Tag Archives: Matthew

Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.

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He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.

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“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”

i-thirst

He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

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 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.

Amen.

Feet don’t fail me now | St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:11-15)

Gospel means good news

How often do you hear from Christians about God’s generosity?

How often do you hear from Christians that no one will be put to shame?

How often do you hear from Christians that there is no distinction between people of different cultures and races?

Within the church, I hear about these things a lot. I am fortunate to serve with many generous, empathetic, and open-minded people.

But outside, especially in the world of social media and TV news, not so much. In the popular culture especially, the Christian message too often sounds exclusive, judgmental, and fearful.

Who are you afraid of?

For the LORD spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. (Isaiah 8:11-13)

Who do we fear?

Refugees … prisoners … all who are in danger …

The poor and the oppressed, the unemployed and the destitute, prisoners and captives …

Those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit …

Those who do not yet believe, and those who have lost their faith …

Our enemies and those who wish us harm … all whom we have injured or offended …

Who are you afraid of? Why are you afraid of them?

Perhaps more importantly, who tells you to fear them, and why do they do that? Who paints a picture of the world that causes you dread instead of joy?

How beautiful the feet!

Teresa of Ávila said,

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We are surrounded by stories and images designed to cause us to fear the stranger, the poor, the unbeliever, the other.

But hear the word of God that came to Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy what this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears.”

And hear the word that Paul preached: “The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him.”

And hear the collect that we pray every Monday, even on Mondays like today when we remember one like Matthew who preached the good news — the gospel — about Jesus.

Let these words remind you of the good news of God’s generosity and let them guide your feet into the way of peace.

Let them make you a beautiful messenger of the gospel like Matthew.

A Collect for the Renewal of Life

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for 2 Lent | Abraham, Peter, and a mustard seed

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31-33)

I don’t know if Paul had this story in mind when he wrote today’s chapter of the letter to the Romans, but his rivalry with Peter might have colored the way he painted the story of Abraham’s faith.

Abraham

Before the portion of Genesis that we read this morning (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16), Abram:

  • had already followed God to the land he showed him, “along with his wife Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, and all their possessions, and all the persons they had acquired”
  • had already gone down to Egypt because of a famine
  • had already separated from Lot so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way, then come back to rescue him
  • had already been blessed by Melchizedek
  • had already made a covenant with God, and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness”
  • and had already had a son, Ishmael, with Sarai’s servant girl Hagar, who went into exile with the boy

Today, God gives Abraham a new name, and God says Sarah will give birth to a son.

Here’s how Abraham responds, at least according to Paul:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:19-22)

Peter

Now before Jesus started talking about suffering and dying, Simon

  • had already left his nets and followed him
  • had already seen a man with an unclean spirit healed
  • had already seen his mother-in-law healed, for goodness’ sake
  • had already seen a leper healed
  • had already seen a paralyzed man get up and walk
  • had already seen a tax collector leave the money follow Jesus
  • had already been appointed one of the Twelve and given a new name, Peter
  • had already heard Jesus teach in parables, calm a storm, heal a demoniac, raise a girl to life and heal a suffering woman

And Peter had already gone out on a mission with the rest of the apostles and done all of these impossible things himself!

And then …. Jesus fed 5,000 people, walked on water, cured a deaf man, and fed 4,000 more people.

And then Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”

Today, Jesus talks about yet another impossible thing: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter starts to argue with Jesus, saying that’s not how it’s going to be! We’re on a roll here – look at everything we’ve accomplished – and it’s just going to keep getting better from now on!

Jesus is sharp in his rebuke, calling Peter on the carpet in front of everyone. “Get behind me, you adversary, you tempter! (That’s what “Satan” means.) You’re focused on human things, not divine.”

I can just imagine Peter’s face burning red with shame.

In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr writes “Jesus praised faith and trust – even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall, or to fail, and not to fall apart.”

How Peter must be humbled by Jesus’ rebuke, though he still has to fall, and fail, a couple more times before he finally falls upward into the identity his name points to: Peter the Rock.

The Mustard Seed

But today I want to turn from rocks, and from the mountain-top where the tempter lives, and focus down on a little mustard seed.

Jesus said, according to Matthew, that “if you have faith the size a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Both Abraham and Peter had trust.

Both of them had seen God acting and had followed God in trust.

Abraham also had just enough faith to be “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

That little faith, small as a mustard seed, was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”

However, Peter is most like us – that’s probably why he’s first among the Twelve apostles.

Like Peter, we have already seen Jesus and his Spirit acting in our lives:

  • In two powerful Faith Alive weekends that have revitalized the congregation
  • In vibrant healing ministries that we offer each other every week
  • In so many Bible studies, EfM groups, and reading groups every week
  • Through our mission partners and mission prayer links
  • Through our children and young people
  • In our retired clergy, so generous with their wisdom and time
  • In the 85 people who came out on Wednesday night to gather with our bishop for a Lenten study

But like Peter we have a hard time hearing Jesus when the talk turns serious, when he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

The transformative dying that Jesus describes, what we now call the Way of the Cross, demands of us not just trust that Jesus is leading us where we need to go, but faith that our falling and failing actually moves us upward toward the share in the kingdom that he promises.

That kingdom, Jesus says, is within us (Luke 17:21).

That kingdom, he says, “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32).

Jesus says elsewhere that unless a grain of wheat is planted and dies, it cannot rise into new growth (John 12:24).

We are so like Peter in our falling and our failing — afraid to let go of our success, afraid to risk even a tiny mustard seed of faith.

Today, may we be like Abraham, fully convinced that God, in Christ, can do what he has promised.

“For those who want to save their life,” Jesus says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Our little faith is enough. Our little mustard seed of faith, if we are willing to lay it down for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the good news, is enough.

And that little mustard seed of faith will “be reckoned to us as righteousness,” just as Paul said it would be.

He also said, “The promise rests on grace … “

And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and for ever. Amen.

Being ambushed

Strap your sword upon your thigh, O mighty warrior,
in your pride and in your majesty.
Ride out and conquer in the cause of truth
and for the sake of justice. (Psalm 45:3-4)

In this morning’s reading from the book of Joshua, we have the story of the ambush of the city of Ai by the people of Israel. Joshua gives a sign, and the plan goes into action.

When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. (Joshua 8:21-22)

It’s a pretty straightforward description of the Israelites’ false retreat successfully drawing out the people from the city, then surprising them with a rearguard cutting the people of Ai off so they could not return to safety.

The only thing that keeps the ambush of Ai from being plain history is that the Israelites attribute their winning to the Lord’s leading.

In the Gospel passage appointed for today, we have the story of a different ambush.

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” (Matt. 26:47-48)

Again, at the agreed signal, the victim is drawn out and encircled, and the ambush succeeds. But in a plot twist no one expects, Jesus doesn’t resist. “Put your sword back into its place,” he says, “for all who take the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). He is taken from the garden by the religious authorities, and he is put to death as a criminal.

The only thing that keeps the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane from being plain history is that generations of Christians have attributed their living to the Lord’s dying.

The mystery that Jesus reveals is that God does not lead us in ambushing others. God invites us, rather, to follow Jesus, the “Lamb that was slain,” in being ambushed, not “trusting in our own righteousness, but in [God’s] manifold and great mercies” (BCP 337).

A Song to the Lamb (Dignus es)
Revelation 4:11; 5:9-10, 13

Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
and by your will they were created and have their being;

And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.

And so, to him who sits upon the throne, *
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, *
for ever and for evermore.

Lord, when was it?

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

We citizens of the United States may certainly disagree on how the country should be managed, and how our tax dollars should be spent, and what priorities should be reflected in the national budget. Our country is organized in a way that encourages checks and balances, that requires at least some give and take, that assumes some compromise with other points of view.

Healthy debate is a strength of our country, and the freedom to disagree is an important right we should cherish.

Similarly, in the church, we do not always have to agree on how the church should be managed, how our tithes and offerings should be spent, what priorities should be reflected in the parish or diocesan budget. The Episcopal Church (to which I belong) is even organized at a national level along the same bicameral lines as the House and Senate. Our structure encourages debate, requires give and take, assumes some compromise with other points of view.

And yet.

There are some things that we as Christians simply must agree on, some things that are so clear that they really brook no argument.

Caring for the poor, the sick, the naked, the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the prisoner are right there at the top of the list.

Even speaking in a parable, Jesus’ point is crystal clear — we are to care for the poor because they are members of God’s family. Period. What we do for the poor we do for God. Period.

We are citizens of the United States, it’s true. But we are also (and first) members of God’s kingdom.

How caring for the poor should be managed, how our offerings and tax dollars should be spent, how that care is made a priority in our church’s budget and in the the national budget is open to debate and compromise.

That it must be a priority is clear, at least for us who are members of God’s kingdom.

Collect of the Day

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 231)

In all we do, direct us

Collect for Grace

O Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 100)

Members of Christ’s body

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus about the power, the giftedness we have received through our participation in the dying and rising of Christ, symbolized by our baptism:

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).

Not just a faithful remnant 

With the Ephesians, we are no longer just a faithful remnant, like “whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem [and] will be called holy” (Isa. 4:3).

Instead, we are called to “the measure of the full stature of Christ,” to a much larger vision of ministry to the whole world. As we sing in Canticle 11 this morning:

Nations will stream to your light, *
and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open; *
by day or night they will never be shut. (BCP 87)

We are not secure within the walls of the city, but welcoming to those who would come in.

We are no longer left behind, separate from the world, but sent out into it.

Certainly not anxious neighbors 

And out in the world, we ought to be recognizably different from the anxious neighbors Jesus meets in today’s Gospel (Matt. 8:28-34).

Too often, we respond just like the townspeople. “Why are you helping those dirty, wild, Gerasenes?”

“And, wait a minute,” say the swineherds, “those are my pigs!”

“You’re upsetting everything! This was such a quiet neighborhood until you came along; we were secure and separate.”

Instead, we ought to look for and recognize God’s purpose at work, for we are a whole community of gifted, grace-filled ministers being directed, in all we do, to the fulfilling of that purpose.

My beloved: Where does the story begin?

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

My beloved, with whom I am well pleased

The day before Matt Gunter’s ordination as the Bishop of Fond du Lac, he and the clergy of the diocese met with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

She began our time together by inviting us to reflect on this passage and on our own identity as God’s beloved.

I’ve written before about my own experience serving at the altar with my father, who called me his beloved and told me he was well pleased with me.

My own father said it plainly to me: I am his beloved. Still, I wonder why it seems so hard to believe I am God’s beloved.

Where do we begin the story?

As clergy, we had just gone through Holy Week and celebrated Easter with our parishes. We had just recounted Jesus’ crucifixion and were still pondering his resurrection.

Bishop Katharine asked the question of us: Where do we begin the story?

Do we begin with our sinfulness, for which Jesus paid the price? Do we begin with our identity as God’s beloved, for whom God would do anything, even die on a cross?

Sin is a crucial — crux is the Latin word for cross — part of the story. But is it the beginning of the story?

We reflected on the question, each of us answering it in our own heart.

But I still wonder, why is it easier to think the story starts with our sin than to think it starts with our being beloved?

You, my child

On Wednesday mornings we sing Canticle 16, the song of another father to his beloved child, John.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (BCP 93)

May you know God’s tender compassion today and always, know yourself to be God’s beloved.

That’s where the story begins, and that’s where God wants it to end.