Tuesday, January 16, 2024

No, Jesus Is Always Watching: a Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 18A

Again, this is a sermon that's been waiting to be edited. This was preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church September 10, 2023.

I may have told this story before, but I don't think I've ever told it from the pulpit. And I'm going to have to be delicate in how I tell it. You will understand why. 

I was in one of the hospitals I worked in, and I walked into a conversation. It happened all the time . One of the people looked up and saw me and said, “ Uh oh, God is watching. Better be careful!” 

And I said, “You know, God is always watching.” 

And she laughed and she gave a certain hesitant chuckle:  “Well, I hope God isn't always watching.”  

And I said, “Oh, no. God is always watching.” And her eyes got a little round. 

And then I didn't see her for nearly a week. I don't know why; our schedules didn't mesh. And she said, “Marshall, my fiancĂ© is really mad at you!” 

I said, “Why?” 

“Well, every time he starts to get affectionate, I start thinking about how God is always watching….”

Now, we believe God is always watching. Indeed, we say we are the people of Emmanuel, of God with us. But, how conscious we are of God being with us?

 Well it varies, doesn't it? And we have some frameworks of that in today's lessons, if you think about them, not in terms of when we think they happened or were said, but of when we think they got written down. I'll say more about that. 


Think first about the night of the first Passover. Boy, were they conscious of God being with them! Moses is saying, “This is what God says. Make this preparation because God's going to be in your living room tonight. God's going to be walking past your front door. And what God sees on your front door has consequences.” Their sense of God being present took this frightened and vulnerable community and said to them, “Here, now, God is in the midst of you. God is coming among you.” And this was the first night of what for them would be 40 years. As they left after this night with the Egyptians, as Scripture said, driving them out, giving them their valuables to bribe them out, to get them to leave, they went, led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. 

And when Moses came down from the mountain, his face shined; and from what Scripture says, continued to shine for the rest of his life so that he wore a veil over his face, lest the presence of God in his face terrified people. 

In great crisis sometimes it's hard, but we can also claim a sense of the presence of God. But crises, they don't linger. I mean, not withstanding the way our normal news cycle runs from crisis to crisis to crisis (and God help our brothers and sisters in Morocco this morning), crises don't linger. 

And we begin to see this as we look at the New Testament lessons. There's a difference between the Romans lesson and the Gospel as scholars see it. And that is that Paul, if we understand the New Testament timeframe, was wandering around in the late 30s AD and these things were recorded on paper by the early 40s AD. And in that community there was a very clear and present sense of people who could remember Jesus, who could remember the crisis for Christians, which was the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. And for whom some sense that this was still “with us” was present. That's why Paul says at the end, “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires because you are closer now than you ever have been.” 

Now if you ever ask me about the second coming, well it's there in scripture. I do believe it. And I believe it could happen on any given Thursday. But Paul was enough closer to Jesus incarnate that he figured it could be next Thursday. And so he's talking to them about how to live as a community with some sense of God's presence while you wait for this to happen. And when you're trying to figure out how to live waiting for the next crisis, a simple principle that's easy to hold onto works. “Owe no one anything except to love one another for the one who loves, has fulfilled the law.”  And he goes through the commandments and comes back to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Now remember that the Gospels at this point probably weren't down on parchment. And there might be people who remembered, but for more of his community that would be more familiar from Leviticus, Leviticus 19:18 that says, “Don't do injustice in the gate, in the public square, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

For them, that memory from Torah would shape them to understand that love is an active word. It's not about affection, it's about how you treat people. It's not about wanting to be with someone. It's about treating them the way they should be treated. It's about doing justice in the best possible sense. 

I grew up in this culture. My mother's people are from Caryville, which is, oh, about 50 miles northeast. So I grew up with a very high sense of duty. You can talk about high church and low church and how we understand theology and liturgy in the Episcopal church, whether we're very formal and structured or where we're more relaxed. I grew up in that sense with a high sense of duty. Duty is an expression of love. We often think of it as expression of love of something bigger than ourselves. Some of you - I did not - some of you served in uniform, you will have a high sense of duty. I grew up with that too. It was enculturated into me. That's what Paul's talking about. To love has encased in it that sense of how you're gonna treat people. "Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love is the fulfilling of Torah." So, when you're waiting for Thursday, when you think the times are coming, a simple principle holds you in place.

Which is how we get to the Gospel. Scholars understand that Matthew probably came together sometime after 64 AD; and if you wanna get into deep weeds, you can get into a conversation with a scholar as to whether Matthew is the original and Mark is the Reader's Digest Condensed version; or Mark is the original and Matthew is what we would now call the Director's Cut with all the added scenes. But it came together after 64 AD, so, 20, 25, 30 years after Romans. And this is a community that's having to figure out how to live with the thought that it's not next Thursday, with a thought that we've got to figure out how to live together, and we need some rules for this. And so we have this model of how to resolve a conflict. Now, I want to caution you, it's a decent model of how to resolve a conflict. It's not the only one. And for a lot of things it's not the best one because, you know, if you have to choose two or three people to go with you, if you choose the right people, then how can they argue? And it sort of misses another nuance of language in that, in this context to listen also implies to accept, even to obey; and we still use it that way sometimes. But trust me, when I was Director of a department working for a health system, I had to help people sometimes understand that I heard them. I just didn't find what they told me compelling. 

So this is not the model for every kind of dispute. But when you're trying to figure out how to live together, not expecting the next crisis, you need to put these kinds of models together. In fact, we're pretty sure this is late because Jesus doesn't talk about church. Jesus wasn't part of “church.” “Church”hadn’t come together until after the Resurrection. So this is the community building on Jesus's words to say, “Okay, now how are we gonna live with you together?” And then it does come back again to this basic principle that is, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I'm there. I am there. I’m there, who we will also proclaim is Love. Whenever two or three are gathered, I - Love - should be at the middle of it."

Now, that makes an interesting sort of spin on conflict resolution, or any human interaction. We can think about how many of you will see me at Kroger after church, and when we talk to each other, to kind of figure out how God is among us. When I was instructing students as chaplains, I would focus and say - and those of you that have been in social work, in education, you'll grasp this - the encounter happens in the relationship. And I would say, “What's going on in the space between you, and what is God doing in that space linking you?" When two or three are gathered, I am with you. 

Now, I say we create structures to hold onto that. And we are a people who now know that there've been an awful lot of Thursdays since the Resurrection. It could happen this coming Thursday. And as I often say, if it does, we'll have many other concerns. But there've been a lot of Thursdays since the Resurrection. And we have to stop and think about how we embrace the presence of God with us. 

Well, one of those is to go back to the night of the Passover. Because as Moses said, “God says, make this the new beginning for you. Make this a day that you remember.” And to this day, our Jewish brothers and sisters, remember. I don't know if any of you have ever been to a Passover Seder, one that begins with someone saying, “Why is this night different from any other night?” It is to take them in that shared meal, shared standing, eating roast lamb and bitter herbs, that they bring themselves back to that night, to remember how God was, and to recognize how God can be, present in their community. 

This, of course, is meaningful for us because, honestly, this is the first last supper, their last supper in Egypt, their last meal - you know, they're gonna be out there for a few days, run out of provisions, and it's going to be manna until they're in the Holy Land - which is also our last supper. Remember what Matthew will tell us Jesus is doing in what we talk about as his last supper. It is a Passover meal. He is with his disciples, he is with his close contacts, men and women. Somebody at that table was probably planning on saying, “How is this night different from any other night?” for Jesus to tell the story.

And instead, Jesus tells something different to hold together the community that will form around him. And that is what we do. We say the Communion is food for our journey, but more, it is a way that we recall how God has been present among us in flesh and blood to help us be prepared for God to be present with us when we're not here, when we run into each other at Kroger, when we have someone with whom we have a dispute, to stop and say, “God help me.” And to wonder how God might be acting as we look for resolution, as we look for reconciliation. Remember that I said last week, “it's not about me,” It’s about how God is calling me to be for another. So even in the hardest reconciliation, how is God calling me to be for that person? In this gathering certainly, or in evening meals, or even in the produce section at Kroger, among ourselves we can think about how God is with us. And then to take that into even the most difficult situations. And remember that when anyone is gathered, if you remember the name of Jesus, Jesus is there. What will the world look like when we always remember to act like Jesus is actually present and watching?

It's Not About Me: A Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 17A

I'm more than a little behind editing and posting some of my sermons. This was preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church September 3, 2023.

I have said in this room that I am a General Convention junkie.  I've more made more than half of the General Conventions since 1976 for at least a few days. And one of the fun things I saw was that I was in New Orleans in 1982. If you look at the back of the Hymnal, you will say, it says the Hymnal 1982 because that's the general convention where this hymnal was approved. And one of the really fun things was to be on the floor of the House of Deputies. I was in the gallery and it was a joint session. So it was both deputies and bishops and they were debating things about this hymnal. And this was where people could say from the floor, “why isn't this one proposed? Why isn't that one proposed?”

Now, my favorite of those stories is about why “He's got the whole world in his hands” is not in the hymnal. And one of our scholars stood up and said, “The joy of that song is that you can make it up as you go along. And our fear is that if we put it in the hymnal, no matter how many various verses we put in there, somebody wouldn't be able to do, or wouldn't think they could do, what they wanted to do.”

So a lot of hymns were debated and one of them was this:

I walk in the garden along when the dew is still on the roses 

and the voice I hear falling on my ear, the son of God discloses. 

Why is that not in the hymnal?

Now, before anybody gets concerned, we can sing it in church. The Hymnal is not like the Prayer Book and, and you can bring in outside stuff to sing in a way that you can't to pray, at least not in a Sunday service. And in any case, it actually is when in one of the two supplements to this Hymnal. But they said, “Why is that not in the hymnal?” And they said, “Well, sing the refrain.” 

And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. 

And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known. 

And they said, “That leads to bad theology.” What? 

You know, one of our heartfelt and well understood - excuse me, often misunderstood - tenets of Protestant Christianity is the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Wonderful and important. The problem is that for too many people, that's it. “I’ve got my relationship with Jesus; and heaven help - actually, I will send to perdition - those who want to challenge that, who want to challenge what that means.” It can lead, and has too often led, to a sort of, “It's all about Jesus and me” perspective

And that encapsulated by itself is bad theology; because if we've been paying attention to Scripture, it's never about me. It's never just “about me.” 

Look at Moses today. Moses is out there in the wilderness and he sees this wonder, he sees this bush burning. You know this story well. You've heard umpteen sermons preached on it. So Moses is listening to God telling him what God wants him to do and he comes to this question. His question is, “Who am I to stand before Pharaoh?”

Now there's a lot of history behind that question. Moses was someone special. Moses was raised in Pharaoh's household; and Moses ran because he broke the law. He committed murder, he brought dishonor on Pharaoh's household. He fled to the desert. “Who am I to go stand before Pharaoh?” 

And God's response is this as if to say “This is not about you. This is not about who you are. This is about who I am. I am sending you.” This is one of our wonderfully introductory instances of that aphorism you've heard so often in church, God doesn't choose the skilled, God gives skills to the chosen. I know that's not the way you've heard it most often, but you get the point.

And that's what God will go on and say to Moses again and again and again. “It's not about who you are, it's about what I'm sending you to do and what I'm empowering you to do. It’s not about you and me; it's not about who you are. It's about you and me and Israel.”

By the same token, we get Jesus, having heard over the last two weeks about this whole “You are the Messiah, the Christ;” and then last week “And don't tell anybody.” Why. Well, this week we understand why. He's trying to tell the Twelve, “This is what's going to happen. There's going to be pain and suffering, and I'm going to die. And then there's promise.” 

And Peter says, “Oh no Lord, no, no, it can't happen that way. God forbid that it happened that way.” And Jesus's response - let’s skip past the really shocking part: “Get behind me Satan” - and go on to “You’re thinking the way humans think. You're not thinking how God thinks.” Or to turn that: “This is not about how you see things. This is about how God sees things and about what God is doing, not with you, but for everyone.” It's never just “about me.” 

Now, in our day and time, that's a real challenge. I read within the last week an opinion piece about an evangelical pastor - it didn’t say which of our evangelical sibling traditions he's in - preaching about the love of God and preaching perhaps from our Romans lesson where it says, “Bless your enemies and don't curse them;” or where Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” And a man comes up to him after the service and says, “Pastor, where did you get that?”

“It's in the Bible. It's literally in the Bible. It's in the Bible that you say you believe literally.”

“Well, pastor, it doesn't work that way anymore.” 

if it doesn't work that way anymore, if Christians say it doesn't work that way anymore, it's not because of what Christ told us or showed us; because what God has been saying, really from Adam: “It’s not about us.” An awful lot of people approach the first creation story where we human beings are the height and pinnacle of creation; and skip over the first part of the second creation story where it says we were created to manage and take care of things, to tend and care for. From the very beginning, God's call for us has been to tend and care for.

And so if we've lost that, we can argue that we've lost Jesus, and we've lost our personal relationship with Jesus, because we're not listening anymore. The wonderful piece about a personal relationship with Jesus is to remember that Jesus is with us still and is a person; that God comes to us in personality and so offers us the opportunity to be in relationship, to be listening to and learning from Jesus in Scripture, in prayer, in meditation, in moments of wonder. If we get somehow triumphal about it being “me and Jesus,” we end up leaving Jesus out of the conversation. 

And so Paul, after working with the Romans and saying, “Life in Christ begins with an understanding that you're saved by God's grace, and that nothing can come between you and the love of God,” - that wonderful passage at the end of Romans 8 - “nothing at all creation can come between you of the love of God in Christ” - he then goes on to the rather pedestrian understanding of what's expected of us. Out of that, Adam and Eve were expected to tend and care for; Moses was expected to lead a brazen-necked people. Jesus said, “All the world will come to me.” And to participate in that, then Paul says, “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Do what is good, even to the point of do not repay anyone evil for evil. Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Never avenge yourselves. Leave room for the wrath of God. For it is written, ‘vengeance in mine;’  that it is God’s, not mine. 

How shockingly different that is from some, not all, probably not most, but some of the noisiest rhetoric in the air around us. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. (What!) if they're thirsty give them drink;” a high set of expectations, but, really, they shouldn't be a surprise if we understand that it's never been “about me.” And to the extent that we want to identify our community as somehow distinctive or special, it's never been about us. 

We can get distracted if we focus too much on walking in the garden alone and how wonderfully comforting that is. We don’t pay attention to the third verse. I don't think it's entirely adequate, but it does say that he calls us out of that garden. We are called to remember in Christ, in God, yes, we are very much involved, but what God calls us to is not “about me,” but about how God calls me for others.