St. Thomas, Chicago
This is, of course, the 5th Sunday of Lent and next week we will observe Palm Sunday and begin our journey together through Holy Week to Easter! We’re in Year B of our lectionary and Sunday Bible readings, the year we read through the Gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings. But Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels and, to make it through the whole year, we have to supplement readings from Mark with a few from John’s Gospel, one of which we have today.
This is one of the passages where we see that Jesus was beginning to have some premonitions about his death. Right after Philip and Andrew arrange to have Jesus meet some Greek-speaking Jews who were curious about him, Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23)
And, in case that was too subtle a reference for them, he goes on to make it clear to the disciples, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28a) As we can see throughout the Gospels, Jesus didn’t want to die (any more than any of us want to die), but he was willing to die if that was what it took to carry out his mission!
As I meditated on that passage this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s own “premonitions” as to the danger his own life was in that last week. In Memphis to support the garbage collectors’ strike, on the night before his death he gave what would be his final sermon. Amid the call for African Americans to boycott businesses that mistreated workers, he delivered a sermon, without notes, that focused on his life and disavowed any concern that he might be killed for his role in the fight for civil rights.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said, “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” It wasn’t the first time that he had spoken publicly about his possible early death, but I doubt that Dr. King expected that April 3rd sermon to be his last. “He always knew some speech would be his last,” wrote Andrew Young, “Was he afraid? Not on your life!” (Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2011)
Like Jesus, Martin Luther King did not want to die (any more than any of us want to die) but he was willing to die if that was what it took to carry out his mission!” And like Jesus, Dr. King knew that he had not reached the Promised Land yet, but he had seen it! And he had absolute confidence that, one day, “we, as a people, will get to that promised land!”
You and I need to be reminded to have that confidence today! In the wake of Ferguson and as we mourn the senseless deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others, it’s easy to give up in despair and to fall into thinking things will never get any better.
Bishop Lee and I just returned from a meeting of the House of Bishops at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina. We gather twice a year as a House for mutual encouragement and support. This time largely because of those tragic events I just mentioned, our focus was on racism and on our own complicity and silence in these times. Oh, the Bishop of Missouri and the Dean of his Cathedral have been in the streets in Ferguson and the Church has spoken out in many places. But we need to do so much more!
We viewed and discussed the powerful film “Traces of the Trade” which is an award-winning documentary produced by a white family of Episcopalians who discovered that their wealth, and the wealth of their little New England village, had been built almost entirely on the slave trade in which they were involved. This family was horrified by the actions of their ancestors and embarked on a journey from Connecticut to West Africa to Cuba and back again in search of answers and repentance. To date there have been more than 300 screenings of that film and discussion about its consequences all around our church and around the country. But we need to do so much more!
That evening we had an intense session entitled “Traces of the Trade and Ferguson” in which it became clear that the deep racism in that community and in so many parts of our country go right back to the “original sin” of this country and our participation in the African slave trade. Contemporary events – whether gun violence and drugs in the city of Chicago, the mass incarceration of young black men in the North, or voter suppression of entire populations in the South – all can be directly traced to the history of racism and slavery in this country!
As bishops, we re-committed ourselves to continue the struggle as our Presiding Bishop challenged us to have “courage to face the problems, curiosity about those we may consider to be the “other” and compassion which means to “suffer with” those with whom we wish to stand in solidarity. Or, as one of the bishops put it: “Show up…speak out…live brave!”
“I may not get there with you,” said Dr. King, “but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” (Pause) “And what should I say – Father, save me from this hour?” asked Jesus, “No, it is for this reason that I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
Jesus and Martin…Courage, curiosity, and compassion…Two who willing to show up, speak out, and live brave! Are we? Am I?
St. Thomas, Chicago
It seems strange to have the story of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple read on this Sunday in Lent. We usually think of it as coming in Holy Week, toward the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, right after the Palm Sunday story, the so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. In fact, that is where Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story – setting up the conflict between Jesus and the authorities which eventually led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion later that week.
Contemporary NT scholars like Marcus Borg even write about “two processions” coming into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday – one from the east and one from the west. From the west, Roman cavalry and foot soldiers followed Pontius Pilate into the city to make sure there were no violent uprisings in Jerusalem during the Jewish celebration of Passover. And, from the east, a rag tag bunch of pilgrims and peasants cheered as Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives on the back of young donkey. What a contrast! And what an obvious set-up for a conflict of world views!
But John, the Gospel writer we are following today, for his own purposes, has this event happen early in Jesus’ ministry. His gospel has Jesus going to Jerusalem several times during the course of his three year public ministry rather than only once at its conclusion. And John is interested, not so much in the conflict between Jesus and the Roman government as he was between Jesus and his own religion’s leaders!
A complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, Jesus issues a challenge to the authority of the Temple itself that quite literally shakes it to its foundations. By throwing the money changers out of the Temple, and letting loose the sacrificial animals, he throws the mechanics of Temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one its most significant feasts so that neither tithes nor sacrifices could be offered that day.
The implication is that Jesus is claiming authority to challenge the supremacy of the Temple because his whole life bears testimony to the power of God in the world. The Kingship, the Reign, the Sovereignty not of the Temple, but of God alone!
Now, none of this should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus was advocating the superiority of some new religion called Christianity over the old religion, Judaism. Jesus was an observant Jewish male who traveled to Jerusalem regularly for the major holy days. Jesus taught and observed the Ten Commandments we had as our First Reading this morning.
No, Jesus’ challenge was to the authority of a dominant religious institution in Judaism – the Temple and temple worship – not because he’s anti-Jewish – but because he stands in the long line of Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah who challenged a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God. (see New Interpreter’s Bible; Volume 9, page 545)
And that, dear friends, is where all this begins to apply to us!
We hear a lot today about people, and not only younger people, describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For many of them that means that they believe in God, may admire the figure of Jesus, pray from time to time, and believe in some kind of life after death. But they are not terribly interested in what we sometimes call “the institutional church.”
They perceive us as being hopelessly out of touch with the contemporary world they live in. They shake their heads at our “church wars” over changing liturgies or the ordination of women, or the place of gays and lesbians in the church. And they wonder why we spend so much of our time, money and energy on maintaining church buildings and church governance structures that don’t seem to have very much to do with Jesus or with his primary message to the world!
Well, there may be a certain simplicity in that kind of critique. Very few movements can survive, over time, without a certain institutionalization. You need some kind of structure to pass the message on from generation to generation. But, if we are going to take the message of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel seriously, we need to recognize that he is challenging – not only the Temple-centered Judaism of his day – but the “over institutionalization” of the contemporary church…in our day!
Over the last 65 years or so, we in The Episcopal Church (and most other mainline denominations) have built up some pretty elaborate structures of diocesan and national church bureaucracies and staffs that we can simply no longer afford. We have pretty strict rules and regulations about how worship is to be conducted in an Episcopal Church. And we have an amazingly complicated process through which men and women have to move in order to be ordained. All of these things are being questioned and are, in some sense, up for grabs today.
I don’t think we have any idea what the Church will be like 50 years from now, or certainly by the year 2100. I know it will look very different from the Church we live in today. And we can either be fearful of that kind of change, and resist it with all our might. Or, we can be open and flexible to see indeed “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” in our time.
We have to be willing ask ourselves where and when the status quo of religious practice has become frozen, and therefore closed to the possibility of reformation, change and renewal. The great danger is that we in the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in Jesus’ day, will fall into the trap of confusing the authority of our own institutions with the authority of God.
During these 40 days of Lent when we journey with Jesus in the wilderness, I invite you to be open to embrace whatever it is that God is up to in our day. I invite you to join us in this season of discernment – for surely not everything that is “new,” or claims to be of God, is of God.
But I do believe God is calling us into a kind of new reformation in our day. And if we are to be faithful to that calling, it will require us to be open, to travel light, but to ground ourselves ever more deeply in prayer, study, and mission.
Because, as long as we are grounded in God, we need have no fear of changing times or changing circumstances. For it is God alone that we serve. God is our rock…and our salvation!
The Soul’s Journey: An Artist’s Approach to the Stations of the Cross. Artwork and Text by Kathrin Burleson. Forward Movement, 2014. 94 pages.
A little over half way through her beautiful book Kathrin Burleson mentions that she is a practitioner of lectio divina. This ancient, but still popular, method of meditating on Scripture involves four steps: read the text, meditate on it, pray about it and then keep silence. This would, in fact, be a fruitful approach to reading The Soul’s Journey.
Burleson has created fourteen Stations of the Cross not in the traditional representational way, but with vivid and colorful abstract paintings with the common theme of Light. Each depiction is followed by a brief meditation by a number of “leading theologians, bishops, and priests” then a somewhat longer one by the artist herself. The section is concluded by a brief, “arrow” prayer the theme of which arises from the painting and the meditations.
Just has she has exercised freedom from the usual representational way of depicting each station, so in accordance with ancient tradition she has taken liberty to add and subtract specific Stations (particularly the non-biblical ones) and expanded the material covered. For example, she begins not with Jesus Being Condemned to Death, but with his Agony in the Garden. I found this approach refreshing and helpful.
So I found myself following a kind of lectio approach while working through this material. I would gaze long and intently at the icon-like painting, slowly read the two meditations, offer the short prayer provided, and then sit in silence enjoying the insights gleaned and appreciating in a new way the Passion of Jesus. I would heartily commend this book as a spiritual exercise for Lent – or any other time, for that matter.
I do have to say that I found the insertion of meditations by the “theologians, bishops, and priests” more of a distraction than a help. They were uneven and sometimes even at odds with Kathrin’s meditation which follows. I would much have preferred to leave “the professionals” out and move directly from the painting to the artist’s reflection on it. At the very least, I would have recommended having her meditation first and theirs following.
This should in no way discourage one from buying and treasuring this coffee table book. It is a masterful piece of work and I am grateful for the opportunity to take this Soul’s Journey with a skilled guide.
C. Christopher Epting
Diocese of Chicago
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
“Oh the majesty and magnificence of his presence! Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary.” (Psalm 96:6)
“…the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” (Titus 2:11)
“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them…” (Luke 2:9)
Light shining…magnificence and splendor…grace appearing….glory all around.
All of our Lessons from Holy Scripture tonight seem to emphasize Light! And it’s easy to see why anciently the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas on January 6 – or what we call the Feast of the Epiphany. Because the word “epiphany” means a “shining forth” and surely the birth of Christ was a “shining forth,” an epiphany of God’s purposes in ways the world had never seen before!
Even in evening celebrations of the Christ Mass, like this one, there is an emphasis on candlelight and “candle light services”. We’ll sing Silent Night by candlelight at the end of this service. And our homes are filled with Christmas lights of all kinds. Why all this emphasis on “light” at Christmas? Well, what does light do? It “reveals”, doesn’t it? It makes things known that would otherwise be hidden. And that is exactly what the birth of Jesus Christ did for the world. It revealed, made known, manifested, something of what God is really like.
You might think that would have been unnecessary for the people of Israel who had worshipped God for nearly 2,000 years before Jesus was born. But there were still differences of opinion about what God was like. There was a Priestly understanding of a God who approved of cult and temple and sacrifice. There was a Prophetic understanding of a God who desired justice and righteousness above all else…and was quite suspicious of the sacrificial system.
There were those who saw God as vengeful and capable of destroying entire nations if they opposed the Divine Will. And others who saw God as tender and compassionate, One who brooded over this world like a mother over her children.
To this day, people have all kinds of ideas about God. Some believe in a God who sanctions violence of the most extremist kind. On the other hand, some Eastern religions have a very peaceful, tolerant view of the Divine, but don’t say much more than that about God. Seems to be a more of a Force, or a Divine Mind, rather than a Personal Being for them.
But our claim as Christians is that we know a bit more than that about what this God is like. Without wanting to say that we know everything there is to know about the Creator of the Universe (we certainly do not!) we do believe that something of the very nature of God has been revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. We have been “enlightened” to some degree about that very Nature.
For example, we know that God is not callous or cruel. God does not willingly afflict or grieve human beings. We know that God is not distant from us or from the affairs of this world. For all God’s power and majesty, there is a certain vulnerability and even the possibility of being “hurt” – like a baby in a manger, our God can be vulnerable…and even wounded.
We know that God is not static and predictable by our rules and regulations, but is perfectly capable of surprising us, like the twelve year old boy in the Temple once surprised his parents by being about his Father’s business instead of being where they thought he ought to be. God “shows up” in unexpected places!
We know that God cares very deeply about what happens to us and so reaches out with a Word of wisdom and with healing, like that itinerant rabbi who once went about preaching Good News and backing up his words with actions like the healing of a paralytic, and the restoring of sight to one who had been born blind.
We know that God is capable of being betrayed by us, and delivered into the hands of sinners, for even less than the thirty pieces of silver Judas once got for betraying his friend.
But, in all this, indeed because of all this, God reigns! With all the vulnerability and unpredictability and deep compassion, God remains the creator and sustainer of the Universe, the ultimate source of all life and all that is. And this God is able and willing to bring good out of evil, and life out of death at every turn. Just as he once split open the grave and won the victory over death and hell on Easter morning.
How can we say all this? How can we believe all this with such passion? Because we believe in the essence of the Christmas story… because we believe in the “good news of great joy for all the people (for to us) is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
We know something of what God is like because we believe that the meaning of the Christmas story is what St. Luke said it was, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.”
We believe that Jesus Christ is “the grace of God…bringing salvation to all…” And his name will be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Light shining…magnificence and splendor…grace appearing…glory all around. That’s what we celebrate here tonight, dear friends. Merry Christmas!
On this Second Sunday of Advent, our Presiding Bishop has asked us to remember the victims of the Ebola virus, especially in West Africa, and to pray for our church’s efforts to combat this dread disease. I had even prepared a sermon on the topic for this morning, but now feel that I cannot avoid addressing a disease affecting us even closer to home.
I speak of the deepening racial divide in this country spotlighted by recent Grand Jury decisions in Missouri and New York not to bring indictments against certain police officers involved in the deaths of two Black men.
Some of us, deeply mindful of the difficult and dangerous job law enforcement officers have, and of the fact that they put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe, are content with the fact that provisions are made in the law to give the police permission to use deadly force, even the responsibility to use deadly force though tragedies sometimes occur in the application of such measures…such as the killing of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy in Cleveland who displayed a realistic-looking toy gun.
Some of us, deeply conscious of the sad legacy of slavery and segregation in this country, the effects of which are still with us, are saddened that such incidents remind especially African Americans of the bad old days of lynching and of the more recent heavy handed policing in the years leading up to and including the civil rights demonstrations we all remember so well.
All of us, it seems to me, must admit that there remains a huge chasm between the majority and minority communities in this country which, for all the progress we have made, does not seem to be narrowing or overcome but simply bubbling right below the surface just waiting for an emotionally charged act to occur in order to erupt once again.
From the Rodney King affair in the early 1990s to the O. J. Simpson trial to the more recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, study after study reveal the fact that White and Black Americans view these things in almost completely opposite ways, not so much because of the “facts on the ground” (which in most cases will always be disputed) but because of personal experiences each of us has had and the very different histories we have lived out, even though we are citizens of the same great country.
I wish I had solutions to suggest this morning for healing this great divide. I do not. But as one who grew up in the deep South and drank in the legacies of slavery and segregation with my mother’s milk, I know that the effects of these things are far from over and that we will never be the “one nation under God” we claim to be until they are. I know that “quick fixes” like body cameras on police officers will not solve the problem. And my Faith tells me that only repentance and forgiveness, the building of personal relationships and the hard work of reconciliation will begin the process of healing that we so desperately need.
Hmmm…repentance and forgiveness…relationships and reconciliation. Those sound like Advent themes to me.
I wonder if you would be willing to join me in a couple of minutes of silent reflection this morning about what you could do, in these dark days, to try and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem in our racially divided land. Are there things you need to repent of? Someone you need to forgive (even the stranger…or an “enemy”)?
Is there some way you can build a relationship with someone who is very different (maybe even of a different color) than you? What would reconciliation look like… in your family…in your neighborhood…in THIS neighborhood…and in our country? Let’s think about these things together in silence for a little bit. And then I’ll close.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together… (Isaiah 40 passim)
Let us pray,
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
C. Christopher Epting
Assisting Bishop, Diocese of Chicago
I love our Collect for this morning. It’s a very familiar one, quoted regularly by Episcopalians. And it reminds us of the centrality of the Bible for Anglicans. It encourages us, not only to “hear” the Scriptures read (as we do on Sunday mornings – more Scripture than almost any other Christian denomination as a part of regular worship) — not only to hear them, but we are to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures. I take that to mean that we are to study them!
Like any other work of great literature, the Bible is a demanding set of documents. It is not only a book; it is a library of books. And, in that library, are works of history and law, poetry and song, story and myth, biography and wisdom. And, despite what some fundamentalists might say, the meaning of Scripture is not always completely self-evident to the reader.
Our Gospel today is a perfect example. It’s one of the parables, or stories, of Jesus usually called the “Parable of the Talents.” Again: a very familiar one to us, telling of a wealthy man who tests three of his slaves by giving them various amounts of money to manage in his absence.
The first two double their money and win the master’s approval; the third – fearing that he might lose it all – buries his treasure and can only return to the master what he was given. That incurs the master’s wrath and this servant is thrown out of the village as a punishment…where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Most of us grew up hearing this as a kind of moralistic story encouraging us to make the best use of the talents we’ve been given because, if we don’t, God will be very angry with us. At least that’s how I grew up hearing it. The problem with that is that most of Jesus’ parables are not “moralistic sermons” but open-ended challenges which try to give a glimpse or insight into the Kingdom of God, the kind of world this would be if God really were acknowledged as Sovereign.
The “talent” referred to in the story is intended to get everyone’s attention because it is a “fairy tale” amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth 6,000 denarii with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms the first slave was given $2 million! Clearly, something other than history is at work here!
Secondly, the master is sometimes seen as God giving out talents to people. But a strange kind of God that would be in this story – described by the servant as “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The master even agrees with that description of himself. Is this the God Jesus would have us serve?
And finally, the master chastises the third servant for not having at least “invested (his) money with the bankers” so that upon his return he could have received his money back with interest. The problem with that is that we are talking about 1st century Palestine, not 21st century Wall Street. Jews were forbidden to charge, or earn, interest on their money. It was called “usury” and Psalm 15:5 sums up the teaching of the Torah, “do not lend your money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.” So, what’s really going on here?
Well, in a new book entitled “The Power of Parable” by the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Dominic Crossan, this was a “challenge parable” told by Jesus against the occupying Roman Empire and their practices. He suggests that parables which take us a couple of minutes to read were stories that might have taken Jesus an hour or two to tell. And there would be discussion and debate among his hearers…which was the way Jewish rabbis taught. The people would be challenged to think for themselves and to engage the story from their own lives.
When Jesus originally told the story, he may have been trying to create a debate in the audience between the pro-interest traditions of the Roman Empire with the anti-interest tradition of the Torah. The question he may have been asking was “What about interest and profit? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live in a Gentile or Jewish world? Can you do both, or do you have to choose?”
Well, whether you agree with Dom Crossan’s interpretation of this story or not, I share it with you to point out that there is more to the parables of Jesus, indeed more to the entire Bible, than a cursory, first-glance reading might reveal. The meaning of the Bible is not always self-evident, and that is why our Prayer for this Sunday encourages us, not just to “hear” the Lessons read on a Sunday morning and let it go at that, but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.
That means at least getting hold of a good, modern translation (like the NRSV) which you actually understand and which includes the benefit of the latest archeological and linguistic discoveries in the Middle East. Get an edition with introductions to each book and footnotes to explain some of the context and background. There are inexpensive, paperback editions of the NRSV which do just that – even available through Amazon. I found over 20 used copies each sold for about two bucks – with free shipping if you have Amazon Prime!
Dear friends, many people out there today (and perhaps even some of you in this congregation!) have given up on the Bible. They hear it used and misused, quoted out of context, literalistically understood and often wielded like a weapon to beat up on women and gays and lots of other folks on the margins.
I’m here to tell you that there is another way to read the Bible, a way which is much more consistent with the way the church catholic has historically engaged these texts, than the “modern” 19th century fundamentalism we so often experience. So, beloved (and perhaps especially those of you being confirmed, received, or reaffirming today), don’t just “hear” these sacred words…
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.
Study them…because only then will you be able to “hear what the Spirit (may be) saying to the churches!”
Proper 26 A
So, we have a familiar story as our Gospel reading this morning – the one about calling “no man father.” It’s the reading that makes all Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican priests extremely uncomfortable since we have historically taught our people to call us “Father!”
I will spare you the tiresome sermon (examples of which I have preached on numerous occasions myself) about why it’s really OK to call your priest Father – just as we call rabbis “rabbi” and teachers “teacher.” Instead, I want to explain why Jesus said what he did about titles and honorifics like “rabbi,” and “teacher” and “father” and why this reading is so important and, far from being extraneous to his message, is actually a central part of it!
If I asked you to list some of the essential components of Jesus’ message, you would rightly list such things as the fact that sinners and outcasts are welcomed into God’s kingdom and that indeed God has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized among us; that the kingdom of God is not something just to hope for in the future, but is a present reality now (the kingdom of God is among you!);
(T)hat God forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; that Old Testament ceremonial laws like Sabbath observances and kosher food laws no longer apply to Christians; and that the Temple and animal sacrifices and a Levitical priesthood have been replaced by Jesus himself and his own sacrifice.
And, as I say, you’d be right about those things. One thing you might not mention – and which is directly related to some of the things we did list – is that Jesus taught that our relationship with God is “un-brokered” and that our access to God is direct without any need for human intermediaries. What do I mean by that?
Well, the history of religions – and specifically the Judeo-Christian religions we are most familiar with – shows that human beings have always felt kind of ‘unworthy’ to approach God directly and so have relied on the mediation and intercession of particularly “holy people” to plead their cause in the presence of God. They have been called rabbis, and teachers, and priests!
From Moses standing in the breach and asking God to have mercy on his people; to Joshua taking on that role in our First Lesson today; to the mostly-unsatisfactory kings who ruled over Israel from Saul and David on down the line; to prophets who conveyed God’s word to the people and interceded for the people to God; to the long-expected Messiah; to St. Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that he had “become” their father through the Gospel; to the bishops, elders and deacons we see developing in the New Testament and which have come down to us through the centuries. And to “the saints” who we honor this weekend by celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. All these have come to be seen as intercessors and intermediaries between us unholy types and the All Holy God!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having leaders. Every community raises up and celebrates its leaders – whether military, political, or religious. And there is nothing wrong with having exemplars – worthy examples of what it means to be all that we can be. Certainly nothing wrong with religious communities acknowledging its own heroes and heroines and even designating some of them as “Saints.”
But as soon as we begin to make the mistake of thinking that we need such figures to stand between us and God – to plead our cause before God and be the sole interpreters of the Word to us, we begin to be in error. We begin to have a “brokered” relationship with God rather than the “un-brokered” one which Jesus taught and exemplified.
The “cult of the saints” has been so misused in our history. First, we have spoken of Jesus as “our only Mediator and Advocate” before God. Then, as Jesus gets more and more exalted, Christians began to feel unworthy to call directly on him so we began to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede with her Son on our behalf. I have even seen prayers which invoke another Saint to speak to Mary so that she might, in turn, speak to Jesus for us who will plead our cause to the Father!
Even the Sacrament of Confession has been misinterpreted as “confessing your sins to a priest” (the intermediary) when Anglicans have always been clear that we can confess our sins directly to God in prayer and in the Liturgy and, even when we use the Sacrament of Confession, that we are not confessing our sins to a priest, but confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest, who is there for counsel and direction as well as pronouncing Absolution.
So even as we sing our hymn “For all the saints, who from their labors rest” this morning, let’s remember that those saints were women and men just like us. Yes, they loved their God and accomplished great deeds on God’s behalf. But they were also flawed human beings just like ourselves who relied on the grace and compassion of God every bit as much as we do.
And let us never think that we need anyone – prophet or saint, bishop, priest, or deacon – to stand between God and us. Jesus came to shatter all those barriers and to assure us that our access to God is unfettered, un-“brokered”, and that God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we either desire or deserve” (to cite one of our famous Collects BCP 234).
And why is God ready to do all that? Because God loves us…and is as close to each one of us as life and breath itself. We need no intermediaries!
Our Collect, or prayer for today, mentions three aspects of the Christian life that are sometimes called the three “Theological Virtues.” And those virtues are faith, hope, and love. The Collect says “faith, hope and charity” which many of us grew up hearing (in fact, I used to know a family with three little girls they named Faith, Hope, and Charity!) but St. Paul did not use the Greek word “caritas” when he first linked those Theological Virtues in First Corinthians 13.
When he wrote “faith, hope, and love abide; these three, but the greatest of these is love”, he used the word “agape” – God’s love, the kind of love God has for us and the kind of love we are to have for one another. Besides, the word “charity” has taken on such a specific meaning in modern English that the even the Latin word “caritas” is probably better translated as “love” not charity. Benevolent giving to the poor (which is what we usually mean by “charity” today) is not really what Paul meant in First Corinthians 13.
In any case, one of the wonderful things about the Bible is that it provides stories and describes characters who demonstrate spiritual concepts like the “Theological Virtues” we have today. And we couldn’t have three more illustrative figures for faith, hope, and love than the three our Lessons hold up for us today – Paul, Moses, and Jesus!
St. Paul is, of course, the great Apostle of faith. It was his discerning insight that we are “saved,” brought into eternal relationship with God, not by our good deeds or good works in this life, but by radical trust in God (which is what the NT Greek word “pistis” or “faith” means). We are not going to earn our way into heaven by impressing God with our moral purity or even our charitable works. How arrogant to think that we could “earn” God’s love in that manner!
We don’t ‘earn’ our parents’ love by “being good.” That love is freely given from birth. Of course our parents were pleased when we did good things, but their love didn’t depend on it. (If it did, then they really weren’t very good parents, were they?) God’s love is freely and unconditionally given. Our response must be to “trust” (have faith) that that is so – and to rejoice in the saving relationship with God that that love makes possible. That’s what it means to be “justified by grace through faith.” Saved by trusting in God’s love.
The theological virtue of “hope” is perhaps best seen today in the person of Moses. He was, of course, the heroic military commander who brought the people of Israel out from under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. Yet, in our First Reading today from Deuteronomy we see that this great leader died before the tribes of Israel were able to cross into what they had come to understand as their “Promised Land.”
He got to see whole land from the top of Mount Pisgah across from Jericho, but he could only hope that they would one day possess the land. Yet, he was a man full of hope, and always had been. So he put that hope into action by choosing his brave lieutenant, Joshua, to succeed him and make that hope a reality for his people. Hope leads us to action!
The Gospels, of course, are filled with the Good News of God’s love (the third Theological Virtue) and we see it “incarnated” (made flesh) in Jesus. Has there ever been a person in all of history who lived a life of love more completely than did Jesus of Nazareth? He taught that we could fulfill all the commandments, and be all that we were created to be, by simply loving God and loving our neighbor.
He lived out his days showing us something of what that would look like – by worshipping God in the synagogue and on mountain tops, by respecting the dignity of every person (no matter how different they may be from ourselves), by working for healing and wholeness in the lives of those who are in “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” (as our Prayer Book liturgy has it), and by teaching us to forgive those who have wronged us intentionally or unintentionally by his very words from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So, dear friends, “faith, hope, love abide; these three, but the greatest of these is love.” I invite you, if you have not already done so, to take that “leap of faith” by trusting that the God of this Universe is a loving God and that that love is intended for you – whether you think that you “deserve” it or not. Because it doesn’t really depend on you! It is God’s very nature to love!
I invite you to hope (even if you cannot “know”) that God’s love for you is eternal and that, when your earthly life is over “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” you will be “raised imperishable…For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15:52-43)
And finally, most importantly according to Jesus and Paul, I invite you to live a life of love. To decide to love your neighbor as yourself (because love is a decision not a “feeling”) and to respect the dignity of every single, human being you ever run across. Because that’s what Jesus did…and because that’s what he commanded us to do.
And that’s why we pray today, “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
So, we have a very familiar story as this Sunday’s Gospel reading – the question about paying taxes. The problem with familiar stories like this is that we hear the first few lines and assume we know what it’s all about and have a tendency to jump to the conclusion immediately. In this case, Jesus’ summary: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The reason that jumping to that conclusion is dangerous is because of the way this incident has been interpreted so many times, a way that robs it of its power and really softens what was a completely revolutionary challenge by Jesus to the powers that be. The way I grew up hearing this story interpreted was, “Well, some things in the world are ‘secular’ and some things in this world are ‘religious.’ What Jesus is saying is that we need to figure out which is which and give our allegiance to secular things when that is important and to religious things when they are! The main thing is to know the difference.”
One of the corollaries of that interpretation, however, is that religion and politics are two different things, that separation of church and state means that Christians should stay out of politics, and even that we can live by one set of standards on Sunday morning, and another standard the other six days of the week!
Well, beloved, that could not be farther from what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel! Let’s take a little closer look at it. First of all, the context for this is that Jesus is in Jerusalem and nearing his death on the cross because of conflict with the Roman government and the religious leaders of his own faith.
He has already ridden into Jerusalem as a staged protest against the occupying powers during the feast of Passover, he has overthrown the tables of the money changers challenging the complicity of the Temple authorities to the Roman government, and now he’s engaged in a series of conflicts with those who are trying to get him to make a mistake so that they’ll have a legitimate excuse to get rid of him.
Matthew is clear that this is not some idle theological question the Pharisees are asking about taxes.
He writes, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians…” (Matthew 22:15) Well, from what we know about the political situation at the time, that itself should be a dead giveaway. The Pharisees and the followers of Herod did not get along at all. Specifically, with respect to the “head tax” (read “poll” tax!) of one denarius required by the Romans on all subject people, they were in fundamental disagreement.
The Pharisees were opposed to paying the tax because it suggested capitulation to the authority of the Romans. The Herodians – who were in the pocket of the Roman government anyway — had already sold out so badly that they saw no problem with the tax and, in fact, encouraged it as a way to keep the peace…and their own privileged position as pawns of the family of the Herods who ruled as Rome’s puppets in Jerusalem.
So, you see what’s going on: if Jesus sides with the Herodians and says it’s OK to pay the tax, he will alienate not only the Pharisees, but all those among his followers who were longing for Israel’s freedom. If he sides with the Pharisees, it would leave him open to charges of subversion by defying Roman law…and hasten his death. So, what does he do?
First of all, he asks to see the coin which was to be used for the tax, a denarius. Somebody brought him one. It would be interesting to know whether it was a Pharisee or Herodian who produced the coin because devout Jews weren’t even supposed to carry Roman money. Jesus shows us why: ‘Whose head is this (on the coin) and whose title?’ he asks. ‘Caesar’s (the emperor’s)’ they reply. Well, he’s already nailed them because a coin with a depiction of Caesar on it (and probably, his title “the Son of God!”) was a blasphemous thing for a Jew to have. It was a “graven image” forbidden by the Second Commandment!
So he ends up throwing the answer to the question back on them (as he so often did in his parables) challenging his audience to make a decision, not letting them off the hook by providing an easy answer, but making them think! “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22)
Which, of course, really begs the question, “What do the powers that be in this world really “own” that does not already, and legitimately, belong to God?”
The answer is…NOTHING!
So what Jesus is really saying is, “Give this idolatrous piece of money back to the idolatrous king who made it. And give everything else to God!” That message is consistent with the primary message Jesus Christ came into this world to bring. He came to preach that the Kingdom of God was at hand. And that meant that God and God alone was Sovereign and that the rulers of this world were not!
The message is the same today. God is Sovereign and the rulers of this world (be they in Washington, Chicago, or Ferguson, Missouri) are not!
So go ahead, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…
Just remember to render unto God…the things that are God’s…
Today’s First Reading from the Old Testament Book of Exodus is a familiar one to most of us. It’s the story of the Passover in which God frees the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, first by sending a series of plagues and pestilences on their Egyptian masters, and finally by slaying the first-born children of the Egyptians while “passing over” the homes of the Israelites which were marked with the blood of a lamb.
It’s a strange story even though it has become a classic one for so many. It’s a bedrock story for the Jews, marking their Exodus from Egypt which they celebrate each year at the feast of Passover. It’s become a favorite for many freedom and revolutionary movements because of its insistence that God is on the side of the oppressed and will fight for them against their oppressors. And, of course, we Christians read this story every Maundy Thursday as we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the last Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night before he died.
Yet, as I say, it’s a strange story and a bit hard to square with what Christians actually believe and teach about God. No doubt there was an historical recollection about various plagues and pestilences which afflicted the Egyptians in those days. Such natural disasters were common in that part of the world and still are, with the regular flooding of the Nile and the havoc that can wreak – flies, frogs, and all the rest of it! But did God actually cause these disasters to punish the Egyptians? I wonder…
No doubt diseases as fierce as the Ebola scourge sweeping through Africa today killing men, women and children indiscriminately occurred in the 13 century BCE as well. But would God have wiped out those precious little ones just to make the point that he was on the side of the Jews in this Exodus event? I wonder…
Even the rabbis had a hard time getting their minds around such a concept of God. Commenting on the later story of the Exodus in which God drowns all the Egyptians in the Red Sea (or the “Sea of Reeds” as modern scholars believe that it was). A famous Midrash (or commentary) in the Jewish Talmud says this, “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?’!”
Now, there is no doubt historically that the Jews spent time in Egyptian slavery, that they were led out of that condition by a great military leader named Moses, and that they spent decades in the desert, as a nomadic people without a country, trying to figure out what God’s will for them was…and where they were to settle down. But the stories of that Exodus were written centuries after the event, by still primitive people who believed in a kind of tribal god who would take care of them and was quite capable of slaughtering anyone who opposed them – or whose land they wished to occupy!
As Christians though, we have to read these texts in the context of the whole sweep of Scripture. There is an unfolding of our knowledge of God throughout the Bible (even though it’s sometimes a somewhat “uneven” unfolding). The tribal god of the ancient Israelites gives way to the God of the prophets who stands with people in their suffering and whose ultimate aim is the salvation of the whole world! Isaiah puts it best, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
And, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered as a proponent of non-violence saying things like, “You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good…” (Matthew 5:43-45).
St. Paul and even Peter come to believe that God has opened the gates of eternal life to all people – to Gentiles as well as to Jews. And the New Testament ends with the great vision of St. John the Divine in Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) Quite a different picture of God than the ancient one of a tribal Deity slaughtering the innocents to win freedom for the Chosen People!
The point is we have to read Scripture in its whole context and understand that the Bible is not just one book. It is a library of books. And in that library are books of history and law, of poetry and song, of myth and fiction. As Christians, we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus and to weigh any depiction of God against the fuller picture of God we believe Jesus came to paint for us.
As modern people, we also have to understand something called “progressive revelation” and that means that, just as we get a clearer and clearer picture of the nature of God as the Scriptures unfold over time, so the Holy Spirit continues to lead us further and further “into all truth” as Jesus promised that the Spirit would.
So, if you’re going to read the Bible (and I devoutly hope that you do!) please do not do it without the help of a good, modern translation of the text, with footnotes and introductions of each book which can help you understand what kind of literature it is, how it came to be written, and just how it fits into the overall biblical record. In my opinion, the best translation we have of the Bible today is the New Revised Standard Version and it comes with such notes and explanations right there alongside the text. It will really help in understanding and sorting out some of the tough passages in the Bible…such as our First Reading today.
And, while Christians will no doubt continue to have debates about how literally to take certain passages of Scripture, there need not be such doubt about what they mean! And the point of the Exodus story is clear: God is always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized. God’s people have been able to look back, time after time and through the centuries, to discover God’s saving hand at work in their lives. And we have been able to praise God for that in the words of the Psalmist: “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, (God’s) praise in the assembly of the faithful!”
And, when all is said and done, what remains for us is to live lives of thanksgiving and gratitude to that one God. And to do so, guided by the wise counsel of St. Paul in today’s Epistle:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10 passim)
And it is by the law of love…that we shall all be judged.
Thanks be to God!