40 Days! First Sunday of Lent 2023
Sermon notes from February 26, 2023, the First Sunday of Lent at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
Good morning, again, St. Timothy’s family and friends and all who have gathered for worship. As we gather around our scriptures on this the last Sunday of Black History Month and the First Sunday of Lent, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel story this morning is important to us today for several reasons, the first being because the 40 days in which Jesus fasted in the wilderness is the model on which we have created and practice the season of Lent, 40 days of preparing for Easter, 40 days of self-denial, reflection, prayer and repentance. Just a quick review of the math… Lent began on Ash Wednesday this past week and if you count all the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays of Lent, you have 40 days.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew 4:1-11, NRSVue
Let’s Talk About the Text
These 40 days in the life of Jesus are recorded for us by Matthew and Luke, in chapter 4 of both Gospels. Mark mentions that Jesus was tested for 40 days, but doesn’t tell us any of the details. Matthew, Mark and Luke all give the story of John baptizing Jesus and the Spirit descending as a dove with a voice from heaven just before the temptations, but in John’s Gospel he has John the Baptizer tell the people about the baptism and descending Spirit in a bit of a flashback.
Between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the temptations we have substantially the same stories, but with a slight variation. They change the order of the the second and third temptations, and Luke doesn’t specify a mountain for the high place where Jesus is taken up. In Luke’s Gospel, when the tempter leaves Jesus, Luke says the tempter leaves until an opportune time. That’s important and we’ll come back to it. In both Matthew and Luke the tempter begins twice with “If you are the son of God…” and all three times Jesus answers the temptations with scriptural quotations.
Now, in the context of his day, this story is happening as Jesus moves to begin his public ministry, and it feels a lot like a right of passage, doesn’t it? It feels like a proving ground of sorts to show that he’s ready to do his ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke this event immediately precedes the beginning of his public work. So for Jesus I don’t think we can completely dismiss how powerful a testing and beginning this was for his ministry.
Picture for a moment the sequence of events… Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends and a voice proclaims Jesus the beloved and pleasing Son, and then *BOOM* that same Spirit drives him or leads him into the wilderness time of testing.
That Jesus was in the wilderness place for 40 days is a possible parallel to the people of Israel wondering in the wilderness for 40 years after God brings them up out of Egypt, referenced several times as 40 years in the book of Deuteronomy. I feel like most Jewish readers of the Gospels would have caught that parallel from the stories they had heard and studied all their lives.
The meaning and message is that something important is happening here, something is about to begin! The temptations are a middle space of sorts, a liminal space, the space between God witnessing to Jesus at his baptism and Jesus being ready to start his work.
The three temptations are most important, I think, in their relation to the life of Jesus: 1) Jesus is tempted to break fast and miraculously create bread, if he is the Son of God, 2) Jesus is tempted to prove God’s promise of protection by attempting self-harm, if he is the Son of God, And lastly, 3) he is offered the world, if he will renounce God and worship the tempter.
We may wonder at the temptations, and they are bit exotic compared to the temptations that so often come our way, right? I mean, we might be tempted to cheat a little in tax season, roll a stop sign when we think no one is watching, tell a lie, have an extra slice of cake, or on a really bad day we are tempted to give into our temper, anger and frustration. But testing God? Miraculously creating bread? Worshipping some other god? Not so much.
It’s crucial for us to recognize that these temptations have everything to do with the ministry Jesus is about to start. They have everything to do with the way Jesus is about to go and call people to “take up their cross and follow” him. Let’s look at it:
- His ministry will not always be a warm bed and a full belly, and if those are his priorities then he wouldn’t be ready for starting his ministry.
- His ministry will be full of opposition and danger, but not the thrill-seeking or irresponsible testing God instead of faithfully following God.
- And certainly, if Jesus was getting into ministry for fame, glory and riches, for personal gain, he wouldn’t have been ready or able to do the ministry to which God had sent him.
So our Gospel writers are giving us this clear and unambiguous picture of a Jesus who is ready; he’s named by God at his baptism and tested in the wilderness as the very people themselves were tested, and is ready to begin his work for God.
And Identity Issue
And that brings us to where I think our lives and the life of Jesus begin to cross and overlap in this testing story. I think that this is very much a story about identity. First we have the baptism, the Spirit descending and the voice proclaiming the identity of Jesus. Then the tempter would sow doubt with that “if you are the Son of God…” business. And we have Jesus rooting his answers, his heart and mind, in the scriptures. He establishes his faith and trust in God in the face of the temptations.
This is an identity issue here at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus: Jesus is showing who is he and who he will be. Will he be able to keep his focus on God and the kingdom business for which he was sent, or will he be tempted to seek self-satisfaction? Will he trust in God or have a fickle heart which questions and tests God’s love and care? Who is Jesus? Who will he be?
You know, Lent is an identity issue, our identity issue. Who are we? Who will we be? Who do want to be? This season is our chance to again take stock of our lives, review our hearts and minds, and make the changes needed to head in the direction we want to be going. We are reminded that God has proclaimed divine love for us and named us daughters and sons, children of the Most High… and God calls us to a Holy Lent, a self-testing of our motivations and priorities and faith in the love and work of God in us and the world around us.
Who we are and who we will be are questions for us to decide.
If you have not begun a fast, it’s not too late. If you have not yet thought about a practice of self-reflection and internal examination, it’s not too late to begin. If you’re just now thinking about the Lenten Season as an opportunity to go deeper into who you want to be and the direction you want to be headed, today is the perfect day to get started.
No Novice to Choosing God
Remember that we mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, Luke makes sure to mention at the end of the temptations that not only did the tempter leave Jesus, but left him until an opportune time. These temptations were a struggle for Jesus, even if it looked kinda easy to us in the way the story is told. Truly, it looks like Jesus had no trouble at all with these temptations, doesn’t it? Rapid fire scripture quotes, no hesitation… and yet, having fasted, being so weakened, this had to have been an opportune time for the tempter. I think, if we step beyond the stylized way the story is told, Jesus looks like he handles it so easily because he has prepared himself. This is not his first time to choose God. He’s been choosing God for some time now, and so when the testing gets tough, he’s able to continue to choose God, to stand firm in what he’s chosen.
Just quoting scripture isn’t enough, nor does simply quoting scripture necessarily show wisdom or relationship with God; the temper finally resorts to it in trying to catch Jesus. But I believe we see that Jesus has made the effort to know scripture in the context of loving God and choosing God, so it is a strength to him. Jesus has chosen God and grown in God before the temptations, and that gives scripture the power to strengthen him and uphold his faith.
Let’s Put in the Effort
Let’s do the work of choosing:
- Let’s choose a fast that makes room in our lives for good things to happen. Let’s choose a fast that creates space and recognition of our desire for God. Fasting is not just denial, but it’s about making room for opportunity and potential.
- Let’s set aside time for prayer, setting alarms and creating space in our lives that prioritize prayer, so that it’s not just an afterthought or forgotten intention. Prayer is not just asking for God’s help, but also living in God’s presence.
- Let’s prioritize opportunities and resources for going deeper with scripture and our faith; let’s lean into our midweek study times and our Morning Prayer times on Mondays and Thursdays. If you’re a reader, get a good book. Find some uplifting and strengthening music. Make time to talk and pray with a trusted spiritual friend. Use the time of Lent to create helpful and faithful routines that will carry on into the rest of the year!
Who are we? Who will we be? Who do want to be? These are not questions we ask and answer just one time, but every day and with each breath. And the more we choose God the better able we are to hold onto our choice when the wilderness times and storm times and times of weakness come our way. So may our Lenten practices and observances strengthen us in our choice of God, of faith and of one another. May our faith be made strong and our choice of who we want to be in this world made firm.
May God, the God of wilderness places and the God of difficult times, be our help and strength when moments of testing arise. And may we practice choosing God and following the example of Jesus who knew who he was to be and wanted to be. In the love, the grace and the calling of God. Amen, amen and amen.
Life Together: Holding On (Last in Series)
My sermon notes from Sunday, February 19th, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. This sermon wraps up the Life Together series.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone gathered for worship, especially welcome and good morning to those gathered with us online. As we take some moments to listen to our scriptures, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I’d be willing to wager this morning that each of us carries a relationship regret or two in our hearts. We each could think of a name, if asked, of someone we have lost along the pilgrim road of life. I mean someone lost to tempers, to arguments, to disagreements, to insults, to injuries and to frustrations. It seems all too human to have stepped on toes and had our own trod upon, and when the dust settles someone has been pushed away or withdrawn. For many of us, this has probably not been helped by social media and the many wars of opinion we wage on various platforms every day.
How We Got Here
We began this sermon series six weeks ago, a series entitled “Life Together: Foundational Practices for Building Relationships and Communities. The premise has been that in following the examples and teachings of God and of Christ, and following the wisdom of other biblical writers, we can create transformative relationships and a faith community that is vibrant and healthy.
In quick review, we have spoken of these six important practices modeled by God and Christ, and taught in scripture:
- To listen: to take the posture of a listener… giving one another an ear, wanting to hear and understand one another.
- To ask good questions: to seek clarity and understanding with one another, valuing our conversations and good questions above having all the answers or always being right.
- To give the benefit of the doubt: to assume the best of one another, to choose to believe the best of one another, making every effort to be proved right in that belief.
- To make sure that our words are life-giving: to build up those who hear us, remembering that no injury to us gives us license to tear others down, but letting our amazing gift and ability of speech be a blessing to those who hear us.
- To be a people who share: to truly open ourselves up to one another and anyone in need, sharing because we know that we are blessed by God to be a blessing, not just so that we are ourselves are satisfied.
- To be a people who love genuinely and actively: to love as Christ loved his disciples and closest friends, always ready to serve and uplift them, for truly love is the things which gives meaning to our words, our actions and our faith,
and now in our final week…
- To be a people who hold on, who holding on to one another: following the example of God and Christ, believing that it is worth the cost and worth the effort, we are a people of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What does it mean to be a people of holding on? It means that even though we very humanly have those regrets we talked about, and we have relationship misfires and we have trouble letting the practices we learn from God guide all our words and actions, we also very divinely have the capacity to maintain hope and a readiness to reconcile.
It’s the message of the prophets to Israel again and again, God has not given up on you! God is ready and waiting for people to open their hearts to reconciliation. The prophets again and again use proximity language: God is near, God’s arm is not too short. Jesus uses the same kind of language when he says: the Kingdom of God is near, this is the year of the Lord’s favor!
It is human to struggle with these things and to struggle with one another, and it is divine to maintain open hearts and ready love for the chance to bring back together what has been broken.
Our Gospel reading this morning, Matthew 18:21-35, is probably familiar to you, the seventy-seven times or seventy times seven passage… Peter is in the role he so often plays for us, asking questions and probing further… in Matthew 18 Jesus has just laid out a way to deal with conflict, seeking conversation and help in making reconciliation. Peter asks a fairly understandable follow up question, Ok how many times? How long do I have to allow for reconciliation? How many times must I keep my heart open and ready? And Peter surely imagined that seven times would be super generous, right? Jesus says in reply: 77 times, or possibly even more outrageously, seventy times seven… 490. Either way, don’t you think most of us would have lost count by 77?
What is Jesus saying about forgiveness? I heard someone once say that Jesus is talking about the math of the heart. It’s a math that doesn’t keep count, but a math that keeps hope.
- Jesus is not saying that abusers have a license to keep abusing.
- Jesus is not saying that we should take advantage of one another and demand perpetual forgiveness.
- Jesus is saying that we need to stop counting. We need to stop being a people who write one another off.
- Jesus is saying that we are a people who wait in a posture of forgiveness and reconciliation so that those things can happen when the time comes.
His parable helps us understand that Jesus is talking about following God’s example of forgiving, and he also gives us the vivid story of how gross it looks when we who should so thoroughly understand receiving forgiveness deny it’s place in our own hearts for others.
Increase Our Faith!
In a parallel passage, Luke records the exchange a little differently: Jesus says in Luke 17:3-5 “So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”
As a people who have such an understanding and forbearing Lord, we should be a people best able to exercise this crucial practice of holding on, even when it gets tough to do so. And so maybe our prayer is “Increase our faith!” As human as it is to mess up our relationships, it is divine to make room for reconciliation!
And how did Jesus go on in Luke 17 to answer their prayer for increased faith? He said: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” In other words, you have in you what is needed. We have within us the same divine potential, if we will give it room to grow and bear fruit. Keeping a posture of reconciliation: we can do this.
This is a faith thing, church. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to talk about it. If it were easy we wouldn’t need Luke’s famous story of the prodigal son who abandons family to waste his father’s money, just to return home in shame and find a father waiting to welcome him. If it were easy the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have written about bearing with one another and putting up with one another. It’s the kind of thing that looks like God among us. It’s the kind of thing that signals to the world around us that something different is going on here, something good, something worth checking out.
We’re not holding on to the anger. We’re not holding on to the hurt. We’re not holding on to every insult, every harsh word or thing that keeps us apart. Instead we’re a people holding on to hope, holding on to love, holding on to forgiveness; forgiving debts as we have been forgiven. We’re a people holding on to people. For in God’s kingdom and God’s church, as in God’s heart, no one is disposable.
Amazing and forgiving God, O God of Holding On, raise up in us the faith that holds on, make us a people formed after your heart. May we find in ourselves that faith which is needed to rise above the failures and injuries which would divide us, until your church is a glorious witness and well of hope to a needful world. In the name of Christ our Lord, who with you and Holy Spirit reigns over our hearts. Amen, amen and amen.
Life Together: Loving
My sermon notes of February 12, 2023, from the Life Together series and the centrality of Love in all we say and do to build our relationships and communities, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone gathered for worship this morning and those gathered with us online. As we jump into a few minutes going deeper with our scriptures, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
We began this particular sermon series, Life Together: foundational practices for building relationships and community, a little over a month ago. We began it by looking at the way God takes a posture of listening toward us and lends us an ear as the psalmist says. We talked about taking that posture of listening toward one another, emulating God and following God’s example.
Our readings today return us to following God’s example, God’s example of foundational love, the kind of love that transforms, gives meaning and is the very taproot of our faith and faith community. We are called to love.
Love Is the Foundation
A couple of weeks ago when we were talking about making sure our words give life tour hearers, we read the opening words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, probably a familiar passage to most of us…
If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Paul says that love is the meaning, love is the reason, love is what makes words worth saying and hearing, action worth taking and faith worth having. Love gives our faith, words and action meaning and value. Without love those things are just sound, motion and, at the end of day Paul says, nothing.
When I was in the old section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a couple of years ago I found a shop The Poet’s Passage operated by a local poet Lady Lee Andrews, and I picked up this little ceramic tile with a quote from her work, “Where is love absent, so is truth.” Wow, she got that one right.
I know many of you are going to be familiar with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry who is fond of saying “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” What the good Bishop and our poet are getting it is what John was speaking of in 1 John 4:7-21… God is love, God models an active love of service and blessing, and God desires us to make that love our great task in life: to love one another.
Jesus said it in John’s Gospel, we heard it this morning in John 13:31-35: Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus says this is the identifier, the mark of being his disciple that will let the world know who we are. It’s why it is so heart-breaking and so sad when the church is more known by its vocal and sensational haters than by our call to love. Do you remember the scene in John’s Gospel when Jesus said those words? It’s the Passover celebration and Jesus has just unexpectedly taken the role of the lowest servant and washed the feet of his disciples. Not symbolically, not metaphorically, but in all their gross, dirty, road-weary reality. He’s just loved them in service and action, and he says “This is it, this is how you love each other from now on.”
I wonder if we’ve really understood the significance of Jesus’ statement that we’ll be known by our love for one another. I don’t believe he’s saying that love is simply our slogan, our catch word, the next t-shirt or bumper sticker we need to buy… he’s continuing the language he used in the Sermon of the Mount, that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. What we love shows. What we love shapes us. What we love identifies us.
We know how Jesus loved and how he taught us to love. He said we can’t settle for just loving those who love us, or the most lovable, but must love our enemies. Our love must be extended to all. And we see him do that very thing again and again in the Gospels. Love must be something we grow, expand and by which we relate to the world around us. Love cannot be simply another transaction in life by which we get what we want by giving as little as we can… instead love is a gift, a transforming gift for those around us. The kind of love which Jesus showed and taught pushes past all boundaries which would separate us: national, racial, ethnic, religious and social.
Love is of God
We hear the steadfast love of God resounding throughout the Jewish scriptures, preached and sung by the psalmist. God’s love is the root by which we learn about love, a seeking love, a finding love, a serving love and a steadfast love which never ceases. And that love is not only a foundational practice, it really is the foundation itself.
Our very identity is to be built on love. Our words and actions fall flat or transform the world by the presence of that love. Our faith is alive and life-giving by the presence of that love. Fear and punishment and all the other things which could rob our joy and steal our hope are removed by that love, as John said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
And if there’s any part of us that would resist this call to love, that would say well I’m not sure I really need to love folks, maybe I could just tolerate them, how’s that? then we need to start the hard work of limbering up our hearts, loosening our love and working to expand our love to better include the people around us.
This is a huge part of how we love God. We heard John say it this morning in the reading “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” John is reminding us of an important movement in scripture that we show our love for God in our love for each other. How else are we going to do it? Just by singing songs and saying prayers? Those are good things, but we can’t escape that our community, both the faith and human communities in which we live are the canvas on which we express our love of God. Loving God and loving neighbor are bound up in scripture again and again as the first and second greatest of all commands. The relationship binds them together as truly one, as we’re told again and again to love as God loves, forgive as God forgives and as we are taught to pray: forgive us as we forgive.
Beloved, this love is why we’re not just another clever primate crawling across the surface of the planet. It’s why we’re not just another mammal, another animal, just genetic code reproducing itself… the very breath of God, to use the language of Genesis, has in love given us life. God has called us beyond what we might settle for, and has called us and enabled us to transform all things in love.
Love Never Ends
I want to conclude with something I tried out loud in preparing for this sermon and found convicting and hopeful, scary and aspirational. If we believe that love is to be our identity and our highest calling, let’s hear those words from Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 again, but substitute ourselves for the word love… as we answer the call of God to love, as we grow that kind of transforming love for one another in our hearts and lives, and with God’s help…
We are patient; we are kind; we are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. We do not insist on our own way; we are not irritable; we keep no record of wrongs; we do not rejoice in wrongdoing but we rejoice in the truth. We bear all things, we believe all things, we hope all things, we endure all things. We never end.
Amen, amen and amen.
Life Together: Sharing
I’m a little behind posting my sermons, but here are notes from February 5th at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, the next installment of Life Together which deals with the fundamental practice and attitude of sharing.
Good morning again, St. Timothy’s family and friends and everyone who has gathered for worship this morning, and especially welcome to everyone gathered with us online. As we spend time looking into our scriptures, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our Redeemer! Amen.
Does anyone else enjoy a bit of retail therapy? Retail therapy is shopping for the purpose of feeling better, raising your mood. Getting stuff! Maybe it’s shopping and shipping things from Amazon, visiting a thrift store or the mall or searching for ridiculous but wonderful things on eBay. A little retail therapy feels good and we enjoy things don’t we? From favorite things we buy and collect to fine meals and cars, we have created an economic system which caters to delivering to us what we want. We’ve been trained to feel good when we buy, to spend money to feel validated and powerful, to rely on our money and wealth for security and well-being. I have to admit, when poorer or richer, I’ve known the joy of a little retail therapy; how much money I had simply determined where I was shopping.
Getting what we want is not necessarily a bad thing, but we have to be careful that all this stuff doesn’t blind us, doesn’t give us a false idea of what really matters in life. We have a faith which calls us to turn to one another in sharing and giving, a faith which has always been about our shared blessings and not just me getting what I want. Our foundational practice for building relationships and community today is sharing.
Sharing is Caring
Like so many things we’re taught as children, this is one of those things we sometimes forget, as though we grow out of or past the call to share, the need to share and the joy of sharing. Our economics of personal pleasure and satisfaction can even leak into our faith making us consumers and critics who become too comfortable with phrases like church shopping and church hopping as we try on different faith expressions until we find one we like. Now, finding a faith community which feeds your soul and lifts your heart and mind is a true gift. The problem comes into play when all I do is I want to receive, and I forget that I’m also called to give.
I love that bit of prayer from our Eucharistic Prayer C, a longer form which is not used very often. It leads us to pray:
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”
Book of Common Prayer, pg. 372
In other words, let us not believe that Christ feeds us and fills us for our benefit only, but remember it’s also for the benefit of all who are within our reach! The risk of a self-centered faith and forgetfulness of people around us is nothing new and certainly not something any of us invented. Our reading from Isaiah is a powerful passage about God’s unhappiness with a group of people who do religious things, and do them well and often, but in daily life the economics of their day oppress and refuse to share the wealth and blessing of the land.
Indeed, through our Isaiah reading today God says I won’t listen to your prayers while you are oppressing your neighbor and refusing to share what you have with those in need. But if you will open your hearts to others, if you will share, you will be rebuilt, ancient ruins made new and your streets made livable again.
In our James reading he had a startling statement for us: if your faith isn’t active and enriching for the people around you, it’s probably dead. Seeing a need is our call to meet a need. Faith needs to be active and moving and sharing! Faith needs to breathe and move in our shared life and our shared blessings.
And many of us are familiar with that scene Jesus describes in Matthew 25. He presents us with a final day of reckoning in which some are found to be pleasing to God and others not pleasing to God, and it all comes down to their sharing. Jesus doesn’t list any theological achievements or correct doctrinal beliefs they held. Instead Jesus illustrates their living sharing faith of action and impact.
Even as we live in this Western economy of getting what we want, our call and our faithful work is about bringing about God’s economy in the world. That economy is shaped by faithful sharing, caring about the people around us and about people having what they need. The Apostle Paul was explicit about this kind of an economy… In Ephesians 4:28, in the midst of some of the things we’ve been reading about correctly using our words and speech to build others up, Paul says “Those who steal must give up stealing; rather, let them labor, doing good work with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” We change our orientation from just what I want to include what others need, and we work to meet the need.
Again, when speaking to the church in Corinth about their help to others in need, Paul describes an economic value, not of personal gain or loss, but of pursuing equality, 2 Corinthians 8:13-15, “For I do not mean that there should be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may also supply your need, in order that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” That as it is written reference is to Exodus 16 when God’s people received the manna, the bread from heaven, and were told to only gather what they needed without greedily hoarding more. Just as we saw in Isaiah, God’s economy of meeting needs has been around since the beginning. It’s not new to Jesus, to Paul or to us.
I suppose it goes back to our prayer with which we began this sermon series: “Open our hearts, our minds and our hands to all you would have us love, know and do.” That’s a prayer of entering into God’s economy. It’s a prayer that orients us to the sharing that meets needs, blesses neighbors and builds communities. May we ever more and more allow God to guide our hearts, minds and hands into sharing the abundance we’ve been given. Amen amen and amen.
Be Blessed, rev. Todd
Life Together: Speaking Life
My sermon notes from January 29 2023 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family and friends and all who have gathered for worship. Welcome, and welcome to all who are gathered online. As we go into our scriptures again for a time, may the words of my moth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I’ve been so energized by our discussions around the foundational practices of building life together! Thank you! I want to begin with gratitude! Our conversations in coffee hours, in the midweek study and the times in between have been rich, encouraging and so helpful. So far we’ve talked about the scriptural call to 1) be a people who listen well, 2) who ask good questions from a caring curiosity, and 3) who give the benefit of the doubt choosing to believe the best of one another.
All this is modeled on what we see in Jesus and from a basis of valuing one another and a desire to create the best possible space for our relationships and communities to grow. Today we make a little shift of sorts, from the way we might be responding and reacting to the way we are leading, projecting and actively shaping our conversations, interactions and relationships. We’re talking about the way that we are called to be a people who speak life, speak light and speak goodness into the world and the lives of the people around us.
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
So then, putting away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with your neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Those who steal must give up stealing; rather, let them labor, doing good work with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
We hear in our readings today from scripture that our words have power and we are called to use that power to build up and bless, not to tear down and destroy. All of us!
The Greatest of Gifts
Have you ever been part of study on spiritual gifts? Have you ever done one of those spiritual gift inventories where you answer a lot of questions and get assigned a gift at the end? That was very in vogue when I was a young Christian. We would synthesize the various lists of spiritual gifts that the Apostle Paul gave in letters to the churches, then try and figure out how we might identify which gift we had each been given. It was a faithful effort to see and hear God in our lives, a faithful effort to get at what God might be doing in our lives. Those were fun exercises, though I’m afraid we sometimes missed the point a little. Those discussions from Paul were not in the context of deciding how to interpret a distribution of spiritual gifts, but reminders that we all in our various gifts and abilities share the work and shouldn’t ignore one another’s participation simply because our gifts were different. We are all called to ministry.
Those discussions in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 were far more about what brings us together than what separates and differentiates us. Paul wanted us to understand that we all carry the work of the church, all have our ministries and our parts to play in God’s redeeming work in the world. To be honest, we tend to know already who has gifts of hospitality and service, teaching, preaching and so forth. Paul doesn’t speak of any special way to discern your gifts, but speaks to us about making sure we accept the variety of gifts God gives to the church.
He also wraps up the discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 by elevating love above all other gifts and encouraging the church to seek it and let all other things flow from it. You know the passage, 1 Corinthians 13… Love is…
1 Corinthians 12…
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work powerful deeds? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
1 Corinthians 13…
If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
A Shared Calling
Whatever else God has done in your life to equip you for serving the church and the world around you, you are called to love and to let that love shape your speech and action. We each and every one share the call and the gifting to build one another up! To speak light and life into the lives of people around us. Pardon me for sounding like this is some incredibly deep theological concept, it’s really so simple… it’s often a thank you, job well done, you did great, you are wonderful, you did a great job, keep on you’re getting better, I love the way you said that… simply speaking from love and with intention, spreading encouragement and upholding other’s efforts and achievements.
Isn’t such a shame we have to grow up? We know how powerful our words are and we make sure that in every way we can we communicate to our children: job well done, you’re doing good, thank you, excellent work, look at you! We put stickers on their homework and shirts and we celebrate them and their successes and growth. But somewhere along the way we decide that we grow out of this, that we don’t have to be as expressive and speak that kindness and encouragement to one another. We’re all grown up, we should just do what we ought to do and mind our own business. Or worse, in the void of encouraging words we see critical words and more negative habits find a home in our hearts and minds and therefore in our speech.
It’s so simple and yet so powerful. We are every one of us called to build one another up and encourage one another. We are each called to throw off anger, wrath, bitterness and slander, and speak well of and to one another. We don’t grow out of this call, we don’t have another gift that supersedes it and negates this call.
Tend the Heart
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil, for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Luke 6:43-45
And so we prepare the soil of our hearts; we till the soil and remove the stones of our anger and bitterness and aggravation. We plants seeds in that soil which will grow fruit to nourish us and those around us. As children we were warned that garbage in gets garbage out, and there’s truth in that. If we wallow in the anger, nurture the resentments and injuries, and allow habits of criticism and judgement to predominate our hearts and mind, we’ll speak out of that… they’ll show themselves in our speech and action. But more than just avoiding the garbage, what will we plant in ourselves to grow the good stuff?
We have scripture. We have prayer. We have one another. We can be wary of the voices we allow to dominate our days, in news, in entertainment, in literature and music. We can choose wisely the streams of goodness and encouragement with which we feed ourselves. And we can practice, practice and practice. Don’t hold back the gratitude or the compliments.
When critical thoughts and words arise in us, we can choose to set them aside. It may take some real effort and it make take some time to develop that habit, but we are called to be a people who speak life. We can be a people who yearn to be together, who hold one another up and build one another up. We can be a people who choose to revel in all the joy and life giving goodness of all our words can accomplish.
This is our call.
This is our shared ministry.
This is our future.
Amen, amen and amen,
Life Together: Benefit of the Doubt
My sermon notes of January 22nd, 2023, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Our next foundational practice for building our relationships and community is the exercise of giving the benefit of the doubt. The online Cambridge Dictionary says that giving someone the benefit of the doubt means to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either. It’s a choice to believe the best of someone, even when we may have a doubt about their intention, meaning or justification. In biblical language, it’s thinking the best of one another and making every effort not to judge.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”
Jesus, Matthew 7:1-6
We Aren’t the Judge
The case for not judging one another is one of the strongest in our scriptures, and sometimes the most difficult to practice or accept. Again and again we’re called to stop our tendency to judge and to open ourselves to believing the best in one another. We just read it, Jesus commanded it: do not judge. He points out in a wonderfully comic way the fact that we’re all in the same boat… I can’t be all about pointing at and focusing on the speck of sawdust in my friend’s eye while I’m swinging a plank around from my own eye! It’s a funny and tragic image.
Jesus calls us to use the recognition of a speck in another’s eye as a catalyst to examine ourselves and take appropriate steps in our own lives. Now, taking care of the plank in my eye doesn’t free me to then judge, but in fact prepares and enables me to be a helper. Taking care of myself and dealing my own issues is never a license to judge, but a prerequisite to be able to help.
James picked it up and included it in his letter, asking us a good question: “Who are we to judge a neighbor and speak evil of them?” He offers I think a couple of good answers even as he asks his rhetorical question. First, it’s not our job to judge and pass judgement on others, as though we were the Judge and not under the same expectations and in the same boat as others. And second, we don’t know everything. We don’t know enough to judge people as good or bad and condemn them, speaking evil of them. We don’t even know with certainty what we’ll be doing tomorrow.
Oh, there will still times when we speak from anger, express ourselves in ways we don’t intend, or simply fail to love one another as we ought. Practicing the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean that suddenly hurtful things and judgmental things aren’t ever going to be said, but we have an arena to unpack them, together. We have an opportunity to move forward, together. We don’t judge people, even for their mistakes, and we can move forward, past mistakes. We create the space for a couple of other foundational practices we’ll come to in February, asking for and giving forgiveness.
Jesus is famous for creating this non-judgmental space with the people around him. I wish his church was as famous for it. You probably recall the story of the woman we’re told was caught in adultery in John 8, and brought before Jesus to face judgement… only Jesus didn’t judge her. He dispersed her accusers and seeing in her what they could not or would not, sent her out to do better. He did this with Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, a cheater and a crook who had swindled the people, but Jesus saw in him the best and said, “Let’s get lunch together. I’m coming to your house.”
This is definitely easier said than done, but I believe this is doable. I also realize it’s going to take a lot of prayer, practice and effort on our part. I think I was first pushed to consider the benefit of the doubt as a true expression of our biblical command not to judge, when I entered into spiritual direction almost 15 years ago with a wonderfully wise old Jesuit Priest in Georgetown, Fr Leo Murray. As we journeyed together through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola I discovered the words that St. Ignatius wrote for spiritual directors about the benefit of the doubt, like 500 years ago. He wanted those giving spiritual direction to do everything they could to avoid judging the person receiving spiritual direction… even when the person seems to be way off base, wrong or deluded.
“In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.”
St. Ignatius, the Presupposition from the First Week
We’re not all spiritual directors or engaged in direction, but can you hear in the words of St. Ignatius the practices we’ve been talking about, and more importantly hear in our scriptures? How much more constructive and community-building might our conversations and relationships be if we more and more intent on believing the best of one another and pursuing the deepest and most honest understanding and comprehension of one another possible?
What hurtful words might be forestalled by believing the best of the person to whom we speak? What cycles of hurtful words might be broken when the benefit of the doubt is remembered and a greater desire to understand comes into play?
Pearls and Pigs
Have you ever wondered about the last lines from the Gospel reading today? “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” I used to wrestle with what exactly Jesus is saying in those words, and I was not helped by English Bibles which break those lines into their own section like a detached stand-alone piece wisdom. I think those words are very much attached to what Jesus has talking about. I believe that Jesus is giving a somewhat comic and tragic image of what it looks like to lose the value of the person in front of us (the pearl, what is holy) and to throw them to the destruction of our judgement (the dogs and pigs). Falling into a judgmentalism that forgets the value of the people before us is as crazy and dangerous as throwing our valuables before the destructive force of mad animals and expecting a good result. Our judgmentalism is a destructive wildness that will come back to haunt us.
Now imagine the community that deeply values one another and cherishes one another as the greatest of treasures! That’s what Jesus is building in us! Believing the best of one another, may we grasp every opportunity and make every effort this week to listen and understand one another. Can we have a couple more Bible verses? St. Paul says in Colossians 3:13&14 in the CEV says it this way: “Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.”
Let’s go create cycles of love and encouragement! Let’s put the dogs in the kennel and the pigs in the pen, and keep the pearls around our necks! Let’s go into the week and into our homes and schools and jobs and make everyone wonder what’s going on with us, because we are lifting them up and treating them better than they might ever have imagined they deserve! Let’s go and do this so that they and you and I may flourish in God’s grace. Amen, amen and amen!
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
Life Together: Asking Good Questions
Asking Good Questions: Curiosity that Cares. My sermon notes from January 15th, 2023, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Good morning again, and as we begin some time with scripture talking about building our life together, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
We began our Life Together series with a reminder that we need to develop a caring posture of listening for one another, emulating our God who lends an ear to us when we pray. Listening well is truly an act of caring, and you may recall that my fear is that when we stop listening we too easily begin competing. The day wasn’t over last Sunday, in fact I wasn’t out of the building before someone said to me, “You know, I find that listening well means that I ask clarifying questions to test to my comprehension.” I tried not to panic, but I was like wait, please, that’s next week! They were exactly right. Even as we use our hearts, minds and bodies to listen well, we still might not understand what the person is trying to communicate. We’re only human and hopefully doing our best, but entering into a posture of listening is just the beginning.
Our Next Foundational Practice: Asking Good Questions
Asking good questions. Someone might immediately ask why we’re talking about this at church? Listening? Asking good questions? It might sound like at first glance we’re getting into some other field than theology like communications or linguistics, but just a moment. These aren’t just good communications principles which we’re studying: Jesus asked questions constantly! And just as importantly, Jesus didn’t always give answers! That’s maybe a striking admission or realization for some of us. We like answers. We like having the right answers. We like having the only answers. But Jesus was not an Answer Guy who roamed the countryside of his day giving out copious amounts of information. In fact, he was a storyteller who in classic Jewish rabbinical tradition often asked questions, often answered questions with questions, and always encouraged deeper thought.
I recommend the 2014 book Jesus Is The Question by Martin Copenhaver which explores this idea in detail. The author asks us to consider why “Jesus asks many more questions than he is asked. In the four Gospels Jesus asks 307 different questions. By contrast, he is only asked 183 questions.” He also points out that Jesus begins and ends his life with questions, “Why were you looking for me? I’m going to be in my Father’s house” and “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In his ministry Jesus uses questions to engage his audience and bring them into the process of his ministry. In our Gospel reading today in Mark 10 we find Jesus on a normal day, traveling about the countryside, passing through Jericho when he is hailed by someone wanting his attention… “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd isn’t pleased and tries to shush the man, but Jesus does exactly what we’ve been talking about with heart, mind and body… he values this man, stops his walking and calls the man to himself… he’s prepared to listen, and he opens with a wonderful question, “What would you have me do for you?”
This is really a beautiful scene. Jesus stops and prepares to listen to this man, and doesn’t make any assumptions about the situation, but invites the man to speak. Oh, I’m sure Jesus could have known what was up. We often are told in scripture that Jesus knows something through the Spirit. Jesus could have used what I suppose we’d label common sense. If he can see by movement or different clues that the man is seeing-impaired, and he probably wants to be healed of his blindness. Jesus stops and says let’s talk. What do you want? What mercy can I give?
It might seem like a small thing, but I think it’s huge. Jesus shows a caring curiosity toward the man. He does this often actually. Asking questions which bring him closer to people, engender conversations and get people thinking. When a woman sneaks up in the crowd to touch the hem of his clothes believing that will be enough to make her whole… Jesus stops and asks who touched me? And he finds and speaks with the woman. How valuing and validating that must have been for her!
When asked what someone must do to inherit eternal life in Luke 10, Jesus answers with you tell me, how do you read the Law? And you probably know the story, the one who asked the question gives the right answer, love God and love neighbor. But then he asks another question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with a story we call the Good Samaritan. Ultimately Jesus answers the question with a question, “Who acted like a neighbor?”
Jesus masterfully uses questions to bring people closer to himself, to engage with them, to make relationship with them, and to push them into thinking deeply about issues.
Questions & Confirmation Bias
I enjoy reading across disciplines, so I rarely just read about something from a theological or faith point of view. I enjoy reading from a business and scientific perspective as well, and in studying this kind of questioning curiosity from a business perspective I read a powerful article on the importance of curiosity in defeating confirmation bias. You know the phrase confirmation bias?
confirmation bias, is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.
Without good questions and a healthy sense of curiosity a business can lose touch with customers and their needs. That company can lose track of what sells and why, and what might important in the future. Instead, things seen and heard are understood only within the interpretive framework of pre-existing views and beliefs about the market and customers.
Ok, enough about business… can we agree that confirmation bias could be as devastating for our relationships? How about its stifling and devastating effect on our religion and spiritual communities? Once I have decided something about a particular person, if I don’t have a caring curiosity, I can easily make up my mind about them and hear and interpret every single thing through those beliefs. A caring curiosity can not only help us get closer and increase our understanding of each other, but also help us break out of cycles of confirmation bias which could keep us from getting past mistakes, disagreements and even injuries. A caring curiosity is needed to ask good questions and move us past mistaken ideas, ignorance and assumptions.
I believe Dr. King understood this and pushed us to ask important questions, only using a different vocabulary of his day and specifically addressing the ignorance, falsehoods and biases which the civil rights movement confronted in our society. He warned about confirmation bias and a lack of a caring curiosity in a church which closed it’s mind and stopped learning. In the pursuit of the biblical command to love God and love one another, he said:
Must we not admit that the church has often overlooked this moral demand for enlightenment? At times it has talked as though ignorance were a virtue and intelligence a crime. Through its obscurantism, closedmindedness, and obstinacy to new truth, the church has often unconsciously encouraged its worshipers to look askance upon intelligence. But if we are to call ourselves Christians, we had better avoid intellectual and moral blindness. Throughout the New Testament we are reminded of the need for enlightenment. We are commanded to love God, not only with our hearts and souls, but also with our minds. When the Apostle Paul noticed the blindness of many of his opponents, he said, “I bear them record that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” Over and again the Bible reminds us of the danger of zeal without knowledge and sincerity without intelligence.
King Jr., Martin Luther . Strength to Love (pp. 39-40). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
Dr. King called on us to have the moral and intellectual strength to challenge assumptions and beliefs, to be open to learning and growing and being wrong if it’s part of the journey to being right.
A Caring Curiosity
What do good questions from a caring curiosity look like? Those questions are open-ended and express a desire to understand. You can ask, “Tell me more about…” or “What you think (or feel) about…?” Good questions don’t supply an answer or steer a person in a direction. Jesus didn’t ask Bartimaeus, “Do you want me to heal your blindness?” He asked, “What can I do for you?”
Can we step back a moment to our earlier discussion of contrasting Jesus as an answer man vs. a questioner? What a gracious question: “What can I do for you?” How gracious is that question compared to trying to always have the answer, to explain or fix things? I had a friend years ago who had this amazing capacity for memorizing scripture, so much more than I have ever had. The problem was, he also believed that quoting scripture at folks around him was the correct response to every single situation. If I was feeling down one day, he’d be quoting rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. If I was angry about something, he’d quote do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not give the devil a foothold. If I was struggling with something and had a big decision to make, he’d quote let everyone in need of wisdom ask the Lord and they will receive. It got to where I wanted to strangle him for quoting the Bible! It was so conflicting! Honestly, it got to where I wouldn’t tell him what was going on with me. If he just could have had a little more effort to make relationship instead of trying to always have the answer. Some good questions and conversations would have gone a long way.
I believe sincerely that Jesus modeled a caring curiosity for us in the way he engaged with people and asked questions, the way he did not make assumptions but instead created conversations and space for more than just answers. I also believe that St. Paul picked up on the principle of caring curiosity and carried it into his letters to the churches, as we see in our reading from Philippians this morning, take the joy and consolation of knowing Jesus and let it be what drives us to value and be interested in those around us. We’re not being nosy or busybodies, but creating a caring community where everyone’s interests matter; we’re creating a community where everyone matters.
As we face a new week of opportunities to ask good questions and have a healthy, caring curiosity, we go with this prayer of Dr. King’s…
“God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.”
Amen, amen and amen!
Fourth Sunday of Advent: God is With Us
My sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2022, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent! Can you believe another Advent Season and another year have almost wrapped up!? Next Sunday is Christmas Day and the next is New Years! Our four candles are lit, and only the Christ Candle remains for when we celebrate his birth next weekend! God is good.
Our Gospel reading shifts on us a bit this week. We’ve been spending more time this year with John the Baptizer and Jesus, but this week we pivot back to Mary and Joseph, especially Joseph. Matthew doesn’t tell the broad sweeping narrative of Luke’s Gospel… in Luke we hear of Gabriel appearing to Zechariah and to Mary announcing the births of John and Jesus, and we have the travels of Mary to see Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Matthew seems much less interested in the dramatic and leans more toward the pragmatic; he shortens the story to a few lines of what happened and an unnamed angel who is sent to save the day when things get a bit too uncomfortable for Joseph.
I’m glad that Joseph gets a few lines in Matthew’s Gospel. We get to see a bit of the man’s character and I think we get a healthy reminder that God also chose Joseph just as Mary was chosen. Joseph has gotten a short shrift in some corners of the church over the years… some traditions, reading outside the Gospel accounts, have assumed him to have been very old when marrying Mary and incapable at his age of being a true husband and partner to her. They have viewed him as too old to be fathering the siblings of Jesus. He has been made in some traditions to be little more than a placeholder.
In the Gospels however, we find a much more relatable groom, looking forward to his wedding and seemingly crushed when things go awry. Matthew presents us with a Joseph who is fully “engaged.” Rather than a placeholder with no intentions of having a family with his new bride, Matthew goes so far as to point out that Joseph will later wait until after the birth of Jesus to consummate his marriage. This is not placeholder groom playing at the role of husband, but a committed partner to Mary. I think we’re reminded that God chose Joseph just as God chose Mary, to raise Jesus. We know from the Gospels that Joseph did just that; we last see Joseph when Jesus is 12 years old, but Jesus is still known by the locals as the carpenter’s son, Joseph, years later during his ministry. What a gift to have the stories of both Mary’s faith and Joseph’s faith when God comes calling on them. When God comes calling and it sometimes makes life a little complicated, scary even!
Life can get messy, even for good people!
Joseph is happily engaged when the unthinkable happens: his fiancé turns up pregnant! All Joseph knows for sure is that the baby isn’t his. I bet Luke would have given us some dialogue between Joseph and Mary if he told this part of the story, but Matthew simply tells us who Joseph is and what he plans to do:
- Joseph is a good man, the scriptures say he was righteous; he’s a decent and non-vindictive man, and so
- Joseph plans to end his engagement from Mary in the least damaging way for her that he can.
Do you think Mary tried to relate the message from Gabriel to her soon-to-be husband? Do you think he tried to wrap his mind around everything happening and had to ask himself, “Is this the kind of start I want to my marriage?” Has anyone told you a story lately that’s just too much to believe, even if you want to believe it? I suppose I can’t find much fault at all with Joseph if he’s struggling to accept things as explained to him, when all of it on the surface just looks so bad, so embarrassing and not what he thought he was getting into with this new chapter of life.
What do good people do when life gets difficult? What do good people do when someone lets them down or hurts them? What happens to good people in bad situations? I think that Joseph being a righteous person, a good person, must have been a main part of the reason for God choosing him as part of the parental team to raise Jesus. It’s surely a big part of why Joseph reacts the way he does. He doesn’t blast Mary on social media and he doesn’t add to rumors or pile on his own anger or disappointment to what must have been a tense time for her… you can imagine the rumors that must have been flying around. No, Joseph sets out to minimize the trouble and to protect Mary from anything more if possible. He’s going to quietly end their engagement and save her from what trouble he can.
Wow. That can’t have been an easy decision. He’s got to be feeling some major hurt from the whole situation. But he’s going to minimize what Mary has to face in her life. What do good people do when life gets difficult? What happens to good people in bad situations? Hopefully, they remain good. Hopefully, they do good. Cultivating goodness in one’s self can be a powerful anchor in the storms of life.
Now, let’s turn the story around.
I think that the goodness of Joseph is also part of his ability to receive, believe and trust a message from God’s angel. When the angel comes and explains things to Joseph in a dream a good man’s heart is strengthened and he awakes ready to follow God’s call and raise this unexpected child.
And what was the message from the angel? The message was that Joseph can trust God and trust that God will be doing good things through the situation in which Joseph finds himself. Don’t be afraid. Trust. Because of all this, all you don’t really understand, all that has been promised and foretold, boils down to this: God is with us.
What can we do if we remember that God is with us? What can we achieve and overcome if we remember that God is with us? What can we faithfully dream and do if we remember that God has also called us, called us and placed us in the church and never leaves our side?
I think of all of Paul’s letters to the churches, we find in his letter to the Ephesians a constant reminder of their calling, and our calling, in Christ Jesus.
…from Ephesians 1
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.
…from Ephesians 2
17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; 21 in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
…from Ephesians 4
14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
This is what it all comes to: we are a called people, just like Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth! We are a people given a message of hope and strength for our times. We can cultivate goodness in our selves and be ready for what life brings us, remembering always that God is with us. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev Todd
Third Sunday of Advent, the Rose Candle
Our Gospel reading today is from Matthew 11:2-11, another interaction between John the Baptizer and Jesus. I’ve had a difficult time with my sermon this week. It’s been a tough one because in some ways I feel like this week’s Gospel reading is the perfect time to talk about the times when the holidays don’t feel all that festive for some of us. And yet, it’s the Third Sunday, and that means we are lighting the rose candle and talking about Joy as an Advent theme. What to do!?
Let’s start with the Gospel reading.
You may recall we already talked about John and Jesus being cousins, and yet they never really seem to relate as having grown up knowing each other at all. We’ve seen the way that John did his work as the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the people and pointing to Jesus… but in today’s reading we are moved a little down the road now and John’s landed in prison.
We mentioned last week that some of the things John and Jesus had in common were the practice of speaking truth to power and ultimately being put to death by the Roman authorities. John had been publicly shaming Herod Antipas and was now imprisoned in the fortress of Macherus, which know from the Jewish historian Josephus, and where we know we will soon be beheaded by Herod.
It’s during this imprisonment that John who proclaimed “Behold the Lamb of God” pointing to Jesus, who said he’s coming to baptize you with the Spirit and fire, and who said he wasn’t worthy to fasten the sandals on Jesus’ feet, now sends some of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Is it really you? Are you the One?”
Does it sound to you like John is maybe at a low point? He’s maybe a bit shook? It doesn’t sound like the John who so clearly proclaimed Jesus in the streets and so surely pointed to the way to the One… it sounds like John is struggling. Maybe being thrown in prison wasn’t in his game plan. Maybe life has thrown him for a bit of a loop.
Sometimes life does that to us, doesn’t it? Sometimes, even when we’re in a season with twinkling lights and happy carols, it’s tough to feel the joy. Sometimes when others around us are right where they want to be, we can feel a bit out of place. I think that’s exactly where John has found himself, in a moment of doubt when he thought all doubt had been settled, in a moment of uncertainty when he certainly had thought he had all the answers. We can relate to that, can’t we?
So, now let’s talk about Jesus.
Do you think Jesus might have been a bit surprised by the question? He could have been like “Hey man, you said I’m the One, and now you’re asking if I am?” I actually love the answer Jesus gives to the disciples to take back to John. “Tell him what you see and hear. People are being blessed, God is on the move.” He doesn’t chide John for questioning. Instead, Jesus broadens John’s view: “Look, John, you’re in prison, and that’s not easy. It’s also not the whole story.” Look at how God is moving and good news is spreading!
And we know that Jesus doesn’t judge or think any less of John for having questions or doubts. He goes on in Matthew 11 to tell the crowd that John is pretty amazing, that no greater prophetic has arisen or been born; John is an Elijah figure among them. I don’t know how Jesus could have been more complimentary of John. When Jesus hears that John has been murdered, in Matthew 14, he goes off to be alone for a while in a deserted place. We may not have a record of their spending a lot of time together, but Jesus values John and keenly feels the loss when he is killed.
We can find ourselves in all kinds of prisons in life, literal ones and prisons of our own making: prisons of doubt and fatigue, prisons of loss, illness and frustration. Prison walls of all kinds can block the light.
Maybe if the rose candle has a chance of leading us to Joy when life has got us caught in difficult and frustrating times, it’s going to be when we, like John, hear Jesus:
- We hear Jesus deciding not to judge or to be angry with us over our doubts and questions, and
- We hear Jesus pointing us to Good News that is bigger than the immediate circumstances of our lives. Pointing John to the news of what God was doing in the lives of other people didn’t immediately change John’s own circumstances, but it did broaden his view of blessing. Sometimes that’s what we need, a broader view of God’s goodness in the world.
Did you notice that all our other readings today from Isaiah, the Psalm and the short bit from James, all assure us that patience pays off. Waiting for God and keeping our eyes on God will lead to joy, even if through some hard days and struggles. Faith never promises to do away with all the struggles or make our lives an easy journey without tough times, but we are promised that Joy awaits, and not only awaits but is begun now, even in these days.
Let’s let that rose candle remind us to look around and notice what God is doing, and in broadening our view of God’s blessing we’ll find some blessing and joy of our own. Whatever prisons would capture and hold our hearts in this Advent Season, may the joy of God’s blessing in the lives around us and our own chip away at those walls until the Light finds us and helps settle our doubts and fears. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 4 2022
Have you lately given thanks for the forerunners in your life? You know, the ones who came before you and built lives of faith, struggle and wisdom upon which we have built our lives? Who were they in your life? I often think of a couple of people in my own life who truly and literally went before me to show me what and sometimes what not to do.
- My aunt Norma – a saint to me… I came home from Elementary School with head lice after the infamous Hat Day I hope they stopped having in school. I was kept home from school for treatment and I had to wear some cutoff panty hose on my head! My aunt Norma came over and I hid in the backyard because I was so embarrassed. She came out and found me and sat with me to love away my shame. She taught me, in example, an early and memorable posture of grace and love.
- And then I have an older brother… thankfully I saw enough of the rough life in his early decisions to help me avoid quite a bit of trouble as a teenager. Today he’s in a totally different place in life, walking with Christ… but wow did I benefit from his getting there! I had straighter paths and an easy way learning from his mistakes, and now get to enjoy watching his faith in action and family.
For a moment, I invite you to think of those who helped chart your course in life, who opened doors for you and pointed the way.
We have mentioned that the readings for our Advent Season this year, the fours Sundays leading up to Christmas, focus a lot on Jesus and his cousin John, whom we know as John the Baptizer. John appears ahead of Jesus as the one foretold to announce the arrival of the Savior, the awaited King. Here in today’s Gospel reading of Matthew 3:1-12, and in Mark’s Gospel as well, we’re simply presented with John’s arrival and the content of his ministry:
- He’s the fulfillment of Isaiah’s foretelling of a voice in the wilderness saying “prepare the way,” and
- He’s preaching and immersing people at the Jordan River for repentance.
I’m personally so glad we also have Luke’s Gospel to give us more on John’s parentage and preaching. It’s from Luke we learn of the angelic foretelling of John’s birth, his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, and through that Gospel we know that he and Jesus are kin, some manner of cousin through Mary and Elizabeth’s family connection.
Is it crucial to know their family connection? I’m not sure it’s something we couldn’t live without, but it helps me to understand the person of John the Baptizer a little more, especially as he arrives to do his job and in his own words from John’s Gospel, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.”
John and Jesus have so many compelling similarities and connections:
- John and Jesus are both prophets, understood by the crowds of their day to be sent by God and worthy of attention.
- They are related by blood, though honestly we have no record of them growing up together or spending formative years together; and in truth, they don’t seem to really know each other in a familiar way when they cross paths.
- They both are going to speak truth to power, especially to religious leaders of their day, and they both will be put to death by the pollical powers of the day in very gruesome and unjust ways. John will be beheaded for publicly shaming King Herod, at the request of his dancing niece-turned-step-daughter. Jesus will be sentenced to death by Pilate, at the request of the religious leaders, for sedition against Rome.
The content of their teaching is sometimes contrasted with John being seen as this fire-and-brimstone style of preacher while Jesus is presented a with different kind of Good News proclamation, and maybe you felt some of that in our reading today when John calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers and starts talking about axes chopping roots and unquenchable fires. But I actually don’t seen a huge difference in much of their preaching, with the exception that in the records of John’s ministry we don’t have near as much of his teaching or have things like the parables, healings and face to face conversations Jesus had with people as he travelled about.
Again I’m grateful to Luke’s Gospel for filling in more of what little we know of John’s preaching. When others came to them they would find both John and Jesus with applicable, doable preaching, lots of opportunites to change for the better… and we hear it especially in Luke’s chapter 3: if you more than you need share your food and clothes with those in need, if your job is being a tax collector or a soldier, treat people justly and fairly. Both those positions, tax collector and soldier, were easily abused. We can clearly see the justness, fairness and mercy of John’s preaching amplified in the ministry and preaching of Jesus. And when John got mad and called out the hypocrites, we see that in the ministry of Jesus as well, especially when dealing with the religious leadership of the day.
What about a personal cheerleader in your life? Who in your life has believed in you and pumped you? Who has always been in your corner and pushed you to achievement? I think that we see John doing this for Jesus. In today’s reading it is the clear message that I am not worthy even to be a butler for the One who is arriving, I’m not even worthy to fasten his sandals. You think my preaching is good, hehe, wait until he gets warmed up! I’m immersing you in water, but the One to come will set things on fire! And in John’s Gospel he’s pointing to Jesus and crying out “Behold, the Lamb of God!” After the second time John does this a couple of his disciples start following Jesus, and one of them is Andrew who goes and gets his brother, Simon Peter, and they follow Jesus. Yeah, that Peter.
Oh, John is coming into focus! He’s so much more than just a voice in the wilderness. He’s laying the foundation for the ministry and message of Jesus in his own preaching, he’s witnessing to the crowds, and he’s connecting Jesus to people we know are going to be pretty important down the line. John was many things it turns out, doing a lot, and always pointing to Jesus.
Always pointing to Jesus.
I believe that understanding John the Baptizer is key to understanding Advent. I believe that understanding John the Baptizer is key to understanding my preparing for Jesus to arrive… it’s not just about preparing me. Sometimes it’s also doing all I can to be a voice, to witness to the One who is Light and Life, and to always be ready and able to point to Jesus.
I’ve heard a variation on a good exercise done several times in different ways, and I’d like to offer it this morning as something we can take with us into this week of Advent as an exercise of preparing to ourselves to point to Jesus. It’s a fill-in-the-blank:
“When I got to know Jesus, _____________ changed in my life.”
Are we prepared to talk about the change Jesus has made in our lives? How would you fill in that blank? In John’s day, calling Jesus the Lamb of God made sense and got people listening, but we need to be able to point to Jesus in our lives in ways that make sense to people today. John talked about the way the sky opened and the Spirit descended to Jesus at his baptism. What is it today for us? What can we express clearly about knowing Jesus and experiencing Jesus in our own lives?
The more we think in this way, making straight and clear paths not in the wilderness but in our own thoughts and language, then the better prepared we are to point to Jesus. We’ll be better prepared to join John in that great work of calling out to the would-be and soon-to-be disciples of Jesus around us and helping them know the Way, the One worth chasing.