what they preach. Somebody is not there for them when they feel like they are most in need of companionship, and as a result, they fade—sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually—they fade from participation in the regular life of the church community.

What about the weed patch? What about the soil that lets the gospel take root and flourish for a while, sometimes a good while, but then weeds and thorns grow up beside it and choke it off? Some people embrace Christian faith and practice superficially, but they don’t internalize it at the core of who they are. Membership and service in the church is just one more “notch on the belt” or a “trophy in the case.” They feel like they’re doing something good and making a contribution to society. But they keep their faith compartmentalized. It’s just one more priority to be juggled, and when work or family (to say nothing of adversity)—when the stress of life ramps way up and screams loudly, they inevitably start doing triage, the way an Emergency Room nurse decides what patients get treated now and who has to wait. In most cases, religious practice gets put on ice while other seemingly more pressings concerns are taken care of.

And then there’s the good soil, soil that has been well plowed, well-worked with a shovel and a hoe, soil that is easy for the gardener to do what he or she wants to do with it. This is soil that is open to being penetrated, willing to make room. This is soil that has the capacity and resources to nourish that which has been planted in it. This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the kind of soil we want to be. We do not want to allow life to harden us to the gifts that God wants to share with us—as it were, biting our nose to spite out face. We want to have a realistic and patient understanding of what lies ahead on the road of discipleship—which always includes the prospect of disillusionment and disappointment. Our brothers and sisters will let us down. We want to put the practice of our faith not only first among our priorities, but at the center of our lives, letting it order everything else so they don’t take over. And we want to bear fruit—fruit for the glory of God, fruit for our own salvation, fruit for a broken and hurting world, fruit for the redemption of the cosmos.

Here’s where the parable breaks down, though: You see, actual soil doesn’t get to choose what it’s going to be. But we do. If we show the slightest bit of receptivity, the real Master Gardener knows what soil additives we need to be made fruitful soil, yielding a rich harvest for the Kingdom of God. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Showing My Work

My new Assistant is preaching this Sunday, so I have no homily of my own to post. However, for those twisted minds that are interested in the process of sermon preparation, I will here (and in subsequent posts) share the nuts and bolts in the process of preparing to preach on August 31st. (Yeah, that sounds extreme. But I've got four weeks of vacation between now and then, so it's still within my usual six-week sermon incubation cycle.)

My task today was first to pray over the entire process of constructing and delivering this sermon. I actually knelt down and lit a candle. It's important for a preacher to pray. This isn't my sermon; it's the Lord's, and I've got to give the Holy Spirit unencumbered title to the whole thing right off.


Now I look at the appointed readings for that day (Year A: Proper 17 [RCL]), and just jot down some preliminary thoughts ... mostly questions, actually. Here they are:

Matthew 16:21-28
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

  • It is so tempting to literalize—and therefore ‘psychologize’—this situation, and wonder whether Jesus actually did tell them about his Passion in the sort of detail mentioned here, or whether Jesus himself can be understood to have been aware of those details in the moment. If we say No, then the question arises, what is the historical antecedent of this account, which occurs multiple times across the synoptic narrative? If we say Yes, then the question arises, How could the 12 have been so clueless when the Passion actually arrived? (The trick, of course, is to surrender to neither question, and take the account on its own terms.)
  • Peter’s role here may not be of tremendous significance in and of itself, but it is a tile in the final mosaic that establishes his position within the system.
  • The polyvalence of “Get behind me…” is a powerful stimulus to reflection on this passage.
  • Again … apropos of the first bullet above … to Matthew’s eventual reader, Jesus using cross-related imagery, while significant and powerful, is not dissonant. It’s a familiar element in the symbolic vocabulary. But if we attempt to put ourselves into that actual moment (inadvisable by scholars, but very Ignatian!), the neon is suddenly turned on. “What’s all this cross business about? Where’s he getting that?”
  • Moreover, the call to cross-taking is not extended merely to those who are interested in “extra credit.” Those who decline the invitation appear to not face a happy prospect.

Jeremiah 15:15-21
O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail? Therefore thus says the LORD: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the LORD. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”

· Can we call this a literary iteration of the “Passion of the Prophet Jeremiah”? In light of the gospel pericope, we can see Jesus as the one who takes up Jeremiah’s prophetic mantle, and suffers similar consequences.

Romans 12:9-21
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

· This reading is intended to stand on its own, of course, and not necessarily comment on the gospel. Yet, it does, in its exhortation to patience in tribulation, and returning blessing for cursing.

Psalm 26:1-8
1 Give judgment for me, O Lord,
for I have lived with integrity; *
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.
2 Test me, O Lord, and try me; *
examine my heart and my mind.
3 For your love is before my eyes; *
I have walked faithfully with you.
4 I have not sat with the worthless, *
nor do I consort with the deceitful.
5 I have hated the company of evildoers; *
I will not sit down with the wicked.
I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, *
that I may go in procession round your altar
7 Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving *
and recounting all your wonderful deeds.
8 Lord, I love the house in which you dwell *
and the place where your glory abides.

· In context, this Psalm passage highlight the “innocent victim” dimension of our Lord’s Passion.

That's it for now. Next week I'll look at some commentaries and do some serious exegesis, probably focusing on the Matthew reading.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Year A: Proper 8 (BCP) 29 June 2008

Matthew 10:34-42

Of all the liturgical changes that we experienced in the Episcopal Church during the 1970s, culminating in the introduction of the Prayer Book that we’re still using, the one feature that I suspect has enjoyed that least actual use across the church is the “contemporary” version of the Lord’s Prayer. Even in congregations where the rest of the service is in contemporary English, the Lord’s Prayer is still usually said using the traditional version. I won’t attempt to speculate on why this is, but I will observe that there are portions of the “new” Lord’s Prayer where the meaning is much clearer than in the familiar form. We are accustomed, for example, to say “lead us not into temptation,” and this has always troubled me because, biblically and theologically, it’s clear that God is never the source of temptation to sin, so it seems a little odd to be asking God not to do something that we know he’s not going to do anyway. The contemporary form of this line reads, “Save us from the time of trial,” and it’s really a more accurate rendition of the original Greek text. I think that if it said, “save is in the time of trial” it would be even more accurate, but that perhaps amounts to quibbling.

The point is that “time of trial” is much to be preferred over “temptation.” In all likelihood, what this petition refers to is the end of history, the last judgment, the time when all will be revealed and brought to light, the time when wrongs will be put right and the secrets of every heart laid out in the open before the throne of God. The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether they speak literally or metaphorically, characterize this time as one of great stress and conflict and tribulation, with wars and natural disasters and plagues and that sort of thing. So, when Jesus gave us this prayer, he was encouraging us to ask God to see us through that difficult time, the time when we will be judged, the time when all our works will be put on “trial” and judged according to the standards of God’s righteousness and justice and love.

I don’t think it’s too long a leap, however, for us to understand the “time of trial” in a secondary way as well, one which refers to adversities that believers in and disciples of Jesus might be prone to in this world, before the cataclysmic crises of the end of the age. It’s probable that this is what Matthew had in mind when he wrote the gospel that bears his name, and which we are working our way through methodically during the summer and into the fall, and, more specifically, the experience of suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel. To the original readers of Matthew’s gospel, that was a very real possibility, and would certainly have constituted a “time of trial” from which they hoped to be delivered. None of us suffer overt persecution for our faith, though, as our society continues the ongoing process of dechristianization, covert and subtle persecution is becoming quite ordinary. Yet, our understanding of the “time of trial” from which and in which we hope to be saved can even cover more than persecution. It can cover grief, disappointment, failure, shame, anxiety, fear, or even just everyday stress.

So the question arises, How are we going to hold up when the time of trial arrives? How should we deal with the prospect—the threat, actually—of being tested, of having what we’re really made of revealed in the crucible of adversity? In a passage from Matthew’s gospel that, if we pay close attention to it, we should find quite troubling—quite challenging and even distressing, really—Jesus gives us a strong hint as to how we might find ourselves prepared to be saved in and/or saved from the time of trial. He says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Well, right away, that gets our attention, because it flies in the face of our image of Jesus as Mr Nice Guy who doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings and wants everybody to just get along. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But it gets worse. He continues, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household.” If there’s anything we hold almost universally sacred in America, it’s the family, and in this passage, Jesus seems to be putting a bullet right between the eyes of the family. “A man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Well, from the context of other passages of scripture, I think it’s safe to say that this is not in fact what Jesus is doing. He’s using literary hyperbole, intentional exaggeration, to make a point. And the point is this: Being a Christian, being a disciple of Christ, means that we prefer Christ above all other commitments and ties, even the blood ties of family. When the crunch time comes, when the time of trial arrives, our brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents are those who are walking with us on the road of Christian faith and discipleship. If they happen also to be blood relatives, or spouses and in-laws, so much the better. But our primary connection is to Christ, and our primary loyalty is to Christ.

The alternative to preferring Christ is to follow our own basic human instincts. These are the instincts that, among other things, cause us to love the members of our family, and they are generally good things. The only problem is, they are also distorted by sin. It’s like a mixture of cancerous and healthy tissue—you can’t touch one without also touching the other. The fact is, we simply cannot trust our instincts, because we are all born in sin, and our instincts are corrupted. Our human instincts lead us to compartmentalize matters of faith and religious practice. They lead us to think of our life of discipleship as just one more in a long list of priorities that we need to somehow keep in balance—priorities like work, sports and leisure activities, civic and community service, political activity, exercise and health, and, of course, family.

Mind you, these can all be good things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them. They are just not the best thing; they are not the one thing needful. We need to think of them, not as other priorities alongside God and our commitment to the people of God, but, rather, as gifts that we have surrendered to God, and then received back from his hand, transformed and made holy and consecrated to him. If we are not willing to first surrender them, no strings attached, then these severe words of Jesus are for us: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Like I said, these are severe words, and they certainly seem counterintuitive to us, even going against nature. But they are, in fact, the very font of life and health and joy and peace—a fact that will become evident to us only when the time of trial arrives.

If we are not able to make this gift to God of all that we are and all that we have—our bodies, our affections, our family relationships, our hopes and aspirations—if we choose to follow instead our own sin-corrupted human instincts, we will find the time of trial—whether it’s a momentary affliction in this life or final judgment at the end of the age—we will find the time of trial quite “trying” indeed. If our faith and Christian discipleship are only compartments within our lives, and not the very center of our lives, when the stress of adversity comes, we are at risk of losing even what faith we have. And in the last time of trial at the end of time, we will find that we have rejected the gift of salvation that God has so freely offered us.

Jesus says, “Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” Our modern ears tend to hear the phrase “little ones” and think automatically of children. But that isn’t what Jesus means here. The “little ones” are those who have put their faith in Christ and set out to follow him as disciples. Maybe it’s a very simple and not very educated faith. Maybe the discipleship is inept and inconsistent. We’re not talking about heroic Christians here, people who have their names in the liturgical calendar. We’re talking about ordinary folks, not “super disciples,” but “little ones.” Jesus is saying that not only will these little one not lose their reward, but even those who somehow help them along the way will also be rewarded. Honest discipleship, even if it’s imperfect, enables us to hang on to our saving faith when the time of trial arrives. Lord, save us from the time of trial. Amen.