Category: Sermons

Learn from these things

Sermon; Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 11 October 2020; Proper 23A (RCL); Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23′ Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14.

     Groan.  Matthew ruins a perfectly good parable.  Luke has a version of this same parable.  A man throws a feast, but when he sends his servants to tell those invited that the feast is ready, they beg off, one after the other.  When the servants return, the host tells them to go out into the streets and lanes of the city, and invite those they find.  When they have done that, there is still more room, so he sends them out again, to invite in more, including the lame and the blind.

     Rachel Held Evans used this story in one of her blog posts.  She said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”  It’s a great image.

     But Matthew needs to throw in some vindictiveness.  The King becomes enraged with those who bowed out, and sends his army to destroy their city.  Matthew turns this story into a story about Jewish unfaithfulness.  Because the Jews refused to come to the feast, God destroyed Jerusalem.  Of course, the story no longer makes narrative sense – by the time he has sent his army, the feast is no longer worth eating.  And then there’s the poor guy not wearing his wedding garment.  Scholars think that Matthew is talking about baptism here.  The way to get in to the kingdom feast is by baptism.  Matthew has to have weeping and gnashing of teeth in the story somewhere.

     The Exodus story also highlights God’s vindictiveness.  When Israel and Judah split after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam, the king of the northern kingdom worried that people would go up to Jerusalem for sacrifice, and the would lose the loyalty of the people of Israel.  So, he built two sanctuaries, on at Dan and one at Bethel, and placed at each of them a golden calf.  He then proclaimed, “Behold your Gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  The authors of Exodus wrote this event back into the story of the wilderness – it makes no sense for Aaron to say, “Behold your gods, O Israel,” when there is only one calf.  God threatens to destroy the people and start over with Moses.  Only Moses remind God that God is God changes the divine mind.  It seems Moses is better at mercy than God.

     I suppose it’s good that stories like these are in the Bible.  They remind us just how easy it is to think our version of God is the only correct version.  If our God is the right God, then vindictiveness makes sense.  Everyone else must think like us to be right.  But, then there’s a story like Luke’s version of this parable also in the Bible, reminding us that we have to use our own imaginations and sense of justice to come to understand God.  Dorothy Day once said, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”  Ouch.

     So, Paul gives us a different perspective.  I think this is his last letter, written as he was on his way to his death.  Other early Christian martyrs imitated this letter in their final missives, so it seems like they understood it as his last letter.  Last week, we heard him say he desired to stay in the body, rather than go to Christ, so he could continue to teach the Philippians for their joy.  By these lines, it seems like he knows he won’t, in fact, be able to come to them.  So, he gives his final instruction.

     Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I’ll say it, rejoice.  And then my favorite verses in the Bible: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, set your mind on these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

     Our translation said “think about these things.”  The Greek really means something more like “learn from these things.”  Paul can’t teach them anymore, but he is convinced that they can learn what they need to on their own.  They can determine whatever is true and just and good.

     As you are probably aware, I’ve been in Colorado packing up my mom’s house for her move to Bellingham, Washington, to a two-bedroom cottage on my sister’s property.  My parents built that house in Arvada, and we moved in in early 1962.  My mom has been downsizing for years, and my sister and I were out there in early September getting rid of the last bits.  As you can imagine, it was hard for both my mom and me to empty out that house and pack it up.  Fifty-nine years is a lot of memories.

     My mom talked about being a forward-thinker.  Hard as it is to close a chapter, you have to do it to look forward.  We reminisced about all the memories we would carry with us from that house.  When we moved in, there was no development behind us.  We could go right out the back door into wide open fields, and we played in hose fields for years.  The freedom, the exploring, the adventures, were all a part of my growing up.

     We talked about the amazing gift the house had given us, and how we will carry that gift with us as we go forward.  I think that is what Paul is telling his Philippian congregation.  Grief is always hard, but Paul wants them to hold on to the true and beautiful in the world.

     Perhaps we need this in this polarized times.  Matthew wants his God to be right, and in consequence, everyone else to be wrong.  Then God can punish all the others.  Paul, on the other hand, calls our attention to whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, and just, and excellent.  He is confident that he has taught us enough that we can find those things and then learn from them.      As we get closer to this election, I hope we can focus on those excellences and virtues we can all agree on.  I will always treasure the gifts I take from family and from a fortunate growing-up.  I hope to learn from those things, and learn how to share them with others.  That is a much more expansive vision of who God is than Matthew’s vindictiveness.  I think Rachel Held Evans is right:  then kingdom is just a bunch of misfits at the table because they were invited.  My growing-up was just plain lucky, a gift given for no good reason.  When we are given much, I hope we build a longer table, rather than erecting a fence.

Juicy justice

Sermon; Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 4 October 2020; Proper 22A (RCL); Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46.

     Oh, dear – another parable about vineyards, and this one has a pretty ugly point to make.  I’ve referred to Isaiah 5, and the song of the vineyard.  This parable makes explicit reference to that song.  In Isaiah 5, the prophet talks about God building a watch tower in the vineyard and digging a wine press.  Matthew includes those details so we can’t miss the connection.

     In Isaiah 5, God looked for justice but found bloodshed, and for righteousness, but heard a cry.  So, the prophet says, God is going to tear down the wall around the vineyard, remove its hedge, and let the beasts of the field devour it.  The vineyard is the people of Jerusalem, who were supposed to work for righteousness, but didn’t.

     So, Matthew has Jesus use this same image, only this time against the religious authorities.  And throughout history, this parable has been used to justify what is called supersessionism; that is, the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism as God’s favored religion.  The idea of supersessionism has been used throughout history to persecute Jews, and this parable has often been used to justify that persecution.  It’s just what Jesus said should happen.

     We are forced to ask then, just what are the fruits of the kingdom, and who produces them.  Isaiah tells us that the fruits of the vineyard are justice and righteousness – both really slippery words.

     Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, speaks about a righteousness that comes from Christ, so maybe we can start there, and see if we can figure out what these fruits are.  He starts out by saying, “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” and then lists off his credentials: circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

     Righteousness, then, has something to do with credentials, and the community status they grant.  We might list off our credentials for being an American just like Paul does his for trust in the flesh:  Patriot, served in the military (not me, but others), native-born, and so on.  We could even list off our credentials for being a member of St. David’s:  pledger, regular attender, volunteer for many years for Celebration of the Arts, and whatever other things earn points.

     Earn points.  Righteousness has something to do with our call on community, the favors we can call in.  I suppose we can see justice in the same way.  Think of the cases we’ve seen of black people killed by police.  Who gets justice?  Who has enough pull in community to be defended in the courts.  Black Lives Matter has called our attention to the inequities of the justice system.

     But Paul says he counts all of this as rubbish compared to the righteousness that comes from Christ.  The word he uses for rubbish is a lot more colorful than that, but translators are a prudish bunch.  Translated literally, it is, “that which is thrown from the dog.”  You can fill it in.  I’ve certainly picked up my fair share of it.

     A righteousness that comes from the faithfulness of Christ.  A community belonging that comes from Christ’s faithfulness; credentials not mine but Christ’s.  That is what Paul aims for. 

God intended the law to establish a just community, but we used it to make distinctions between inside and outside.

     I suppose when we look at it like that, any of us could be the keepers of the vineyard, who do not produce the fruit of the kingdom.  In the system we have, some have a call on the community, and some do not.  We base that call on wealth, on status, on any number of things that Paul would identify with the flesh.  What if, instead, a person’s status in community was given by Christ’s faithfulness?

     I think that is what Paul means when he talks about us dying with Christ in baptism.  We die to any other self-definition we may have besides the self-definition given in Christ.  Thank goodness even Paul says that he has not yet attained this, but presses on to make it his own, or better for Christ to make him his own.  We can take comfort from Paul when we see that we certainly have not arrived yet.  But the prize is clear before us.

     So, I don’t want to use this parable to justify supersessionism – we’re better tenants of the vineyard than the people who came before us.  But I do want to use the image of the vineyard as a metaphor for God hopes for us.  One summer, before I was married, I took a vacation to visit a friend who lived in Washington State.  He had to work some of the days I was there, so I sat in his backyard, and ate the Concord grapes growing on his back fence while I read my book.

     Juicy, sweet, and free for the taking.  I think I made myself sick on those grapes, but I remember them to this day.  As a metaphor for community belonging, could there be anything better?  What if our city was like a vineyard, with plenty of grapes for everyone?  We tend to think of justice is dry terms – equal protection under the law.  What if we thought of it in juicy terms?  Grapes make wine, and wine gladdens our hearts.  What if justice looked like glad hearts for everyone?

     Think of the kinds of things that earn us points in community.  In reference to St. David’s, things like pledging, working for the Celebration of the Arts.  Think of how much richer those things make your life, how much deeper they make your connection to St. David’s.  But, they can also be used to exclude, and make us cliquey.  That’s the distinction.  Can we find ways to extend that righteousness to all?  That makes life sweet and juicy.

     Every city, every nation, every community, does some things well, and some things not so well.  Rather than saying the tenants must be replaced, what if we used this parable to ask what fruit we could produce better?  Clearly the tenants in the parable used the vineyard to exclude some people, and even to kill others.  This is the bloodshed God decries in Isaiah 5 – this is the opposite of justice and righteousness.      No matter how we screw up, God is faithful to God’s promises – that is the righteousness from the faithfulness of Christ.  God gathers us all in to enjoy the sweet, juicy, and slightly intoxicating fruits of the kingdom.  As stewards of that vineyard, we want to make sure they grow well, so there is enough to go around.  That’s what the wine on the altar stands for – God’s superabundance of the good things of life, meant for all.

Who gets in?

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; 27 September 2020; Proper 21A (RCL); Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.

     Last week we had the parable of the owner of the vineyard paying all the workers, regardless of when they were hired, the same daily wage.  This week we have the parable of the two sons, one who says he won’t work in the vineyard, and then does, and one who says he will and then doesn’t.  What’s going on here?

     There are lots of parables in the Gospels about vineyards and vines.  I suppose we could just assume that vineyards formed part of the common cultural background of Jesus’ hearers and the readers of the Gospels, so it made an easy illustration – just like sheep and shepherds.

     But, I think there is something more going on here – especially in this context.  The chief priests and elders ask Jesus by what authority he is doing “these things.”  I don’t know why the designers of the lectionary chose to chop things up the way they did, but we skipped over the “things” Jesus is doing.  We’ve skipped over the triumphal entry, when Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey’s colt, with the crowds acclaiming him as the David’s son, who comes in the name of the Lord.

     That’s already shocking enough.  No one would have missed the implications.  Jesus is riding into Jerusalem as a king victorious over his enemies.  It’s not called the triumphal entry for nothing.  He is not coming as a conqueror, but as the rightful king of Jerusalem victorious over God’s enemies.

     And then, once he gets into Jerusalem, he enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers, and drives the animals out of the Temple.  We call this act the cleansing of the Temple, and we tend to think of it as ridding the Temple of activities that should not be happening there.

     But really, everything happening is perfectly fine.  It was illegal to carry Roman currency in the Temple, only the Temple shekel.  So, if you came from Galilee or anywhere else, you would have to change your coins.  And, it was unlikely that you would drive a lamb on the three-day journey from Galilee to Jerusalem; instead you’d sell your lamb back home and buy another at the Temple.

     The problem was the graft.  The money changers took their cut; the animal sellers took their cut; and the Temple authorities took their cut.  It was how they could afford to keep the whole affair going, and dress themselves in the best robes.  The revolutionary feeling in the air was directed at the Temple authorities as much as at Rome.  So, understandably the Temple authorities and Rome would be pretty distressed with Jesus.

     So, they ask him on what authority he does “these things” – riding into Jerusalem, creating chaos in the Temple courts.  So, Jesus responds with his own question:  John’s baptism – from heaven or humans?  They’re trapped and refuse to answer, so Jesus refuses to answer their question, and then tells this parable, and connects it to the tax collectors and prostitutes.

     In the Old Testament, the vineyard was a metaphor for God’s people, and the justice they were supposed to live.  In Isaiah 5, the prophet sings a song of God’s vineyard.  God cultivates the vineyard, and it repays him by yielding wild grapes.  The poem ends with God saying, “I expected justice, and instead found bloodshed; I expected righteousness, but instead heard a cry.”  Jerusalem is the vineyard, and the poem is the prophet’s indictment of their failure to live up to God’s purposes.

     So, in last week’s parable the vineyard owner paid the workers a just wage.  We all say, “But it’s not fair.”  Fairness wasn’t what he was going for, but making sure everyone in the village had enough to eat.  And in this week’s parable, one son says he won’t work in the vineyard, and then does; the other says he will and then doesn’t.  The implication is clear.  The religious authorities appear to be the ones working in the vineyard, but aren’t.  The tax collectors and prostitutes appear to be the people breaking the rules, but as a result of John’s preaching and baptism, are in fact working in the vineyard – that is working for justice.

     This stands things on their head.  The tax collectors, at least the little guys, were probably people who had been taxed off their land, and were collecting taxes on their neighbors as a way of working off their own debt.  They had no choice; their families would go hungry otherwise.  Prostitutes were probably women who had been divorced and had no other option to feed themselves and their children.  These are people shattered by the systems of oppression at work around them, doing their best to scrape by.

     And, according to the parable, when they hear John’s preaching, they enter the kingdom of heaven.  That is, they start taking care of one another, helping each other get by.  In the Old Testament there are laws about not harvesting all the grapes in your vineyard, so there would be some left for the widow and orphan, so they wouldn’t end up tax collectors and prostitutes.

     The religious authorities, on the other hand, are benefiting from the systems of oppression.  Jesus’ challenge to them is to see the tax collectors and prostitutes as the son who at first refuses to work in the vineyard, but who then go, and ourselves as the other son.

     To the extent that we benefit from systems of oppression, we are those authorities.  Think of the coca farmers in South and Central America.  They are doing what they have to do to get by.  The international trade agreements limit what those countries can export (mostly oil), so there isn’t much else they can do.  Most of the coffee grown in Central America comes directly to us, and the conglomerates have pushed people off their subsistence farms in order to grow coffee.  The little guys can’t grow beans on that land anymore, so they’re left to grow coca.      The combination of these two parables asks us to rethink justice and our position in the kingdom of heaven.  Maybe those people we find easiest to despise know something we don’t.

Profligate justice

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 20 September 2020; Proper 20A (RCL); Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

     As I read this passage from Matthew, I can just hear you saying, “But, wait!  That’s not fair!”  I had a teacher in high school who would reply every time someone said that, “Who promised you life would be fair?”  But this is a parable of Jesus.  Surely we would expect fairness here.

     Of course, the guys in this story who worked the whole day grumble that the landowner is not fair; so even Jesus understands our expectation that life is fair.  I think Jesus tells the story precisely to challenge our understanding of what is fair.  And even more importantly, I think Jesus tells the story to force us to think about the appropriate use of wealth.

     There is a meme that goes around Facebook every so often.  In the first panel, it shows three kids trying to look over the outfield fence to watch a baseball game.  The kid on the left is tall enough to see over the fence.  The middle kid can almost see over the fence, and the kid on the right is shorter still, and is staring right at the fence.

     In the next panel, each of the kids is standing on a peach box.  The tall kid is now really tall.  The middle kid can see over the fence, and the short kid is still too short to see the game.  This panel is labeled “equity.”  All the kids have the same resources.  The third panel shows the tall kid standing on the ground – he can see over the fence.  The middle kid is standing on one peach box, and he can see over the fence.  The short kid is standing on two peach boxes; now he can watch the game!  That panel is labeled justice.  The resources (peach boxes) aren’t distributed equally, but everyone has access to the game.

     Think about this parable.  I’ve never been in the position of looking for day labor, but there were corners in Denver where you could see guys standing out early in the day, hoping to get hired by a landscaping company or for some other manual labor.  A contractor’s truck would pull up, and the contractor would signal two or three of them to get in the truck, and off they’d go.  Of course, there were some days when there would still be guys standing there after the last contractor had hired everyone needed.  You can be sure it would be a hard night for those guys.

     Notice in the story, when the landowner asks the men why they’re still standing there at five o’clock, they don’t say, “We got here late.”  They say, “No one has hired us.”  It’s going to be hard night at home for those guys.  A denarius was not only the average wage for a day laborer:  it was also about what you needed to put food on the table for a day.  There will be hungry families in the village.

     So, the landowner pays the guys he hired at five o’clock a denarius.  Their families will eat.  Think of the good will he buys in the village.  Those guys are going to want to work for him again, even if he hires them at five o’clock in the morning!  And if they ever have a little extra and can afford to buy wine, you can be sure, they’ll buy his wine.  Fair or not, he keeps the village in good shape.  So, what’s fair and what’s just are not necessarily the same thing.

     But even deeper is how the story challenges us to think about the use of wealth.  Last week, when Peter asked how many times he should forgive a brother or sister, Jesus told the parable of the ten thousand talents.  The slave who was forgiven ten years of Herod’s income throttled his fellow slave for 100 denarii, the usual daily wage.  Clearly Matthew wants us to connect one story to the other.

     The parable of the ten thousand talents comes at the end of chapter 18, and this parable comes at the beginning of chapter 20.  We skip over chapter 19.  Chapter 19 contains three basic units.  The Pharisees ask about divorce, saying the law allows a man to divorce his wife with a certificate.  Some of the rabbis after Jesus’ time allowed a man to divorce his wife for burning the stew.  Jesus absolutely forbids divorce except for infidelity.  Then, some people bring some children to be blessed and the crowds try to keep them away.  Jesus blesses the children and says whoever doesn’t accept the kingdom like a child cannot enter it.

     And then, the rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good deed must I do to inherit the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he says he has done so since his youth.  Jesus looks at him and loves him, and says, “You lack one thing.  Go and sell everything you have, and give it to the poor.  Then come follow me.”  The man leaves crestfallen, for he had many possessions.

     When a man divorced his wife, she was in deep trouble.  If her father would not take her back, she was thrown on her own resources, which usually weren’t much.  Often, she ended up in prostitution.  So, Jesus forbids treating women this way.  He also treats children, who were equally vulnerable, as if they are worthy of blessing.  And then he sends the rich man away.

     And then tells this parable.  How does anyone amass many possessions?  And note, the word is possessions.  One can amass much only by hoarding what really belongs in circulation.  Origen, an early interpreter of scripture, said about this parable, that the rich only hold their wealth in trust for the poor, and when the poor demand it, the rich must give it back.  The owner of the vineyard understands that he holds his wealth to make the community work – the wages belong to the worker, so they can eat.

     The Old Testament lesson is the story of the manna in the wilderness.  In the next few verses, God will get extremely angry with the people, because they want to gather more than one day’s worth of manna.  Of course, it rots overnight, except on the Sabbath.  Pharaoh hoarded all the grain in Egypt and bought everyone into slavery.  God’s people are not to hoard even a day’s worth of manna, so they don’t become Pharaoh.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for our daily bread.

     The king forgave his slave ten thousand talents, so basically everything he owned, even his life and his household, was pure gift from his king.  When he demanded a hundred denarii from his fellow slave, he was trying to hoard what wasn’t his.      When the laborer grumbles in this story, the vineyard owner asks, “Can’t I do what I want with what is mine?  Or is your eye evil because I am generous?”  The evil eye was much more damaging than jealousy.  The evil eye damages community.  The appropriate use of wealth is build community.  What is ours, and what belongs to God and we only hold in trust?  This is not a stewardship sermon, but that is the question of our whole life.  It’s all gift.  And we should be profligate with it.

It’s all gift

13 September 2020; Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 19A (RCL); Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

     On my trip to Colorado, I was being especially careful to avoid contact with people, not wanting to put my mom at any risk.  I took a cooler with food to eat, rather than going into any fast food restaurant along the way.  On the way back, though, I was tired of making and eating ham sandwiches, so one day for lunch, I decided to go through a Dairy Queen drive through window.

     I ordered my lunch, and the woman behind the speaker told me the bill would be ten dollars and change.  I got out a $20 bill, and the appropriate change, since there is a coin shortage going on.  But when I got to the window, she told me that the car in front of me had paid my bill.  I was completely flustered.  I almost drove off with a word of thanks, but then I remembered that this is not how the game is played.

     I asked her how much the order behind me was.  She said $7 and something.  I handed her the twenty, and told her to pay the bill behind me.  And then, I just drove off.  Remember, I was flustered.  I didn’t wait for any change from the twenty.  I hope she used it for other cars behind the one behind me.

     As I got back on the highway, I laughed at myself for being so nonplused by the whole thing.  For half a second, I thought about the change from the twenty that I had just left behind, but then I was grateful that people could be so kind.  Even if the girl at Dairy Queen kept the change for herself, it was a good day for someone, and certainly a good day for me.

     In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus gave the church the only community rule we find on his lips.  If your brother or sister has sinned against you, go work it out in private, and they listen, you have regained your brother or sister.  If they don’t listen, take one or two others with you, and if they won’t listen to them, then and only then take the matter to the whole church.  And if they won’t listen to the church, then and only then, write them off.

     So, Peter, good old Peter, wants to pin Jesus down.  How many times should be willing to do that with my brother or sister?  Seven times?  No, Jesus says, seven times seventy times.  And then he tells a parable.

     A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.  One slave owed him ten thousand talents.  Talent is not a currency we use, so the number doesn’t mean much to us.  Herod the Great’s annual income had been about 1,000 talents a year.  So this slave owed his king ten years’ worth of a king’s income.  Unimaginable!  How does a slave get that far in debt?  We might very well fill in ten billion dollars.  So the king decides to sell him and his family into slavery and all their possessions.  The amount of the sale won’t come close to recouping the debt – maybe a single talent.

     The slave falls on his knees and begs his king for patience.  He promises to repay.  The king of course knows that’s never going to happen, but for a single talent, what’s the point of selling him?  So, he cuts his losses and forgives the debt.  But this same slave immediately meets a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii.  A denarius was the usual daily wage for a day laborer.  So he owes his fellow slave about four months’ worth of minimum wage.

     Our main character throttles his fellow slave and demands repayment, and when he can’t repay, he orders him thrown in prison – for 100 denarii!  Matthew then adds the tag line that God will throw us in prison if we don’t forgive each other.  But I think the point of the story is much deeper than that – and parables invite a lot of interpretations.

     We can live in one of two ways:  either grateful for the incredible gifts we have been given, or suspicious always trying to figure out what the world owes us.  We are so used to thinking of the world in terms of debt, that it completely flusters us (me, at any rate) when someone out of the blue gives us a gift, or pays what we owe.

     When Jesus begins his ministry, he announces the kingdom of God by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has arrived.”  That word, “repent,” means literally in Greek, “change your mind,” or better yet, “go back to school.”  It requires training, homework, and a complete shift in mindset.  What if we approached every human interaction asking “What gift am I receiving,” instead of asking, “What can I get out of this?”  How would that change our view of the world.

     As we were cleaning out the house, my mom and I talked about the incredible gift the house had given us.  It provided a place of refuge, of learning, of discovery, of safety, and of love.  We decided that the best way we could move on as we lose this house was to hope that whoever buys the house will receive as much from it as we did, and then find ways to pay that gift forward wherever we find ourselves.  That made the grief bearable, and opens up new vistas for living life to the full.

     Last week I said that I am always troubled in the Old Testament that God’s favor for Israel always comes at someone else’s expense.  This week, we have Pharaoh’s army thrown up on the seashore, so Israel could go free.  But I think the same lesson is buried in this story as in the parable of the 10,000 talents.  Pharaoh could only see Israel as free labor, rather than as a gift.  Remember, Pharaoh (with Joseph’s help) had hoarded all the grain in Egypt, and then bought everyone into slavery by parceling out that grain.

     When Israel gets into the wilderness, they complain that there is no food.  “Oh, that we might return to Egypt, and sit by the fleshpots, with onions and cucumbers in abundance,” they complain.  So, God gives them manna.  They can collect just enough for one day.  If they gather more, it rots overnight.  There will be no hoarding food in the wilderness.  God is going to teach them the hard way that life is a gift.  If you can only collect food for one day, there is no way you’re going to get 10,000 in debt to anyone.

     Paul gives us the same warning.  Don’t look down on anyone.  Money is the way we rank ourselves and our worth.  It allows us to look down on others, or to think we ourselves are not worth as much when we compare what we have and make to what others have and make.  But the parable tells us that there is no difference between 10,000 talents and 100 denarii, but only in the way we look at the world.      Is life a gift, or does it owe us?  That’s the difference.  Even when it’s just ten dollars and change at Dairy Queen, life is a gift beyond imagining.

Reconciliation

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 6 September 2020; Proper 18A (RCL); Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

I said last week that we often find ourselves in Peter’s shoes; we want someone to come and make everything right.  Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus said that on the rock of that faith, he would build his Church.  Note that this one of only three times the word “Church” appears in the Gospels, on Jesus’ lips.

Then, when Jesus begins to tell his disciples how he must die, Peter scolds him, saying that must never happen to him.  Jesus lays into Peter, calling him Satan, and telling him he is setting his mind on human things, not divine things.  I said we are in Peter’s shoes because we too hope for and expect God to set things right.

I think Psalm 149 is another example of this same kind of thinking, only even worse.  The psalm not only expects God to set things right, but expects that we, God’s people, will be God’s chosen instrument to do that work:  Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hands; to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.

I would like to think this is not a very attractive image, but I’m afraid it is far more attractive than we would like to admit.  At least in the realm of our civic theology, our national ideology, this is the way we think.  We are God’s chosen instrument to bring the American way of life to the world.  Even the narrative of the Passover has an element of this way of thinking:  God executes judgment by killing the first-born of others.

But, last week, Jesus told Peter that he was setting his mind on human things, not divine things.  We have confused our way of thinking with God’s way of thinking.  And we can see the consequences all around us.  All of the anger in our political process comes from knowing we are right, and wanting to impose our way of doing things on others, or it comes from feeling like others have imposed their idea of justice on us, and hoping for a savior to set them right.

But, in today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us what a divine way of thinking looks like.  For the early Christians, the cross was the sign of God’s justice, and it was exactly the opposite of our expectation – not the sword at all.  God accepted into the divine self all the consequences of human sin.

And so, Jesus shows us how to live that divine way of life.  If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the problem in private.  If your brother or sister doesn’t listen to you, take two or three others with you, and if your brother or sister won’t listen to them, take the matter to the whole church.  Only then can you write that person off.

The idea is reconciliation.  If your brother or sister listens to you, you have regained a brother or sister.  The restoration of the world works from the bottom up, not the top down, and the responsibility falls squarely on us.

This is one of only three places where the word “Church” occurs on Jesus’ lips.  It is an anachronism – the church didn’t exist when Jesus was with his disciples.  This is the only community rule we have on Jesus’ lips, the only rule of the community that Matthew felt important enough to write back into Jesus’ life.

This is the Church that is founded upon the Rock of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.  This is the divine way of thinking that we have such a hard time wrapping our heads around.  If the world is going to be set to rights, it will be done by reconciliation.

We tend to think of law and justice in the abstract.  When we hear talk of “Law and Order,” that is something that exists outside of us.  It gets imposed from the top.  Paul is saying much the same thing as Jesus is saying.  All of those laws that we think of as abstract rules – you shall not murder, you shall not covet, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal – are not so much abstract rules as ways of living in community.  Love sums them up.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self, and that we have received the ministry of reconciliation.  Reconciliation requires a cost – we have to admit the hurt done, rather than turning it into anger and exacting retribution.  South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a good example.  It is sometimes called restorative justice.  It’s not about punishment, but about mending relationship.

The Church built on the rock of the confession of Jesus as the Messiah is the place where reconciliation happens.  It sounds like hard work, but it is the only way to set things right.  Imagine if you were a member of one of the nations against which Israel imagined they were called to wreak vengeance.  The cycle of violence would only continue.

The cross shows us that God has done the hard work of reconciliation, accepting into the divine self all the damage of human sin.  In the confession of Jesus as the Messiah, we are invited to join that reconciliation, and restore the world from the bottom up.  God has already done it from the top down, and it didn’t look like we expected.  The work from the bottom up doesn’t look like we expected either, but it so much deeper a restoration than anything imposed from above would be.

That’s what Jesus means when he invites us to set our mind on divine things, not human things.  We get to join in that divine work.

Bold new empire

Proper 6A (RCL); Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:23.

     One of the differences between Morning Prayer and eucharist (besides the obvious) is that in the service for eucharist, the Collect of the Day comes right at the beginning of the service.  In Morning Prayer, it comes after the sermon, after the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  This morning, that’s too bad, because the Collect for today really sets up well what the Scriptures are about.  So, I’m going to read it here in the sermon.

     Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion:  for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

     I could almost preach a sermon on the collect.  We pray, that through God’s grace, we might proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion.  Watching what has been unfolding on our streets over the last two weeks, I think this is a prayer for our time.  We need boldness to proclaim God’s truth, and compassion to minister God’s justice.

     This prayer sets up these scriptures perfectly.  In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus commissioning the twelve apostles, and giving them authority over unclean spirits, and power to heal disease and sickness.  Matthew introduces this commissioning with a statement about Jesus having compassion on the crowds, because there were like sheep without a shepherd.

     Matthew is saying more than it might look like on the surface.  He is quoting the book of Numbers.  Moses is worried that when he dies, the congregation of Israel will be like sheep without a shepherd, so he asks God to appoint someone to take his place.  God tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua and give him his authority.  There is a great pun here that we miss in English.  In Greek, the name Joshua is Jesus.  In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Moses appoints Jesus as his successor.

     That pun is not lost on Matthew.  And now, Jesus, knowing he is going to die, appoints the twelve as his successors, and gives them his authority.  Jesus sends them out to announce a new empire.  As they traveled they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, and announce that the empire of God had come near.  It is not as clear in this passage as it is in other passages that the disciples were to eat a meal with those they healed.

     In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus sends out the disciples, he instructs them to call a sort of stone-soup meal in each town they enter:  eat what is set before you, heal the sick, raise the dead, and proclaim the kingdom.  When Jesus raises Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter, he instructs those standing by to give her something to eat.  The meal was part of the cure.

     The ancient world didn’t have the medical understanding we have now about how diseases work.  But they had a much clearer understanding of the social aspect of the disease process.  Some disease, like leprosy, cut people completely off from society, and so being brought back to the table would have been a powerful cure.

     One of the really tragic things about COVID-19, is that people who are really ill are nearly completely isolated.  We’ve seen images of hospital staff standing and cheering as someone is released from the ICU, overjoyed that the person is now back among loved ones.  Think of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s:  the social aspect of the disease was as bad as the disease process itself.  How many gay men died completely alone?

     I’ve been glued to my television these last few weeks, watching what is happening on the streets of our nation, and even around the world.  As nervous as I am about the possibility of these protests spreading the Corona virus, I am astonished at the outpouring of support for a movement against racism in our institutions.

     It would not be too much of a stretch to see racism as a social disease, and institutional disease, causing huge rifts in our social fabric.  I have been struck by the variety of people protesting.  In Ferguson, after Michael Brown’s death, white people joining the protests was newsworthy.  White people could get themselves on the front page of the newspaper by showing up at a protest.  In these most recent protests, it’s almost normal.  That’s a huge shift.

     Jesus sends out the disciples to cure the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead, and then proclaim that a new empire, the empire of God has come near.  Those early Christians were dangerous.  The Roman empire understood that their message called Rome’s authority into question.  If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  Those first Christians were not made martyrs for being nice people.  They were a threat to the powers that be.

     I think we’re seeing something like this on our streets.  Certainly there is some bad stuff happening.  There has been looting and destruction, but a lot less of that than during Ferguson.  People are proclaiming a new order of things:  Black Lives Matter.  They are seeking to heal a very deep and very old wound in our nation.  They are proclaiming a new empire, one of hope, justice, and love.  They are seeking to bring those who have been excluded back to the table, or maybe to the table for the first time.  I think Jesus would recognize some of what is happening.

     And that’s where today’s collect comes in.  Moses passed his authority on to Joshua/Jesus, and Jesus has passed his authority on to us, the authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and announce a new empire.  He also tells us that we can expect opposition.  We will be called on to testify before powers and authorities, who might not like what we have to say.

     So, we pray for God’s grace to proclaim that truth with boldness, and to minister that justice with compassion.  We are going to need that grace to see the truth, in ourselves and in our society.  And we are going to need grace to proclaim what we see with boldness.  We are going to need grace to be compassionate with ourselves as we face an uncomfortable truth, and we are going to need grace to hear the anguish of those who suffer from this ill.  We are going to need grace to see justice done with compassion, welcoming those excluded to the table, rather than excluding them with force and violence.  We are the agents of a new empire.  God give us the grace to proclaim it with joy.

Let him go

Fifth Sunday in Lent, 29 March 2020, St. David’s Episcopal Church , DeWitt, NY, Dan Handschy

Lent 5A (RCL); Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

     I have to admit I’m finding it a little difficult to write sermons in this time.  There is a lot that looks bleak, and we all need a word of hope.  There are voices coming from every direction, some saying it’s dire now, and will get worse; others saying things will soon be better and we can go back to life as normal.  How are we supposed to respond?

     I think this pandemic is forcing us to realize that some things in the way we have organized the world will need to change.  We talk about ‘vulnerable populations’ as if they were something other than us.  And yet we know that if anyone has this virus, we’re all in danger of getting it.  We are far more connected than we like to think; we are not the rugged individuals we imagine ourselves, responsible only for our own well-being.  Now, we have to figure out how to reorganize society to make this so.

     Our Gospel reading for today is very confusing, but it may help us figure out how to think and live differently.  First of all, why does Jesus delay two days, when he knows Lazarus is dying?  And then, why does he grandstand when he prays – I know you always hear me, but I’ve said this for the crowds standing by?  We’ve had more than enough of delay and grandstanding.

     Both sisters, Mary and Martha, say to Jesus, with more than a hint of accusation in their voices, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I think we’re feeling the same.  Why is God allowing this delay?  Why don’t people get how serious this is?  Lord, if you had been here, things could have been different.

     So, for me, it raises the question, “What would things look like if Jesus were here?  What would be different?”  We could spend a whole lot of time on that question!

     When Martha comes to where Jesus is, she asks, she accuses, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”  She says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”  This is one of those classic examples of misdirection in John’s Gospel.  Jesus says one thing, and she hears another.  Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  She replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”

     Again, she answers a question he didn’t ask.  She sees things in the standard way – the Messiah is coming, and everything will be all right.  He told her that the resurrection is already here, and it doesn’t look like she thought it would look.  It doesn’t look like we thought it would look.

     John wants to drive that point home.  When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, John tells us “the dead man came out.”  Lazarus is still the dead man.  And, he was wrapped in his grave cloths.  When Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciple whom he loved went into the tomb, and saw the grave cloths all neatly folded up.  Lazarus’ is the resuscitation of a corpse.  Jesus’ is a resurrection from the dead.

     What does that mean for us?  Mary and Martha want things to go back to the way they were before.  They want the resurrection to look the old order restored.  John is telling us the old order has already passed away.  Jesus’ resurrection is something new.  When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus in the Garden, he tells her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet embarked to my father and your father, my God and your God.”  (I guess Jesus understood social distancing).  The resurrection looks like a journey toward God, not a return to old hopes.

     What are the grave cloths we need to take off of Lazarus to see what God has in store for us?  What does a new and fuller life look like?  What does it mean that if we live and believe in Jesus, we will never die?  What does it mean to say that when so many are dying?  And, we ask like the sisters, why were you not here?

     John wants to redirect our attention away from a return to the way we think things are supposed to be, and toward something unexpected.  For John the resurrection is not just the restoration of biological life, the resuscitation of a corpse.  Resurrection is instead a fullness of life.  John’s favorite phrase for it is, “the life of the ages.”  We tend to translate that eternal life, and think it means living forever.  What it meant in John’s time and Jesus’ was living a life in the coming age that God intended for all the world.

     We’re seeing some of what it is not.  It is not the hoarding of scarce resources, whether that be toilet paper or personal protective equipment for our medical workers.  It does not mean manipulating a crisis for one’s own interest, whether that be profit or political points.  It does not mean going about our business as if nothing were wrong, and not seeing the impact of our actions on others.  These are the grave cloths about which Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

     So, the opposite looks like resurrection – making sure everyone has what they need; living our lives as if everyone else’s life depended on what we do; accepting with huge gratitude what others, even those invisible others we would rather not see, do for us.  The resurrection looks like the whole Body restored to full life.  Our Diocesan vision statement is “A world healed by love.”  I think that pretty well captures what I’m struggling to picture for you.

     In the Apostles’ Creed, we say that we believe in the resurrection of the Body, and I think the pun is intended.  Not just this physical body, but the whole Body, the Body of Christ intimately interconnected, overlaid with a stunning network of relationships, joints, sinews, connective tissue, organs; nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, truckers, musicians, waiters and waitresses, that whole glorious Body raised to newness of life.  That is the life of the ages.

     Jesus says to Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life.”  The life we have in Jesus is a faint foretaste of that resurrection life.  The community we share with one another is the sign of that resurrection to the world.  And, oh, are we hungry for that now.  When we can get back together and sing ‘Alleluia,’ we will now more powerfully than we have ever known the resurrection of the Body.  That is the hope of Easter.  That is the life of Jesus in our midst.  Pray we hear Jesus’ words, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Living water

Sermon, Third Sunday in Lent, 15 March 2020, St. David’s Episcopal Church, DeWitt, NY

Dan Handschy

Lent 3A (RCL), Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

     Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.  Have you ever noticed that in this story, Jesus never gets the drink of water he asked for?  That, if nothing else, should clue us in to the fact that this story isn’t really about water.  Something else is going on.

     I contend that this is a love story.  We have a woman and a man at a well.  If you’ve ever read the stories of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and let’s throw in Moses for good measure – you know that they all met their wives at a well.  When Abraham sent his servant back to his home land to find a wife for Isaac, the servant said to himself, the first woman I ask for water, and who gives it to me, that will be the woman for Isaac.  That woman was Rebekah.  Jacob said the same thing, and that woman was Rachel.  Moses met Zipporah at a well.

     In John’s Gospel, we’ve already had the miracle of changing water to wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  And last week, we heard Nicodemus asking how one could be born again.  Something weird is going on here.  And about Nicodemus:  he was a Jew, a Pharisee, he had a name, and came to Jesus by night.  This woman has no name, is a Samaritan, and meets Jesus at noon.

     Hmmm.  Jesus asks for a drink of water, and our unnamed woman launches into a speech about Jews and Samaritans.  They hated each other.  Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds, ethnically defective, worse than Greeks.  So, she is a bit surprised.  Jesus replies, “If you knew who was asking, you would ask for living water.”  Remember, Jesus has already changed water to wine, so we’re not talking about water here.

     She wonders if Jesus is greater than Jacob, whose well it is.  We know, of course, that the answer is “yes.”  Jesus tells her to go and call her husband.  She replies that she has no husband, and Jesus says that indeed, she has had five, and the one she has now is not her husband.  Many commentators have a made a great deal about her marital history.  She must be a woman if ill-repute.  That’s why she is at the well and noon.  But remember, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

     Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  It had been conquered in 722 by the Assyrians, who had deported 27,000 Israelites, and resettled a bunch of foreigners in their place.  That’s why the Jews (from the Southern Kingdom) consider Samaritans half-breeds.  The Babylonians had then conquered the Assyrians, and the Persians had conquered the Assyrians.  Then came the Seleucids, and finally the Romans.  Each of these empires had put images of their own gods in the Temple on Mt. Gerezim.  Count them.  That’s five different gods:  Israel, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucids.  The Old Testament often uses the image of God as Israel’s husband.  Five husbands.

     And finally comes Rome.  And Caesar is not really a god, despite his statue in the temple.  Now the picture is starting to get clearer.  In the middle of all this, the disciples come back and offer Jesus something to eat.  He points to the fields ripe for harvest.  What?

     Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and was not convinced about being born from above to enter the kingdom.  This unnamed Samaritan woman has a conversation with Jesus about water, Temples, and husbands, and wonders if he might be the Christ, the savior of the world (Caesar’s title, by the way).  John’s little beleaguered community had gotten itself thrown out of the synagogue, and now finds itself on the verge of welcoming a bunch of Samaritans!

     The book of Acts tells us that some of the first non-Jewish converts to the Jesus movement were Samaritans.  Here we have a story about how that happened.  And it’s a love story.  A man and a woman meet at a well, and she – the Samaritan woman – ends up marrying Jesus, accepting him as God.  And in the end, the people of the village believe for themselves.

     What does that mean for us?  Jesus’ disciples were startled that he was talking to a Samaritan woman, but no one dared ask him why.  They would have been shocked to hear the story the way we can hear it.  We’re the disciples in the story, I think.

     I love that our Presiding Bishop has asked us to think of the Church as the Jesus movement.  I’m not a real Jesus-y sort of person.  I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition, and people used to ask if I had a personal relationship with Jesus.  Being the snarky teenager I was, I used to answer, “I haven’t shaken the man’s hand, if that’s what you mean.”  Jesus as my personal lord and savior just doesn’t do that much for me.

     But what the disciples discover is that Jesus is already out there talking to unnamed Samaritan women who have had five husbands, while they’re worried about what to eat.  And Jesus meets her at the well, just like all of the patriarchs met their wives at wells, by asking for a drink of water.  Last week, we heard that famous verse, John 3:16:  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

     For God so loved the world.  Here’s the evidence.  And maybe that water is love.  Jesus turned 180 gallons of it into really good wine at a wedding.  That will keep the village buzzed for weeks.  And this poor woman hasn’t had a lot of it in her life.  Not enough to even return to Jesus a short sip of the stuff.  If she knew who Jesus was, he would give her unending streams of the stuff, gushing up to eternal life.  That’s loving with wild abandon.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.

     That’s the content of our Gospel.  Love profligately.  Throw it away in great quantities.  Let it gush up to eternal life.  Bishop Curry, by calling us the Jesus Movement is reminding us that Jesus is out there asking the questions about God’s love, rather than worrying, like the disciples, what we are going to eat, how we’re going to pay the bills, can we keep the doors open.

     Look around you, says Jesus, the fields are ripe for harvest.  The trick is to throw God’s love all over the place, not worrying about they’re acceptable or not.

On the holy mount

Last Sunday after Epiphany

St. David’s Episcopal Church

DeWitt, NY

Dan Handschy

Last Epiphany A(RCL); Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-20; Matthew 17:1-9

     The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a very tightly packed little story.  The whole of Jewish tradition up to that time comes to focus on Jesus.

     The story begins, “After six days” or “Six days after these events.”  The six days refers to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.  Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain.  The passage we heard from Exodus tells us that when Moses went up the mountain, the cloud of God’s glory covered the mountain for six days.  Matthew wants us to think of the Exodus story.

     When Jesus is on the mountain, Moses and Elijah join him.  Both Moses and Elijah had mountaintop experiences themselves, one of which we just heard.  When Moses went up the mountain, he received the law.  In Exodus 24, which we just heard, he ratified the new covenant with God.  God had told the people not to come up the mountain, and instead build an altar at the base of the mountain.  The people then stayed on the plain, and ate a meal.  Seventy elders went up on the side of the mountain and ate, while Moses himself alone went to the top of the mountain.

     This is exactly the scheme of the Temple.  The people stay outside in the court, where the altar is.  The priesthood (the seventy) stays in the inner court, and the high priest alone enters the holy of holies.  Also, while Moses in on the mountain top, he receives the plan for the tabernacle – just this same scheme.  So, Moses represents both the law and the Temple.

     Elijah also had a mountain top experience.  You may remember the story.  Queen Jezebel had imported the worship of Ba’al into Israel.  Elijah challenged the 450 priests of Ba’al to a competition on Mount Carmel.  They set up an altar, and he set up an altar.  They prayed all day, but no fire descended.  He soaked his altar with water, and then prayed briefly, and fire descended and consumed his offering, whereupon he immediately slaughtered all 450 priests.

     Then he ran away, because Jezebel was going to kill him.  He came to Moses mountain and hid in the same cave where Moses saw the divine backside.  There was a storm and an earthquake, but God was in neither.  Then came a still small voice, saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”  Elijah made his complaint, and God said, “Return and anoint Hazael king of Syria, and Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha your successor.  Whoever Hazael does not kill, Jehu will kill, and whoever Jehu does not kill, Elisha will kill.”  Jeez, what a pleasant message.  So Elijah represents the prophetic and dynastic strands of tradition with Israel’s history.

     A cloud overshadows the three while they are on the mountain, just like the pillar of cloud overshadowed the tabernacle in the wilderness.  So we have the desert tradition represented here, as well.

     And then when the voice comes to Jesus, it quotes Psalm 2, which is a coronation psalm.  Ugh.  We are told that the nations are rebelling against the subjugation by God’s anointed, but God derides them.  The new king will smash them like an iron rod smashes pottery.  Here is the hope of vindication that runs throughout so much of Israelite literature.

     But the voice also quotes Isaiah 42:  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”  All of these traditions come together on the mountaintop.  And when the cloud lifts, only Jesus is found alone.

     In the wake of the destruction of the Temple under the Roman Empire, the question for Jews was “Who are we now?”  There was no more Temple to hold the traditions together.

     The little band of Christians, who were first of all Jews, answered this question is a very surprising way.  They were followers of Jesus, and saw in Jesus the fulfillment of all the various strands of tradition that made up the Judaism of their time.  They were saying that everything we can know about God and God’s interaction with us humans is revealed in this Jesus, who comes down from the mountain and heads straight to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified by the Roman power.

     So, what does it mean for us to say that everything we can know about God, we learn from this Jesus?  What do we know about God that no longer works?  What strands of tradition come together for us in this Jesus?

     We have not lived through a crisis as catastrophic as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but I think we live through events every day that challenge our orthodoxies.  We used to be able to think that this nation was a beacon in the darkness, that America represented the best hope for the world.  Given the turmoil on our southern border, given the way we treat the descendants of the peoples we enslaved, given the damage that we are doing around the world, in terms of climate change and economic colonialism, I don’t think we can think that any more.

     I think there are crises in our personal lives in little ways that challenge our orthodoxies.  If we live good lives, we think, God will be good to us.  Nothing bad will happen to those God loves.  Yet, we can see in our own lives that this is not always true.  Illnesses, deaths, grief of one kind and another happen all the time.  We might be inclined to ask, “Why, God?”

     What the transfiguration tells us that all we can know about God’s interaction with us messed up humans can be known in Jesus, who died on a cross.  God chooses to enter the human arena, the created world, in order to love it, and will accept into the divine self the very worst that we can do to another.  “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  This Jesus, who will go to Jerusalem to die at our hands.

     All of this is revealed in blinding glory on the mountain top.  If we are to know God at all, we must make that journey to Jerusalem with this Jesus, the summary of all the theology in the world.  That’s why we read this on the Sunday before Lent, to draw our focus to this Jesus, who gives himself for us, so that we can know God.  There is no other way.