Sermon 8 30 20
When I sit down to write a sermon, well, the first thing I do is I don’t sit down for long. I read over the readings a few times – see what hits me. And then I pray, when I ask: what do you want me to do with this God? What do you want to say?
Then I go for a drive in my car, or walk the dog, or sit outside and ruminate, hoping I hear from God, think about the readings, and try out some ideas that occur to me, that just come to me. And then I start talking – out loud – trying ideas out, out loud. Never underestimate the value of chatting with the world, by yourself!
I think about what’s going on in the world, see if there are any connections there, and just basically give God a chance to plant some ideas, to give me a push. And I look for a fairly simple theme, an idea or ideas that pop out of the words that God has given to us. Yes, I do believe that God gives us our readings to work with and I work on my sermon from a basis of gratitude for those words. I try to find a way that the words of our readings work together, even across the distances of the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the Psalm to the Gospel. Usually some sort of melody, some sort of train of thought begins to run through the readings for me.
What’s different about this Sunday is that I started to write about our Gospel, but then, as I went along, I realized that our Epistle from Romans was more suited to us at Good Shepherd at this time than our Gospel. So I’m focusing on Romans today.
Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. Paul’s ministry was to be a missionary to the Gentiles and a church planter. He didn’t get to Jerusalem often. He was a tent-maker, in more ways than one, enclosing people within ideas, as if they were under a tent.
Paul is the star of the New Testament. No single figure, other than Christ, figures so large in the writing of the New Testament. And he’s so unlikely! According to a contemporary description of him, he was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, muscular with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and yet, (surprisingly enough!) full of grace.” He sounds kind of funny-looking! From everything he wrote, we can deduce that he was well read, well-educated, incredibly intelligent, incredibly impatient, and yet very well-spoken.
But Paul was not out of Central Casting. He was unlikely. I can tell you – if you ever go to our Diocesan Convention, you will see a few priests who come straight out of Central Casting. “Hi, it’s Grady down on Soundstage 7. I need a guy who looks like a priest, male, over 45, gray at least at the the temples, clean-shaven, and give him a vest. Naw, he doesn’t need to be able to talk. He just needs to look good.” Trust me. Every diocese has a few who come straight out of Central Casting. But not Paul. Paul was about as far from Central Casting as you can get. He was just unlikely.
Paul didn’t start out admiring Jesus. Paul was much better educated, clearly of a higher class than Jesus. No, Paul started out actively fighting against the cult of Jesus Christ. When an unruly crowd decided to stone Stephen, Paul held their cloaks for them. Later, he was struck down and blinded by a blast of light as he journeyed to Damascus and he heard a voice ask him “Why do you persecute me?” The voice revealed itself to be the voice of Jesus and Paul, the Christian hater, was converted to Christianity. He planted at least 14 churches. Most of the letters of our New Testament were written by him to those churches.
Like this letter to the Romans. Paul’s letters were meant to educate and admonish and encourage these little congregations. They are truly wonderful, and sometimes it seems as if he wrote them breathlessly, he had so much to say – so much they needed to learn!
Paul was brilliant but clearly not lovable. He apparently had disagreements with those who traveled with him – nobody ever journeyed with him twice! But he clearly wanted the people of the churches he planted to love each other. He knew that is what would make them strong – not argument, not disagreement – but love. Paul’s words of advice to his congregations are real and they come down to us as strong and practical as if they were written yesterday. Of course, his words demand perfection, a perfection I doubt he was equal to, but they give us something to work towards!
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “Contribute to the needs of your members (he called them all saints), and extend hospitality to strangers.” Give to the people of your church who need it, and then reach out beyond your congregation! Support each other! He wasn’t forming social clubs. He was forming inreach and outreach ministries.
He encouraged them to empathize with each other. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” This is how they would become a congregation. “Live in harmony with one another.” He didn’t want the usual social boundaries of their lives to be observed in the church. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
Now this is hard — “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” He knew they would always be very aware of each other! “Live peaceably with all.”
Then Paul really couldn’t avoid a little tender sarcasm, and my guess is he knew exactly who he was talking to: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
And then Paul advises them to do something that is entirely beyond our common sense. “‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they they are thirsty, give them something to drink;’ And finally and most direct, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Oh, these are hard things to do. Most of us simply can’t do them. But what if we could, if we can, now there’s a revolution. Paul was looking to change hearts and minds, to even go so far as to change what we think of as natural human behavior. He believed that the Word of God can transform us and bring about mental and spiritual revolution in each of us, so that we are governed by the grace of God, transforming every day, more and more into God’s creations, what we were always meant to be.
This is what Paul is teaching us today. And this is what we need to continue to learn and remind ourselves of as I leave you and as all of you return to the search process.
Sermon 8 23 20
So Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer. “Ohhh, they say you’re all kinds of guys come back to life – John the Baptist, Elijah, maybe a prophet.”
“But who do YOU say that I am?” A hush. Of course, after a moment or two of silence, Simon Peter jumps right in and answers the question. Simon Peter was always the kid who had his hand up first. “Me, me, me! Call on me!”
But let’s not get into Simon Peter, as interesting as he is. Let’s get into the question. And then let’s get into us.
“But who do YOU say that I am?”
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? How would you answer that question? Who do we say Jesus is? Who do you say Jesus is?
It’s a really good question. But is it a question we are willing to answer? “Who do you say that I am?” If we’re Christian, are we willing to take responsibility for answering that question? Are we even willing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” If Jesus were to stand in front of us today and ask us, “”Who do you say that I am?” would we be willing to respond? How would we answer?
If we say we’re Christian, can we say who we believe in is? How many of us would find it easier to say we believe in a political candidate than to say we believe in Jesus Christ?
First, who is this Jesus Christ? Do we know?
What comes to mind? When you hear the name “Jesus,” who do you see in your mind’s eye? There’s that usual picture found on Sunday School walls. He’s always wearing a pure white robe. How did it stay so clean?
There are many pictures of Jesus – many of them with blue eyes – that always gets me. He was a first century Jew! A semitic child of the Mediterranean! How was he supposed to have blue eyes? But as is usually the case, we tend see to Jesus in our own image. When I was a little kid, I used to think Jesus was Swedish. Everybody I knew was Swedish so I figured Jesus was too.
But these days we have much more interesting images of Jesus. There are pictures of him laughing, which I’m sure he did. But for some reason we don’t have medieval paintings of him laughing. Apparently laughter isn’t reverent enough. We have pictures of him as an emaciated medieval saint. Why? He was a carpenter, a tradesman in his early 30s by the time he died. He knew what it meant to work hard with his hands.
Do you have a picture of Jesus in your mind’s eye? Maybe you don’t. Maybe Jesus is a vague figure you can’t quite grasp. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable letting Jesus be close enough to you to imagine what he looked like. Maybe that’s uncomfortable for you.
But if you are someone who prays, who do you believe is listening? Who are you praying to? Jesus asked his disciples this question — and he asks us this question — who do we say that Jesus is?
Or does he ever come up in conversation?
I know there are Christians who live “removed” Christian lives, who are “Chreesters,” attending church at Christmas and Easter. (And you know what? I’m happy to see them whenever they’re in church!) But I am also acutely aware of what the “Chreesters” are missing out on. Not just the community of the church, but the community of Jesus – Jesus as our friend – who loves us – each of us. He is the one who, whenever two or three of us are gathered together in his name, is with us.
I recall from my childhood years, my early years in Sunday School in the Baptist church, the teachings about accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal savior. We each had to testify to that, but I have to say the whole business of being born again and accepting Jesus into my heart as my personal savior never really connected with me. It was all somehow isolating – meant to be personal, but actually isolating – divorced from, separated from living with Jesus in Christian Community.
I believe that I have belonged to Jesus, been close to Jesus from the miraculous moment of my conception. I believe that I have always been a child of God. I believe I have always been a member of the community of Christ, the family of Jesus. And you have too! We all have! All we ever have to do is say “YES!”
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Nothing can separate us from Jesus. We just need to remember that!
But then we come to “Who do you say that I am?”
Who do we say that Jesus is? Do we say anything about him?
Do we ever actually talk about Jesus? If we’re Christians, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. If we call ourselves Christians, we probably should be talking about Jesus – on a regular basis. He should probably come up in conversation now and then. That’s not too much to expect.
“But, who do you say that I am?” Is that question laden with expectation? I think it is. But not heavy, onerous expectation. No. Honest expectation. If Jesus is behind all salvation, doesn’t he have the right to expect us to say we know him? That we know who he is? I think he does. How do we acknowledge him? How do you acknowledge him? Does this matter to you?
What is our answer to his question, “But who do you say that I am?”
The Abraham family was an interesting and unusual clan. Most of the heroes and gods of the ancient world were larger than life – nothing like the everyday people of the ancient world. They were characters like Apollo and Zeus and Diana and Athena. They lived on mountaintops in grand palaces. They took almost no notice of humankind, unless it was for sex.
But the Abrahams were human. You could have met them at the grocery store. They made human mistakes. They succeeded as humans. They may have actually existed or at least were an accurate archetype for the first Jewish people. And Abraham walked and talked with his one God, like a friend.
Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca gave birth to the twins Esau and Jacob; Esau and Jacob fought with each other in the womb. Esau came out first, but Jacob followed immediately after, hanging on to Esau’s foot. They were twins who were totally unalike. For example, Esau loved the outdoors and hunting and Jacob was a homebody.
Once, when Esau returned from a hunting trip, he was famished. I guess he didn’t catch much! He smelled a stew Jacob was cooking. Esau asked Jacob to give him “some of that red stuff.” Jacob said, “Sure. Give me your birthright.” Esau couldn’t think any further than his stomach at the time, so he said “Fine! What is my birthright worth if I’m dying of hunger!?!” So he tossed his birthright away and got a bowl of stew for it. Shortly thereafter, Jacob wisely decided not to immediately claim the birthright but to put time and distance between himself and his brother. So he ran away to live with his maternal uncle, Laban.
On the way he dreamt (Jacob had great dreams!) of angels going up and down a ladder. I’m not sure how, but it foretold his success as a leader for his people. (People tended to become jealous of Jacob – for good reason!) He was clever. So was his uncle Laban. Both Laban and Jacob were both clever guys. Laban tricked Jacob into working 14 years for him. Jacob thought he was working to win Rebecca, but after 7 years, on his wedding night, Laban pulled a switcheroo and substituted his older daughter Leah. So Jacob had to work another 7 years for Rebecca. Then, when Jacob finished the second 7 years and got the daughter he wanted, he decided to leave (with his wives and his herds) and go back to his father Isaac, hoping he could face Esau, his brother. Jacob left Laban and returned home.
As Jacob neared home, he was afraid of the reception he might receive from Esau. He sent his family across the river ahead of him. Then he lay down alone to sleep and prepare for possible battle. He had an eventful night. What happened that night!?! A wrestling match! I recently read a wonderful account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God or maybe it was with an angel. We are never told for sure. We are told he wrestled with a man – all night. This account was written by Frederick Buechner. It’s from his book Son of Laughter. Jacob is speaking.
“Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.
He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain’s beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke. “Let me go,” He said, “for the day is breaking.”
The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.
I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.
“Bless me,” I said. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.
He said, “Who are you?”
There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair. My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.
“Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”
“It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.”
I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.
I said, “What is your name?” I could only whisper it.
“Why do you ask my name?”
We were both of us whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky. I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but only that I dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.
The sun’s rim was just starting to show over the top of the gorge by the time I finally crossed the Jabbok. Bands of gold fanned across the sky. I staggered through the rocky shallows, one hip dipping deep with each new step and my head bobbing.
It is the way I have walked ever since.
From that day to this I have moved through the world like a cripple with the new name the Face of light gave me that night by the river when he gave me his blessing and crippled me.
When he gave me his blessing… and crippled me.”
How often do we ask and expect God’s blessings on our terms? Are we willing to accept God’s blessings on God’s terms? Sometimes blessings are painful.
We are now going through a tough time – tough economically, tough emotionally, and tough for society. Tough because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Tough times. Things are changing and our world is being turned upside down. Our world WILL change.
Can we move through change with faith, in faith? Can we accept change as a blessing? Can we trust in God? Can we trust in God on God’s terms? Can we receive God’s blessings?
Mother Susan’s Sermon 7 12 20
We got the following from Jim Wynkoop, who I think got it from his wife Maureen. The following is a Readers’ Digest version of today’s gospel
“Someone threw some seeds on the ground. Some grew, the others didn’t. I wonder why?”
Thank goodness Carl didn’t read us that version of the gospel! If we ever had any doubts, this gospel shows us how brilliantly Jesus could work a crowd. First, he knew the value of silence. He quietly stepped outside the house he was staying in and sat by the shore of the Sea of Galilee — apparently in silence – a center of silence in a crowd. Then he stepped into a boat and sat there while the crowd assembled on the shore. Jesus just sat there and looked at them and they looked at him. That’s how I envision the scene. Hmmmmmmmm…?
Then he started telling them stories. Jesus’ parables were deceptively simple – sometimes just a few sentences long. They were what a writing instructor might call “elegant.” Just the story – no more – no less – let ‘em use their imaginations. Storytelling is the oldest method of communication – and still the most effective.
People of all ages love stories. And Jesus’ parables are especially wonderful. What does he mean? What does he want us to learn? Does the story have more than one meaning? Are there layers of meaning? Even the simplest story can be multi-layered.
So Jesus began this parable with, “Listen!” That probably got their attention. Then he went on, “A sower went out to sow.” His listeners were everyday people, from the lower and middle classes. They all knew what sowers did. A sower walked along through a field, with a bag of seeds hanging from his or her waist, and reached into the bag and cast the seeds on the ground as they walked along. But this particular sower apparently walked through a variety of terrains and didn’t seem to care where he sowed his seeds.
Seeds that fell on his path were within easy access for birds. They were gobbled up. Seeds that fell on rocky ground couldn’t sink into much soil and grow roots. They might grow quickly, but with no depth of soil, the sun scorched them and they withered away. Some seeds fell among thorny plants that choked them as they grew. But some of the seeds fell on good soil and they grew and brought forth grain. Then Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen!”
And Jesus explained what he was talking about. If someone hears God’s word but doesn’t understand it, the devil, the powers of darkness, will come and scatter it elsewhere. It hadn’t taken root. The listener didn’t understand it so it didn’t mean anything to the listener. If the word was sown on rocky ground, perhaps the listener received it joyfully, but they didn’t bother to think much about it so they weren’t able to nurture a root for the word. So the word couldn’t endure and the listener fell away. The word that falls among thorns has fallen among those who pay more attention to worldly cares and the lure of wealth. The word is choked by these distractions and it can’t grow. But if the seed of the word falls on good soil, those who hear the word and work to understand it, then it grows, and it can bear good fruit.
Then Jesus looked out at his listeners on the shore. And he knew. He knew he didn’t need to ask THE QUESTION. They had gotten into the story and saw themselves as part of the story. They asked themselves THE QUESTION. I’ll bet you could have heard a fly fart. WHAT KIND OF SOIL AM I?
“Let anyone with ears to hear – Listen!”
Am I ignorant? Am I rocky ground? Am I thorny?
Am I empty soil? Or am I fertile ground, ready to receive? Am I willing to make the effort to understand the word?
And Jesus spoke of the rewards of understanding. He spoke of the joy of bearing fruit. It’s worth the work.
Maybe we can ask ourselves the same question. What sort of soil are we? Jesus’ words fall on us. What sort of soil are we? What can we grow?
This teaching moment next to the Sea of Galilee follows the Epistle in our readings. But I think it’s helpful to discuss the Epistle after the Gospel today. There is implied criticism for those who do not produce “fruit” in our gospel – for those who don’t do the work. But there is reassurance in our Epistle.
This is one of Paul’s more confusing writings. And I admit he has quite a few of them. You have to pick it apart. Paul reassures us that the law of the Spirit, of life in Christ, sets us free from any condemnation according to the earthly laws of sin and death, meaning the laws of the world. But once we belong to Christ, we belong to the world of the Spirit. Setting our minds on the Spirit means that the Spirit of Christ lives in us.
This may seem to be nothing more than a confusing reading to us, carrying on about Spirit and flesh and the difference between spirit and flesh, but it was crucially meaningful for the First Century Christian.
The First Century Christian lived in desperate fear, often in hiding. Everything in their world seemed to conspire against them, driving them underground. All they had to look forward to was persecution and horrible death. And yet they hung in there! Paul promised them freedom in Christ. That’s what they looked forward to. He promised them peace and joy if they accepted the presence of the Spirit of Christ. This was how they persisted. Somehow, they could see beyond the pain of persecution. Somehow, they could know the life, peace and joy of the Spirit. It’s hard for us to imagine this as real, but to those who endured the real physical pain of every day as a First Century Christian, this promise meant something. The presence of the Spirit meant something. It was a real and powerful part of their everyday lives!
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” That promise was real. That promise is real. I hope and pray that none of us ever needs to know the reality of that promise as if we were First Century Christians in the midst of persecution, but know this – the promise is real, as real as the quiet man who sat in a boat offshore, telling quiet stories to everyday people about everyday life that drew them into knowing and believing in life in the Spirit.