Strangely Good News

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? I tell you that even now the ax is sharpened and ready to cut down all the unfruitful trees among you! And the chaff, that worthless garbage, will be incinerated with unquenchable fire! So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people! Now, if this is John’s “good news,” I’m not sure I want to hang around to hear his “bad news.” He sounds angry. He sounds frustrated. John is issuing a scathing, scolding rebuke that even makes us uncomfortable sitting here two thousand years later. And to complicate matters even more, the crowd that John is addressing has come to him to be baptized. Now during my years as a priest, I have had hundreds of people approach me about baptism, and to my recollection, never once have I responded by referring to them a venomous snake! These are harsh and challenging words indeed. 

And yet, somehow, in the midst of these powerful, prophetic, words of warning and rebuke, the “good news,” the “gospel” is being proclaimed! So, what are we to make of this paradox? How do we hear these words from John the Baptist as a proclamation of good news?

Well, if we look back for moment to last Sunday, you might recall that we heard about the beginning of John’s public ministry, and in particular, we heard John describing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision for all of creation. And he said this new reality would be one in which the valleys of injustice would be lifted up and the mountains of pride would be brought low. In this new kingdom, everything that is crooked and out of alignment will be made straight and the even the rough patches, the potholes of life will be made smooth. That’s the vision! That’s the new reality of the kingdom of God that is even now breaking forth in our world! 

But if last week was about the vision, the big picture of God’s grand construction project for the world, this week is about how that vision is built. This is week is about the concrete ways that we are called to put that vision into action. In other words, John is saying, “here is what this new reality is going to actually mean for your life and for the life of the world.”

The first thing John says about this new reality is that some things are going to have to change! In other words, it’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. Did you notice that many of the images and metaphors that John uses describe a process of change and it’s a process of change and transformation will not necessarily be easy? It will require repentance, choosing to turn and move in a different direction. And to move in a new directionmeans that we might have to let go of some the things that we once relied upon for a sense of security and safety. In fact, there may be some things in our lives that are no longer bearing fruit and those things need to be cut down. In other words, there will be things that need to be removed in order to create new pathways, underbrush that needs to be cleared away in order for the new thing that God is doing in our lives and in the world. In this new reality, as this new kingdom breaks forth into the world, somethings are going to have to change. 

But according to John, this new reality is not just transformational, it’s also RELATIONAL. Did you notice that different groups keep asking John “What should we do?” We know things are changing, but how does that effect our lives? And in every case, the exhortation that John offers is about how to treat other people. The crowds asks, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “If you have an extra coat or some extra food, you should give it to those in need!” The tax collectors come and ask, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “How about stop cheating people on their taxes!” And the solders come, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “Well, for starters, don’t blackmail people in order to make more money!” 

In each and every case, John is telling folks that in the new reality of the kingdom of God, relationships matter. How we treat each other matters. This is not just about the piety of individuals, this is about the transformation of society. This is not just about the conversion of the human heart, this is about the healing of the human family. In this new reality some things are going to need to change and where they need to change the most is in the context of our relationships with one another! 

Finally, and I think most importantly, this transformational, relational work of the kingdom of God is surprisingly PRACTICAL.  Did you notice all the advice that John gives to the crowd is something they can actually do right now? They don’t have to quite their jobs. They don’t have to get a seminary degree. They don’t have to join a new ministry. There’s not even a committee or a task-force to oversee the progress of these initiatives! John simply says, you can participate in the new reality of the kingdom of God right where you are!“If you’re a tax collector, go and be a decent tax collector!” “If you’re a soldier, go and be a honest soldier.” 

You can fill in the blank with whatever life-situation describes you right now. “If you’re a parent, go and be a faithful parent.” “If you’re a supervisor in your company, go and be a good and trustworthy supervisor.” “If you’re a teacher, go and be a passionate and dedicated teacher.” And the list could go on. The point is that this transformational, relational work of the kingdom is something you can do today, right now, right where you are! The small corner of the world where you live and work and laugh and play is precisely where God has called you to be – and that is place where God is working in you and through you to bring about his kingdom in this world.

Our brother John the Baptist came onto the scene with a powerful, prophetic word of warning and rebuke – but he also came with a word of HOPE. He came announcing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision of a world turned right-side up. And John made it very clear that he was not the one to bring about this new reality – but that the One coming after him – the One whose coming we await – the One whose name is Jesus – He would be the One to bring about this new vision for the world. 

It’s a vision that’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. It’s a vision that’s RELATIONAL. And above all, it’s a vision that’s PRACTICAL – a vision that starts today, right now, right where you are. And my friends, for you, for me, and for the world – this is indeed incredibly good news indeed!!

The Promise of RESTORATION

Over 150 years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a famous artist who was widely acclaimed for his work as a sculptor and a painter. This particular artist had been trained in Rome and studied with many of the great artistic masters of his day. So, the works that he created were of the highest quality and many were placed in some of the most prestigious museums in the world. They were characterized by brilliant colors, intricate details, and profound beauty. 

But after sitting in a museum for a while, something began to happen to one particular painting. The combination of dust, moisture, and the residue from 19th century kerosene lanterns all combined to create a film that darkened brilliant colors and concealed the intricate details that had made this artist famous. 

Believe it or not, at one point, a well-intentioned maintenance worker actually coated this painting with varnish, thinking that would surely protect it from further damage. But the varnish, of course, turned yellow and further diminished the profound beauty of the artwork. Ultimately, the residue and buildup became so significant that by the middle of 20th century, art historians were highly critical of the artist’s work. They thought it was inferior and amateurish. They were, of course, judging not the original work, but the rather the effects of the dust and dirt and varnish that had accumulated over time.

Many years later, it was discovered that the paintings had cracks and chips that needed to be repaired. But when artists were hired to conduct this repair work, do you know what they did? They didn’t try to match their paints to the original brilliant colors, because they couldn’t see them! Instead, they matched their paints to the dirty and yellowed colors that were the result of layers of dust and moisture. And so, now on top of the layers of dust and residue, there were layers of paint that represented numerous attempts to “fix” the artist’s original work.

Eventually, a new museum curator decided to take a closer look at the artwork and became convinced that underneath these layers of dust and paint, there was a masterpiece of brilliant color, intricate detail, and profound beauty! And so, began the process of RESTORATION, which involved scraping away the excess paint, which in some cases was 15 layers deep, and then methodically removing the layers of dust and residue. It a slow and tedious process. But it was a process of rediscovering the beauty and power of the artist’s original work. A process of restoration!

My brothers and sisters, you and I gathered here today on this first Sunday of Advent, precisely because we are in need of restoration. When the world around us has already jumped ahead to Christmas, the church actually takes almost a month to reflect on why we need Christmas. Why did Jesus come in the first place? Why do we need the incarnation? Because we need restoration! 

If you think about it, at the very beginning of creation, God crafted a masterpiece full of brilliant colors, intricate detail, and profound beauty. The pinnacle of that creation was humankind, created in the image and likeness of God. Created to be a reflection and the brilliance and beauty of God himself.

But shortly thereafter, something began to happen. Due to our own sense of pride and entitlement, we began to make choices and decisions that slowly darkened the brilliant colors of our lives, concealed the intricate detail of God’s handiwork, and ultimately diminished the profound beauty of God’s creation. We have attempted to cover up our mistakes with the varnish of good intentions, the varnish of human achievement, the varnish of progress and innovation. We are really good at glossing over things, but eventually that glossy covering itself becomes dull and yellow and cracked!

And the saddest thing of all is that somewhere along the way we have just gotten used to it. Like the painters who were hired to fix the tarnished artwork, we often match the colors of our lives not to the brilliance of what we were created to be, but to the dull, muted, depressed colors that are the result of human sin and brokenness. Ultimately, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to “fix” ourselves and “fix” each other and “fix” the world, but it seems that for everything we try to “fix” over here something else begins to fall apart over there! If there is anything the year 2020 has taught us, it is that we can’t fix everything. Some things are out of our control! 

But thousands of years ago, our spiritual ancestors, the prophets and sages of the Old Testament, began to take a closer look. Like the Curator of the museum, they began to look underneath the layers of human pride and arrogance. They began to peel away the layers of sin and brokenness and alienation. And you know what they began to see? They began to see the brilliant colors, the intricate details, and the profound beauty of creation that had been there all along! And they began to proclaim that one day, God would break forth into the course of human history to bring about healing and restoration, not just for humanity, but for all of creation. And they were longing for that day. 

In our Psalm this morning, the psalmist cries out not once, not twice, but three times, for God to restore his people. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” The prophet Isaiah echoes this cry when he says, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down hear.” Come and heal. Come and restore. Come and make all things new. 

Now if we fast forward to November 29, 2020, we are gathered here on this First Sunday of Advent, because we believe God heard the cry of his people. We believe that in the fulness of time, God sent his Son to come among us in great humility. God tore open the heavens and to get to us. To heal. To forgive. To restore. 

My friends, the incarnation is a sign of God’s promise to make all things news, to peel away the layers of sin and brokenness, to chip away the hard shell of human pride and arrogance. To reveal God’s masterpiece that has been there all along. To reveal the brilliant colors, the intricate detail, and the profound beauty that God created at the very beginning.

Of course, we don’t see the fullness of this restoration yet. When we walk out those doors, it won’t take very long before you and I notice the dull, muted colors that are the result of human sin and brokenness. We see the degradation of creation. We see suffering and pain. We see violence and injustice.

But in the midst of the darkness of this broken world, you and I are called to see a deeper reality, to see God’s hand work in the world about us. We are called to bear witness to God’s work of healing and restoration and then to participate in that work. We are called to show forth in our lives the brilliant colors and profound beauty of God’s creation and then to work for the renewal and restoration of that creation. And so, as we celebrate this first Sunday of Advent, be reminded that you are part of God’s masterpiece. You are a reflection of the very image and likeness of God. And you are called to be a vessel of healing and restoration for the world! 

The Great Surprise

One thing is for sure, the year 2020 has been full of surprises. Of course, many of the surprises we have endured over the past several months are ones we most certainly could have done without. There have been significant challenges. There has been profound change and deep uncertainty. All of which has resulted in a palpable sense of loss and grief. But in the midst of this loss and grief many people have also been surprised by grace. There have been moments when we have witnessed compassion and healing and kindness and even joy. There have been opportunities to grow and deepen our faith. Opportunities to see grace in action, to be surprised by beauty and hope. And these opportunities I think have been right in front us the whole time, but sometimes we just simply don’t have eyes to see them. 

This reminds me of a story of a young man who, several years ago, was playing music in the subway system of Washington D.C. His clothing and appearance indicated that he was homeless and had been living on the streets for quite some time. He set up his blanket in the corner of the subway station. He set out his plastic cup and a cardboard sign that simply read “please help. When the rush hour crowd began to descend the escalators into the subway station, the young man began to play his old violin. Hundreds of business men and women hurried past the man without even noticing the amazingly beautiful music that was being played. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, only six people would stop to listen. About 20 people tossed a few coins in the man’s plastic cup but then continued to walk at their normal pace. When he finished playing, no one even noticed the music had stopped. No one applauded. There was no recognition of any kind. No one had a clue that the violinist was, in fact, Joshua Bell, one of the most widely acclaimed classical musicians in the world. No one knew he had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth over 3.5 million dollars. No one knew that that just two days before his playing on the subway platform, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the ticket prices averaged over $100 a piece.

This was a social experiment about the way we perceive the world. Do we perceive beauty and hope and grace where we least expect it? Can you imagine the great surprise for those hundreds of subway passengers if we could somehow gather them and tell them, “You just walked past Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world?!?”

This morning’s gospel reading from Matthew 25 is all about the element of surprise. However, that’s not the way this parable is often taught. In fact, I looked up this parable in several of my study Bibles, and I found that this passage is most often referred to as “the Parable of the Final Judgment” or “the Parable to the “Sheep and the Goats” or “the Parable of Eternal Destiny.” But I think another possible title for today’s gospel reading could be “the Parable of the Great Surprise.” 

Now, most of us know the basic elements of the story. The Son of Man is coming in glory. And when he comes, he will separate the people one from another just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. In the parable, all the nations are gathered together, and the King says to those on his right hand, “Come you who are blessed by my Father and take your place in the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” But to those at this left hand, he says, “Depart from me, you evildoers and you who are cursed.” At face value, this parable seems to be exactly what those titles in our Bibles indicate – it is a Final Judgement, it is the Separation of the Sheep from the Goats, it is a parable about Eternal Destination. But this morning, I want you to notice that it is also a parable full of surprise!!!

First of all, notice that both the “sheep” and the “goats” are completely surprised by their own actions or inaction. To those at his right hand, the King said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was homeless and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” And upon hearing these words, they are utterly astonished and they ask the King, “when did we do these things?” You can imagine these guys looking over their shoulder and thinking, “Are you talking to me?” They are completely surprised! 

And those on the King’s left hand are equally surprised. To them the King says, “I was hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned – and you did nothing to help me!” Upon hearing these word, they are just as astonished as the other group and they ask the king, “When did we not do these things?” 

This element of surprise reminds us that there is mystery when it comes to our own spiritual condition as well as the spiritual condition of others. We can never be so confident as to say we have somehow achieved righteousness. Nor can we place ourselves in the position of judge, arrogantly assuming we know who is righteous and who is not. For both the sheep and goats, for both the righteous and unrighteous, there was a moment of surprise. 

But I want you to see this morning that there is something even more surprising something even more scandalous going on in this parable. And that is the revelation of where this King is spending his time – with “the least of these!” The hungry. The thirsty. The homeless. The naked. The sick. The imprisoned. Both the sheep and the goats, both the righteous and unrighteous, are surprised to find out where Jesus has been hanging out. They are surprised by their failure to recognize the presence of Jesus all around them. Like the hundreds of subway riders who hastily rushed past Joshua Bell and failed to recognize one of the greatest musicians in the world, the great throngs of people described in today’s parable find themselves in the very presence of Jesus and fail to recognize him as King of kings and Lord of lords. They didn’t expect to find the presence of Jesus in the midst of the pain and brokenness of this world. 

Many people this year have been asking the question, “Where is God? Where is God in the midst of this pandemic?” I think the words of Jesus make it clear. God is right there among the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, and those is prison. Jesus is hanging out with “the least of these.” And Jesus says, when you love and serve and do justice among the least of these, you are doing those things to me. 

My friends, this morning, my prayer is that we may we be open to the surprising and amazing grace of God that is at work in our lives. May the eyes of our hearts be open to see the presence of God in surprising and unexpected places. And may we have the courage to embrace the pain and brokenness and mystery of this world that we might have an encounter with the transforming love of Jesus Christ and once again be surprised! 

Help Me To Forgive

Click Here to Watch our Virtual Church Service

Good morning! Wherever you are this morning, you are watching this sermon on Sunday, September 13 (or shortly thereafter!). This date is significant, because it was exactly six months ago, on March 13, that we received notice that our schools and churches would be closing our buildings for at least two weeks. Clearly, we underestimated the ultimate duration of this pandemic. But here’s the thing, March 13 was a Friday. Friday the 13th no less. And here we are on Sunday the 13th. And today on Sunday the 13th, as you watch this virtual church service, our leadership team is gathering for our trial run of in-person worship. In other today marks the beginning of our return to worshipping and gathering as God’s people and it’s been a journey from a Friday to a Sunday. A Friday to a Sunday.

That should sound familiar to us, because, of course, we are Christians because of another journey from a Friday to a Sunday. From Good Friday to Easter Sunday. From the cross to the empty tomb. From death to new and abundant life. From Friday to Sunday. 

Now we are, of course, a Sunday people. A resurrection people. A new creation people. But the reality is that in the course of this life, we often find ourselves on this journey from Friday to Sunday. It’s not a journey we take only once. It is the paradigm for our lives. Continually moving from death to life. From grief to hope. From the old life of sin to the new life of grace. We are continuing on the journey from Friday to Sunday.  Are you with me this morning? 

Because today I want to talk about one piece of that journey and that is forgiveness. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the promise that God has forgiven us in Christ, that we have been washed and made pure and made worthy to stand before Christ. We are part of God’s new creation. And because we are the recipients of God’s extravagant grace and forgiveness, we are called to extend that same forgiveness to others, even those who have hurt us, even those whom we might consider our enemies. 

In today’s gospel reading, Peter says, “Lord, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times.” Now, in the first century, it was common for rabbis to instruct their followers to forgive 3 times, which was based on a passage found in the prophet Amos. So, I can imagine Peter standing next Jesus thinking to himself, “The rabbis say we should forgive 3 times, the prophets say that we should forgive three times…so if I double that and add one, that’s seven…and seven is the biblical number of creation, the number of completion…and so Jesus is really going to love this answer!”

But Jesus just shakes his head and says, “Not seven times, but seventy seven times, which would have been considered a crazy, ridiculous, outrageous number of times to forgive.” In other words, Jesus is saying to Peter, this is not a matter of human calculations. This is about God’s generosity! God’s abundance! God’s extravagance!

To drive home his point, Jesus then tells a parable. In the parable, a servant owes his master, the king, 10,000 talents. Now 1 talent was the equivalent of about 15 years wages for a servant in the 1st century…and so 10,000 talents would have been the total wages for a servant for approximately 150,000 years…nevertheless, the king forgives this debt. This forgiveness is extravagant and generous beyond measure.

And yet, the servant goes right back into the street and pulls out his ledger. He finds the first fellow servant who owes him a hundred bucks and throws him in prison. Even though he has just experienced generous, extravagant forgiveness, this guy falls right back into the pattern of judgment others based on human calculations. 

We do the same thing! We are the recipients of God’s extravagant grace and abundant forgiveness and then we still hold onto judgment, resentment, bitterness, and anger.

And so, the question is “why?” Why is it so hard to forgive? 

Well, think one of the reasons why it is so hard for us to forgive is that our culture has turned forgiveness into a feeling instead of action. And this fits the paradigm of our culture in which feelings are supposed to precede actions. One of the messages that we are confronted with all the time is “If it feels good, do it.” The implication is “if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.” And anybody who has raised a teenager knows this is true. Because if you ask a teenager, “Why didn’t you finish your homework? Why didn’t you take out the trash? Why didn’t you clean up your room?” What’s one of the most common responses, “I didn’t feel like it.” We have bought into the lie that somehow feelings have to precede actions. 

But with forgive it is more often the case that our action results in feeling. In other words, it is the action of forgiveness that leads to feelings of compassion and kindness, not the other way around. 

One of my favorite stories is about Corie Ten Boom. She and her sister Betsie were prisoners at a concentration camp called Ravensbruck during WWII. Corie made it out alive. Betsie did not. Years later, Corie was speaking at a church in Munich and she shared about her experience during the war. After her talk, a balding man in a grey overcoat approached her and said, “That was a fine talk. You mentioned the camp at Ravenbruck, I was a guard there. But since that time I have become a Christian and I believe that God has forgiven me, but I need to hear those words from your lips. Will you forgive me?

Corie Ten Boom recounts that moment standing in front of one of the people she hated the most. And she said I knew that I should forgive, but all she felt was anger, bitterness, and resentment. And so, she prayed. She prayed and said “Jesus help me. I can raise my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” 

As she raised her hand, she felt a deep release inside of her. As her hand embrace the hand of the guard, she was able to say, “I forgive you with all my heart.” She raised her hand and God supplied the feeling.

My friends, we are on continual journey from Friday to Sunday. From death to life. From grief to hope. From the old life of sin to the new life of grace. And part of that journey is learning to forgive with all our heart. In the midst of a world that is gripped by pain and division and fear, we are called to be a people of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s hard work. It’s work we will rarely feel like doing. But maybe we can all start  by simply raising our hand. 

Community Matters

Over fifty years ago, in 1966, a young priest was preparing to lead a gathering of clergy and leaders from around the church. This particular gathering was unique for two reasons. First, it was ecumenical, it was a gathering of leaders from all different denominations and affiliations. But secondly, this gathering was interracial, which in 1966 was a really big deal. And so, as this young priest was preparing for this gathering, he was looking for a song that would capture the essence of this unique opportunity to bring together people from different backgrounds, differences races, different cultures, different socio-economic situations. But he couldn’t find a song that was just the right fit, so the young priest picked up his guitar and wrote a song. That young priest was Fr. Peter Scholtes and the song was They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

It’s a song that captures the essence of what it means to live together as a Christian community. We are one in the Spirit. We will work with each other. We will guard each one’s dignity. We will walk side by side. This is powerful vision of life as a Christian community. But listen, we also have to be honest about the fact that being part of a community can be hard work. Whenever you have a group of people seeking to live out a common vision with a common purpose, there are bound to be complications! 

As one commentator put it, “Where two or three are gathered together, there will be politics…there will be differences of opinions. And given enough time, there will be hurt feelings and ruffled feathers, and damaged egos.”

Living in community is hard work because relationships are hard work. Relationships require risk-taking and truth-telling…they require vulnerability, accountability, patience, and forgiveness.

And yet, even though life together as a community is often fraught with challenges, it is precisely the image of community that defines what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In fact, almost every single writing of the New Testament was written for the encouragement and building up of community. Why? Because when you read the New Testament, you will find more than a few ruffled feathers and damaged egos. The New Testament writers knew first hand that life together as a Christian community is hard work. 

And nowhere is this more true than in today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is teaching his disciples about how to respond to conflict within the community. Now, unfortunately, this passage has often been read simply as a formula for church discipline. If someone is a causing problems…follow these 4 easy steps. 

I think this passage is about much more than conflict management. This passage describes some of the essential characteristics of what it means to be a Christian community. Jesus is teaching us what it means to live together as brothers and sisters. How we treat each other matters! To Jesus, the character of our life together as a community is a big deal.

And so, what Jesus is doing is exhorting his disciples to get real about the challenges of life together as a community. How we treat each other matters! How we deal with conflict matters! How we love and forgive each other matters! How we hold each other accountable as members of the body of Christ matters!

In 1939, on the eve of the second world war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a small book simply entitled LIFE TOGETHER, in which he describes the nature of Christian community.  And in that book, Bonhoeffer essential describes what Jesus describes in Matthew 18. In his book, Bonhoeffer moves beyond all the niceties of being the church. He says it’s not enough just to get along when everyone is pious and on their best behavior. What matters is how we treat other when life is hard. What matters is how we treat other when we don’t agree. What matters is our ability to forgive and respond with grace when someone hurts us or offends us. It can be messy and challenging and frustrating. But how we treat each other matters to God! 

And it matters because we are all part of God’s mission. 

Jesus says, whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven…and whatever you loose on earth with be loosed in heaven. In other words, as members of a spiritual community, we become participants in the work of and mission of God. Our actions become intimately connected with God’s actions. Jesus is saying that what we do on earth is actually reflected in heaven. Think about that for a moment!  The mission and ministry that we share together as a community is meant to be a reflection of who God is. How we live together as a community is meant to be a reflection of the essential characteristics of God – characteristics like forgiveness, patience, an vulnerability…risk-taking and truth-telling, all those things that are essential to authentic relationships and authentic community. 

Our actions are intimately connected to God’s actions. We are participants in the work and mission of God. And all of this takes right to the heart of the matter. The Christian community is a dwelling place for God. 

He says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” The word that Jesus uses literally means, “to be in the middle.” Where two or three are gathered together, Jesus is there in the middle. Jesus is there among and, in the midst of the community. But, you know, our church architecture throughout history has primarily reinforced the idea that God is up front…God is where all the action is happening.  And I often wondered if that’s why Episcopalians tend to sit in the back; they simply don’t want to get too close. But Jesus say “I will be in the middle” of you. I will be in the midst of the community. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Sunday morning, a Tuesday night, or a Thursday afternoon. It doesn’t matter whether your in a church, in your home, or gathered in a parking lot. The Christian community is a dwelling place for God.

Over 50 years ago Peter Scholtes wrote a song that describe the essence of what it means to be a Christian community formed and shaped by the Spirit and power of God. As he prepare to gather with Christians from all walks of life, from different backgrounds, differences races, different cultures, different socio-economic situations. He knew that how we treat other matters, because we are all part of God’s mission, and we know this because Jesus has chosen to dwell in the middle of it all. 

And so, this morning, as we look forward to the day when we can regather in this space as God’s spiritual community, may we strive to answer the call the Jesus to be a community where lives are changes,  a community characterized by risk-taking, truth-telling, patience, forgiveness, vulnerability, grace, and above all, LOVE. 

First-Person Faith

The story of the gospel in the New Testament is, of course, the story of Jesus. It’s the story of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. We read the gospel stories precisely because we want to know the story of Jesus. But have you thought about the fact that the story of the gospel is also the story of the disciples? It’s the story of their journey of faith, the process of coming to the realization that Jesus actually is who he says he is. The gospel stories tell us a lot about Jesus, but they also tell us a lot about the disciples and how they were transformed from a small band of merchants and fishermen into a movement that would ultimately change the world.

And if there is one moment that encapsulates this transformational story of the disciples, that moment is what happens in today’s gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus and the disciples have been busy. They have traveling by land and sea. They have been ministering to the sick, proclaiming the kingdom, and having theological debates with religious leaders. To escape the busyness of ministry, Jesus and his disciples travel north to a city called Caesarea Philippi. This was a city named after the Emperor Tiberius Caesar as well as Philip, the son of King Herod the Great. In other words, this was an imperial city, a symbol of political and military power. It is here among the secular trappings of the ancient world that Jesus begins to question the disciples about his own identity and purpose.

He asks two very simple questions, but these two questions represent a quantum leap when it comes to the story of the disciples and their journey of faith.

The first question is “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus wants to know about the buzz on the street. What are people saying? What are people thinking? What are their opinions about his ministry so far? The disciples offer a variety of answers. Some say you might be John the Baptist, who was already dead by the way. Some say Elijah. Some say you might be one of the prophets. In other words, there are a diversity of opinions and guesses about who Jesus is. And I can picture Jesus just leaning back and stroking his beard as he listens to what he listens to what everyone else is saying about him

Then he turns to the disciples and asks second question – “Who do you say that I am?” You told what everybody else thinks. You’ve told me what all the “talking-heads” are saying about me. But what do you think? What do you believe? Who do you say that I am?

These two questions that Jesus poses to his disciples represent the movement from third-person information to first-person transformation

Jesus is challenges us disciples to understand that there is a difference between what other people say, what other people believe and our personal experience of Jesus in our lives. In other words, we’re not called to have third-person faith, a faith that is based on solely on the words and opinions of others. We are called to have a first-person experience of Jesus as the One who transforms and renews our lives and ultimately the world.

Now we witness this movement from third-person information to first-person transformation in our everyday lives.

For example, you can know a lot about cars and highways and parking lots, but you’re not a driver until you get behind the wheel.

You can know a lot about pools and diving boards and goggles, but you’re not a swimmer until you get into the water.

You can know a lot about plants and fertilizer and weed control, but you’re not a farmer or a gardener until you get your hands in the soil.

You can know a lot about the church and ministry and even the Bible, but you’re not a disciple until you choose to follow Jesus.

We are called to move from third-person information to first-person transformation.

The problem, of course, is that there is a lot of third-person information available. We live in the age of information. You can Google just about anything. You can watch a YouTube video on almost any subject you can imagine. You can click on every video that pops up on your Facebook page. We are surrounded by third-person information – what other people say! But third-person information is not what changes our lives.

Now I’m saying we don’t need each other, and we don’t learn from each other. Of course, we do. Information is important. Learning is important. Study is important. But information is not the goal. The goal is transformation. The goal is to be transformed more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus himself.

During this pandemic, I have had people email me or send me messages to tell me that their faith has actually grown over the past several months. Despite all of the challenges. Despite being separated from our buildings. Despite being cut off from many of the things they usually depend on to support their spiritual life. Despite all of those things, they are reporting that their faith has actually grown and become stronger.

Now, there are probably a number of factors behind these reports. But my hunch is that when all the outward and visible structures that usually support our faith are stripped away, when all the third-person information is removed, when we can no longer lean on what everybody else says or thinks, we come face to face to with our first-person faith. We have to wrestle with what we believe and why we believe. When everything around us is changing, we come to know more clearly what doesn’t change.

Jesus gathered his disciples in the middle of the cosmopolitan city of Caesarea Philippi and said, “Who do people say that I am?” What’s the scoop? What kind of third-person information to you have? To that initial question, there was a diversity of responses.

But then came the second question. “Who do you say that I am?” What’s your first-person experience? And to that question, there was only one response. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

And so, my friends, where are you in this story? Where are you on your spiritual journey? Do you have a third-person faith or first-person faith? Or maybe somewhere in between?

We are all on this journey together. And we are all at different point on the journey. But at some point, we all come face to face with the same question Jesus asked his first disciples nearly two thousand years ago. During these strange times when there is so much change and uncertainty, may you and I have ears to hear the voice Jesus asking each one us – “Who do you say that I am?

The Woman who Taught the Teacher

I’ve been noticing lately that many of our contemporary images of Jesus emphasize the characteristics and attributes of Jesus that we like. For example, over the past several years, there has been a surplus of made-for-TV movies about the Bible and the life of Jesus. And almost invariably, Jesus is depicted as a pretty nice guy. He’s polite and calm; he’s compassionate and gentle. He’s the kind of guy that you want to have living down the street. And of course, that’s what we’re going to put on TV, because that’s the Jesus we like – Jesus as our shepherd, our teacher, and our friend.

But that’s not exactly the Jesus that we encounter in this morning’s gospel reading. In this morning’s reading from Matthew, we find Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is about 35 miles northwest from the region of Galilee. This is Gentile territory and, of course, the Gentiles are considered unclean and therefore outside the boundaries of the people of God. In fact, when Jesus commissioned his disciples earlier in Matthews’s gospel, he told them not to go among the gentiles.

Yet, here Jesus isin the region of Tyre and Sidon among the Gentiles.And he is almost immediately confronted by a woman, a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites, of course, are the ancient enemy of the Israelites. But this Canaanite woman has a daughter who is being tormented by a demonic spirit and she cries out for mercy, begging Jesus to heal her daughter.

Now in nearly every other healing story, Jesus responds almost immediately with compassion and some sort of action. But in today’s gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t answer her at all.  And when he finally does react, Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman with what seems to be a rather harsh and dismissive comment. He says, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel. It would not be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

How can we make sense of this harsh response from Jesus? How do we account for his words that seem downright callous and rude?

Some have suggested that maybe Jesus is just having a bad day! It’s been a long journey from Galilee. Jesus is tired and hungry. And the Canaanite woman just catches him at a bad time.

Some have suggested that Jesus is testing the Canaanite woman. He wants to test the depth of her faith and her willingness to persevere. So, according to this interpretation, the remarks of Jesus are said sort of as a tease with a smile on his face.

Still others have suggested that the word for dog in this passage can actually be translated as “puppy,” so perhaps this comment from Jesus simply refers to a domestic reality (small children and their puppies) and therefore it’s not meant as a derogatory statement.

However, none of these interpretations can really be supported by the text of Matthew’s gospel. And so, this morning I would like to suggest that perhaps…just maybe…this encounter with the Canaanite woman is a moment of transformation for Jesus himself. Perhaps this is a moment when the teacher is being taught. Perhaps this is a moment  that marks a dramatic transition in the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Perhaps this is a moment when we clearly see the full humanity of Jesus.  We already know that Jesus is divine. Over the past few Sundays, Jesus has been doing some pretty amazing things. Walking on water. Calming the storm. Feeding over 5,000 people with a few pieces of bread and fish. There can be no doubt that Jesus clearly has authority and power as the fully divine Son of God. And yet, today as Jesus encounters a woman crying out for mercy, perhaps we see a very human Jesus struggling to come to grips with the expansiveness of his own mission.

If you think about it, this is the first time Jesus has ventured this far into Gentile territory. In the first century context, Tyre and Sidon are a long way from Galilee. And in this new Gentile world, Jesus is confronted with a new reality. Jesus in confronted firsthand with the reality that the expansiveness of God’s grace and the wideness of God’s mercy go far beyond human imagination and expectations.

In the kingdom of God, there are no boundaries or walls.

In many ways, Jesus is experiencing first-hand what he has been teaching about back in Galilee. Remember, Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a sower who goes out and spreads seed all around and without explanation, the seeds grow and flourish and no one knows how. He said the kingdom of God is like a mustard plant, remember the weed that takes over everything around it. Jesus has already been teaching about the all encompassing nature of God’s kingdom, he has been teaching about the wideness of God’s grace and mercy and healing power. But now that reality has face – a Canaanite woman pleading for the healing of her daughter.

In response to the seeming insensitive and rude remark from Jesus, the woman replies, “Yes, Lord…but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She gets it.  This Canaanite woman is a more astute theologian than any of the disciples! She sees the expansiveness of the God’s kingdom. She sees the wideness of God’s grace and mercy. And so, even though she only asks for a few crumbs of grace, Jesus responds with abundance and fully restores her daughter.

So, what does this story say to you and me today?

Well, I think first and foremost, this story reminds you and me that we are the Canannite woman. We are the recipients of God’s surprising, outrageous grace. If you have been hanging for the Episcopal Church for a while, you may remember a time when we prayed a prayer called the Prayer of Humble Access every Sunday. In that prayer, we confess, “O merciful Lord…we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

We are not worthy of the crumbs and yet God has given us the whole banquet!

We are the recipients of the God’s boundless grace.

But the story of the Canaanite woman is also a story that should challenge us. It should challenge us to look at where we have put up boundaries and walls. It should challenge us to examine the ways we have excluded people who are not like us. Ultimately, this story should challenge us to repent of our human tendency to try to constrain the awesome power and expansiveness of the Kingdom of God.

For Jesus, his encounter with the Canaanite woman enlarged his understanding of God’s mission in the world and he came to face to face with the reality of the expansiveness of God’s grace and the wideness of his mercy. May the same be true for us.

Into the Chaos

One of the wonderful blessings of living in South Florida is the fact that we are surrounded by water. When I leave my house, I don’t have to travel very far before I cross a bridge and see the vast beauty of the water around us. Some of you watching this sermon this morning may be able to look out your window and see water just a short distance from your home.

Now most of the time, we take the presence of water for granted. The water is a source of tranquility and peacefulness. To be near the water (or better yet in a boat on the water) is an experience of refreshment and renewal. But when a hurricane or tropical storm is approaching our region, all of a sudden, the water becomes a threat. The water becomes a potential source of destruction and devastation.

If we could back in time, what we would discover is that the potential danger associated with water was even more significant thousands of years ago, long before GPS and sonar and radar, before all the modern technology we use to mitigate the threat of water. In the ancient world, to venture out into the water was to enter into the unknown. To venture out into the water meant that you would be alone and cut off from everything back on the land.

The water was dark.

The water was dangerous.

The water was deadly.

In the ancient world, water was a symbol of chaos! It was a symbol of the messiness and our lives. It was a symbol of all the things that are dangerous and threatening and uncertain in our world.

So, in today’s gospel reading when Jesus is walking on the water, he is not just showing off. He is not just doing his Messiah thing and throwing in an extra miracle just because he can. Something profound is happening, Because, by entering into the water, into the wind and waves, Jesus is entering into the chaos, into the messiness and craziness of our world. And then think about this. By walking ON the water, Jesus is transcending that chaos. He is doing more than just defying the laws of physics. Jesus is overcoming the all that is dangerous and threatening and uncertain in our world.

Now when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, they are understandably freaked out. They think they are seeing a ghost, but Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, it’s me.” And Peter, always the spokesperson for the group, replies. And he says, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Notice what Peter does not say.

Peter doesn’t say, “Lord, if it is really you, then calm the wind and the waves.” That will come later.

Peter doesn’t say, “Lord, if it is really you, then get over here and get into the boat with us.” That will come later.

Peter doesn’t say, “Lord, if it is really you, then let us worship you and fall down at your feet. That will come later.

In this moment, what Peter does say is “Lord, if it is really you, then let me be where you are.” Even if that means leaving the safety and security of the boat. Even if that means stepping out into the chaos of the water. Jesus, I want to be where you are! And Jesus responds with one word, “Come!” It’s the invitation that Jesus has been issuing since the beginning of his ministry. Come. Come and follow me. Come and see. Come and be where I am.

So, Peter leaves the safety and security of the boat. Peter enters into the chaos. And for a few brief moments, he is able to walk on the water. For a few brief moments, he is able to overcome the chaos. But then the wind and waves rise up around him and he cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus grabs Peter by the arm and lifts him up. And I can almost hear Jesus saying to Peter, “I’ve got you!”

You know, the more I read this story, the more convinced I am that Peter beginning to sink is not a failure on his part. Not at all. Peter was the one who was willing to say, “Lord, let me come where you are.” Peter was willing to leave the safety and security of the boat. Peter was willing to enter into the chaos. But once he stepped out, he quickly discovered he couldn’t walk that walk alone. He needed Jesus.

You know, the story doesn’t tell us how Jesus and Peter got back to the boat, but it seems to me they must have walked together. And remember at this point in the story, the storm is still raging. It’s only after walking through the wind and waves together, and only after they get back into the boat, that the wind stops blowing.

This morning, I wonder if you and I are willing to be like Peter. Are we willing to say, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you?” I want to be where you are. No matter what. Even if that means leaving the safety and security of the boat. Even if that means entering the chaos of this crazy world. Even if that means taking a risk. Lord, I want to be where you are!

My friends, this story reminds us that Jesus has already entered into and overcome the chaos of this world and messiness of our lives. He was already walked through the wind and the waves. And he calls to you and me and simply says, “Come.” Don’t be afraid.

This story reminds us Jesus is God with us. Even in the chaos. Even in the wind and waves. Even in the darkness. He is there. No matter what. And he reaches forth his hand and says, “I’ve got you!” “You’re safe.”

My friends, we are living in some crazy times. We are witnessing what certainly seems like chaos in so many dimensions of our world. We are feeling the wind and waves of change and unrest. I don’t know what challenges and obstacles you are facing today, but Jesus is right there in the middle of the storm, and he is calling to you and me, “Come!”

“I’ve got you”

“Do not be afraid. “

“You are mine.”

So, be encouraged today. Even in the midst of the storm. Be encouraged. Even in the midst of the chaos and craziness of this world. My prayer for you today is that you will feel the presence of Jesus with, lifting you up, keeping you safe, and walking with you right in the middle of the storm.

The Invasive Kingdom of God

One of the basic needs that we have as human beings is the need for a sense of control, a sense of stability and certainty in our lives. This need for control is not something that is reserved only for those in certain professions or those with specific personality types. But rather, what science is telling us is that all of us, to some degree or another, are hard wired to need a certain amount of stability and certainty and control in our lives. Therefore, when we feel that our lives are out of control, when we feel stability and certainty slipping away, we naturally experience stress, we grow anxious, and we become increasingly fearful about the future.

Our need for control is especially strong when we feel threatened or when we perceive that something we value may be taken away from us. And so, as we look at the world around us, a world of rapid and significant change, a world in which those things that we once thought were stable and secure are now slipping away, is it any wonder that we see an explosion of fear and anxiety? In the midst of such significant change and uncertainty, what happens is that the part of our brain that needs stability and certainty kicks into high gear and says to us, “You need to control this!”

But when it comes to the Kingdom of God, God’s mode of operation, it appears that things are quite different. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us an image of God’s kingdom that is the exact opposite of control.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.” Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose the mustard seed for this parable? There are actually smaller seeds and larger shrubs than the mustard plant. And if Jesus were simply making the point that in the kingdom of God small things grow into big things, he could have used any seed from any plant to illustrate that point, because all plants start small and grow big. So why the mustard seed?

There are some who have suggested that perhaps Jesus chose the mustard plant because, in the middle-east region, the mustard plant is widely recognized as a wild, aggressive, invasive plant that is almost impossible to control. Once the mustard plant takes root in your field, it quickly becomes unmanageable and is extremely difficult to get rid of. Perhaps if Jesus were telling this parable in Southeast Florida, he might compare the Kingdom of God to the Brazilian Pepper Tree!  It’s aggressive, invasive, and out of our control!  Once it takes root, it begins to grow and take over everything that surrounds it!

Now on the one hand, this might be a bit unsettling. For those of us who want stability and certainty and control, the image of the Kingdom of God as a wild, aggressive, invasive shrub that takes over everything around it might make us just slightly uncomfortable. because it means that God’s purposes and God’s plans can’t be contained within our religious boundaries. God’s plan and purpose are always bigger and more aggressive and crazier than what our minds can conceive. Once the kingdom of God takes root, it begins to grow and take over everything around it. This means that every Sunday when we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, we had better watch out! That is actually a dangerous prayer. We are petitioning for God’s kingdom to take over and take control of our lives! Continue reading

Weeds Among the Wheat

As a young boy, I spent my summers in upstate New York on the shores of Lake Ontario. My grandparents owned a cottage on the lake, but they also owned a home in the city of Oswego. Behind their small yellow house in the city, my grandfather tended to his extensive garden. Every year, he would plant tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and cucumbers, but his specialty was strawberries. It’s important to note that my grandfather was fairly meticulous when it came to the care of his garden.

Now most of my summers days were spent swimming in lake Ontario or exploring the woods and swamps along the shore of the lake. However, at least once or twice every year, my grandfather would utter the words that would make any ten-year-old boy’s heart sink: “It’s time to weed the garden.” After unsuccessfully protesting to my mother, my grandfather and I would climb into his blue Chevy Caprice Classic and drive back into the city. We would put on our work clothes, grab our gardening tools, and get to work. The process began by hoeing and working the large open areas around the plants. Next we would dig out the larger, more stubborn weeds, with a hand trowel. Finally, especially around the delicate root systems of the strawberry plants, I would find myself on my hands and knees carefully removing each weed. When it came to caring for his garden, my grandfather’s vision was clear: no weeds left behind!

But it seems that Jesus has a slightly different approach!

This morning our gospel reading presents yet another parable about the sowing of seeds. In this parable, the sower has sown good seed in his field, and yet during the night an enemy comes and sows weeds in the same field. The Greek word that is translated weeds actually refers to a small seed that looks very much like a grain of wheat. When these seeds begin to grow, the young plants are almost indistinguishable from the stalks of wheat. Only when both the weeds and wheat are fully grown and the grain begins to appear, can you tell the difference between the two plants.

And so, in our parable, the servants who are working the fields don’t notice the presence of the weeds until they have grown significantly and their roots systems are fully developed. When they finally detect the weeds, the servants inform their master of the situation and they assume that the proper response will be to get out into the fields as quickly as possible and pull out these invasive plants. I can hear the declaration of my grandfather in the background: it’s time to weed the garden! And the vision of the servants is clear: no weeds left behind! 

But then comes the surprising twist in the story. Continue reading