- Next Sunday:
What’s New: Recent Posts
- 11/16/14 Sermon – “Thieves” – 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
- 11/9/14, Sermon – “Sticky Places” 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
- 11/2/14 Sermon “Faithful Civic – Part II” 21st Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
- 10/19/14 Sermon “Faithful Civis – Part I” 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
- 10/12/2014 “Sermon” – 18th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
Categories: All Posts (blogs)
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
“What’s mine is mine; and what’s yours… is mine, too!”
What was Jesus thinking? Just who was in the audience when he decided to present a parable comparing the relative performance of three different investment strategists? No wonder we tie ourselves up in knots trying to discern the story’s meaning for us in this day and age. The Parable of the Talents – as this story is known — has everything to do with its context, and over the millennia since it was originally told, its meaning has been examined, re-examined, re-shaped, painfully corrupted, and ultimately misapplied. Obviously, the original audience listening to Jesus was not a gathering of mildly Socialist progressives living a painfully capitalist, consumerist society steeped in a culture that idolizes wealth and money and the accumulation of bunches of stuff. In our context, we are led to believe that this passage from Matthew must be Warren Buffet’s favorite Scripture reading.
At best – and this is being generous – the Parable of the Talents plays into the Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism that so held sway during our colonial origins. Taken on its face, the Parable seems to suggest that God favors those whose investment returns lead the pack, for to them “more will be given.” Divine blessing, then, ostensibly can be quantified with cold hard cash – or so this thinking goes – and the more you have, the more blessed you are. The “eye of the needle” be damned; God may love the cheerful giver, but it’s the successful day trader whose path to heaven is assured. Saving for a rainy day? Exercising careful thrift? Living more with less? That sounds like the slave with the one talent, all-too-cautious and risk averse. He’s being thrown into the same place that the under-dressed wedding guest was thrown several sermons ago, into the “outer darkness where there [is] much weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
And lest you think that my hyperbole is getting the better of me, remember that there are entire churches, ministries, and radio and television networks built around so-called “prosperity gospel” wherein the rich manifest God’s anointing, and the poor just need to pray and work a little harder in order to get what God clearly intends for them. They look to the Parable of the Talents – among other carefully selected biblical verses — to proof-text their existence, and in so doing, they rob their adherents of the deeper challenge about which Jesus is talking.
So let’s get some context to find what Jesus is really talking about in the Parable. The Book of Matthew has only twenty-eight chapters, so you can conjecture that if Jesus is teaching this parable in chapter 25, it has to be very late in his ministry, and you’d be correct. In fact, the Parable of the Talents is offered as part of series of parables and teachings near the end of Jesus’ life. Matthew tells us these lessons were made during what we now call Holy Week, following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, two days before the Passover feast — and Judas’s betrayal — and three days before the crucifixion. Jesus knows what’s coming, and he is throwing everything at the disciples all at once. These are his final earthly teachings, and his rushing to make the deadline. Not surprisingly, his focus is on death and the end times.
After condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees at the Temple, Jesus retreats with his disciples for his final rushed lessons. He is trying to tell them about the reckoning that will occur when they face their Creator, and he is using all manner of examples and imagery to get his point across. He predicts the destruction of the Temple, he vividly describes the end times and the persecutions that will follow, and he outlines the divine judgment that will be made of the worthy and the unworthy. He completes his lecture with three vignettes or illustrations of what is to come: the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, the Parable of the Talents, and the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats. Nowhere else in his final lecture does Jesus mention anything to do with money, so the Parable of the Talents must be focused on something other than wealth. It is all about the accounting, not the investment return.
The audience for this final series of lessons is the disciples, a rag-tag bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, and blue-collar workers. These are not investment professionals or persons of means. They are listening to the story and trying to understand just what Jesus is getting at, and the lessons aren’t quite sticking. For one, Jesus uses amounts of wealth that are well beyond their comprehension or personal experience. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible remind us that a single talent was worth approximately fifteen years’ worth of income for the average laborer. Imagine that you would be asked to calculate fifteen years’ worth of your wages. Although not everyone, to be sure, but a fair number of us would be millionaires by that measure.
For the disciples, a single talent would have seemed like an unattainable sum. For ten or even five talents, you could have used the term “a gazillion dollars” and captured the same inestimably large amount of wealth. The slaves in the Parable, then, were each entrusted with incredibly large account balances. Given this important piece of information, the idea that one of the slaves buried his treasure now seems downright miserly and even ridiculous. No wonder the master was so angry with him. The fearful, risk-averse slave didn’t do what his master had entrusted him to do, to make something out of what he had been given. Instead, the slave simply buried the money and provided it back to his master undiminished and unimpaired. And here’s another point: it’s as if the slave didn’t exist. The master himself could have opted to do nothing and entrust no one with his largesse, hoarding it away until some future date. The slave had taken the treasure and had done nothing to add value.
For our purposes, imagine if the Parable didn’t involve money. Substitute monetary return on investment for making a positive difference in the world, and you may begin to get a glimpse of what Jesus was trying to communicate. Far from praising profitable investment managers, Jesus was attempting to show by what measure his disciples – and by extension, all of us – would be evaluated. To put it simply: did you make good with what you were given? Not how much treasure did you end up with, but rather, what was your legacy?
In essence, Jesus was trying to warn his disciples that they could not just hide away and squander the gift of his time with them. They had been entrusted with the lessons of the Good News; now they had to be sure to plant the seeds of the faith far and wide. The Parable of the Talents was not a tale meant to promote economic development; it was intended to promote discipleship.
In a few minutes, we will dedicate a portion of what has been given to us in the form of our annual pledges. Financial support is vital to any worshipping community: the building, the staff, the programs, and the missions require that we budget, and plan — and plan carefully — in order to preserve and augment what God has given us. At the same time, no one joins a church in order to balance its budget, or fix a toilet, or even pour its coffee. The faithful gathered in this place support this place because the gathered faithful offer each other something else of inestimable value: the face of Christ. And that face embodied by every person here today, tomorrow and in the years to come, is at once healing, challenging, inspiring, pain-filled, and life giving, just like Jesus himself. It offers hope to the suffering, justice to the victimized, peace to the afflicted, and empathy to the brokenhearted.
We take comfort in knowing that the people of this place are people who seek to live in the light of Christ, like Paul advised the Thessalonians when he warned of a Second Coming “like a thief in the night.” We know all-too-well those who live their lives terrified that their hard-won possessions will be taken away. They are prepared to hoard what is theirs, failing to recognize that what they have isn’t really theirs to begin with. It is God’s, and God has a way of wresting out of their clutches that which does not truly belong to them. We know paranoia; the question for us, as it was for the Thessalonians, is whether we are prepared to let paranoia and abject terror govern how we live our lives.
In this place, we choose to live in the light. We choose not let fear command our emotions. We choose not to dread the thief in the night, for we know to whom we belong and from whence comes our security. We embrace the whole family of God and see the face of Christ in all we meet. We pledge our lives and our fortunes in the knowledge that God alone is in charge.
Furthermore, we know we will be held accountable both for what we have done and what we have left undone, yet we take comfort in knowing that ours is a God most just and most gracious. We may not be able to double our money overnight, but we can proclaim the Gospel in what we do and whom we honor in our worship in this morning… and every day we draw a breath. Ad majorem gloriam Dei: to the greater glory of God.
I THESSALONIANS 5:1-11
1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
This is a stewardship sermon.
I don’t think you know who Howard Lutnick is. If you do, you probably remember him most for what happened to him – or rather, what didn’t happen to him – on September 11, 2001. He was the CEO and Chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, a prominent New York City stock brokerage that was headquartered in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on the 101-105th floors. The offices were only a few floors above where one of the hijacked planes hit. On that day, Cantor Fitzgerald lost every one of its employees based in New York, a total of 658 souls, and about 70% of its worldwide work force. Howard Lutnick, the head of the firm, was the one exception.
By sheer luck – or divine grace – Howard Lutnick had accompanied his five-year-old son to his first day of kindergarten that morning and thus missed becoming a fatality in his own right by mere minutes. Returning to the scene of the calamity and from the street below, Lutnick personally observed the entire North Tower collapse, and he was momentarily engulfed in dust and gas fumes. He escaped being crushed by the rubble by diving under a parked car.
The firm Howard Lutnick ran, Cantor Fitzgerald, was indeed a prominent and well-regarded financial services firm on Wall Street. Lutnick had been hired by the firm’s founder shortly after graduating from Haverford College. He was well regarded by his bosses. By the tender age of 29, Lutnick was named President of the firm. At age 35, he became Chairman. Under Lutnick’s management, the firm grew rapidly. Discounting any nepotism concerns, he tended to hire persons and their extended family members to key positions. Among the fatalities that awful September morning were 26 sets of brothers, including his own younger brother, Gary.
Dusting off the ashes of the morning’s tragedy, Lutnick set about doing what any smart man of business would do after seeing 70% of his workforce obliterated. He immediately cancelled the next payroll, resulting in the immediate cessation of income for the surviving household members of the dead Cantor Fitzgerald employees. That decision seemed only to compound the survivors’ losses and suffering; and so, in an instant — and second only to Osama bin Laden — Howard Lutnick became the most hated man in America after 9/11.
This is a stewardship sermon.
“But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Such bold, forthright, and unforgettable words. Joshua has led the people of Israel through their conquest of the Promised Land, and they have been marvelously successful. It is easy to be grateful when you are winning, and Joshua knows this. The time is right for getting the notoriously fickle people of Israel to sign on the dotted line – to acknowledge their good fortune and agree for once for all that the one true God is the only god that will command their attention and adoration. Like a good man of business, Joshua gets the necessary contract disclosures out of the way before he has the people commit. God is, after all, rather jealous and short-tempered. Everyone needs to be aware of the risks. “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
The people of Israel nevertheless respond in the affirmative. The one true God of their forefathers is the one they will worship, honor and obey. This God has done mighty deeds in their sight, and they are both awed and grateful. Now that they are on a winning team, they will root for the one in charge, the one leading the pack. (Let’s see if we do the same thing this afternoon at CenturyLink Field!) They construct a monument on that site, Shechem, that will be a place of pilgrimage for centuries thereafter. The challenges and tests of loyalty and faithfulness will come later. For now, God is in charge, and our side is winning. Yea, God!
On September 19, eight days after his firm’s offices were destroyed, Howard Lutnick went on Larry King Live to explain why he had cancelled the firm’s payroll. He described the chaotic state of the firm’s finances in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. In a word, there was no money to pay the families anything. Lutnick didn’t stop there, however. He promised on national television that he would rebuild the firm and that the families would receive 25% of the profits of the firm for the next five years, and free healthcare insurance coverage for the next ten years.
Lutnick would later keep the promises he made on national television. He successfully managed to rebuild the firm from the ground up. He had promoted advanced computer technology in his business, and he was thus able to recover financial trading records from electronic back-ups the firm had made. For the next five years, Cantor Fitzgerald families received over $100,000 in profits and insurance coverage. In addition, Lutnick established a Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund to assist the families of his late employees. To date, the Fund has provided $180 million in grants to family members, well in excess of any accumulated value that payroll disbursements would have achieved. Lutnick went even further. Every year on September 11 or the nearest trading day, the resurrected Cantor Fitzgerald gives 100% of its trading profits that day to charity. The amounts given from September 11 trades to date number in excess of $100 million.
Recently, Lutnick was back in the news, although the story didn’t make the front pages. Once again, the news had to do with his charitable endeavors, and the world learned something else about Howard Lutnick.
This still is a stewardship sermon.
The Psalmist got it right. It’s really all about the kids. God “commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep God’s commandments.” Maybe that’s why Jesus favored the little ones. When it comes to institutional preservation, it’s the lessons we teach our children that stick. We tell of God’s mighty works, both in our own lives and those who lived so very long ago. Our stories become their stories, and so on, and so on.
We teach the children to pray, hoping that God will be source of comfort in their times of need. We hand out Bibles to our youth to preserve the stories, hoping and praying that the stories will continue to be told, cherished and appreciated. We gather together as a church – as we have these past few times in the regional gatherings – to hear each other’s stories of joy and hardship, tragedy and triumph, pain and healing. We lay to rest our dead with stories of their lives among us and the hope of continuing stories in the everlasting life to come. Stories connect us in ways we can rarely fully imagine.
What the world learned about Howard Lutnick recently had nothing to do with 9/11. When he was a child, Lutnick’s mother passed away from lymphoma, and his father was diagnosed with colon cancer shortly before he left to go college. His father had encouraged young Lutnick to attend Haverford College and honoring his ailing father’s wish, Lutnick entered Haverford as a freshman in the late 1970s. Within a week after his arrival at Haverford, Lutnick’s father was dead. Howard Lutnick was now an orphan.
What happened next was extraordinary. Lutnick was summoned to the President’s office at Haverford. He expected to be told that he would have to withdraw. His sister, also a college student at the University of Rhode Island, had been told to get a job as a waitress in order to meet the tuition expenses that were now her responsibility. Lutnick expected to hear the same message or worse. Instead, the President of Haverford College offered young Howard his condolences and informed him that his entire four-year college education would be now completely free of charge.
Last week, Haverford College announced the receipt of the largest gift in their history, a $25 million gift from the Chairman of its Board of Managers, Howard Lutnick. It’s not the only gift Lutnick has given. Over the course of his professional career, Lutnick has given over $65 million in gifts to the college. Several campus buildings at Haverford have been constructed with his gifts, and the names memorialized on those buildings include his late father, his late brother, and several Cantor Fitzgerald employee friends who died that fateful day. By his request, none of the buildings he has funded honor the donor. He would prefer that the stories of those departed stand before his own.
Lutnick explained why he gives describing that difficult time of his young adult years. Explaining that even extended family soon abandoned their orphaned relatives, he said, “They thought we would be sticky, that we would come over and never leave.” As for Haverford College or for Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick experienced the stickiness of grace, time and time again.
He knows today what his giving signifies, and how with his support the stories of sticky grace will continue unabated in both his workplace and his alma mater. He gives not out of obligation, but out of the deepest fundamental sense of gratitude for what he has been given: the gift of life. In so doing, he honors the memory of those departed with monuments where the lessons of abiding grace may abound. He understands the true meaning of being a steward of a sticky institution. Although none of us may ever be able to achieve the level of giving of a Howard Lutnick, we can nevertheless aspire to honor and support this sticky place of Newport, both in gratitude and in honor of the grace that binds us all in Christ.
JOSHUA 24:1-3a, 14-25
1Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3aThen I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
14“Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
19But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
5 He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
6 that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments.
I Thessalonians 2:9-13
Let’s see. Where were we?
Two weeks ago, I announced that I would be undertaking a series of sermons focused on the relationship between church and state. In the first sermon, I described how Jesus’ response to the obligation of paying taxes to the emperor was both healing a deep-seated political conflict of his day and challenging his listeners to focus on more important things. I also began an extended presentation on John Knox, the man who established the Presbyterian Church, and specifically, how Knox had managed to offend an important supporter of the Protestant cause, Queen Elizabeth I of England, by publishing a polemic against female monarchy entitled, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”
Last week, in living testament to the error of John Knox’s analysis of the leadership capabilities of women, our own Rev. Janet DeWater offered her wise and careful reflections on church and state relations. She cited Jesus’ recitation of the Great Commandment and quoted Professor Coronel West in observing that “…justice is what love looks like in public.” In so doing, she provided a helpful paradigm for both secular and church governance that will we re-examine in a few minutes.
But first this morning, we return to England, where the newly crowned Elizabeth I was fuming over Knox’s exceedingly unjust and uncharitable words. When I closed two weeks ago, I suggested that Elizabeth’s reaction had implications for the whole of English-speaking Protestantism, and so it was. To make an exceedingly long and complex story short, Elizabeth I held Knox to his word and never again conferred favorable regard on any student of John Calvin. Despite Calvin’s constant entreaties and ready disavowal of Knox’s polemic, Elizabeth took the Protestant Church of England down a distinctly Anglo-Catholic path. Today, we know the Church of England as the mother church of the Anglican Communion, with its American presence represented by the Episcopal Church. It is replete with the trappings of traditional Catholic governance and liturgy: powerful bishops ordained in adherence to the rite of apostolic succession, the celebration of the Eucharist in every mass, genuflection, and routine kneeling for prayer.
Just as an aside, the English antipathy against Calvinism and its adherents would continue for at least a century thereafter. Various groups of English Calvinists found themselves at odds with both the Crown and with the Anglo-Catholic hierarchy of the Church of England. In 1620, more than sixty years after Knox had published his incendiary treatise, a group of persecuted English Calvinists boarded a ship and set sail to establish a new covenantal community in the New World. The name of the ship was the Mayflower, and we know the group by their common name, the “Pilgrims.”
For his part, Knox never set foot on English soil again. Refusing to recant his views on women monarchs, Elizabeth denied Knox an English passport – and yes, our denomination owes its origins to an undocumented migrant worker! Knox nevertheless managed to return to his native Scotland in the summer of 1559. Within the year after his arrival, Mary of Guise, the Scottish regent, was deposed, and the newly empowered nobility of Scotland convened in Parliament to determine what to do next. By deposing the Catholic regent, the Protestants in Scotland saw their chance to take control and establish a national church more to their liking. The Protestant members of the Scottish Parliament thus turned to their old pastor, Knox, and assigned him the responsibility for designing the new national church.
Being who he was, Knox didn’t stop at instituting a new church. Instead, Knox envisioned an entirely new civic order, a utopia. He compiled his work into a volume he called the “Book of Discipline,” which he presented for the Parliament’s approval in 1560. Reviewing Knox’s handiwork, the members of Parliament were stunned. The Book of Discipline called for the establishment of a church along the Presbyterian lines we know so well: rigorous academic training of the clergy; shared administrative responsibilities by clergy and elected lay elders; two sacraments, Holy Communion and Baptism, faithfully and righteously observed. But it wasn’t these features that so shocked the Scottish establishment. Rather, it was the fact that Knox took on his assignment without any perceived boundaries of church/state cooperation in bringing about social order and spiritual good. Knox did this by insisting that the Parliament adopt a series of measures to benefit all the citizens of Scotland.
First, Knox insisted that the entire population had to be literate. After all, how else would they be able to read God’s Word in Scripture? In order to foster literacy therefore, Knox proposed that the Parliament institute a nationwide system of public schools that all Scottish children would be required to attend. Education measures did not end with children, either. Knox wanted to expand the number of Scottish universities established by the Roman Catholic Church from the three at Saint Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, to a host of new institutions that would be strategically located in all parts of the country. Knox wanted to ensure access to scholarship throughout the land as a hedge against tyranny of the ignorant. While the goal was biblical accessibility and scriptural competency, the mechanism was a distinctly practical and secular one: universal literacy and higher education.
Second, Knox recognized the need for all to be gainfully employed in order to support themselves. Drawing on his time as a galley slave on French prisoner ship, Knox knew all too well how deprivation and hunger could challenge one’s faith in a beneficent God. To confront widespread deprivation within Scotland, Knox proposed a series of measures to ensure a government safety net for the homeless and unemployed. The able-bodied poor were to be provided basic shelter in so-called “poor houses” run by the state. In exchange, the poor would be given jobs constructing public roads, bridges and government facilities in a type of “work-fare” program. Again, Knox was only responding to the Gospel’s call to serve “the least of these,” but the mechanism to achieve that goal was a state-sanctioned program of poor relief.
Third, Knox realized that not all the poor were able-bodied. For the infirm and disabled, Knox envisioned a system of public health care facilities throughout Scotland to provide basic medical care to those most in need. Perhaps due to his exposure to Swiss health care institutions, Knox proposed that the new Scottish public health facilities be staffed in part by persons trained at the new universities. Yet again, Jesus’ call to heal the sick was to be achieved using secular means.
Finally, Knox knew that everyone would eventually become in need of some form support as they lived into their senior years. Knox proposed a nationwide program of financial support to sustain the elderly population in the land. He reasoned that this Social Security-like safety net would enable the elderly longstanding members of the faith community to continue to remain faithful in their church attendance and support obligations, and not have to concern themselves with ongoing financial support for their daily needs. To finance the entire enterprise, Knox identified all the formerly Catholic revenue sources in form of tithes and benefices that had supported parishes and abbeys to be re-allocated to the new civic and sacred order he envisioned.
Keep in mind that Knox’s vision was put forth in 1560! And in Scotland, no less! The nobles in the Scottish Parliament took one look at the proposal and rejected most of it out-of-hand. The formerly Roman Catholic revenue stream was too tempting for them to relinquish. They conspired to pocket most of the new cash under their control, and they asked Knox to go back and edit his work to include just church matters. The liturgy we are using this morning, in fact, is taken from that latter edited work, the Book of Common Order which was published in 1564. Knox’s original 1560 vision would not be realized until the New Deal era of the 20th century. His church, on the other hand, took root immediately and endures to this day as the Church of Scotland, the mother denomination to our own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
In addressing the relationship of church and state, the history of John Knox and the establishment of the Church of Scotland reveal to us some distinctive features of Calvinist thinking and Reformed theology. As the spiritual descendants of Calvin, Knox, and the reformed theologians of the 16th century, we Presbyterians hold the relationship of church and state to be an issue of spiritual importance. Just as the Church has a responsibility to uphold and nurture of Christian souls, so does the secular state have the responsibility to uphold and nurture its citizenry. In the Reformed Protestant mindset, rather than absolution separation from one another, the church and the state engage one another and hold each other mutually accountable in a perpetual dialogue.
We want this building to be a safe place to worship, our finances to well accounted and managed, and our staff to be appropriately compensated. It is the state that ensures these things by holding the church accountable. Likewise, we want our government to achieve the justice-love objectives that Janet discussed last week, to hear our collective moral voice on the important issues of our day that call for Christian witness. It is the Church that holds the state accountable for these objectives. The Westminster Confession — which is a part of the Presbyterian Church constitution called The Book of Confessions –summarizes this relationship quite eloquently.
Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacrament; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church of our common Lord, without giving preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging their sacred functions, without violence or danger.
So how should be faithful Reformed Christians vote? I did promise that you would know how you should vote at the end of this sermon series. I believe that the model of political leadership is shown to us in the reading from Joshua. The people of Israel are posed to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land, but first, God instructs Joshua to gather the people and hold an election. Twelve men are to be selected representing each of the individual tribes of Israel, and together they are to march into the middle of the river with the Ark of the Covenant, and thus divert the river’s waters so that the people of Israel can all cross into the Promised Land on dry ground. I can’t think of a better model of political leadership: elected representatives making the way possible for all to cross into the Promised Land safely and securely.
In addition to guiding you on how to vote, I also promised you that there would be questions. So here are some questions you should ponder as you consider your choices this Tuesday or any election:
• Do your choices reflect the values you lift up and celebrate while here in church, or do they reflect a compartmentalization of your values between those of your politics versus those your faith?
• Do your candidates and their positions on issues seek to enhance the public health and welfare for all constituents, regardless of background or affiliation?
• Do your politics comport with your understanding of stewardship of God’s abundant resources, both in your life and all of Creation?
• Do your election choices honor the whole people of God, or only one segment?
• Do the logical outcomes of your political positions make the Church’s mission easier, or more challenging?
For us here at Newport this morning, this table – the table of Jesus Christ — unites us in faith and binds our politics into one sacred celebration that connects us to sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world, without regard to ideology or station in life. It also connects us to the citizens and saints who we remember this day with both joy and longing. We seek to honor their memory, doing as they did — and our Reformation ancestors did — in breaking the bread and sharing the cup. For here is a feast of both Spirit and community – of faith and order – and nothing can separate either one from God’s everlasting love.
7The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.8You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’”9Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.” 10Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: 11the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
14When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
I THESSALONIANS 2:9-12
9You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
13We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
Take notes! There will be questions later.
I am about to undertake something unprecedented in my arguably limited preaching history. Over the course of the next three weeks, both Janet and I will be offering complementary reflections on the relationship between the Church and secular state which I have entitled “Faithful Civics,” and we will be doing so in a sermon series that begins this morning and will end just before the November 4th general election here in Washington. I will begin this morning, Janet will offer her thoughts next Sunday, October 26th, and I will conclude on November 2nd. Of course, we fully expect that all of you will plan to be in attendance each of these Sundays so that you don’t miss a word of our interconnected reflections on God’s Word and our government. (Seahawks games notwithstanding, of course!)
This series has been inspired by three seemingly disconnected elements that I will argue are in fact closely related. The first is the upcoming national and state election, a source of a great deal of anticipation for some, and anxiety for others. If I achieve my object, by the beginning next month you will know how to vote come the 4th, or if you vote by mail, you’ll know by then whether or not you voted in accordance with God’s Will. <wink>
The second event is Reformation Sunday next week, when we focus on the historical origins of our Protestant faith. Reformation Sunday’s focus this year is the 500th anniversary of the birthday of John Knox, the man who established in Scotland the often quirky, frequently contentious, and painfully democratic body we know today as the Presbyterian Church. In full disclosure, I need to tell that I did my senior thesis in college on the political ideology of John Knox, so you might quite a bit more detail attending these next few Sundays than you would in other congregations observing Reformation Sunday. As I said, take notes; there will be questions later.
Finally, and most important, is the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew which the lectionary assigns to this particular morning of the Church calendar. It is the familiar story of Jesus addressing the Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians, who are supposedly plotting to trap him with a thorny political question of his day. Jesus’ response says something about the way Christians might address the political questions of our day. So let’s delve into these three elements and see what we can discern about our faith and our politics.
As always, we begin with Scripture. The story from Matthew sets up a rather extraordinary set of circumstances. First, we have Pharisees who desire to “entrap” Jesus. The Greek verb “pagideuswsin” which New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “entrap” is an interesting choice of words. The word can be used in the conspiratorial sense, meaning to “ensnare” or to force someone into saying something to which they can later be held to account — indicted or punished — and it is this intention most Christians read into this passage about the Pharisees. At its worst, the New Testament’s apparent distaste for the Pharisees is responsible for much of Christian-based anti-Semitism in the modern world.
Another significance of that troublesome verb, however, comes within the context of how Jewish rabbis approach their scholarship. There is a long and revered tradition by which rabbis engage one another in disputations as a way of developing theological understandings of the world and God’s Will for it. These formalized debates in Jesus’ time form an important part of Jewish doctrine and practices today, and both the Mishnah and the larger Talmudic traditions trace their origins to just about the time of Jesus of Nazareth and the centuries that followed. So when the Pharisees approached Jesus about paying taxes to the Roman emperor, rather than conspiratorially trying to undermine him, they may have been trying to engage him in a larger rabbinical debate on the appropriate relationship of religion and the state.
Support for this idea comes from the fact that the Pharisees didn’t approach Jesus alone. They brought with them the Herodians, and the Herodians and the Pharisees were not exactly the best of friends. In fact, they were polar opposites on the political spectrum. The Herodians were aligned with the ruling family of greater Palestine. Herod Antipas, the ruler of the region of Galilee and the northern portion of Palestine had originally sided with the Pharisees, but after assuming power, he switched his political allegiances and sided with the more conservative and aristocratic Sadducees. The shift in party identity meant that the Pharisees were out of favor with the Herodian ruling powers and their Sadducee cohorts, who themselves were in league with the Roman occupation authorities of Palestine. Many of the Pharisees who opposed the Herodians found themselves in considerable danger and often were at risk of execution for treason. The fact both the Pharisees and Herodians were able to come together at all is a miracle, and the fact that they apparently agreed to approach Jesus, an itinerant Nazarene carpenter, with a weighty theological question is doubly astounding. Imagine Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner approaching Bob Vila from “This Old House” to settle a dispute between them, and you’ll get the picture.
Nevertheless, both sides knew what they were doing. They noted that Jesus was a fair, impartial man, as well as learned in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was not aligned with either party, and for these reasons, they both felt comfortable trying to get his take on the thorny issue of the day. He could play a role in helping to adjudicate their disagreement, and both sides were apparently willing to let him do so.
The question was posed: was it a legitimate exercise of faithful Jewish practice to pay taxes to the Roman emperor? Did not the payment of taxes to an imperial demigod undermine the legitimacy of belief in the one, true God? One side said yes, the other no. Who was right? Jesus did not let them down. In fact, he did provide them with an answer using a treasured tool in the jurisprudential toolkit that every judge and lawyer has from time immemorial learned to love and appreciate: he avoided addressing the question on its merits by deciding it on jurisdictional grounds.
In essence when Jesus pointed out the emperor’s face on the coin, he was arguing that the secular civic realities did not necessarily impact spiritual divine realities. The emperor was owed allegiance and deference with the former sphere and God was owed allegiance and deference in the latter. When it came to paying taxes, the civic act did not impugn religious scruple. Payment of taxes was simply not a religious question, and to suggest otherwise was to misunderstand the nature of God and divine reality.
Jesus provided the warring Jewish factions with a way out of their struggle to the death. So amazed were they at his resolution, that they left him alone, another reason why I don’t believe that they were out to force him in making a slip-up. If they had malicious intent, they would not have given up on challenging Jesus so quickly. Whatever the Gospel writers’ issues were with the Pharisees, to my mind Jesus shared relatively little animosity with them.
We can extrapolate from this story support for the concept of separation between the church and state, but the nature of church/state separation and just how separate the institutions ought to be deserves some examination of its own. To do that, I’d like to switch gears here and turn our attention to John Knox and some history of Reformation-era Scotland.
If there were any place in Europe where one would have expected the Protestant Reformation to have taken root and produce a denomination with world-wide impact, Scotland in the 16th Century would have been somewhere on the bottom of list. While most of continental Europe was in the thrall of the Renaissance, experiencing an explosion of scholarly endeavor, scientific inquiry and artistic creativity, Scotland remained a feudal backwater. Forever at war with its southern neighbor, the Scottish monarchy had allied itself with France in a generations-long alliance against the English. Roman Catholicism seemed solidly entrenched, given the royal support it had been given by the very Catholic Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent of Scotland.
Despite royal patronage from the Catholic House of Guise, the Scots were no strangers to Protestantism, thanks largely to one of their most celebrated native sons, John Knox. Born 500 years ago this year, John Knox was a rural Scottish priest and notary who had converted to Protestantism. He was fiery preacher and esteemed chaplain to many Scottish nobles and military officials who likewise had converted. During Mary of Guise’s regency in Scotland, Knox was captured and imprisoned for two years aboard French galleys where he endured unspeakable punishment and where he nearly died. Despite his poor treatment, he managed to survive with the fervor for his newfound faith intact.
One example of his Scottish orneriness can be seen in one notable story from the time of his confinement. Many of the Protestant prisoners aboard the French galleys were often forced to bow and venerate images of the Virgin Mary as a way of belittling their religious scruples. Knox refused to do, for which he was lashed and tortured. Afterward, when he was again asked to venerate the Virgin Mary’s image, he took the picture and flung it overboard into the sea, mockingly proclaiming, “Let our Lady now save herself! She is light enough; let her learn to swim!”
After he was released, Knox took refuge in England where he continued his preaching and served in the court of the young Protestant King Edward VI as a chaplain. All was going well until young Edward died, and he was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary Tudor, who ascended to the throne as Mary I. Among the Protestant community, however, Mary was known by a different name, “Bloody Mary” for the intensity of her resolve to eradicate both Protestants and Protestantism on English soil. Thousands of Protestants fled Mary’s wrath, and settled in Protestant enclaves on the European continent. For his part, Knox took up residence in Geneva, and it was there that Knox received the better part of his education as a Reformed theologian under the direct tutelage of John Calvin.
We will leave the details of what Knox learned from Calvin for my sermon two weeks from now, but one troublesome detail of Knox’s studies of Geneva needs to be dealt with now. As I noted before, Knox had been jailed and tortured under Mary of Guise’s rule in Scotland, Mary I was slaughtering Protestants in England, and Mary of Guise’s daughter, also named Mary — who would be the future Mary Queen of Scots — was being readied to take over assume power along the same lines.
Three very Catholic Marys were wreaking havoc with Knox’s ministry in the British Isles, and jumping to an overly broad conclusion, Knox began to question whether God had ever intended there to be female monarchs. In attacking the practice of women reigning over nations, Knox published a polemic in the summer of 1558 and entitled it, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” John Calvin was aghast that a student of his had written so ill-considered and seditious a treatise, particularly when a copies of it landed in England and one fell into the hands of the very Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, just as Mary I died and Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England to become Queen Elizabeth I. To put it mildly, Queen Elizabeth was not amused, and what happened next would shape not only John Knox’s ministry for rest of his life, but the entire structure of Protestantism in English-speaking world.
Stay tuned. Questions are forthcoming….
1 The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
2 The LORD is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
3 Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is he!
4 Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
5 Extol the LORD our God;
worship at his footstool.
Holy is he!
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud;
they kept his decrees,
and the statutes that he gave them.
8 O LORD our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
9 Extol the LORD our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the LORD our God is holy.
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?“ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Have you ever had one of “those” days? Days when things just don’t seem to be going right, and just when you think you have gotten past the worst of it, you get knocked sideways with some other mishap. And it’s all your fault.
In my recent relocation from Los Angeles to Bellevue, I had to endure a series of challenges in getting settled into my new apartment here. The person from whom I sublet the space had not submitted my name for approval with the building management by the time I had arrived. That issue finally got resolved, and then there a whole series of problems with keys to the unit. At first, I was short one set of keys; then, once I got an additional set, both the original and the new sets of keys stopped working. Both sets of keys and my apartment front door lock had to be replaced.
Meanwhile, Pam in the church office had provided me with a master key for the church and my office. There’s nothing that communicates that you have arrived more than receiving a master key. A master key is a treasure of inestimable value to those that hold them. But I digress. That same day, the apartment called me to say that they had replaced my apartment front door lock, and that the new apartment keys were ready to be picked up. Later that day, I picked up the new keys and handed over the old keys to the front desk to be destroyed. I tested the new keys, and they worked like a charm on the new lock on my apartment. All was well — or so I thought. Another one of “those” days was in store for me.
That day came a week ago Saturday. I arrived at the church with some heavy boxes and found the doors locked. I took out my master key and discovered to my dismay that it did not work. Had it not been for Phil Hunter who was inside setting up the sound for last week’s services and let me in, I would have been unable to get inside. I then tried the master key on the church office and pastor’s office doors, to no avail. I concluded that I had been given the wrong key, and that I would take it up with Pam the next day. (You know where this is going, don’t you?)
So, the next day when I confront… er, advised Pam that she might have given me the wrong key, she gently insisted that she had in fact given me the right one. In fact, she explained she had tested the key in the church door locks before giving it to me. When I showed her the key she had given me, she seemed confused, and noted that it was not a master key for the church she had given me. She and I looked at the key more closely, and it was then I noticed that it bore a surprising resemblance to my new apartment key. It was then I realized that what I had done: I had mistakenly given up the church master key instead of my old apartment key to be destroyed. One of “those” days was now turning into one of “those” weeks, and it was all my fault. And even worse, I had doubted Pam, our Office Manager, who was only seeking to help me. Shame on me!
Similarly, the ancient Israelites doubted God. After all that God had done for them — calling forth Moses to be their leader out of the desert of Midian, inflicting the Egyptians with all manner of plagues, summoning the Angel of Death, parting the Red Sea, and destroying Pharaoh’s mighty army – the God who had done all of this and so much more was now the subject of their collective doubt. God was only trying to help the Chosen People. An effigy of a pagan calf cast in gold was their ungracious response. Shame on them!
Actually, we’re probably being too hard on the Israelites. After all, let’s look at the evidence. They had been rescued from slavery, but they had no clear understanding about the prospects of their ongoing survival. They had been brought into the wilderness, and they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there they waited. And waited. And waited. Moses had been gone for a very long time, coming up with new legislation to organize the ragtag bunch of God’s ostensibly “chosen.” They had in fact left behind in Egypt everything they knew and held dear, including the objects of their adoration. While they were vaguely familiar with the one God, Yahweh, from their history, they knew the Egyptian pantheon much better. Isis, Horus, Osiris, Ra, and a host of other familiar deities commanded their loyalties in a time of uncertainty and fear.
They made a classic error of communities in transition: they sought to make decisions about their core identity in a time of panic. Rather than waiting for Moses to finish his slow trek back down the mountain, they let their fear and anxiety take control. They insisted to Aaron that something old and familiar be restored to them from their days under the Pharaoh. In their frantic haste, they reached out to Hathor. Hathor was a female deity in Egypt, and she was associated with music, dance and fertility. To put it bluntly, Hathor was a party-hearty girl. She was often portrayed in the form of a cow.
Maybe Aaron, whom Moses left in charge of things while he was talking to God on the mountain, suggested that the Israelites have a celebration honoring Hathor because he knew that it would be a great way to channel the stress of people feeling lost and abandoned. In the midst of great anxiety, why not throw a party? Music and dancing are great ways to focus collective energy – we’ve experienced a taste of it ourselves this morning – and the cult of Hathor was tailor made to get the people’s minds off their dire straits.
We learn from this incident the first lesson of the morning, that decisions made in an atmosphere of panic and anxiety rarely, if ever, are good ones. Aaron’s mistake was in hastily trying to address what he thought the people needed instead of what God wanted. What seemed like a tailor-made solution to Aaron was absolute anathema to God. The bacchanal honoring Hathor violated the very first commandment: the Chosen People had placed another god before Yahweh, the one and only, true God. God in fact was so angry that God once again threatened to destroy the whole lot of them and start the Creation experiment all over. But for Moses’s intercession and reminder that destroying the Chosen People would be bad for public relations, the whole community would have been annihilated.
Jesus’ parable of marriage feast from Matthew offers us an important and related lesson. Just like the ungrateful Israelites of Exodus, the wedding invitees in the parable go out of their way to offend their host and King. This time, however, there is no one to intercede for them. They are hunted down, slaughtered, and even their cities are burned to the ground. This was what God was threatening to do to the Israelites when Moses stepped in. The King then reformulates the wedding banquet plans from scratch. He decides to open the doors and let everybody in. Everyone is welcome and accorded full privileges at the feast, but one of the attendees shows up not wearing the appropriate wedding garments. For this social faux pas, he is cast out into “the outer darkness where there [is] weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now, it’s at this point in the story that most commentators note that there actually two different parables here. The first one focuses on the mistreatment of the King and his servants, and second one on the under-dressed wedding guest. There are parallel Jewish rabbinical traditions that tell very similar stories as completely separate tales of social infractions, but here in Matthew they are combined into one continuous narrative. Indeed, it may strike some as unfair that an unanticipated invitation to someone’s wedding would result in someone’s complete rejection and social stigmatization. But, I think there is an important and humbling lesson to be ascertained from this passage. The under-dressed wedding attendee may have not been anticipating an invitation, but he received one nevertheless. Because everyone was invited, he did not prepare himself appropriately because he too devalued and discounted the King’s invitation. He was no less culpable than the initial set of invitees who mocked the King to their ultimate peril.
So here’s the humbling lesson: the unmerited grace of God nevertheless merits with some degree of careful preparation. We are part of God’s Chosen People, true, and we may not have a golden calf in our midst. But that does not mean we automatically get a free pass. Discerning the Will of God goes beyond accepting the open invitation; we need to equip ourselves to be at the place where God wants us to be and in manner befitting that place. Fashion matters. Cloaking ourselves with at least a modicum of righteousness is called for if we are to remain true to our calling as God’s Chosen. We need to be sure we ready, and proceed cautiously and carefully, before we can rightfully take our place at the wedding feast, lest we stand out for our lack of proper spiritual attire.
The final lesson I need to make clear this morning is one gleaned from both scripture passages. We know from the Exodus narrative that the Israelites were not destroyed after all, and that Moses was successful in intervening on their behalf with an angry God. Not only that, Aaron, the nervous leader who suggested that everyone contribute gold for the offering to Hathor, was not thrown forever into the darkness. Aaron actually became a great and faithful leader when the Israelites reached the land of Canaan, and he succeeded Moses with all manner of blessings and favor from Yahweh.
Likewise, in Matthew, no one approaches the promise of God’s plenty oblivious to the manner in which that richness is conferred, but no one can ever truly claim to be an expert on salvation. The troubling combination of two very different parables in today’s New Testament passage yields some wildly divergent interpretations. Fallible human beings cannot possibly be expected to perceive Matthew’s actual intent. We can only posit some ideas on faith in faith. One can never be the perfect wedding guest, but – and here’s the lesson — perfection is not required. The entirety of the Gospel assures us of that.
As human beings molded in God’s image, we only dimly reflect the nature of God. It will never be easy for us to discern God’s will. The best we can hope for is to proceed to consider what we should be doing in a calm and considered fashion. We may we do everything we need to discern and to prepare, and then, just when we get everything into alignment and set to go, we may find our best laid plans to be entirely confounded. That’s okay. There is a difference between a well-intentioned heart and a lazy one. Our blunders cast light on our frailties, and our errors keep us humble, often just at the point when we facetiously believe we’ve “got a good thing going.” When we are handed the master keys to God’s house, and we are expected to turn in the old keys that do not provide access, on one of “those” fateful days we just may wind up destroying the wrong set. So long as we do not offend the [O]ne who is in charge, we will always get another master set. Thus is true of the Newport church office, as it is in heaven.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
I know what you’re thinking.
“In heaven’s name,” you’re saying. “He’s just arrived here, and he’s already giving us musical theater references!” How stereotypical. Not only that, the song “Getting to Know You” is from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “The King and I.” How very old school!
Anna Leonowens, the protagonist of the “The King and I,” was a real historical figure, a headstrong and feisty widow — a feminist, and an abolitionist — whom the King of Siam invited to his country, now modern-day Thailand. As the musical relates, Anna was engaged to tutor the members of the royal court and assist them in their transition from native Thai traditions to Western-style, more modern social practices and world views. So, let’s be clear: Anna was an interim leader.
The song “Getting to Know You” is sung in the first Act, as Anna begins her lessons with the noble young charges. It’s a song that celebrates the joy that comes with learning things by establishing relationships with new people. In “The King and I,” Anna wins the hearts of the Siamese royal court — and ultimately, the King himself — with her charm, tact and presence of mind.
Introductions are never very easy, especially when you’re the one introducing yourself to a brand new group of people. For communities about to embark on a time of transition, contradictory emotions are often at play. People grieve the closing of a chapter in their collective history, seeking solace in clinging to the comfort of the frequent and familiar ways of doing things. On the other hand, anxious curiosity about the future and the things to come can lead to a willingness to experiment and access hidden creativity in the community. A new order is established, new leadership steps up, and the people move into a new place, figuratively speaking (though sometimes literally).
Make no mistake, both of today’s Scripture readings are leadership introductions to people about to embark on extraordinary new chapters in their lives. Those of us of the Cecil B. DeMille era are quite familiar with the passage from Exodus, the Ten Commandments. Believe it or not, the Commandments are really an introduction of sorts, because before this time, God had only spoken to individuals of God’s own choosing. Whether it was Adam, Noah, Abraham, or Jacob, the God of the ancient Israel kept some very limited, mostly patriarchal company for direct conversation, and these divine conversations revealed a God who was quite accustomed to giving orders, speaking constantly in the imperative case:
• “Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil;”
• “Build an ark, and load it with animals, two of every kind;”
• “Take your family and leave home; you’re moving to a new land;” or
• “Go back home, and take your wives and your things.”
This God, this Yahweh of ancient Israel, dictated the time, place and structure of the lives of the faithful. There was little time for thought or challenge or opposition. No, it was simply, “Go, do this,” or “Don’t do that.”
God’s dialogues with the patriarchs reached their apex with the Ten Commandments. Here, for the first time and using Moses as a heavenly press secretary, God has a message for all of the faithful to hear – and abide. It’s all for the best, really. “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t mess around, don’t lie, obey your parents, and don’t even think of wanting what your neighbor has. O yeah, and worship only me, and take a day off once a week.” These really are quite simple rules, clear, concise, and designed to keep things decent and orderly.
As a matter of introduction, however, they lack something. There’s none of the casual subtlety of social communication. God here simply states the obvious: “I rescued you from slavery, so here is what I want you do.” And it doesn’t stop at just Ten Commandments. There are entire books enumerating dress codes, dietary restrictions, vice laws, and criminal sanctions spelled out with all manner of detail. The people of Israel haven’t just escaped slavery; they’ve been co-opted into a new divine and social order, no questions asked.
Then, as if to really get their attention, God accompanies the pronouncement of the new rules with a major sound and light show, expressly designed to put the fear of the Lord into the hearts of the gathered multitude. The whole spectacle is a bit much for the poor souls gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. They are overwhelmed, and quite frankly terrified of this God who has “rescued” them and brought them to this place, so much so that they ask Moses not to let God speak to them directly. They want Moses to mediate; dealing with God is just too awesome and fearful a prospect to consider. Given the fact that the people had left everything they knew back in Egypt, the prospect of taking on the responsibility for their future under the ever-vigilant eye of a persnickety God just may have been more than they could bear.
As introductions go, the events on the plains of Sinai may not be the best model for engaging a new people in a journey of self-discovery for a new future together. That the ancient Israelites were a tad reluctant to wholeheartedly embracing Yahweh is not surprising given all they had just been through. Outcomes were dictated rather than discerned, and that just may be biggest problem of the whole enterprise. The people needed a vision for their future life together under this all-powerful God. All they got were rules.
Paul knew the weakness inherent in approaching new people with rules. He had taken great and loving pains to establish the church at Philippi, and they returned the favor by supporting Paul in his time of trial. In this morning’s passage from Philippians, Paul opened himself up to his old friends, and he reminded of them of his background as a Pharisee. Paul was raised in the fearsome faith of the Sinai plain. He had followed all the rules to the letter, and he even prosecuted those who did not, but he had experienced a chance so shattering, so radical, that he came to regard everything he thought he knew and understood as meaningless. What he knew now was Christ, and Christ had offered him a world that was not governed by hard and fast adherence to rules but by intimacy of relationship. He summed up his feelings, stating, “I want to know Christ and the power the resurrection and the sharing of suffering by becoming like him in his death.”
While the Christians of Philippi may have known something of Paul’s background – he had founded their church, after all – his letter to them exposed them to a very personal aspect of his being. He had earned and lost everything his world had valued, and he found instead a new way of living in following the incarnate God in Christ Jesus. Paul’s journey of self-discovery would inspire the Philippian congregation to conduct a similar self-examination of who they were as a people of faith, and they in turn would lead others into the faith by their example. Getting to know Paul was a step in the journey of getting to know themselves in Christ, and the Philippians were able to meet every challenge that other purported Christians and pagan society would throw at them. Paul’s vision did not offer them a promised land flowing with milk and honey, but a life with all manner of challenges and sufferings that resulted in the resurrection from the dead and new life with Christ.
For a community discerning its future, these were powerful, hope-filled words because not only was Paul introducing something new about himself, he was also introducing to them to something new about God. Rodgers and Hammerstein just may have captured this same sentiment in their song when they wrote,
“Haven’t you noticed
Suddenly I’m bright and breezy?
Because of all the beautiful and new
Things I’m learning about you
Day by day.”
So what of our own community of Newport Presbyterian Church? During the first part of my time with you we will be engaging in the process of getting to know one another, to be sure, but transitional times also call for self-examination as well as introductions. Getting to know ourselves and our future life together as a church will be just as important as getting to know one another. Interim time – our time of traversing the wilderness — will involve asking a series of questions. What shapes our understanding of our place in the larger community of Bellevue and in the life our Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. denomination? What patterns and practices do we love and treasure? What inspires us? What terrifies us? What needs adjustment? What needs to be let go? What does God have in store for us? What does God want us to do? What new habits – new rules, if you will — are needed in order to follow God’s plan for us? Just how much difference can we stomach? What are our prospects for continued life together as a church family? What will be our legacy if we no longer existed?
My role as interim leader will be to continue asking these questions, and I will be doing so without trying to provide you with answers. You will discern the answers. By way of example, if a couple were to approach me and seek to be married, I would want to be assured that they have undertaken the necessary communication about key decisions to remain in life together. If in discussions with them, I learned that they had not discussed who would be the primary caregiver of their future children, or whether or not they would even have children, then I would raise that as an issue for them to try to determine. It would not be for me to dictate their choice; whatever choice must be left to them and the dynamics of their unique relationship to decide. My role is only in assuring that they have dealt with the major issues at hand so that they may have the best possible chance of securing a happy future together as a married couple.
Similarly, my role here will be to raise and remind us of the core questions of congregational identity. Change, if there is to be any, will be arrived at only after engaging in careful, deliberate and prayerful discernment. My very first observation about this church leads me to the conclusion that you are whole lot more like the loving congregation at Philippi than the fear-filled people of Sinai, so there will be no need for laying down the law or for inflicting you with awe-inspiring displays of light and sound, at least not my part. (We will see what the SALAD Bowl has in store for us!) I will offer you queries to challenge your thinking, and only limited references to Broadway musicals.
No matter what the future yields for us, at least one thing will not change, and that is situated front and center, right here before us. It is Jesus’ table of welcome and fellowship, grace and hospitality. We gather this morning with millions of other Christians throughout the globe to lift up before the faithful the presence of Christ in our midst. At this table, Christ becomes known to us in breaking of the bread and pouring of wine, and in so doing we become known as Christ’s own people. This communion feast is immutable and everlasting, just as the love of God for us endures for all time.
So it is fitting we begin our transitional time together this way, sharing in the spiritual sustenance that Christ has provided for generations before and for generations to come, and for whole of the earthly throng that proclaims the name of Jesus. No matter what may be in store for us in the time to come, this table forever anchors our worship and our identity as Christians. Let us now become known to God and to one another in this worldwide celebration of life in Christ.
EXODUS 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13You shall not murder.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
As I begin this last sermon I need to state right from the start this is not going to be a typical sermon. It is more a hodge-podge of remembrances, thank yous and a few random thoughts. How does one sum up 32 years of ministry in a last sermon? You can’t so this will have to do.
First a word about the scriptures chosen. They are not part of the lectionary for this Sunday. They are some of my favorite biblical texts: one from each area of the Bible the lectionary normally provides. Amos is all about justice. Amos is a pull-no-punches kind of writer. I have always wanted to live up to Amos’ prophetic teachings. Many a pastor has fantasized about speaking so boldly. His calling the wives of the rich and spoiled “cows” elsewhere in his book, has always made me smile. So, I needed to include Amos as my First Testament passage.
The Psalm is the one Sandy and I used at our wedding. We decided to independetly search through the Psalter and pick a Psalm we wanted read at our marriage ceremony. We would argue our case for the one we chose and then decide. When we came together we had both picked the same Psalm, Psalm 146. It has been part of my life since then.
The Romans passage has been a guide for me almost all my adult years. I have hardly lived into Paul’s exhortations, but adopting his advice is not a bad way to measure one’s life.
Matthew’s passage about where our treasure is, there will our heart be, has convicted me to always check my priorities by looking at my check book. And, when Jesus goes on to urge us not to be anxious, I listen. Anyone who has really known me knows I have struggled with anxiety most of my life. I know I have not lived into this scripture, but it is ever before me helping me focus on what is truly important. I hope to carry all of these scriptures with me into retirement.
Looking back over my 32 years of pastoral ministry, and especially my last 10 years here at Newport, I have so many memories. I have been cleaning out my files to make room for the new pastor. When I got to my memorial files, I went through the bulletins for each one of the services I have led here at Newport. I was close to tears as I remembered so many fine people who are no longer with us.
I remember, as well, all the work on our building that has been accomplished here at Newport. It seems I have “lucked into” being the pastor at each of the four churches I have served when a big building project was needed. The biggest were at Summit Ave and here. I am so grateful for the leadership of so many folks in those projects who knew more than me about building permits and architectural drawings. Especially here at Newport I want to thank Dennis Chivers, Wally Alder and Jerry Roe. I could name so many more on the various building committees and those who helped at work projects, raising money, or communicating with the congregations. I mention those three because they were either the architect or the church representative to the contractor that kept the project on schedule and within budget. They all saved Newport a bunch of money.
I remember all the baptisms and weddings I have been a part of here in this community. Certainly baptizing Frances Horner, the beloved retired pastor attending Newport with his wife Mary, was a very poignant moment. He had never been baptized as far as he remembered. Splashing water on him when we were worshipping in the Great Hall made that space sacred for me. It was one of the most memorable baptisms I had ever been a part of.
Weddings can be meaningful, if not stressful. When I know those getting married, it is especially meaningful. Two, however, stand out. Being one of the officiants, along with Heidi and Gary, that brought David Meekhof and Carol Kelly together was one of them. It took three of us, but they are still married! And I ended my wedding responsibilities officiating at the marriage ceremony of another mature couple, Wally Alder and Helen Nash. It was a great way to go out.
I have many warm memories of the committees I have worked with over the years here at Newport. I could name each committee and those who served on them, but that would make for a tedious sermon! It also would not capture my sweetest moments or the impact serving with many of you had on me. I will say I am very proud of the stand our Mission and Peacemaking Committee took against torture, for gun control and background checks, doing the work to help the hungry and the homeless, and finally supporting me on marriage equality. This church is not afraid to take controversial stands on non-partisan issues of justice and compassion.
That is consistent with the Jesus we encounter in the Bible. The story of Jesus’ ministry among us is full of political implications. I am not talking about partisan politics. I am talking about standing up for justice in the economic realm, for speaking out against the Empire of Rome and its cruelty, speaking out against all those religious leaders who collaberated with Rome to keep the poor in line while they lined their own pockets. Jesus was crucified as a political prisoner. A Church of Jesus Christ should never shy away from political stands. While some say religion and politics should not be mixed, the Bible simply won’t support that. It is part of being a follower of Jesus.
Adult education is one of my loves. The Tuesday morning lectionary class was a real highlight. The attendance at that class was the best of any church I have served. The short story class, with help from Al Smallman, has been a delight. I love entering into discussions about our faith indirectly through literature and even through movies.
Certainly all those who worked on the Worship Committee, the Personnel Committee, the Membership Committee, the Property Committee, and the Stewardship and Finance Committee have done an outstanding jobs in making Newport practice what it preaches. So, too, the Deacons and the Stephen Ministers have done their part in extending the hospitality and compassion of this church to members and friends alike. Thank you.
Moving beyond Newport’s committees, I remember all the interfaith connections I have made while being here. The joint sermon Jawad Khaki and I preached was ground breaking for this church and me personally. The image of a Muslim and a Christian sharing the pulpit in a Christian Church is so very hopeful. We are all children of God trying to make sense of this crazy life, trying to find our way to the Holy. I have deeply enjoyed working with Fostering Interfaith Relationships on the Eastside with Marian Stewart and others.
I want to say a word of thanks to the great staff I have worked with. I mentioned them in the last newsletter, but I want to say publically I have felt like I won the jackpot with this staff. Sue, Judy, Pam, Jay, Ron, Karen, Rhonda, Lori, Nate, Jennifer, Kristin, Josh, Jason, Kevin, Susan and Noriko all were outstanding staff sharing this ministry with me.
I want to give a special thanks to my two colleagues in ministry here, Heidi and Janet. I simply lucked out being able to share pastoral duties with them. They are both outstanding pastors, preachers, and organizers. They covered my weaknesses and helped me from going over the edge in my humor. I can’t thank Janet enough for helping me get through Sandy’s death. Actually, that goes for this whole church. You all supported me in ways I will never forget. And then when I did something I thought I would never do and married again, you celebrated my love for Jackie in such great style. We have both felt surrounded by your love.
I have also had some great pastoral friends that have meant the world to me: those in the book group I attend, Dave Brown, and Doug McClure, and others from this Presbytery: Will, Karen, Sandy, Mark, Jane, Sheri and others. Pastors cannot survive without friends to bounce ideas off of and complain to when we feel irritated! Finding fellow progressive pastors that share many theological perspectives helped keep me sane and in the ministry.
I thought I would end this sermon sharing what I believe and hold dear at this time in my life, at least in terms of Christianity. This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you a sense of where I am as I end this stage of my faith journey and enter another one.
Trying to make sense of that Holy Mystery we call God has been a lifelong task. I have given up many notions about God that seem too anthropomorphic. At times it seems like many in the larger Church are not talking about the same thing when we use the word God. I almost wish we could take a break from God-talk. Maybe then we could start fresh, with less assumptions.
What I can say at this point is that the clearest understanding of God I have is that God is love. I experience God most clearly in loving relationships, in being loved and forgiven by those closest to me as they incarnate God’s presence. The only other idea I can affirm at this time is that God is the depth dimension of life that undergirds all that is. Tillich put it this way, “God is the ground of being.” It is that ground that makes life meaningful and not just absurd or some cruel joke.
I much prefer to talk about Jesus. For me, calling myself a Christian is desiring to follow Jesus. That means following his example of speaking out against the distortions of any empire. Jesus spoke out against Rome’s imperial dominance. Sometimes it is necessary for Christians to speak out against our own beloved country when it acts like an empire in its greed, violence, use of torture and armed drones, pre-emptive war policy, and it claims about its exceptionalism.
I want to follow Jesus when he calls us to love our enemies, live simply, and be generous with what we have been given. I believe a follower of Jesus will promote non-violence. That means the onus is on those Christians who support war as an acceptable foreign policy. They must explain how that can possibly be a Christian response when we compare that to the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels.
For me, at this stage in my life, community trumps institutions, including the institutional church. The goal is to create a community of compassion, and not prop up an institution. I have come to see compassion and justice as being far more important than a set of beliefs. It is how we act and treat others that makes this world a better place, not what we affirm as a set of dogma or doctrine.
I’ll have to say I have become more and more uncomfortable with some of the ordination questions we ask those who are being ordained as elders, deacons and ministers of Word and Sacrament. They sound so out of tune with the life I value. They don’t capture the kind of faith I would hope for leaders in the Church.
I have played around with this and here is what I wish I was asked when I was ordained:
1. Will you make decisions based on what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus and not what props up an institution or supports any particular constituency in the Church?
2. Will you grow in your trust of and commitment to Jesus’ way even if it makes you uncomfortable and requires some sacrifice?
3. Will you lead the people with intelligence, creativity, love and a sense of humor?
4. Will you laugh at yourself and thus remain humble as you serve in positions of leadership?
5. Will you be dilligent in studying the scriptures with the help of the best scholarship?
6. Will you be careful not to use the Bible as a rule book for our time forgetting we live in a very different culture than when it was written? And will you remember we know scientific things about human sexuality and how the world began they could not possibly have known?
I realize the traditional questions have been with us for a long time and probably should be retained. But, at this stage in my Christian journey, some of those questions have lost their power. They don’t capture what I look to for guidance as I have tried to serve the Church. I suspect I am not alone in that.
I’ll end this by saying once again “Thank you.” Thank you all for the love and support you have given me. Thank you to those who have come from Summit Ave. Presbyterian, and out of town as well. I loved being your pastor. I have served some very fine churches in my 32 years of ministry. It is great to end this part of my life being one of Newport’s pastors. It is ending on such a high note. I wish you all a deep sense of God’s Spirit surrounding and leading you in the years ahead.
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
The Gospel of the Lord.
A couple of weeks ago when I was back in the Richmond area tending to my mother, I was driving on my way to the rehab facility where she was staying at the time. I glanced at a road sign as I drove by just to check my location, and couldn’t believe what I saw. There on the street corner, the two, green criss-crossed street signs indicated that I was at the intersection of Charter Colony Parkway … Sovereign Grace Road. What? My first thought was, wow – look at what you can do in Virginia that you certainly cannot do in Washington. My second thought was, wait – I must have read that incorrectly. So, on my return trip, I checked again. Seeing that it was indeed “Sovereign Grace Road,” I pulled over, climbed up on the embankment, pulled out my phone and took a picture of it – sometimes you just have to have proof that a thing is real! As it turned out, Sovereign Grace was a private avenue that led back along a road – this was not just a driveway – to what turned out to be a large Community Church.
I like the image of traveling on the road of grace – it’s a wonderful reminder that the gift of God’s grace is ours; grace that is like space or room that God gives us to fall down, or fall away from God’s purposes and desires, and to still be forgiven, received and made new again and again; Grace is free; there’s nothing we can do to earn it because it’s freely given to us by a great and loving God. But, free grace is not to say that we are free from seeking actively to live a Christ-like life, and that can be a challenge on many levels throughout the changing circumstances of our lives.
Now, sometimes understanding what God asks of us, can be difficult, as what someone called today’s “bugger of a passage” points out. One commentator tells the story of his mother-in-law, Connie, whom he says, “needs no lectionary commentary to know she does not like this passage.” In this passage she says, “Jesus goes too far. The Jesus that she knows comes to bring peace, not a sword. How, she wonders, did this ever get into the Bible?” Agreed? It is definitely a challenging passage. Jesus says: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” Hard words to swallow!
One of the legacies that Jim will leave with me as he retires, are his comments when these difficult lectionary passages come up, that boy he’s glad he’s not the one preaching today. I will miss that about you, Jim! And indeed I did try to avoid confronting this one, but, the challenge hooked me and here we are. Time to face the music as they say.
To start, I would say to Connie, “you are not alone. I am there with you, as I suspect many of us here would be also. In fact, many scholars share varying understandings of this text. Marcus Borg speaks of the role of family ties and connections, very important in Jesus’ day, as being the safe, protected, havens of our lives. But, Borg says, Jesus taught another way. Jesus challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to follow him. Fred Craddock says that in this passage Jesus “gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew – the claim of family love – as an alternative not to the worst but to the best in society.” That raises the call to an even higher level, doesn’t it? Still other scholars warn against putting the family on too high of a pedestal and say this is a warning that the gospel may very well divide rather than unite a home. (Charles Cousar). Clearly this is no easy passage.
Well, difficult though it may be, I love the way that life and scripture intersect in meaningful ways and with wonderful timing. I am not what some would call a “General Assembly Junkie,” but as GA met this last week in Detroit, I was keeping a close ear to some of the proceedings – first of all because Newport had two close connections to this year’s meeting: Holly Hallman was there advocating for the overture on earth care that originated right here from Newport, through Seattle Presbytery to GA. And it passed! And, Anna Bintinger was selected to serve as Seattle Presbytery’s Young Adult Advisory Delegate, and she was there, posting wonderful blogs about her ongoing experience there. I was also eager to see some of the live streaming debates and votes on same-sex issues – near and dear to the heart of Newport – as well as to see how the vote on divestment came out. Let me tell you, if ever there were issues where family would be divided against family and where Jesus’ call would seem to bring a sword rather than peace, these would certainly fit the bill. All within the one body of the church; of the General Assembly; there were clear expressions of both hope and pain surrounding these last two issues. The tallies on these votes were as follows: The assembly voted 371 – 238 to allow pastors who feel so called, to conduct wedding ceremonies for same sex couples in states where it is legal. This is now in effect. The assemble voted 429 – 175 to approve a change to our Presbyterian constitution – the Book of Order – to change wording regarding marriage to say it is “between two people,” rather than “between a man and a woman.” This motion is now sent to every presbytery and must pass by a majority of them in order for the change to be made official in the Book of Order. The vote on divestment was extremely close: By a vote of 310-303, the Assembly approved an overture calling for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies some allege are engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the region. (A similar overture failed 333-331 at the 220th Assembly in 2012). The highly debated overture also affirms the PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and relationships in the region, and a preamble was added on the floor to reinforce that, saying, “The PC(USA) has a long-standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation.”
If we read today’s Gospel message in light of these controversial issues and those of the world, perhaps two things may stand out for you as they do for me. Life is difficult and controversial and for every decision made to one person’s delight, another person is likely to feel crushing, heartfelt defeat, all based on one’s understanding of faithfulness. But Jesus calls us to seek, seek and seek some more the ways of both justice and reconciliation. Sometimes that may mean disrupting the peace. The second message that is so endearingly highlighted in this text is the absolute care God has for us, expressed in the image of the hairs on our heads being counted.
Let me turn now to Barbara Brown Taylor, who has a great take on this scripture and its claim on us. “I am a daughter,” she writes, “a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me. I am Barbara. I am Christian. I am a child of God – that is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it. We are God’s child first. That is no role. That is the essence of who we most truly are.” But claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well. As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes, Taylor says that “Jesus’ demands remains the same. We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise: that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before. The gospel is not a table knife but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pablum.” Or as Thomas Long put it: “Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers.” This passage, he claims, means much more than simply, “Love God a lot.”
Yes, this is a difficult passage to wrap one’s head and heart around. But I do invite you to wrestle with it. Perhaps you might say, as my daughter says when faced with a difficult task: “Challenge accepted!” And remember, God, indeed, calls us but also travels alongside us in a world that is filled with tension and anxiety. At the same time that God brings peace to our living, God also disrupts that peace, turns things upside down, for the sake of the Gospel. May we, in our mission and ministry, sense God’s disturbing presence as we also know God’s constant love along this road of grace that we travel.
Pentecost has become an ever more important Christian celebration for me the older I have become. As I have said many times, Christmas and Easter have been co-opted by the culture and Hallmark into commercial holidays. Sure, they are still important days in the Christian year, but some days it is hard to tell if they are religious holidays or secular holidays.
Pentecost, on the other hand, is still our celebration. The Christian Pentecost is ours alone. Hallmark has yet to put out a Pentecost card, thank God. It is the day we celebrate the Spirit of God. Some have called it the birthday of the Church. It was on that day in Luke’s version in Acts, when the disciples were given power to boldly speak of their trust in Jesus. John’s version is a bit more subdued. It also takes place on the evening of the resurrection, not weeks later as in Acts. It is John’s version of Pentecost that will occupy our ponderings this year.
Diana Butler Bass, in her amazing book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” focuses on the Spirit. She says the old way of doing church is not working. This is especially true for those under 40, many of whom are not in church.
She quotes Harvey Cox who has written about the history of the church. He divides history into three ages. First there was the Age of Faith (0-400 C.E.) where a way of life based on faith, or trust in Jesus was the emphasis. Christians tried to follow Jesus’ example and continue the work he began while he lived among us.
Then there came the Age of Belief (400-1900 C.E.). Butler writes, “Between 300 and 400, however, this dynamic sense of living in Jesus was displaced by an increasing emphasis on creeds and beliefs, leading Professor Cox to claim that this tendency increased until nascent beliefs ‘thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.'”
Finally starting around 1900 C.E., and building steam as the century progressed, came the Age of the Spirit. Here the emphasis was on an experience of Jesus. She writes, “The Age of the Spirit is nondogmatic, noninstitutional, and nonhierarchical Christianity, based on a person’s connection to the ‘volatile expression’ of God’s Spirit through mystery, wonder and awe.”
She says that Cox was a bit skeptical of this age where people liked to say they were spiritual but not religious. But Cox came to this conclusion: “What I think it really means is that people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding.” I love that phrase-“institutional and doctrinal scaffolding!”
All of this is to say we are living in interesting times in Church history. It is an unsettled time where we are still trying to figure out what this all means. I must say I am drawn to the Spirit of God more and more these days, much more than I am drawn to traditional talk about God the Father. I realize when we focus on the Spirit, however, we are in danger of being swept away with an emotional and non-rationalistic way of doing church.
Bass quotes one of her Facebook correspondents in commenting on the danger of focusing on the Spirit. “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?” She says, and I agree, a focus on our experience of the Spirit and a thoughtful approach to things of our faith do not have to be mutually exclusive.
So, what does focusing on the Spirit of God mean for us? First, our walk of faith is not about believing the right things so we might earn a ticket into heaven. I have said that many times before, but it bears repeating. I have spent so much of my early Christian walk thinking what I believe is absolutely crucial. God will certainly reward me for believing in Jesus as the one who died for my sins. Jesus is the only access a human being can have to a relationship with God. That kind of thinking feels less and less compelling to me. It even seems ridiculous and narrow-minded.
Life is much more about finding the abundant life Jesus talked about. It is a life that spills over into acts of compassion and a burning desire for justice and promoting the common good. I don’t think when I do such acts I am earning my way into heaven. This is not replacing right beliefs with right action so I can please a judgmental God. Acting that way is just the natural response of living fully and freely following the example of Jesus.
Theologian Dwight Friesen captures this when he affirms that “Jesus had no interest in orthodoxy, but rather offered his followers ‘a full and flourishing human life.'” To focus on the Spirit is to become more human, fully human, the kind of human being Jesus modeled.
To focus on the Spirit is also to learn the virtue of forgiveness. It is interesting in John’s Pentecost the one thing he mentions after the disciples are empowered by the Spirit is their call to forgive. Certainly that virtue is one of the hardest to cultivate. It requires such humility and compassion.
Let’s look at our passage for a moment. There are certainly weird details. If we take them literally they are troublesome, at best. His derogatory mention of “the Jews” has fostered anti-semitism throughout history. And the fact that the risen Christ still bears the scars of crucifixion is not a hopeful image for us when we look forward to our experience of resurrection. Will we arise to new life bearing the scars of this life? What if we are cremated? Will we enter the next life as a pile of ashes? I am being facetious, of course, but it shows how we need to be careful taking some of this passage literally.
In spite of all that John is making some powerful affirmations. Jesus models forgiveness to the disciples. This is their first encounter with the risen Christ, the one they betrayed and abandoned. He does not come in anger, but in peace. They must have been relieved. They could begin to let go of their guilt over their shoddy behavior.
Then Christ breathes the Spirit into them. He charges them to forgive. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of the verse 23. The NRSV makes it seem like the disciples could retain the sins of others. I am not even sure what that means. Peterson puts it this way, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” When we hold on to our anger at those who have hurt us, the problem is ours. What are we going to do with that anger when we can’t forgive?
Scholars tell us that forgiveness is pretty abstract until it is fleshed out in human interaction. Sure we affirm God forgives us, but it is hard to experience that abstractly. It remains a nice theological idea. But when someone forgives us we know it on a gut level. It is real. Christ is saying the Church that is touched by the Spirit is to be a community of forgiveness. That is a very noble calling.
The other image of Pentecost in John’s version concerns the locked doors the disciples were hiding behind because of their fear. Jesus comes into that locked room and breathes the Spirit into them. John is saying that just as God breathed life into humanity at the creation, so now Jesus breathes new life into the Church at Pentecost. Pentecost, for John, is just as significant as the creation at the beginning of time. That is quite a claim.
I won’t go into this in detail, but seeing the disciples behind locked doors because of their fear leads me to wonder what locked doors have I hid behind because of my fear? What locked doors are you hiding behind? Dare we let God’s Spirit set us free from fear?
Pentecost celebrates the freedom from fear that God’s Spirit enables. Fear does not need to run our life and our decisions. We don’t need to be controlled by fear of failure, fear of the future, fear of change, or fear of going to hell because we don’t believe the right things. Pentecost is the day we can celebrate the freedom of the Spirit to live “a full and flourishing life.” Happy Pentecost.
This text in Acts is Luke’s way of showing how the early church dealt with the intellectual culture of that day. We see Paul debating with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens. One scholar compared Athens to a modern college town. It had about 5,000 citizens. It was a place where the intellectually curious could hang out and debate.
Looking carefully at Paul’s approach to these philosophers I found myself liking some of his evangelistic strategy and finding other parts of it troubling. First the troubling parts. He seemed to think he has the truth and the rest of the people who did not agree with him were ignorant. That is a bit arrogant for my taste.
In addition, he ends this little sermon talking about judgment. It is as if he is saying if they don’t accept his way of connecting with God they will be judged. Time is running out. God will only tolerate their ignorance so long. We have seen some Christian missionaries in our day emulating that approach. It has given Christians a bad name among some of the other enduring religions of the world.
On the other hand, I found myself admiring some of Paul’s approach. He tried to find points of contact between the Athenian culture and Christianity. He pointed to their altar “to an unknown god” and said he could tell them who that God was. He was saying that even though he disagreed with some of their worship practices, he found a point of connection in their worship with his own understanding of God.
He affirmed that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God. While we don’t see Adam and Eve in a literal way as Paul seemed to, it is important to see that we all are children of God. We cannot write off people of other religions as irrelevant or worthless. They are family.
Paul even quotes some of their philosophers: Epimenides and Aratus. I am so grateful for that line from Greek philosophy that talks about God as that Spirit in which “we live and move and have our being.” Marcus Borg, one of my mentors, has picked up on that phrase. He says it affirms that God is present among us and not some being in heaven apart from us. It has become part of my own way of understanding God’s immanence.
This brings me to the subject of God. How do you picture God? I have been working on that picture my whole ministry. What conclusions have I come to at this point in my life? Some in this congregation have asked me to skip the lectionary in my last few sermons and just talk about what I believe. Share personally. While I would never make that a regular practice in my ministry, I do see some merit for that kind of sharing toward the end of my 32 years of pastoral ministry.
So, I am going to be vulnerable and share with you my search for God. I do this with a bit of trepidation in that I don’t want to sound like my way of making sense of God is the only, or right way. I would hate it if my words would cause others to stumble. I would never want to knock the pins out from under someone when a more traditional way of understanding God has worked for them. Certainly if one is going through a tough time, it is hard to start to question central religious beliefs. So take what I am about to say with a grain of salt. If it helpful, great. If not, just chalk it up to the ramblings of a quirky pastor approaching retirement.
With all those disclaimers out of the way, I am going to be as honest as I can. When Paul talks about searching for God, even groping for God as one would grope for something solid to hold on to in the dark, it caused me to think about my own search for God. There have been times it felt like groping in the dark. I started to ponder how my understanding of God has developed to this point after 32 years of preaching, praying, and pastoral care. I realize, as well, that some of what I have experienced these past few years, in particular, have impacted my understanding of God. Certainly when a death shakes one’s world some rethinking is in order.
So, here it goes. The older I get, the longer I am in ministry, the more I have moved away from a traditional understanding of God. God is more a mystery to me than when I started my spiritual journey. Trying to find words to describe how I understand God is difficult. I can say more about what I don’t believe than I can say what I do believe.
I know I have grown tired of talk about God as if we know exactly what God thinks or desires. I hear other preachers say things like, “God desires we do such and such,” or “God hates it when we think this or that,” or “God will certainly punish us if we do…” Such talk makes it sound like we know God and what God wants. That feels presumptuous to me. It also makes God out to be person-like being who wants and desires certain things or outcomes as any of us do. This understanding of God sees God as smarter than us, more powerful than us, but a being that acts and thinks like us only on a grander scale.
I understand why some think that way. The best metaphors to describe God are human metaphors. It would be insulting to just use inanimate objects as the only metaphors for God. Sure God is a rock, but God is more than that. To talk about God in personal terms is one of the best ways we can affirm God’s prominence in our lives. The trouble is we have let this personal talk slip, at times, into almost a literal way of describing God. It ceases to be a metaphor and becomes literally descriptive of God’s presence. It is there where I am uncomfortable.
I am uncomfortable with talk of God’s will or God intervening into our world as if God has a plan for our lives, or God miraculously intervenes to make things right, save this person, or heal that person. Such a notion makes God feel so capricious. Why would God heal someone of a cold so they could go on vacation, for example, but let that poor child die of cancer ? I know that is a bit of a parody of some prayers I have heard, but it gets at my discomfort.
To say we are not God and thus we should not presume to know God’s reasons for healing some and not others, does not cut it with me anymore. I am not saying God needs to fit into my intellectual boxes or I reject that notion of God. A God who miraculously intervenes in some cases but not in others just makes God a being I find hard to trust.
I have given up believing that God intervenes in our world like a scientist manipulating his or her experiment. I have given up believing God has a plan for my life that I better try to discern or I will displease God. But when I give up notions of God being a person-like being, then God talk becomes a bit more difficult. How does one have a relationship with God if God is not person-like? How does one pray to God if God does not intervene in miraculous ways? What is the purpose of prayer?
I will admit those are questions I have wrestled with over and over again. To give up my child-like notions about God has made it easy to wonder if God is only wishful thinking, something we cling to because we can’t bear to face our lives without those traditional notions of God. Doesn’t rejecting an interventionist God make God irrelevant or so distant that a relationship is impossible? Does it make it easier to doubt God’s existence?
I will admit doubt has been a constant companion in my spiritual journey. God’s presence has felt very hidden, allusive and hard to connect to when I have had to deal with various crises in my life. That was especially true when Sandy died. I could not pray. This whole enterprise we call life felt absurd some days.
By now some of you may be wondering: this is a pastor saying these things? Some may be comforted that they are not alone in their doubts. If I just stopped here it would be a bit unsettling to any congregation. So I have more to say.
In my best moments I have come to sense, trust, and give my life to that Spirit that surrounds me, is in me, and fills the whole creation. I call that Spirit God. Another name for that Spirit is love. I John said it so well, “For God is love.” When I have experienced love from others in my family, my friends, and in the church community I have felt connected to something larger than those relationships. I have felt myself caught up in a mystery that pulls on my heart and brings out my best instincts.
This spirit calls me to seek the truth without fear, expand my love to even those I don’t like, and to work for the common good. Do I feel that Spirit at all times? Absolutely not. Sometimes it just feels like I am groping, as Paul put it, in the dark. But I have had enough glimpses or experiences with that Spirit of love to not give up when I don’t feel it.
When I pray to that Spirit, I give myself and others to that presence that is already surrounding all of us. I don’t expect a miraculous intervention. I do know, however, when we are open to the Spirit of love things become possible that we never dreamed were possible before. We feel connected to one another. We let down our defenses. We lay aside our fears, our anxiety and healing has a chance. Even if there is no cure, we can experience healing.
Ultimately we are all searching for God, for meaning, for healing. Pascal has said there is an “infinite abyss within the soul reserved for God alone.” Augustine, in praying to God, said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And, thanks to Lyn Lambert for finding this other quote from Augustine, “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances. To seek Him (God) is the greatest of all adventures. To find Him (God) is the greatest human achievement.”
This search for God is a noble and universal quest. Certainly the Bible, the compilation of human groping for God, some of which is helpful and some not so much, is a resource for our quest. Jesus, the human face of God as witnessed to in the gospels, has helped me in that search. And, it is communities like Newport that allow us to ponder freely, embrace what some would call heretical notions, and accept any who come in a non-judgmental way, that are wonderful companions on this search for God.
I am not done yet in that search. I am curious where I will end up when I don’t have the responsibility of being a pastor. I trust that Holy One who has alluded my intellectual grasp, but touched my heart through so many experiences and people. I urge you to keep at this seach for God even when doubts cling so close. Amen