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When God Opens Our Eyes, We Dare Not Look Away

Sermon Notes for Proper 25
XXIII Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-9 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52

The following sermon was preached at the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 28, 2018. It varies from the notes below, and slightly from the version preached at the 8 AM service. The recording includes the sequence hymn and Gospel proclamation. The sermon itself begins at 3:38.

It was difficult to know where to begin this sermon. I suppose I’ll just begin with what made me throw out what I’d written earlier in the week and start over. Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue. At least, many of us instinctively call it a tragedy. But that may not be the best or most accurate word. Hurricanes are tragedies. Floods and other natural disasters are tragedies. A sudden death from a heart attack is a tragedy. These are forces of nature out of our control, or even if influenced by our actions, several steps removed from them.

The event at Tree of Life (and I’m using a circumlocution for the benefit of the younger ears among us), the earlier events in Louisville, in Los Vegas, In Charleston, in New Town, in Antioch just down the road–these were not tragedies, if by that we mean something that just happens. These events did not happen on their own. As Dorsey McConnell, the Bishop of Pittsburgh wrote yesterday, in response,

“The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh

I agree with Bishop McConnell, but I think there’s a major step that we have to take in order to properly reject this particular hatred, and so many others: we have to see them, recognize them for what they are, and refuse to accept easy explanations or soothing platitudes that remove any hint of our own culpability–as individuals or as a society–in allowing or even fomenting hate and evil. 

If this is what we need to do, then we could have no better example than the prophet Jeremiah, and as usual, no greater Lord than Jesus. Jeremiah teaches us what it is to look at what is, Jesus shows us how to live once we’ve seen it. In saving us by grace, Jesus frees us from the repetitive cycle justified by the logic of a world turned inward that fuels hatred and discord, and makes us citizens of the kingdom of God, meant for all people, which is always turned outward (you should know from the biblical descriptions, the gates of heaven are always open, it is the gates of hell that are closed, which cannot withstand the assaults of the church).

After the I read the news reports yesterday, these words came to mind:

“Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more” (Jeremiah 21:15).

This passage illustrates a facet of Jeremiah’s work that is essential. As Professor Ellen Davis puts it: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

It is that last bit that is so significant for us. It is so easy to look away. To turn the channel, literally or figuratively (caveat lector: ok, if your little kids are watching the news and see something come on that they shouldn’t watch, turn the channel or turn it off, “shield the joyous” as the prayer says). The point is not to do what is comfortable at the expense of facing the truth or doing what is right. 

Jeremiah could shoulder this burden because he was faithful and followed God, delivering the word of God to the people in a time of military defeat and literal and figurative captivity, receiving God’s words of faithfulness and love, even as he railed against the evils and injustice he observed. The Prophet did not hesitate to challenge God or to lament his situation, or that of his people, but he did so in the midst of proclaiming hope based on God’s fidelity. Jeremiah was able to unflinchingly look at what was happening to his people, and to record the word of their trials and even their destruction, because he did so in the context of God’s ultimate faithfulness. So it is that the lament of Rachel losing her children–a poetic way to talk about actual death and destruction–takes place within the context of the earlier passage we heard this morning:

Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people, 
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together; 
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jeremiah 31:7-9).

Because God is faithful to us, we can be freed from the anxieties and fears that prevent us from looking at ourselves and our society with clear eyes, and from responding to our neighbors with love. When set them aside and look at ourselves, we might be surprised what we see. 

The day before he launched his attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, the perpetrator wrote on social media “HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Earlier he had written, while posting a screen cap of their web site, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided…” ominously thanking the organization for sharing a list of their supporters.

But here’s the thing. Some folks will want to say about him, as with the recent bomb maker, that they’re crazy, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of any greater trend. But let’s be honest: how many of you have heard family, neighbors, friends, say similar things about the work of World Vision or Catholic Charities around Middle Tennessee? How many of you can point out similar phrases used to describe the Islamic center in Murfreesboro? I know I can. And if I’ve heard it given the way people often hold back around clergy, I know some of you have heard it.

Some people who perpetrate attacks are clinically mentally ill. Most aren’t. Paranoia and conspiracy theories are popular because they have explanatory power that is attractive to rational people given certain prior convictions and commitment to fear-laden worldviews, fostering different sorts of confirmation bias. Was every Nazi clinically insane? Every Soviet citizen who transported former comrades to the Gulag? As philosopher Hannah Arendt convincingly argues, evil is much simpler and more frightening than that. It’s most frightening because it is banal, ordinary to the point of being boring. It’s not a magical text that takes a special tool to decode. It’s a random off-color email forward from an eccentric relative taken a step too far.

If people can shoot folks in a gas station parking lot for their music being loud, or for texting in a movie theater before a movie starts, or pull guns on each other on the interstate, is it really that surprising that there are folks on the fringes–we hope they’re fringes–who only need the slightest permission to act on hate founded on fear and often willful ignorance?

In 2011 Anders Breivik, as self-styled Christian Nationalist from Norway carried out an attack in that country. Initially, prosecutors treated him as insane. But eventually he was found fit to stand trial and the time limit on his incarceration was lifted as a result. A Norwegian author writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2012 shared these incisive thoughts:

This verdict is also the end of a long trial process far too focused on Breivik’s persona, and to little on the social and political climate that created him. By prosecuting on insanity, the state asked “Who is Anders Behring Breivik”, and to answer that question every little piece of his personal history became important. But in a political and social context, this is an indifferent question. People such as Breivik have always existed.. But the actions they take and the way they are formed differs from society to society.

The author goes on to say that the is not who Breivik is, but why he became who he became that is important:

If Breivik had been from Afghanistan, Iraq or Nigeria, we would have asked what it was within these countries and cultures that made him a terrorist.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/24/anders-breivik-verdict-norway

I have written before about the lengths we will go to to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of these attacks, but the reality is, for the most part, they aren’t that removed. Growing up I used to go to Gun and knife shows a few times every year. I heard the pitch of folks selling AR-15s by talking to buyers about how easily you could convert one to full-auto. I saw the pamphlets that were inevitably at at least one literature rack where the same author seemingly published the same booklet over and over, only swapping out the word Jewish/Catholic/Masonic/Illuminati banking conspiracy. I recognize the similarity of those well-worn bits of rhetoric to claims that church-based refugee resettlement agencies are just in it for the money and are doing it all–willingly or as dupes–at the behest of the UN or the Vatican in order to weaken the United States.

Which brings me back to 2012. Some of you who had children in school that year, or who worked in Sumner County Schools that year. If you were around and remember, we had some difficulty starting school that year. There was a conflict between the School Board and the County Commission over funding. Eventually schools were started and there was a political shift in the county so that we haven’t had another issue like that.

About a year after that, a representative from World Vision asked if they could present to the Hendersonville Pastors Association. It turned out that they were looking for new communities in which to resettle refugees, and they thought Hendersonville met the criteria: good local economy, available housing, lots of churches. You never heard anything about this initiative from me, because the pastors collectively decided it wasn’t a good idea given the politics in the county at the time. You see, the rhetoric had gotten so heated about the cost of education, and how the children of people “moving in here” were driving up costs and possibly property taxes, that, as we put it to World Vision: we wouldn’t want refugee families to come into a situation where they’d immediately have a target on their back.

Another way in which this cuts close to home. As you know, there’s another Hendersonville. Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the summer of 2016 we were visiting my mom who lives there, and heard some rumblings in local politics.  

What do we do once we’ve faced up to the wickedness abroad in the world, and the wickedness within? When we’ve looked squarely at the suffering and injustice in the world, and the wounds inside ourselves? That’s where Bartimaeus comes in. Mark includes his story in our gospel text as an exemplar–and a more direct exemplar would be difficult to find.

“For Mark, giving sight to the blind is the beginning and the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” (Bryan, 104) but the stories are not exact echos of one another–for one thing, Bartimaeus addresses Jesus two times by the clearly Messianic title “Son of David” and is not corrected for it. Nor does Jesus tell him to remain silent. Jesus knows where he’s headed and there’s no point in encouraging silence now–the time approaches. And in the midst of this, Bartimaeus has his blindness–often a metaphor for idolatry–lifted, receiving his sight, a metaphor for faith, and not incidentally having left everything behind when he threw his cloak aside, begins to follow Jesus on the way, that is, the path of discipleship.

When we have faced the truth about the world in its specific sins, in which we and our society are implicated, will we turn away? When we have discovered that we have been blind.

The Hopefulness of Humanity in the Heart of God, and God in the heart of Humanity

Sermon Audio for Proper 24
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16 • Hebrews 5:1-10 • Mark 10:35-45

The sermon begins at 2:46

A Collect inspired by our Hebrews reading, which I started today’s sermon with:

What Possesses You?

Sermon Audio and Sermon Background notes for Proper 23
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Amos 5:6-7,10-15 · Psalm 90:12-17 · Hebrews 4:12-16 · Mark 10:17-31

The sermon begins at 5:20.

The text below consists of my sermon notes and some of the background research I did, but it is not itself a manuscript.

Sometimes our language can reveal more than we intend. Certain phrases carry more weight than we realize, more historical and intellectual freight. Unfolding it all can be an interesting exercise. And sometimes spoken phrases can catch us up short, like the written word that stands out strangely on page or screen even though it is spelled correctly, taunting us with its alien nature, its out of shape edges.

One such phrase that stands out for me is “What possessed you…” The first time I heard it used–or at least the first time I remember hearing it–was when I was in the third grade. My teacher had called me up to her desk during a quiet moment in class, when we were all working on something or other at our desks. She was looking down at a note, and then she looked at me over her glasses and said “What possessed you to throw a rock at the school bus?”

Now, as a matter of fact the afternoon before when I’d gotten off the Bus I had thrown a rock, but not at the School Bus precisely. I’d thrown it at my cousin who it happens was on the School Bus at the time. He had been irritating me the whole drive home and was at the moment the rock left my hand, leaned out one of the rear windows making a face or shouting some taunt. In one way, I knew very well why I had thrown the rock. I was angry and I’d had enough. Cousins that you grow up with, like other close friends and relatives, often know just the buttons to push, and this was an example. 

But in another sense, as soon as the rock left my hand, I’d wondered why I’d done it. The phrase “what possessed you…” was an appropriate one, though at the time I was confused by it. I remember being a little offended by the phrase, though I didn’t know why. Nothing, I thought, had made me, at least, nothing except my loving cousin.

But of course, something had possessed me. I acted without reflecting. I was impulsive. Anger had me in its grip. I gave myself over to my baser instincts and, well, my action was an indication that my faculties had indeed been possessed by them. I wasn’t in control.

The language of possession that holds on in such a seemingly innocuous phrase is intriguing. What do we really mean when we ask what possessed someone? Of course we can mean something rather mundane–what emotions drove them to act out of accord with rationality? But we can also mean something beyond the normal parameters of this world, something mysterious or even something founded on the evil powers of this world. The phrase can, in other words, be a sign that we are looking for some explanation where no reasonable explanation exists. 

And when no reasonable explanation exists, it can be a sign to look beyond what we normally think of as reason. Father Gabriele Amorth, late Vatican Exorcist (d. 2016) has written for example, that “one of the determining factors in the recognition of diabolic possession is the inefficacy of medicines while blessings prove very efficacious” (Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story).

Lest you think I’m going to slip into a reflection on the unseen powers of this world, and how our post-enlightenment rationality can coexist with a biblical view of the unknown–if indeed it can–that is another conversation. Instead, I want to emphasize that sometimes the things that possess us appear to be far more mundane, far more this-worldly than other worldly. Our gospel text this morning invites us to consider that our possessions may be the source of our possession. In other words, the things we own, the things we covet–they may control us; control our thinking, feeling, and acting in a manner as diabolical as any spirit of the air.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey he is respectfully approached by a young man who asks him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” Things get more complicated when the young man, who is quite wealthy, claims to have kept all these commandments from his youth. But it is possible that Jesus knows otherwise. Commentators debate whether the rich young man is depicted in a positive or negative light.  Sometimes it is suggested that the man’s wealth itself calls into question his claim to have kept all these commandments–and the pairing with Amos in the lectionary might lead us in that direction. But before we write the man’s claim off, I think we need more evidence than his wealth. Remember that when Jesus interacts with the wealthy, he doesn’t tend to condemn them for their wealth out of hand, but he does have a tendency to push against the possibility that any of their wealth may have been ill gotten, and to encourage their hospitality. Consider the case of Zacchaeus as an interesting parallel. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and invites himself to supper. Zacchaeus obliges and does not protest (though the crowds grumble, for he is known as a sinner because he is a Tax Collector). But Zacchaeus says something interesting:

Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:8-10).

Did you notice something about Jesus’ summary recitation of the commandments? It’s not point for point from Deuteronomy, instead, Jesus imports a command or interprets and expands the commands to include the statement “You shall not defraud.” It is possible that Jesus is gently challenging the Rich Young Man, knowing that his wealth may not have been accumulated by entirely just means. When the man says that he has kept all these commands from his youth, Jesus looks at him, and we’re told he loved him. 

One commentator makes a good argument for the intertextuality of portions of the Gospel of Mark and Malachi 3. Here intertextuality is defined as the “imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one.” In this sense then, this section of Mark may have portions of the book of the Prophet Malachi lying behind it. Specifically, Malachi 3:5 may be in view, and could bolster the view that the young man’s sin of defrauding others in order to gain wealth is in view:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

(Mal. 3:5)

And yet, it should encourage us that Jesus doesn’t chastise him, correct him, say “surely you could only say you’ve kept all of this if you’re deceiving yourself.” No. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Just as Jesus has looked at people and felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, here Jesus looks at this man and loves him, and gives him an opportunity to be a disciple. Come. Follow me. If we believe that he has defrauded others and is deceiving himself about his culpability, it is an opportunity for repentance and amendment of life. If we believe that he is being truthful and Jesus accepts his statement, then it is an opportunity to enter more deeply into discipleship. But it is more than the man can handle. Mark tells us that when “he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

In reflecting on this passage we should remember the context that we have talked about for several weeks in regard to this section of Mark. It’s all about right relationship. As my New Testament professor wrote about this section, it moves from sections dealing with right relationship to the vulnerable or powerless, represented by children, to our appropriate relationship to other disciples, particularly those who don’t follow our plan (we’re meant to realize that Jesus’ plan and our plan–particularly when it comes to others–may not be the same), our relationship to “little ones” (both literal children and believers in Jesus), to each other (have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another), relationships to wives who were the vulnerable partners in marriages of the period (and by extension, between spouses in general), to children again, and to possessions today.

“In all these passages the underlying emphasis, in vivid contrast to the disciples’ concern as to who shall be “greatest,” is on the strong yielding to the weak, the privileged transferring privilege to the underprivileged, the very wealthy foregoing the fruits of wealth for the sake of the gospel. It is striking that at the climax of this the disciples do seem, momentarily, to see the point. ‘Then who can be saved?’ they ask. The answer, Jesus tells them, lies not in their attempts at obedience, but in God for whom ‘all things are possible’ (10:26-27). Is it then the case that those who attempt obedience are wasting their time? By no means: they will receive their recompense–with suffering! (10:28-30). the summary of it all is, ‘Many that are last will be first, and the first last’; in the context, a splendid paradox, threatening to those who seek to claim to be ‘greatest,’ yet full of promise for those who seek (but do not claim to be very good at) obedience”

(Christopher Bryan, “A Preface to Mark” 102-103).

“As is made clear in the story of the rich young man, Mark is aware of the danger of those riches that make it ‘hard’ for us to enter the kingdom (10:17-22; compare 4:19); but even that sequence has some of its sting drawn. ‘Hard’ it may be for the rich to enter the kingdom, yet ‘all things are possible with God’ (10:23, 25, 27). Indeed, the conclusion to that particular conversation implies that willingness to abandon all for the sake of Jesus is not followed by a life without human ties, even ‘now in this time,’ but rather by its opposite (10:30). While it may be conceded that this passage in particular refers to the believer’s new ‘family’ in the Church (compare 3:31-35), still the followers of Jesus in Mark are made powerfully aware that ordinary human marriage remains a lifelong commitment, precious in God’s sight (10:1-12), and that children, the natural fruit of marriage, are not to be ‘hindered’ (10:14; probably a baptismal phrase: compare Acts 8:36, 10:47) in their relationship with Jesus.”

(Bryan, 157-158)

All of this raises the question: maybe these concerns aren’t so mundane. Maybe they are spiritual after all. Amorth’s definition, that possession is defined by something that won’t respond to medical treatment–to medicine–but will respond to blessing  reminds me of one of my favorite songs by the North Carolina band, the Avett Brothers. I’ve quoted the song before, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I reference it again. The Avett’s grandpa was a Methodist pastor, and sometimes they seem to be channeling a sort of Augustinian perspective, whether intentionally or not. In it they express the concern that “medicine” isn’t cutting it–what they need is a cure. What the Rich young man needs is a cure. What we need is a cure. Jesus offers it to us, if we’re willing to receive it.

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame

I need for something
Not let me break it down again
I need for something 
But not more medicine

I am sick with wanting 
And it’s evil how it’s got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think,
I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed

Temporary is my time
Ain’t nothin’ on this world that’s mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone.

The background information about Malachi in the Gospel of Mark was brought to light in the following Journal article: 

Hicks, Richard. 2013. “Markan Discipleship According to Malachi: The Significance of Μh̀ Αποστερήσης in the Stroy of the Rich Man (Mark 10:17-22).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (1): 179–99. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0001984130&site=ehost-live.

Welcoming those who can’t repay, giving of the gifts we’ve received.

Sermon notes for Proper 20
XVIII Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9:30-37

The sermon begins at 4:51

Increase In Us True Religion

Sermon notes for Proper 17
XV Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2018
Scripture: James 1:17-27

The sermon audio begins at 4:29.

Today we hear from the epistle of James in our second lesson. You may already be aware that this letter is one of those New Testament texts that has taken a steady amount of criticism over the centuries, with some folks even questioning its presence in the canon. Mostly these criticisms have not arisen from questions of authorship, which in comparison with some other texts of the New Testament, is relatively clear. The main arguments being whether the letter is the result of teachings collected by disciples after his death, or the direct work of James the Just of Jerusalem–a brother or other close relative of Jesus, and first bishop of the Jerusalem church, and “decider” of the Jerusalem council. The consensus is that the letter represents legitimate teachings of James, one way or the other.

Rather than questions of provenance, it is a question of theology that has prompted the most heated critiques. The book is too focused on morals–it’s legalistic, moralistic, focusses on works! It doesn’t mention Jesus enough!

As is often the case, I think those books or pages that we would most like to see torn out of the Bible–the passages we’d most like to see redacted with black ink like some top secret document–are often the very ones that we ought to spend some time in reflection about. I have some of those passages myself. Nothing in James is among them.

If it’s appropriate to use such language about books of the Bible or biblical authors, when it comes to the Epistle of James, I’m a fan. 

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, at least as I’ve read, the epistle echoes the words and teachings of Jesus more than any non-gospel text in the New Testament.

In any case, I think it’s a beautiful letter. And one that seems to have been composed for the benefit of the whole church–perhaps to help prepare people for baptism.

The collect for Proper 17 has a particular resonance with our epistle. Listen to it again, and consider the imagery that is used:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for Proper 17, Book of Common Prayer

Both begin with a statement about the origins of good things and gifts. In the collect, God is “the author and give of all good things,” while James says that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” it becomes clear that James isn’t saying that God gives all good things directly, but rather, that whatever is good, whatever goodness there is within people, whatever gifts they give, are dependent upon God. Generosity as a virtue and the gifts that we give come “down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

“Father of Lights” is a poetic reference to God with an interesting history. It’s attested outside the canon of scripture in a book called The Apocalypse of Moses. This demonstrates that James wasn’t manufacturing a poetic image to refer to God, but was rather using a term that the recipients of his letter, or those he was speaking to would likely have understood. The description bears some unpacking. 

In calling God “the Father of Lights,” James is drawing our attention to God as creator, specifically as the one who placed all the “lights,” i.e. the celestial bodies–Sun, Moon, stars, planets, etc.–in their places and courses. But while these marvelous gifts of God to humanity and all of creation change–they wax and wane with the seasons–their origin, “The Father of Lights,” does not, for in God there are no “phases,” no times of lesser light, no “variation or shadow due to change,” or as the King James put it, in a way slightly more evocative of heavenly bodies, “neither shadow of turning.”

This poetic imagery undergirds and supports the insight that every good thing has its beginning and origin in God–everything, including the good that we do. The fact that this is a foundational premise of James’ entire letter puts paid to the idea that the letter forwards some sort of works righteousness. Instead, the letter is a reflection on how we can engage in those works through the power of God in us.

James does want us to understand that a lack of those good things and good works–is indeed indicative of problems we need to be aware of. It’s indicative of the fact that we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are, and that we might be depending upon ourselves rather than on God.  James does indeed say–as we will hear next week–that faith without works is dead, but it’s dead insofar as we have not experienced the life that God gives us in Christ. 

Consider, James begins by telling us that all good things find their beginning and origin in God, and then moves directly into talking about how this connects with our lives of faith. “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (James 1:18). This passage leads some scholars to propose that the letter may have been composed as part of an effort at catechizing people, with this section highlighting the effects of Baptism. God has given us new birth by the word, by the waters of baptism, by the gospel.

And just as God enlivened the first creation by the Word, so too we are new creations by the Word. If we’ve been made new and–to quote Paul who is unfortunately and inappropriately held up as a counter example to James–it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that new life will bear fruit, both individually and corporately. It is from this fundamental stance of God’s gifts and graces that James moves into the expectations for those who would follow Jesus: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20).

Our anger–like any work motivated or empowered only from ourselves–cannot produce the righteousness of God, because everything that is good comes from God. So, when James writes that in order to be faithful, we must rid ourselves “of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,” he recognizes that there is only one means by which we can accomplish this, by welcoming “with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls” (James 1:21).

I hope that by now you can see that, while James may not write Jesus’ name all that often in his letter to the Church, Jesus is all over what he’s writing. Christ the Word is fundamental to and presumed by everything that James is telling us.

Because of this, when James writes “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” the actions he’s describing are actions that have their origin in the Word of Godwhich are empowered by the Word in us. We’re utterly dependent. 

But if this is the case, how do any of us who claim to follow Jesus end up stumbling? How can we fail to do what we’re called to do if indeed it is Christ who is doing it through us? Does that mean that Christ has somehow failed? Not at all. James gives us a way to consider these failings:

“For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:23-24).

When we forget who we are and whose we are, when we turn away from the one who is reshaping us in his image, then it’s like looking in a mirror and not recognizing ourselves. We’ve forgotten something fundamental to who we are: that we belong to God and Christ dwells within us. To counter this, when we struggle with intellectual assent to the faith, or emotional excitement about our faith, we can instead look into “the perfect law, the law of liberty,” and imitate the actions of Christ in his earthly ministry, and in being reminded what and who we ought to look like, we can find the strength to “persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act” and we “will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:25).

Finally, James closes this section of his letter with a clear example of what being a doer rather than simply a hearer would look like, writing that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). Briefly, imitate Jesus as best you can, and trust in God to do the rest.

We know that we would not long be able to carry on with such imitation on our own power. And I believe James knew this. I believe he never expected that we would be carrying on under our own power, because every good thing is from God, and while we might vary and change, while our faith may wax and wane, God’s faith in us never does–for in him there is no variation or variation due to change.

Considering this, when we find ourselves at a loss, when we don’t know how we can continue, we find ourselves back at the insight so central to todays collect, and we can pray:

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; and with James, the Brother of the Lord, we pray this knowing that it can only come through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

On Christian Risk-taking

“Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (John 6:64).

Judas’ Betrayal, Fresco by Fra Angelico

Sermon for Proper 16
14th Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018

Scriptures: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 • Psalm 34:15-22  • Ephesians 6:10-20  • John 6:56-69

The Sermon begins at 4:30.

Below are my sermon notes for Sunday, August 26, 2018. This is a rare occasion where I typed out the full manuscript. Often I hand write it in my notebook, and then pull only the relevant quotes (if I quote anyone verbatim), and include them with an outline. You can see the way that this sermon both differs in some of its details from the sermon I preached, but how it also displays the same structure and primary content.

Jesus knew from the first, who were the ones that did not believe, and yet he taught them and worked miracles among them. Some commentators indicate that the Gospel of John is talking about the crowds here, or the larger group of disciples, and not the twelve, and yet, we know from Mathew’s Gospel, during even the post resurrection appearances, they worshipped him, “but some doubted.” Even if this specific reference in John is talking only about the people in the crowds who did not believe, and not the disciples themselves, but we know that the disciples sometimes wavered in their faith.

More dramatically, even if the Gospel is not including any of the disciples among those who did not believe, we know beyond a doubt that Jesus knew that Judas, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

This reality hit me squarely between the eyes a few years ago when I first read a book entitled A Brutal Unity by Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner. Radner emphasizes the nature of the church and issues related to church division in his work, and he’s been pretty influential on my own thinking about Christian division. But this section is about more than the formal divisions between churches–the official and sometimes white washed theological arguments and sometimes fossilized practices and habits that keep us apart. This is about something deeper: a choice that Jesus makes early in his ministry with knowledge about the evil in the heart of one of the disciples, and yet he embraces him as one of his inner circle anyway.

This challenges us not only at an institutional level, but on a personal one, and it is for that reason that I wanted to share it with you. It will get us at something of particular importance in our Gospel text this morning. Radner writes that:

A central question involves the fact that Jesus “chose” Judas as one of the Twelve (Luke 6:13-16; John 6:70-71; Luke 22:3, 47; Acts 1:16-17). Jesus chose the one he “knew” would betray him yet placed him among the Twelve around whom the heavenly Jerusalem would be built (Rev 21:14), though, of course, his place would be taken by another. The issues of predestination and foreknowledge—as Augustine and Calvin and Barth all understood—were implicated in this fact. But just as importantly, and because of this, comes the issue of Jesus’ own willingness, in all deliberation, to take to himself one whom he understood to be bound to “Satan” in some fashion (and even Peter too had this about him), that is, to be his “enemy” (cf. Luke 22:13). Thus, the notion, driven by readings from the alternative traditions about Judas recently made popular, that there was a “secret” pact between Jesus and Judas, in which Jesus himself orchestrates his own arrest with his friend’s cooperation, have no foundation in the Gospels themselves—Jesus did not make an agreement with Satan as his ally! But there is an unsettling and perplexing problem at work, nonetheless, in how Jesus could tolerate and even embrace one whom he could not trust because of the latter’s certain and ultimately immovable opposition.

Yet Judas had a constructive role among the Twelve—he went out, he was commissioned, he preached and healed and exorcised, returning with joy to report the successes of his ministry, along with the others. He kept the funds of the group as they traveled along and distributed alms from the common store. And he was a thief as well, in all of this (John 12:6)! An embezzler, a wolf among the sheep. Nonetheless, “chosen” not out of ignorance, but in full knowledge. Jesus chose his enemy to be his companion and friend—betrayed, in the end not by a torrent of lies or by the rage of rejection but by a “kiss.”

Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity,  Kindle location 2,647  

How many of us could, or would even consider, embracing someone as a friend whom we knew would betray us? Who could even lead us into a situation that would result in our death?

And yet this is exactly what Jesus does. Radner points out, in fact, that Judas isn’t the only one “bound to Satan” in some way, but Peter is too (remember, Jesus actually refers to Peter as Satan when he opposes what must come to pass). It may seem extreme to talk this way about Peter, but I think it is revealing not only about Peter and Judas, but all the disciples: that Christ had perfect knowledge of what was to come, does not mean that every one of the disciples wasn’t equally capable of such betrayal. Indeed, Jesus’ own actions demonstrate a sense in which everything is not determined, as he tells Peter after predicting his three denials, “…I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

In some sense two paths are held out before us. Two examples. The path of Peter, which leads to redemption out of failure and betrayal–we could call this the path of hope–and the path of Judas, which can admit no opportunity for redemption, for forgiveness. We could call this this path of despair.

But if Judas despaired and lacked both belief and hope, had he always lacked them? Was Judas always wicked? This is a contested question in the church of the first four centuries. Some, like Augustine, will say that Judas was always wicked and bound for destruction. Others, like Origen and–perhaps–John Chrysostom, argue that there are turning points at which Judas chooses the evil over the good.

Origen will argue that Judas could not always have been wicked because he was trustworthy enough to have been given the common purse, to be the one entrusted with the distribution of alms for the poor. Like Radner, Origen sees Judas’ role among the twelve as constructive in many ways. He goes forth with the seventy and cast out demons, heals the sick, and rejoices upon his return. Additionally, he is among the disciples who react with frustration at the request the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, makes of Jesus, that her sons sit on his right and left when he comes into his glory. Origen writes that “while he was among the indignant, the devil had not yet put it into his heart to betray the Lord. He was still one of the apostles.”

So Judas’ apostleship was legitimate and true, and he was faithful–except when he wasn’t. And isn’t this like so many of us? And Jesus knew who would betray him, and yet he gave Judas a chance. The how of this is a mystery–we could go far into the weeds about what God’s foreknowledge means for human choice and freedom, and we could likewise discuss the different ideas about what exactly Jesus’ foreknowledge means, that is, how his divinity interacts with the limits of his humanity–but we’ll leave those for another time. The key for us today is that Jesus knew, and yet he still put it all in Judas’ hands. He somehow had hope for Judas, and called him anyway, knowing how he would fail.

And this is good news for us. Because each of us fail. Each of us, if we’re honest, could see ourselves in this passage from John: “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (John 6:64). Who among us has never doubted? Who has never struggled with disbelief? Who has never betrayed their core convictions, their better angels–who has not at some point looked around to find themselves a betrayer of Jesus, dead in their sin?

And yet, Jesus did not simply choose Peter who would come to repent and return, or Judas who would betray him and see no room for reconciliation or restoration, Jesus chose you and me. Jesus has hope for us. Jesus gives us the space we need. And what we do with it, is on us, but not on us alone. Jesus isn’t going to force us, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ is with us every step of the way. That’s part of what it means to abide in Jesus’ love. It means to experience the grace of God and to therefore await with hope and eager longing for the fulfillment of God’s will in our own lives, and in the life of the world.

God gives us the space we need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And the question arises, why doesn’t God just save us all. Why couldn’t God save Judas? The humble answer is to say that not only could God, but God still might. But another aspect of humility is to admit that God may not. We are not the first to ask these questions. The great preacher and Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom wrote about this and said: 

“Why then, you say, was He Who won over [many sinners] not able to win over His disciple? He had the power to win over His disciple, but He did not wish to make him good by force or to forcibly draw him to Himself. Then [he] went. In this “went” there is not a little matter for contemplation: for he was not summoned by the chief priests, he was
not constrained or forced. Rather, of himself and of his own accord, he gave birth to his intention and brought forth his treachery, without any counselor in his wickedness.”

The mystery in all of this is that Jesus embraced people he knew would disbelieve him, question him, and even betray him. He embraced them, empowered them, taught them, and made them part of his ministry and his body. And this is good news for us, because God does the same thing for us in Christ. 

In last week’s sermon I emphasized the importance that we never put our ultimate trust or faith in any human or human institution, including the Church, but only in God, only in Jesus Christ. If that sermon seemed a bit dark to some, this is the counterpart to it. Counterpart, but not counterpoint. They aren’t contradictory, though we would like to make them so. The reality is that our call to follow Jesus is risky. We are called to Love God and love our neighbor. That is Jesus’ summary of all the law and the prophets. That’s risky business that we’ve been commanded to take part in. Loving God can be risky–we never know what God is going to call us to do after all–but the riskiest thing about loving God is the call to love our neighbors. Loving other people is dangerous. Trusting other people can set us up for disappointment. This is one of the core places, I believe, where we have to embody Jesus’ admonition to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We never lose sight of our own sinfulness, our own capacity for evil. And we all have it. The sin that temps me may not be the sin that temps you, but we are all tempted to sin, and from time to time–perhaps from time to time to time–we succumb to temptation. Usually, if we’re honest, those sins have hurt someone, or would if they knew. Being humble and keeping in mind our own propensity to sin, can help us relinquish judgement we might hold over other people, but it will also keep us mindful that indeed, Jesus is the one in whom we’re to trust. That the Church has to establish safeguards, and we would be wise to as individuals as well. And yet. It’s risky, because we’re called to hope in other people whom we know to be sinful, whom we know to be broken, whom we know to be apt to wound us if we love them.

And we’re nonetheless commanded to love them.

There’s only one way we can ever hope to accomplish this–to hold on to the reality of our own sin and the sinfulness of others, while simultaneously extending to them the same benefit of the doubt, the same grace that God has extended to us–and here we work back to the beginning of our gospel text–the only way we can do this is by abiding in Christ. By putting our faith and trust and hope in Jesus, and by receiving again and again the grace of God in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, by hearing over and over again the word of God that inspires us, and calls us to faithfulness. I love the word abide.  It can simply mean to dwell, or it can mean to patiently endure, ore it can mean to await with anticipation. When we abide in Christ, there are going to be things that we can only patiently endure. We re going to await the coming of Christ with holy anticipation. This is what we’re called to, for Christ to dwell in us and we in him. This is what empowers us to take the risks we need to take on each other as Christian.

Even though Jesus knows perfectly, he withholds judgement and gives all the disciples–even Peter and even Judas–an opportunity to walk faithfully and to do good. If God, who knows perfectly what is in all hearts, provides such space, how much more should we who judge only in our limited capacities, by what our eyes see or our ears hear, provide such space to each other? But we can only find the strength and the means to do this, to take such a risk on each other, and for our own growth in faithfulness, by abiding in Christ, and through Christ abiding in us. Amen.

Real Forgiveness for Real Life

Sermon for Proper 15
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2018

The sermon begins at 3:37.

Scriptures: Proverbs 9:1-6 • Psalm 34:9-14  • Ephesians 5:15-20  • John 6:51-58

Sermon begins at 3:37.

Sermon for XIII Pentecost, August 19, 2018, 10:30 Service

Real food for the Journey of Faith

Sermon for Proper 14
The 12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2018
Scriptures: 1 Kings 19:4-8 • Psalm 34:1-8  • Ephesians 4:25-5:2  • John 6:35, 41-51

The sermon begins at 3:25.

Sermon for Proper 14, XII Pentecost 2018, from the 10:30 Service.

Marked by Communion

Sermon for Proper 12
The 10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 29, 2018

Scriptures:  2 Kings 4:42-44 • Psalm 145:10-18  • Ephesians 3:14-21  • John 6:1-21

The sermon begins at 7:17.

Sermon for the X Pentecost, 2018, 10:30 Service

What’s your gospel summary?

Sermon for Proper 8
The 6th Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 • Psalm 30 • 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 • Mark 5:21-43

Remember that my sermons tend to vary somewhat between services, both because I try to keep the 8 AM sermon slightly shorter, and because I preach without a manuscript. Both of these recordings are slightly longer than I usually post because I’m experimenting with keeping the recording of all the readings, and not just the Gospel text, in the recording.


8 AM Service. To go directly to the sermon, start at 7:53.



10:30 AM service. To go directly to the sermon, start at 9:57.

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