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,
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
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!
These are my notes from the sermon of January 8th 2023 as we begin a sermon series Life Together on the foundational practices of building strong relationships and community.
Life Together: Listening, Our First Foundational Practice
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family and friends and everyone gathered for worship this morning. It’s January 8th, a feast day when we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord (so we are liturgically white instead of green), the first Sunday after Epiphany, we’re commissioning our Vestry in worship, and we’re starting a sermon series entitled Life Together… sound like enough for one day? As we spend some time with our scriptures and a foundational practice for building our life together, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I love the story we read in John chapter 4 when one day along the hot, dusty road Jesus has an amazing conversation with an unnamed Samaritan woman beside a well. The two talk theology, comparative religion and about life in general. The woman will eventually become quite the evangelist bringing her whole town out to meet Jesus. I love the story because we see Jesus practicing what he preaches… accepting people without judgment, valuing them above societal, national or even religious reasons to withdraw from them, and listening. Yes, listening.
You may remember that back in Advent one of the contrasts we made between the ministries of John the baptizer and Jesus was that we have such a rich record of Jesus not only preaching, but also conversing and spending time with people. It’s something we really don’t have for John the Baptizer. And it’s so important for us to see Jesus with people and not just preaching. Oh, Jesus is a fine preacher, and surely we are who we are because of what Jesus teaches, but we are also so enriched to see him with people in daily life, building relationships and doing life together with the people around him. We’re enriched because this is where we most often find ourselves… not standing in the pulpit and exercising grand oratory skills, but praying together, working and walking alongside each other in the routine of daily life and community needs.
Even for a vocational preacher we’re just talking about a few minutes of each week preaching, ah but doing daily life and building relationships and community is the stuff of every single day. And so even for preachers, as for Jesus, as for all of us, the art of listening is so crucial to valuing and participating with one another.
Jesus Was a Good Listener
I mentioned that in the conversation with this unnamed Samaritan woman we see Jesus practicing what he preaches, and you’re probably familiar with the phrase “Let them with ears hear.” Jesus uses that phrase in conjunction with important parables, as in Luke 8 and the Parable of the Sower, to get people to stop and pay attention to what’s being said. The author of Revelation uses the same phrase many times as messages are delivered to the individually named churches, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” In other words, listen up!
Jesus not only asks for us to listen up, but he shows an active interested listening when he’s with people. He’s able to chat and have conversations because he cares about people and what they have to say. The long conversation in John 4 is just one example.
It’s actually one of the first things Teresa and I were taught at seminary in the process of getting our degrees in missiology, rule number one: before you teach, you must learn; before you speak, you must listen. The practical reasons for that are found in things like the importance of learning language and culture so that what you say has a better chance of being sensical and understandable. But the real value is found in making relationships and sharing life before you would try to teach or impart your message.
I’m sure you know the old saying, “No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Listening well conveys valuing, and it lays a firm foundation for all that may come after, like questions, dialogue, and even debate. Listening conveys respect, upholds dignity and brings two or more people closer.
Listening also helps us avoid the relationship breaking anger of speaking too much or too hotly. You’ve probably also heard the old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so be quiet and listen!” It’s very similar to what James said in our reading this morning in (James 1:19-20)… lean into listening, be quick and curious to hear, but then slow down when you speak… because anger doesn’t bring about God’s righteousness. Oh, we all get angry sometimes, and it can be a good motivator when we need to make some changes in life and the world around us, but it’s not a tool for good when we’re in conversations. It makes us overstate things, tempts us to punish or attack; it leads us astray and begins to separate us further and further apart.
Listening to one another will help understand one another, learn from one another and move forward together. Honestly, I fear that when we stop listening we start competing. When we start competing, we start having winners and losers instead of community. We’ve all been there… we’re in a conversation and when someone starts talking we immediately start thinking of what we’re going to say back. When that happens we not really listening any more. We’re not valuing the person or wanting to understand them, but probably hoping to score a point and win the conversation. Any response we might eventually give will be so much the better for having listened to and having valued the one speaking.
And so our first foundational practice of building life together is the art and practice of listening, giving a gracious and welcoming ear to one another that communicates the love, respect and value we have for one another. And like all practices, it’s something for us to practice! It’s not about having always done it perfectly or being the best at it, but about practicing and making it an intentional habit and growth area.
God Takes the Posture of a Listener
And if we think about it, it’s emulation of God, who we believe is a God of listening. We believe that God hears us when we pray and listens when we cry out in life. As the opening lines of Psalm 116 sing aloud, “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” We believe that God gives an ear to us, and what a gift for us to do the same for one another!
Sharing the Gift of Listening Well
O God, we would have ears and we would hear. We would hear you and one another, learning from you and from one another. Develop in us the gracious listening you showed us in Christ and that the Psalmist sings of in your giving us an ear. We would listen to one another in such a way that grows our mutual love and communal bonds. Help us slow our words and churning minds to make more room in our hearts for one another. We ask this in Christ Jesus. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
This is the sermon I preached on January 1, 2023, celebrating our New Year and the Feast of the Holy Name with St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Good morning again, St. Timothy’s family and friends, all who are gathered for worship! It’s been a while since we all gathered online only like this, about a year! We initially thought of doing this as a chance to give everyone a break who work so hard week after week to provide all that we need for our in-person and hybrid gathering, but as several people have been sick, were exposed to COVID or themselves tested positive, it’s probably a timely thing to stop that from gaining any more traction among us.
As we gather around the scriptures on this Feast of the Holy Name, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, Our Rock and Our Redeemer! Amen.
Feast of the Holy Name
We gather on this special day to celebrate the name of Jesus, but also to celebrate the new year! What an amazing intersection! I’ve been so excited to be with you this morning and start this new year under the name of our savior, Jesus who is the Christ.
The Apostle Paul in our reading from Philippians does a wonderful job of hallowing the name Jesus. This is beautiful piece of prose that some believe may have been sung by early Christians. St. Paul calls us to the emulation of Jesus… and I mean, what could be a better compliment to Jesus than to seek to emulate him. For those of us who gladly wear the label Christian, we need to sit up straight hear and pay attention, to find what Paul believes it means to have the same mind as Christ…
Philippians 2:5-11, NRSVue
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We find that for Paul it means a radical humility. And not the kind of bashful oh no, I’m not that great, I’m just little ole me kind of humility. No, Paul is talking about the kind of humility that is shocking, noticeable and costs something. One that costs a lot, actually. Jesus shows the kind of shocking humility that Paul can only say is like going from the powerful position of Divinity to the powerless position of being enslaved. But for Jesus, this is a choice, a path chosen and embraced. It’s a humility that exchanges life for death.
That’s the mind which Paul would have us embrace. A mind of humility that is not consumed with self, just interested in what it wants or can obtain, but turned outward and given to those around it. It’s a mind of obedience to God and service to humanity. It’s a mind that changes the world. It’s a way of thinking that can change us and fundamentally alter the world if we pursue it as did Jesus.
Have you ever had a nickname, one that you liked? You know, a term of endearment from family or of good-natured fun and camaraderie between friends? Names can mean many things, and names given can carry some deep meaning for us, especially when they come from a place of love.
Given a Name
Paul says that God has glorified Jesus for that humility, exalted him and gave him a name above all other names. It’s a name of honor, a name of respect; it’s a name to love and a name to confess.
That’s an interesting phrase gave him a name that paul uses to speak of God exalting Jesus for his humility. I’ll only mention the Greek to help us understand that the form of the word here for gave or granted to Jesus the name above all names is from charizomai, or charis… it is an expression of favor! It is an expression of joy on God’s part, of God’s joy in Jesus, to give him a name above all names.
Now, Jesus is not the first or the last person named Jesus. His name as we say it is simply the form that we use today of his Hebrew name of Joshua, Yeshua or Ye-ho-shoo-ah, meaning the Lord saves. I don’t think Paul is simply talking about the name Jesus as much as Jesus himself is named as above all. Jesus is named as the One deserving of bent knees and grateful confession. He is named the One to confess and the One to whom we bow.
Jesus is given this naming because of his humility, because of who he is and how he lives, God exalts him in this way. Has it struck you yet that this is exactly how Jesus taught his followers, and us, to live?
The First and The Last
Jesus uses the phrasing of the first will be last and the last will be first in several instances throughout the Gospel accounts and in different settings. Still, it’s always an arresting statement that would turn the audience’s thinking upside down. In Mark 9 his followers have been involved in arguing about pecking order, the ages-old human pursuit of power and position, the pursuit of power and position over others. Jesus would rattle their thinking and radically change their minds by calling them to be like the child, the least powerful, the least in control, the least in position.
Then they came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
This is why Christian Nationalism and the idea of militant or political Christian Domination in the world must be rejected and opposed by followers of Christ. We were never called to be those in power and position. We are fashioned to be the servants of all.
The exalting of Jesus which Paul describes in Philippians 2 is exactly what Jesus taught, God making the last to be first. It is in the radical and complete humility of Jesus that God is able to do so much and exalt so greatly. A rather common place enough name of Jesus is granted eternal and ultimate significance.
A New Year
And now here we are… day one in the new year of our Lord two-thousand and twenty-three! But what makes a new year special? What makes this day have any significance? After all January first’s are rather commonplace, aren’t they? We’ve all seen lots of those.
We’ve seen years with good months and bad months, global conflicts, warfare, and millions displaced by famine, war and terrorism. We’ve seen just what a global pandemic can do to local economies and lives. We’ve seen weddings and held our funerals. We’ve held the joys and sorrows to our hearts, and surely 2023 is liable to have its own ups and downs. But those things don’t make a year’s meaning.
This new year is going to have meaning and significance by our taking on the mind of Christ. It’s going to be worthy of notice by our radical humility and our giving it back to God. A new year is a chance to be reminded, to re-trench and to regain. A new year is a chance to tighten our hold on that mind of Christ and let it humble us, to ours and the world’s gain.
What practices will help us go deeper into the mind of Christ? Starting next week we are going to use the seven Sundays of Epiphany to explore foundational practices of building life together in church and our many communities of life. In January we’ll explore the humility and value of being good listeners, asking good questions, giving the benefit of the doubt, and keeping our language constructive and uplifting. Simple practices that can be hard to maintain! I hope you’ll be part of that sermon series and conversations I hope we have around those important ideas.
A Prayer for St. Timothy’s
I also offer you this simple prayer for our church family and our new year; it’s a prayer of aspiration, believing that God hears us and anticipates that God will answer.
Thank you for all that Christ has started and done in us;
open our hearts, our minds and our hands
to all you would have us love, know and do.
May you find joy in us as we find life in you. Amen.”
We’ll hold that prayer together through our coming sermon series, but I hope we’ll also make it a present part of the whole year, a focus and reminder of keeping ourselves open to God and all that God would do with us.
O God, open our hearts, our minds and our hands
to all you would have us love, know and do.
Amen, amen and amen.
Happy New Year & Be Blessed, Rev. Todd
This is the Sermon of Christmas Day 2022 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in DC, beginning with the Gospel reading for that day!
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-14 Rev. Todd Thomas
CELEBRANT: The Holy Gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ according to John.
PEOPLE: Glory to you, Lord Christ.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
CELEBRANT: The Gospel of the Lord.
PEOPLE: Praise to you, Lord Christ.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone who has gathered for worship! Merry Christmas! It’s good to be together, and as we gather to worship on this special day and spend some time with our scriptures, so may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our redeemer! Amen.
Do you like stories? I love a good story, but I wasn’t always a very good reader. Did anyone else have that weird aunt and uncle around Christmas time, you know the ones who don’t have kids of their own, so they give nieces and nephews socks or gloves or something like that for gifts at Christmas? I had an aunt and uncle like that, and as kid I just wrote’em off, you know what I mean? I lowered my expectations with them, because I knew I wasn’t gonna get a toy, ever. Oh, I was a good kid, I thanked them for the socks, and I muttered my appreciation for the gloves they got me each year… but then they broke tradition and in one of my moody preteen years they gave me a hardback copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories and poems for Christmas! And I gotta give credit where credit is due: I loved that book! I consumed those short stories and poems! That gift not only made me a fan of Poe but also helped me learn to love reading. When we moved to Maryland a little over 15 years ago one of the first things I did was a little pilgrimage to his grave in Baltimore on an anniversary of his death. To this day I’m a Poe fan, and I probably owe that aunt and uncle a much-belated thank you card for their putting me on the path of Poe writings and the joy of reading.
I also love the stories in scripture, especially around the birth of Jesus! I love the story of Gabriel appearing to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will finally have a child, John the Baptizer. I love the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary and their amazing conversation about Mary’s coming son, the one to be named Jesus. I love their whole conversation! It includes the one verse of the Bible I memorized years ago in Kiswahili, “Kwa maana hakuna lisiliowezikana kwa Mungu,” because nothing is impossible with God!
I love the stories of Joseph getting a visit from an angel and the travel to Bethlehem, the shepherds in their fields, and the scene at the birth of Jesus when all have gathered and realized that hey, this is really happening!
A Really Big, Good Story
And along comes John’s Gospel… and John says Oh you like stories, here hold my parchment… in the BEGINNING! Oh not just the beginning of our story 2,000 years ago, not just back to King David, not just back to Abraham and Sarah, not just back to Adam and Eve… the BEGINNING. Back when there was nothing as we know anything to be… there was the Word. The Word was God but also with God… something is happening here, something from God… this Word brings everything into being, John says, brings it all into being and fills it with life and light.
John’s story reads like that amazing script at the beginning of Star Wars, you know the one. Huge letters which tell the story of a galaxy far far away… except this story is our story, of all galaxies, of all that has been, is and will be… our story of light and life.
When it comes to understanding Jesus, John the Evangelist, the writer of our Gospel, wants us to take a deep breath and step back for a broad view of the story, get your wide angle lens ready for this one! John wants us to understand that Jesus is the meaning and the purpose we’ve been searching to find. As the One who brought it all into being, he’s also the One to help us navigate the landscape of all that is.
Life and Light are found in the Christ. As the One through whom it all happens, we can have no better guide, no better friend, no better path than the Way upon which he invites us. John points us to the One in whom we truly find our beginning, our middle and our end. The One in whom find our light when our days grow dark and our hearts are clouded with pain. Christ is the One who is our life when the days feel rough and less fun than we thought they would be.
Oh the Christmas story is Baby Jesus and Mary and Magi and all that, but it’s also about the very foundation of what can be our joy, hope and peace, no matter what twists and turns the story of our lives may throw at us. And it’s the foundation of making our place in this world. For the life and light are not just gifts of God to us, but they become the very thing we offer the world around us in faith.
Christmas is a story, our story, and it’s still being written, as the author Rev. Howard Thurman wrote in his poem/litany The Work of Christmas…
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
Rev. Thurman heard it, he heard it in John’s story. Did you hear it in the Gospel reading this morning, how in this opening poem and narrative of the Gospel John the Evangelist gives us the whole story, beginning to end? He gives us the whole picture even though we are in the middle still writing the joy and grace of our chapters!
John lets us in on the ending: the light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it! The light shines and it cannot be extinguished or hidden! Life is triumphant! The Word is doing its work in the world even today! I hear the words of Isaiah in chapter 55 when God says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Now John and Isaiah may not be speaking of the same word conceptually or in the same context, but we can hear the same story being told. The will of God, the life and light of God gifted to us cannot be extinguished, for it is not simply something we have chosen or that we have devised, but we are chosen and we devised by it!
John says in his Gospel that the light is not extinguished by the darkness, not overcome. And he goes on to say that in this One, in this One who has from the beginning been our life and light, we find the open door to adoption into God’s family. We are brought in, brought near and made to be at home. We find our truest identity as God’s children, waking to who we truly are in this world. I once heard Father Richard Rohr describe it in similar words which I can only paraphrase, he said that God is our mirror, that in God see the image of our true selves, not making God in our image, but seeing ourselves as God sees us, creative whole and beloved.
This Is Really Happening
Like Mary and Joseph that night when the shepherds arrive to find them gathered around a newborn King, we begin to realize hey, this is really happening! This is my story, your story, our story. In this life and light we find the double miracle, that we can be forgiven and forgive. We find the blessing of a joy and strength beyond the moment in which we find ourselves. We find the love and presence of God which redeems and makes sacred all the mundane and seemingly small things of life. As Isaiah painted that picture so long ago of God’s word watering the ground and bringing forth good things from the earth, a reminder is planted in us of the Word who has made and called us and would bring good from our lives in this very same world.
“Ah Lord God, thank you for days like this. Maybe it is a cold day, and yet known to be so cold only in contrast to the warmth of your love and light in our lives. Bless those who do not have a warm home today. Bless those who need a warm place for their bodies and a shelter for their souls. Bless our families and friends as we gather to share life and light. Keep our hearts always open and reaching to one another, that our love may grow and may sustain us in all things. Bless those struggling with illness and loneliness. Bless those in prisons of cement and razor wire, and the prisons of addiction and pain. Thank you, God, for the reminder that the whole story is your love at our beginning, our middle and our end. Thank you for John’s reminder that we are yours and you are ours. We pray in Christ, our life and light. Amen. Amen and Amen.”
Merry Christmas and be blessed, Rev Todd
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
Sermon notes for Sunday, October 30th, 2022 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone gathered for worship. It is good to be together and to take some time with our scriptures. As we do so, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
Micah 6:6-8, Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 1096). Sheed & Ward. Kindle Edition.
Beloved of God, we come to the end of a three-part sermon series based on Micah 6:6-8 exploring that amazing summation statement of God’s will for us, that we would: do justice, love kindness and walk humble with God. We’ve dug into justice in the biblical narrative and I believe we found it to be the upholding of human dignity… it is justly treating and living with one another. We dug into kindness last week and saw how it is part of that justice in action, kindness is an intentional decision to pursue mercy, compassion and goodness for the people around us. And this week we come to walking humbly with God.
Ok, first up, let’s just admit that doing justice and loving kindness are things we do, and sometimes don’t do. They are what we want to do, as God calls us to, but it’s also a pretty tall order some days isn’t it? We’re not perfect, and certainly just reading it in Micah, preaching a couple of sermons and saying, “Ok, sure!” isn’t really getting it done. This must be something to which we commit ourselves, something we pursue, and something in which we grow… and that’s where the invitation to walk with God is such good news.
How did you learn to swim?
Did anyone just get thrown in the water and yelled at? I hope that’s not ever been your experience of church. When learning to swim, did anyone have a person hold your belly, at your center of gravity, right at the water’s surface, and let you practice and perfect the way you kicked your legs and swung your arms? Getting thrown in the deep end may find out about your adaptability and chances in a life threatening situation, but it’s sure not teaching anyone the joy of swimming or helping you learn or perfect any technique. What kind of difference does it makes when we learn and grow together? Learning almost anything is so much easier when we do it with trusted friends, mentors and teachers who invest time and energy in our growth and understanding. And that’s what the invitation to walk with God is like, not being tossed in the deep end without a float, but asked to journey alongside and learn.
No one’s expecting you to throw on your cape, activate your super powers and go save the world, especially not God.
But what God does expect, is some time to grow together, to go for a walk together and to really take these commitments deep into our hearts and minds. Walking with God is a nice metaphor, but how do we actually do that? I’d like to mention several things to keep in mind…
- Start with Jesus. Spend some time with his teaching, maybe in the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5 thru 7. Spend time with the stories of how he interacted with people, giving grace and mercy, how he forgave and served. Go thru all the amazing stories that Luke wove into his Gospel. Choose a Gospel account and read it straight through like it was written; Mark is the shortest!
- Remember that we’re in this together. Yes, each of us is individually invited to walk with God, but often we’re on that road together. One of the things we can’t miss in Micah 6 is that justice and kindness are found, expressed and practiced between us… in community. Our walk with God also has a communal element, so lean in with those you see walking well. Not only can they be a help to you now, but you’ll be in a position one day to return the favor. Find an author who speaks to you. Find a spiritual friend for good conversation and listening to what God is doing. I was blessed to learn to swim at summer camp with a counselor who held me afloat while I learned the form and joy of swimming. I also learned to swim with friends, and the joy was multiplied in our sharing it.
- Finally, remember you’re walking with a God who loves you so dearly and stays by your side. Sometimes we can forget that amazing love of God which goes along with us. We’re good at placing reminders of things around ourselves in daily life, and maybe we need to do that with our walk with God. We wear wedding bands and use post-it notes on computer monitors, we set alarms on our watches and phones and we place photos and artwork on our refrigerators. It might be worth your time to set some new alarms for prayer times, start to journal more about your gratitude’s, place some visual reminders around that can trigger your memory of God’s promised love. And of course, going for a walk, or a drive, or a run with God is always an option. Walking with God is metaphorical for spending time with God, going somewhere with God and investing in your relationship with God… so find out what works best for you by trying different things and pursuing this amazing invitation.
To close, I’d like us to go back to that passage from Romans we heard this morning in worship… a glimpse at what our walk with God looks like from day to day in practice… Romans 12:9-18 “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. Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Does that not sound like a life spent humbly following God into doing justice and loving kindness?
And concluding with a prayer of self-dedication from The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 832…
“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, however as you desire, always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Be blessed, Rev Todd
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
My sermon of October 23, 2022 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
We continue today on our three week exploration of that amazing summation of God’s will for us given by the prophet Micah, to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Last week we began with doing justice, and as we looked at the scriptural record, the prophetic witness and the teaching of Christ and others, we arrived at the point of defining justice as the upholding of human dignity. Acting and speaking to establish and protect and dignity of all people is how we are a just people in God’s eyes. Today we come to the second of the three admonitions, to love kindness.
When we speak of kindness, does someone in your life come automatically to mind? We know kindness when we see it, it’s compassionate and generous, it builds people up, increasing joy and lessening hurt. If someone says “well, I was actually being kind” we know that’s suspect, don’t we? Kindness doesn’t need an apology and it’s easily recognized because of the fruit it bears in life.
It makes sense that we build our understanding of kindness on the justice we defined last week, the upholding of human dignity. Kindness is justice in action. It comes from a place of seeing the intrinsic value and worth of a person, and acting on it. It’s going to look like courtesy and compassion and it will be evidence of our just view of people. You’ve known kind people; kind people are the folks who practice the welcome and hospitality that the prophets said God expected to see among the people. Kind folks are quick to share, quick to compliment, slow to turn away, slow to judge and more curious than condemning. Many English translations have the word mercy in place of kind, and that works too… the merciful overlook the little things, give the benefit of the doubt, forgive, and lend a hand when they can.
According to the English dictionaries I perused this week, Kindness is the quality of being generous, helpful and caring for other people… the Hebrew for kindness in Micha’s writing is chesed, a love and generosity between people, ultimately modeled on God’s covenantal love. Though it’s never an easy task to fully render an ancient Hebrew word into English today, with all of its nuances, there’s no hidden messaging or major traps here… it’s talking about deliberate, chosen kindness.
We really see this in Jesus, don’t we?
- Jesus saw people’s value and honored it with compassion and time, like with the woman who snuck up to touch his garment in Mark 5 and Jesus stopped to talk with her,
- Jesus saw people’s potential and invested in it, like when he saw short-statured Zacchaeus up in a tree top in Luke 19 and didn’t laugh, but said, “I’m coming to your house!”,
- Jesus saw people confused and in need and didn’t judge them for it, like the crowds who were directionless as sheep without a shepherd at the end of Matthew 9,
- Jesus saw people in all their human complexity and refused to discard them, as when someone caught in adultery in John 8 was dragged before him and he chose not to judge, but to rescue.
Kindness changes lives for the better! Kindness creates possibilities and opens opportunities.
You know the familiar passage from St. Paul… “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22-25
Kindness is the fruit we bear in our lives which plants seeds in other lives. You know that’s the difference between fruits and vegetables, right? In general, fruits have seeds in them while vegetables don’t. Besides a few troublemakers like tomatoes, the rule generally holds. Kindness is a way of life that can be contagious and can multiply.
Things like kindness, the fruit born in our lives by the work and presence of the Spirit, can be powerful in reach and implication. I spent some time this week looking back at a powerful chain of kindness in action which is still blessing people today. Perhaps you know the story of Father Trevor Huddlestone an Anglican Priest in South Africa who bitterly opposed Apartheid. He would doff his hat in respect to a young Desmond Tutu’s mother, and because of his example of kindness Desmond decides he must follow the same path into the priesthood. The story of Fr. Huddlestone’s kindness varies slightly from source to source, but his kindness paves the way for an Archbishop Tutu to become the force he was against Apartheid, fighting for the dignity of all people, leading in reconciliation, and especially being outspoken in upholding the dignity of LGBTQ folks. His example and life continue to bless us, today.
Kindness is not meek and mild. Kindness is powerful, active and challenging for our world!
Exploring the call to love kindness from Micah, we might ask ourselves:
- What fruit of kindness am I cultivating in my life with intention?
- Who has been compassionate, generous and caring for me, and how can I pass that along?
- Who is in need of my compassion, generosity and care?
- What might be getting in the way of my kindness? What am I loving instead?
- Earlier and later in Galatians 5 St. Paul does give a list of things that get in the way… self-indulgence, biting and devouring each other, sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, sorcery, fights, strife, jealousy, anger, argument, divisions, choosing sides against each other, envy, drunkenness, conceit and competition. I’m not sure about you, but sorcery isn’t a struggle for me… but anger? Envy? Being argumentative? Being selfish? Yeah, there are things in my own heart which would fight against kindness.
Too often, it seems, that kindness is the first thing to be sacrificed on the altar of our political, economic, social or religious competitions. Kindness is left behind in the dust cloud of our angers, divisions and biting at one another.
Kindness is a choice, like choosing justice. It’s a calling; it’s the way we live. It’s who we were meant to be. Remember when St. Paul told the church in Ephesus in the middle of Ephesians 2, “we’re made for this, made for goodness, made to be doing good.” (That was my paraphrase!) We just have to move over all the other stuff that has gotten in the way, and then follow God on the world changing path of kindness. May God’s Spirit give us the wisdom, courage and opportunity to be wildly kind!
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
This is the text of my October 16th, 2022, sermon on justice based in Micah 6:6-8.
October has been a bit different for us, as you’ve probably noticed. We’ve not used the usual lectionary readings for each Sunday as the first two weeks were Homecoming and then Samaritan Ministries, and now we have another special emphasis for the remaining three Sundays of the month. We’re going to be joining a Diocesan initiative to focus on that amazing passage we read back on Oct. 3rd, Micah 6:6-8
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
Micah 6:6-8 Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 1096). Sheed & Ward. Kindle Edition.
This diocesan initiative would remind us of the centrality of God’s call to us, God’s intention for us, to Be Just, to Be Kind and to Be Humble.
This short passage is one of those amazing passages that comes along in our scriptures and captures our energy and imagination by so eloquently summarizing and encapsulating big ideas in a simpler expression. Let’s run through a quick reminder of who Micah was… Micah was one of twelve of what we call the minor prophets, a Judean prophet who in the style of Isaiah is proclaiming both the coming punishment for the people’s disregard of God’s law, and the restoration which comes after the punishment. These two things alternate back and forth in the text, consequences and restoration. But, what were the sins or the transgressions of the people?
- Chapter 1 mentions their idolatry.
- In chapter 2 it’s their theft of land and oppression of neighbors.
- In chapter 3 they are ignorant of justice and the way justice should work for people, and instead their judges take bribes and their priests and prophets extort money.
Chapters 4 and 5 speak mostly of the coming restoration and hope found in turning back to God in obedience. And you’re probably familiar with a verse from chapter 5, 5:2… “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” We hear in it a clear reference to Christ.
When we arrive at chapter 6 God is speaking to the people, asking for their response. And here we have sort of a rhetorical question from the prophet, “What should we do?” We might even hear the question, “What is it God really wants from us?” Do we need to bring sacrifices and burnt offerings? What does God really want? And the answer is given… “Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what ‘good’ is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.”
The rest of Micah’s writing, the rest of chapter 6 and chapter 7 gives one more final round of the people’s offenses like cheating in business, violence, dishonesty, plotting against neighbors and perverting justice with bribes, with the appropriate punishment and then eventual restoration.
Spending time in Micah’s writing highlights the importance of justice that comes up in so many scriptural passages, especially from the prophets. Justice was the will of God and the expectation of God for the lives of people and their society. Justice was the bedrock, the foundation of loving neighbors, caring for the poor and safeguarding the most vulnerable. We often miss it because of the tradition of translators to interpret and translate words differently in version to version in English and from passage to passage, but the Christians ethicists Stassen and Gushee remind us in their book on Kingdom Ethics that the four words for justice in Hebrew and Greek appear across scripture some 1060 times. They contrast this against the main words for sexual sin which appear about 90 times. Because we’ve so often translated those words for justice to righteousness or judgment we’ve made it very possible to miss God’s insistence on justice, on just practices in personal and social life.
We tend to think of justice, it seems to me, in terms of action and consequences, mostly just crime and punishment. That’s been true for my life. We also think of justice specifically in context of the major civil rights movements in our nation’s history and the ongoing work to repair and correct the chronic injustices of our social, political, economic and legal systems. In God’s kingdom, in God’s economy and way of ordering the world, justice does include those movements, and also things like honesty, truthfulness, mercy, hospitality, welcome and mutuality.
Just a quick reminder and overview of what this kind of just living looks like:
1) fields are not harvested for every scrap of produce so that the poor can come and glean the edges (Leviticus 19),
2) the dishonesty of false witness against a neighbor is condemned (Exodus 20),
3) strangers and those immigrating among the people are to be treated as fellow citizens of the nation (Exodus 22)…
When we see God’s intention for our lives and hear the lists of accusations brought against the people by the prophets, we see that this is all about mutuality, seeing ourselves in others until there are no more others, but simply us. Justice is a way of living that welcomes, blesses and upholds our neighbors.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963
Time and again the prophets illustrate God’s anger for people leaving the path of justice, abusing their neighbors and for their dishonest practices, for tearing and destroying that weave of mutuality of which Rev. King wrote. The people have been inhospitable to strangers, neglected the poor and the disenfranchised, and they often have done those things while maintaining a religious front, performing sacrifices and keeping feasts. It’s the situation in Isaiah 58 when God has had enough and is furious about those abuses of justice.
I believe that we’d be fully accurate to define justice as the upholding of human dignity. Justice is the truth of people’s worth and the honest action and speech to honor and uphold it.
And this understanding of justice is not confined to the Jewish scriptures but also all over our New Testament! John the Baptizer’s teachings center on sharing equitably and not cheating or extorting one another. (Luke 3) Jesus taught us the same kind of justice in keeping promises and covenants (Matthew 5), forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6), being the neighbor to those in need (Luke 10), and the intrinsic honesty of our yes meaning yes. (Matthew 5) Jesus condemned the Pharisees and religious elite for choosing to major in the minors, paying so much attention to traditions and rules while ignoring the most important matters of justice, mercy and faith. (Matthew 23)
Justice is central to the will and desire of God for us, and we must own the admonition to do justice, to be just… that is to be honest, true, merciful, aware of the most vulnerable and committed to the common good, and to uphold one another’s dignity and value. We do this with our words and our actions, in our business dealings and our relationships. We make it our goal to promote justice in our society, voting for those who will be just and uphold our neighbors. We demand it of our leaders even as we cultivate it in ourselves. We do this in our communities, like our parish family, sharing life with honesty, mutual concern and care, welcoming one another and the stranger.
Justice as we are taught it in God’s kingdom is what we demand and what we deliver. May God give each of us the courage and strength to uphold our neighbors, to safeguard their dignity and in all honesty and joy take our place in that beautiful woven garment of mutuality. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd