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?

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