Thursday, July 20, 2023

Liking (the Idea) of Jesus: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year C

Preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church August 28, 2022.

 Now then: so, as I was reflecting on things, I found myself with this in my head. 

"I like the idea-dea of you
I like the idea-dea of you
Wonder how it's be, be to love you
I like the idea-dea of you"

That’s the refrain from a song by an artist named Tessa Violet. Tessa is a YouTuber, but she's been very successful, going from YouTube to album with her music. And she's kind of interesting. That song always strikes me as interesting because it's about a young woman who has a young man who she's attracted to but not certain about. He is certain, but she is kind of reflecting on all of this. 

I've got a radar for trouble and you're a renegade
I take a leap and stumble while you are unafraid
I keep repeating, repeating the way you say my name.

I try convincing my friends that you're not right for me"

It's on and on. And then she comes back to, "I like the idea-dea of you."

Now, I think that what got me to that today is that - you might not see it this way - but it seems to me that there are a lot of folks out there who seem to like the idea of Jesus, but not so much Jesus. And that's because, as my wife reminds me now and again, if you read the Gospel and you're not uncomfortable, you're not reading the Gospel. 

Take today's Gospel lesson, an interesting lesson. Like last Sunday, it's another Sabbath. Jesus is dining in someone’s home. We read verse 1 and then skip verses 2 through 6, and we skip over another public healing on the Sabbath. We pick up again with verses 7 through 14. And then with verse 15 we have another lesson after this that is Luke's version of the story of the King and the wedding banquet. In this case, it's a rich man and a wedding banquet; and because it's a rich man and not a king, it ends slightly differently. 

But in the middle of it, in today’s lesson, Jesus gives the lesson that we all know: “When you are invited to a big event, show some humility, and if things go well your way, you'll get lifted up.” The thing is, is that everybody around the room heard that and probably went, “Uh huh, uh huh, yes, we understand;” because there was nothing particularly new or distinctive about Jesus saying that. It appears at least once in the wisdom literature earlier in the Hebrew scriptures, a verse in Proverbs, I believe. And there are other sitings of humility in Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes, et cetera. 

But then Jesus goes on and he said, “So next time you have a party, don't invite the people who can invite you back.” He said, Invite the poor, invite the crippled, the lame, the blind, invite the cursed, invite the unacceptable. And no, they can't repay you, but it'll be okay. God will take care of that.” And suddenly what they thought they knew wasn't enough. 

And this is not just Jesus, this is all through the scriptures. We heard it in the lesson from Sirach today, that God turns things over, plucks up the roots of the nations,  plants the humble in their place. And we heard it before in Luke. Should we sing the Magnificat? “He has taken down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” And go all the way back to Samuel's childhood and the song of his mother, Hannah, praising God for her vision. And the language is almost the same. And Samson's mother says something very much the same. Funny how women see this before men. I don't know what that says about us, guys. 

But this idea that what God is about is not just sustaining good manners of the status quo. Now, there are lots of ways that we can catch people in this idea of, “Well, yeah, I go to church and I trust Christians in all of that. And I am a Christian - as long as it works for me.” 

I started my priesthood, actually, in Memphis, in west Tennessee when it was part of one diocese of Tennessee. And one of the things that my friends in small congregations would tell me is, “Well, we lost so and so. He's not coming anymore.” 

“Well, what's the problem?”

“Well, he came and explained it to me. He's got an insurance company, and, you know, the Methodist church is just enough bigger than the Episcopal church that he has more opportunities there.” And he said it with a straight face! 

Or, we seem to have enough people around us to pay attention to, that seem to think when they say God is the same yesterday, today and forever, that somehow society should be the same today as yesterday, forever. 

But that's not Scripture. That's not making the wealthy hungry, feeding those who have been struggling as in the Magnificat.That's not inviting those people who in their common society would've been seen, literally and commonly, as cursed. How else do you become lame or crippled? How else do you end up in poverty? 

I think the thing about that song that struck me was exactly how many people have an idea of Jesus that they're quite happy with. And heaven forbid that Heaven challenge it. 

But things are changing, and that's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for me and I'm maybe the most progressive person in the room. I may not be, but I do tell people that I usually stand somewhere to the left of Jesus, and let them figure out how much room there is to the left of Jesus. 

But it's because of this image and it's because of Luke. Remember that Luke has a much more hardcore version of Jesus and a much more down to earth version of Jesus. Matthew says, “Blessed to the poor in spirit;” Luke says, “Blessed to the poor and cursed to the rich.”

So, how do we challenge for ourselves where we may be complacent? Well, in many ways that's an individual decision. And what's a step forward for one person or in one direction, may not be what another person is called to do. 

But we are called to remember that God presents God as someone who is prepared to overturn things for the benefit of his people, his people as individuals. And if we are too comfortable, especially if we're too comfortable with our own - and I know mine; I have enough guilt that one of my favorite canticles really is the Song of Hezikiah: “I have Sinn, Oh Lord, I have sinned and I know my wickedness only too well.” I had a classmate in seminary, a Nigerian priest, and he came up after class one day and he said, “Father, the problem with American religion is people are not conscious enough of their sins.” And I said, “Oh, no, Mbachu, we are quite conscious of our sins. We have favorites.”

We become complacent with those things that we are comfortable with, those things that we find acceptable, those things that we just assumed didn't change. 

We are called by Jesus, and not just in Luke, but you know, in that wonderful passage in Matthew where he says, “Well, you did it to the least of my people. You did it to me.” Where Paul says, “It's important that we are gathering food, giving up something of our own, because there's a famine in Jerusalem.” 

This idea that we are always called to question where we may be complacent, to question where we may be complacent as a society, or where we may be complacent as individuals. And remember that it's not enough to like the idea of Jesus. We're called to like Jesus, who calls us not to stand pat nearly so often as he calls us to make progress.

What Do You Need to See? Sermon for Easter 2, Year A, April 16, 2023

 I'm still catching up on sermons. This was preached Easter 2, April 16, 2023 at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville.

So when you live in a household of a person with a theological degree and a person with a philosophy degree, you get interesting conversations, 

We have been known to debate - not debate. We've been known to discuss whether the verb “to be” actually applies to God. And one of the things that would come up in this "world of us" was to talk about something. And one or the other of us would say, “yeah, but how do you know?” And the other one would respond, “Oh God! the epistemological question!” 

For those of you that have been away from it for a while, epistemology is the study of what you know and the study of how you know what you know and the study of how you know that you know what you know…. And that rabbit hole can go on forever. 

Today's lessons are about epistemology; or more, they're about, what do you need to see? Now, we talk about this Sunday and Thomas. and I love Thomas; and I have talked about Thomas the Doubter and I have talked about Thomas the Skeptic and I have talked about Thomas the Scientist. 

Thomas wasn't there, at least not the first time. It's Easter Day. Remember it is still that day. It is the evening, although probably not yet sunset since it's still that day. They're still getting over Mary Magdalene saying, “oh my god guys, they've taken him,” and Peter and the beloved disciple run; and those of you here last week noted that the beloved disciple only had to look in to believe, he didn't have to actually go in. Peter had to go in. Mary Magdalene didn't go in, but it's Mary Magdalene who actually has Jesus call her name, and she knows Jesus. So here we are, late in the afternoon and they're in a muddle. “What do we do? First, he’s gone. Second, we know what Mary says He said, but we didn't see it. We know that with the body missing, if the authorities get upset, they're likely to blame us.” 

And please remember when it says that they are in fear of the Jews, this is not your next door neighbors that go to Temple. This is authority. This is political authority and religious police. 

And then in the middle of all of that, there's Jesus, who begins with “Shalom aleichem,  Peace be with you.” 

Peace has so many different connotations, or more, shalom has so many different connotations. One of them is peace as in no conflict. One of them is peace as in wholeness or health as in wholeness. Or, don't be afraid. How many times is the first word that God says, in Jesus, through the angel, “Don't be afraid.” And they know it's Jesus because things haven't changed that much. His hands are wounded, his side is wounded. They know it's Jesus. “Don't be afraid,” he says, and he breathes;  like at creation, when God  breathes and human beings are human beings. He says, “my peace is now with you and my spirit is now in you and you are my people here on earth.” Because that's the import of this whole event. “Whatever you say is blessed, is blessed. And whatever you say is not blessed, is not blessed.” I know that's a bit broader than what Jesus said, but it was empowering them as individuals and as a body to be active in the world and to say, “yeah, this looks godly to me.”  And,”yeah, that doesn’t.”

And so, what do you need to see? Well, Thomas - Lord knows where Thomas was. Thomas wasn't there; and Thomas needed to see. Now understand, Thomas wanted to believe. Thomas was ready. Remember in the story of the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus says, “We’re going to go back into this dangerous place.” They said, “Lord, the Jews are looking for you.” He says, “we're going.” And Thomas says, “Let's go. If he's going to die, we're going to die with him.” 

So Thomas is not fainthearted. Perhaps he is too afraid of being disappointed, too afraid that this wonderful thing that happened isn’t - just isn’t. And so he has to see; and he tells the apostles, “Look, I love you guys. I love all you people (we don't know whether any of the women were there) - I love you all, but I’ve got to see.” 

And so the following Sunday, they're together again and the doors are locked, and there's Jesus. And Jesus begins again, “Peace ,” with all of its meanings. And then he says, “Thomas, here I am. These are the hands. Here's the spear wound.” And it doesn't say that Thomas then had to stop and touch him, had to do close examination. It just says Thomas fell and said, “My Lord and my God.” Which  Is actually the first time in John that anybody says that Jesus is God. What do you need to see? 

But you know, there are all sorts of measures of what you need to see. This is on the day of Easter, on the day of the Resurrection; and then eight days later, the following Sunday. Peter in Acts is now 50 days out. This is part of the addresses that Peter gives on Pentecost, empowered by the Spirit. And Peter starts telling a story. But what he says about that story is, “Hey, do you remember what happened seven weeks ago? What do you need to see?” And he focuses on a particular community. “All of you, you Israelites;” it’s in the text, it's not in what we have printed in the bulletin, but it is in the text that he begins “all of you who are Israelites.” So he's focusing on a people of faith, and he talks about what they might need to see. “You saw him, you participated in his wonders, you participated in the mob reaction out of which he was crucified. You participate in the faith that has been talking about him because this is what David said.’ And he starts quoting the Psalms. Those passages that Peter is reciting are from the Psalms. “I saw the Lord always before me because he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken.” He says, “You will not abandon my soul to hell nor let your holy one experience corruption.” He says, “These are from the Psalms.” 

So he's talking to them again in evidence that they might well believe. “What do you remember from seven weeks ago? Can you make sense of that in light of what you already believe about the faith? And now can you believe that we have seen him resurrected? For David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah and you know he's not talking about himself because David's dead, and we know where he is buried. This Jesus God raised up. And of that, all of us, all of us Christians standing around with tongues of fire on our heads, all of us talking in these various language, all of us are witnesses that he's been raised up. What do you need to see?”Peter spends his time trying to help them see out of their own faith, out of what they believe, what it is that reinforces that and can help them come to appreciate what it is that he and other Christians have witnessed. How do you know? What do you need to see? 

But of course, time passes in the Christian community. We started in Acts, but time passes, and now we have it in the First Letter of Peter. We know what we were hoping for hasn't quite happened yet. And so Peter, in talking to this community of Christians probably scattered in small house treasures across what now we would call Western Turkey is talking about what do you need to see? And he says, “Yes, you're being tested, but as you're tested you realize that in the midst of all of this God continues to be with you. Indeed you're passing these tests is evidence of God with you. And so you can support one another and give praise. These are the things you need to see so that you can remember that you are receiving the salvation of your souls.” 

As things change, what does the community need to see? Which seems awfully apt these days, doesn't it? We live in a time when there's a lot of question about, how do you know? What do you need to see to trust? What do you need to see to believe? And we've got those that want to say, “I can only trust it if it always looks like it always has.” I mean, you can pick any number of issues in our society today, but the complaints about the possibility of new things keep coming back to “I'm only going to trust it if it always looks now like it always has in the past.” 

Now I will share with you one of my own personal theological opinions. I am of the opinion that the sin against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven is certainty. Now, I used to tell students that and someone would be bright enough to look up and say, “Are you sure?” And I would say “No, but I believe;” but it is certainty that gets in the way of maybe what we need to see. 

Some of you have heard me before, talk about people who asked me and and those of you that don't know, I spent most of my career as a hospital chaplain and bright and excited. People would say, “Oh, it must be wonderful to be a hospital chaplain. I bet you've seen miracles.”And I say, “Yes, I have seen miracles, but what I think of as a miracle may not be what you think of as a miracle;” because a miracle for me is a sign that God is present in the world. And so when the medicine works, it's, it's a miracle. The fact that we have some idea about how the biochemistry functions doesn't change the fact that it's evidence of God in the world, to me There are those people who for it to be a miracle, want it to be unexplainable, want it to be somehow deep and mysterious. No, no, no. I’m, at a certain basic level, trusting that the universe is in God's hands and literally the earth keeps turning because God keeps spinning it. And so the fact that I see the sun come up in the morning continues to be a sign of God's presence, and so, a miracle. What do you need to see? 

And in a world where people are so determined that they constantly have to challenge, “What do you need to see?”, we as Christians are challenged, the way Peter challenges that Christian community, to go beyond not only what do you need to see, but what do you need to help others see? What do you need to show? What do you need to show in the face of trials and tribulations? What do you need to show in the face of just the day-to-day dullness of waiting for the kingdom; which is in some sense already here and yet not in fullness. Many of you have heard me comment that the kingdom may come anytime now and when that happens we'll have more things to worry about than we're thinking about right now. What do you need to see to sustain your own faith? It’s interesting that one of the commentators I listened to said that when you look at the gospel and it says “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,” you can also read the Greek to say these are written so that you can continue to believe, so that your faith is sustained and supported. Not that you're without faith before and need to be convinced, but that all of us in the face of the world need some reinforcement. 

And it's always worth stopping for me to say, what do I need to see to continue to trust in God's presence in the world and in my life? And what do I need to show so that others may see in me what they need to see the presence of God in the world? Because unfortunately, if Christians have a bad reputation, it's by and large because of Christians.

We are constantly asked one question, “What do you need to see?” What do you need to see to sustain your faith in a world that on the one hand challenges it by making it too easy; and that challenges it on the other hand, by making it hard to embrace the work, when you discover it's not too easy. What do you need to see? And when you understand, when each of us for our own under understands, what do I need to see, then the next question is, “Okay, so then what do you need to show so that they may see that we are witnesses to this Jesus whom God has raised from the dead.”

I'm (Not) Looking Out for a Hero: Sermon for Proper 8, Year A, 5th Pentecost (July 2, 2023)

 I realized that I'm behind on posting a few sermons from this year. This is my most recent, preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee

I thought I would try this again: instead of transcribing, I'm posting the audio of the sermon. For me, transcribing involves a good deal of "cleaning up." With the audio file, you'll hear what I said, clumsy spots and all. It will require you to download it to play it.

So, if you want to hear what I shared, you can link here.