Luke 2: 1-20
Rev. Peter Faass
It’s amazing how our familiarity (or overexposure) with something can make us less aware of it. This overfamiliarity can cause it to lose meaning. Christmas falls into that category.
We get overexposed to the secular part of Christmas with its emphasis on commercialism and partying. To limit that relentless bombardment of the season, we put up filters to keep ourselves from being physically, mentally and spiritually overwhelmed. When the real meaning of Christmas arrives at our door on Christmas Eve, we don’t recognize it. We might look at it and reply, “Sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”
There’s a lovely framed watercolor in our parish office that captures how this happens. I didn’t pay attention to this print, which I’ve passed thousands of times, until we repainted the office. The title of the print is “The Holy Family Enters Cleveland.” The Plain Dealer wrote an article about the print, painted by the Rev. Ralph Fotia, a local Methodist minister, in 1986.
The print’s delicate strokes evoke Asian art to me. The Cleveland skyline with the Terminal Tower and the Standard Oil buildings are in the distance. The onion domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral are to the right. A snow-covered field lies before them, with a small tree standing to the left. Joseph trudges through the snow in the foreground, leading a donkey that is carrying Mary as she holds her baby Jesus. The Holy Family appears to have an abstract halo over their heads.
Inside, the card reads:
Overbooked inns in Bethlehem
A waiting family out in the cold
Still wandering through our cities
Looking for the room.
Plain Dealer writer Darrell Holland stated that (the depiction and the message) “suggests the needs of the Holy Family at Jesus’ birth are reflected in the lives of many Greater Clevelanders.”
In the scripture, the Holy Family experienced hardship twice in the Nativity story:
Rev. Fotia was an urban minister, pastoring to many Clevelanders with circumstances similar to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. His painting is a theologically powerful tableau, reminding us that many others, like the Holy Family, need relief from the world’s oppressive ways.
Fotia noted, “People like the Holy Family continue to seek shelter and food and to have trouble finding them. There are still overbooked inns like in Bethlehem. Jobs are not available and people suffer.”
This powerful print breaks into the overfamiliarity with Christmas. It reminds us of the original Christmas story’s scandal. This season’s relentless bombardment should not prevent us from seeing the Nativity’s true meaning and the message it yearns to deliver.
God came into human history as a helpless, newborn baby. He was laid in a feeding trough in a cave with livestock. He was born to a young unwed couple. God was born on the road. A Super 8 Motel would be luxurious in comparison. Those who initially visited him were shepherds, those on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Everything about Jesus’ birth is antithetical to what we would expect for a kingly birth, never mind a deity’s. However, everything about this birth is a profound statement about God and, as the angels proclaimed that holy night, “those whom God favors.”
By entering history in this manner, we understand this is a new kind of King. This isn’t a Caesar living decadently in an imperial capital, ruling by intimidation brute force and fear. God help us if Caesar had gotten his hands on a cellphone with a Twitter account! Instead, Jesus’ birth is about a king, partial to the most disadvantaged, who wanted humanity’s redemption and wellness. As the angel announced to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
In this king, there is hope for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the persecuted, the immigrant, the Muslim, the African –American, the ill, LGBTQ people, sexually-abused women, hungry children, those without health insurance and everyone who would be considered the least among us. This includes everyone wandering in the cold and snow, in a hostile world seeking a place of compassion and hospitality, in Cleveland, throughout the nation and the world. These are all members of the Holy Family. God specifically chose derided people like these to initially proclaim the good news. This is why they respond with gratitude and great joy!
Jesus’ birth shows that God has not forgotten anyone. With Jesus’ birth, the good news proclaimed that God didn’t abandon us to the brokenness and sin-sick world. In brokenness of our own dark times, the hope of that truth is the light that shines brightly from the stable of Bethlehem. The baby Jesus light calls us to be bearers of that light, to bring it to those whom Rev. Fotia stated are “Still [are]wandering through our cities, looking for the room.”
The Rev. Pat Hanen wrote this advent meditation:
“The power of God to know the truth and do right is eternal and incontrovertible. But if we follow Jesus, we have to bear the pain of using that power in this world. We have to stand up, suffering the pain of gravity. We have to do right, acknowledging our own sin, repenting from it, and changing. We have to exercise compassion, risking ourselves, recognizing that the destiny of a candle is to be consumed in giving light.”
In the newborn Jesus, God has not forgotten us. Let us not forget those he came to serve.
Let us welcome those Holy Families who wander the cold, desolate places seeking warmth, welcome, compassion and dignity. By so doing we will be glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.
Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to all God’s people.
Rev. Peter Faass
(Picks up cell phone)
Let’s see, where’s that “Google Maps” icon? Ah, there it is.
E-M-M-A-U-S (presses search). Oh, there’s no Emmaus listed. Well, there is the “Emmaus Bible Fellowship Church” in Mentor, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the same place.
I’m not sure why Emmaus didn’t come up on Google; everything else does! The Biblical text says Emmaus was seven miles from Jerusalem. Let’s see if I can find it if I type “Jerusalem, Israel.”
Yes! There’s Jerusalem. Oh no, not Jerusalem, Ohio! Oh great, this GPS only finds locations in the USA and Canada. How I am going to Emmaus so that I can encounter Jesus if my GPS can’t get me there?
This is how meeting Jesus and believing in the Resurrection happens. You have to duplicate the same circumstances and be in the same environment for it to be real. It’s like a scientific experiment; we need a methodical and empirical procedure, with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the accuracy of the Resurrection. If I get on the road to Emmaus, I can see if Jesus meets me just like he did with Cleopas and his companion. It would be cool to watch him vanish from my sight. Poof! Now you see him, now you don’t. If this doesn’t happen for me, if it’s not scientifically repeatable, how can I possibly ever believe in his Resurrection?
A lot of Christians – especially we Episcopalians - are skeptical about these passages of scripture that speak of Jesus’ paranormal appearances. That stuff isn’t real, we think. We are too smart, savvy and sophisticated to believe in those myths. If we don’t have concrete evidence or see it with our own eyes, then it can’t be true. And yet, Biblical texts about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are all paranormal experiences meant to inspire our faith and not lead us to disbelief.
Mary Magdalene encounters a man who suddenly appears to her at the empty tomb. She believes he is a gardener. It is only when the man speaks her name that she recognizes him as the risen Jesus.
The terrified disciples are secreted away in a locked room when the risen Jesus suddenly appears. Only when doubting Thomas insists on hard evidence and sees the marks of crucifixion on Jesus’ body does he believe.
On the Road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus were heading out of Jerusalem on the Sunday of the Resurrection. News that the women who visited the tomb have seen the risen Lord is fluorishing. As these two walk the dusty road, a man suddenly appears. The text tells us “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This is similar to Mary’s experience in the garden.
This mystery man walks with the two men as they relay recent events about Jesus, events they’ve not yet reconciled. Jesus admonishes them as he interprets these events through scripture.
As they approach Emmaus, the two men encourage Jesus to stay and have dinner with them. He accepts their invitation. When Jesus is at table with them, he takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to them. The active verbs of taking, blessing, breaking and giving are Eucharistic. In the context of these actions, the men recognize the risen Jesus, clearly indicating they were present at the last supper just a few nights prior.
Jesus then “vanished from their sight.”
Astonished, the two men begin to connect the dots. Of course this was Jesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” they ask. Despite the late hour, rush back to Jerusalem to share their encounter of Jesus with the disciples.
The Road to Emmaus Resurrection Story, as well as the stories of Mary Magdalene in the garden and Thomas and the disciples hiding in the upper room, provide us with a boilerplate truth about our Christian faith; a truth that strikes at the head and heart dichotomy that splits Christians and how we engage our faith . . . or not.
The central question these Resurrection stories ask us is, “How do we encounter the risen Jesus in our lives? Is it through deductive reasoning, scientific evidence, our intellect, or in the experiences of our heart?”
If we believe the former, and our minds can’t rationally process the Resurrection stories and the presence of the risen Jesus, do we disbelieve? Do we disbelieve because we fear the experience of our hearts, thinking them as too emotionally fraught, irrational and susceptible to sentiment?
With both Mary and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the evidence clearly favors the heart. Mary didn’t know she was encountering Jesus until he lovingly uttered her name.
The man in the garden did not compute in her mind, which told her that a gardener was standing in front of her. Mary was struggling to resolve the impossible situation of the empty tomb. When Jesus finally spoke her name, her heart leapt in recognition.
Cleopas and his companion couldn’t intellectually compute the presence of Jesus walking with them on the dusty road. They were trying to figure out what this bizarre story of a man coming back from the dead meant. When they heard Jesus’ voice, blessing and sharing bread, they realized, “Oh my gosh, it’s him!” When the men recognized Jesus, they said to one another,
“Were not our hearts burning within in us while he was talking to us on the road?”
They recognized the risen Jesus in their hearts.
As Benny van Buren sings to his struggling baseball team in the play, Damn Yankees, “You gotta have heart!”
We know the heart helps us recognize the risen Jesus after the Lord responds to Thomas touching his wounds and professes his faith. Jesus responds, “Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Just like my GPS will not lead me to Emmaus and a real-time encounter with Jesus, my mind itself will never ultimately lead me to an encounter with the risen Jesus. If we just trust in our highly educated, rational minds, we will always be skeptical of what we believe is the irrational experience of the heart when Jesus appears to us. Our blessedness only occurs when we make our hearts vulnerable so we can encounter the risen Lord.
Our intellects are valuable assets – we Episcopalians believe that Jesus died to take away our sins, not our minds – but our faith cannot be built solely on an academic, intellectual or scientific enterprise. Scripture is clear that the human heart is where God meets us.
Our life journeys are our road to Emmaus, where we encounter the risen Jesus. To be a pilgrim on that road, we must open our hearts to experiences that are beyond rational explanation.
Jesus is present in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread. Jesus is also equally present to us in the rest of our lives. Just as with our eyes, we need to open our hearts so we may know the presence of the risen Jesus as he accompanies us on the way.
Emmaus reminds us that our intellects and great powers of rational thought that don’t ultimately matter.
Our risen Savior seeks us out, is with us, and walks with us in our human confusion, fears, pain, anxieties and joys. Emmaus brings awareness to our hearts burning within us, recognizing Jesus’ love.
Ultimately, when it comes to the Resurrection, “You gotta have heart!
All Saints Sunday
Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Luke 6:20-31
Rev. Peter Faass
In your experience, how many of you believe that the forces between good and evil, love and hatred, and justice and injustice, have never been so clearly and intransigently lined up as in the past few years?
Yeah, me too!
I will tell you, some of the events we have experienced in our society recently have set my teeth on edge, raised the short hairs on the back of neck and caused me to have some thoughts that, as Robert Louis Stevenson once allegedly stated “would shame hell.”
I fear that this state of affairs isn’t about to change any time soon.
In the Book of Daniel, we hear of a vision Daniel has of “four great beasts [that] came up out of the sea” and turn into kings. These creatures represent the four great empires – Babylon, Assyria, Persia and finally, the Seleucids, who occupied and degraded the Hebrew people; the worst being the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes, who hated the Jews so much that he sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar, set a statue of himself upon it and tortured and murdered Jews who would not convert to his religion, his way of life.
As I said in my Evensong sermon this past Thursday, an ugly, ferocious monster – a beast, if you will – that incarnates this kind of abject hatred for those who are different has been uncovered and unleashed in our nation. We have every reason to be alarmed. The existence of so much evil and hatred in such a large percentage of our population threatens our bodies and souls no less than those four empires did to Israel.
And then comes Jesus preaching today’s Sermon on the Plain.
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Oy Vey! Seriously Jesus? You want me to love my enemies? To do good to those who hate me? Like those White Supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK folks? Or those racists, who firebomb churches or attend a Bible Study, pull out a gun and murder all those in attendance? How about those folks who mock and bully the weak and vulnerable? Or those avaricious money grabbers who rip the sick, the elderly, orphans and widows. You want me to love those people? And as if that’s not enough to ask, you throw in the command to do to others as I would want done to me. I know on this celebration of All Saints we are reminded of our own saintliness, but under the circumstances I’m not sure I can polish my halo to that degree.
Truth be told, I don’t want to do those things. I’d rather see things done to them as they have done to others. You know, that eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth law. Now that’s the ticket. That’s what feels good.
But no Jesus, you need to lob these Kingdom of God rhetorical bombshells into our lives. You have to go and challenge us to examine the values of the world, versus the values of God. I guess you must have read my mind and seen those thoughts that would shame hell.
There is no commandment of Jesus, which has caused so much discussion and debate, nor evoked so much adverse resistance than the call to love our enemies and to be good to those who hate us.
What does it entail to love like that?
Well, for certain Jesus does not mean eros, or erotic, passionate love between two people. And he also doesn’t mean philo, or brotherly/sisterly love that we have for our nearest and dearest friends. What Jesus is speaking of here is agape love. Agape love is a love that sees every person as being created in the image of a loving God, despite how much evil has infected their lives and made them behave in a hateful manner. It is a love that is benevolent: a love that is intentional and causes us to be deliberate in going out of our way to be kind to those who hate us. It is not a love that comes from the heart, but rather a love that is of the will. It is a love that we can only do by the grace of Christ, which empowers us to offer it. But why do it? Why will it in our selves?
In my senior year of seminary I was required to take Canonical Exams so that my Bishop and the Council of Examining Chaplains in the Diocese of Connecticut could determine if I had been adequately prepared in the six major disciplines of theological education. Passing grades were required before I could be approved for ordination. Canonicals were ten straight days of writing and research from 6:00 in the morning until late at night. Section III, Theology Question B. 3. asked this: “If ‘rain falls on the just and unjust alike,’ what necessity is there for being obedient to God?” This scriptural quote finds it origins in Jesus saying that “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
I responded by referring to the Genesis story of creation where on the sixth day, “God declares everything that [God] had made . . . to very good.” So from the very beginning all things God made were declared good. Therefore goodness is the natural state of the creation and it is God’s desire to restore all creation to that original state. Our tradition tells us that evil came into being through human disobedience toward God. But regardless of its origins, evil exists and can be best understood as a disorder and imbalance of human existence (and thereby creation) causing alienation from God.
In order for us to restore the balance and right order of human existence we must respond to God’s deepest desire to renew the original goodness of Creation. And we do this by being obedient and faithful to God’s desires for us, which is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to do to others, as we desire to have done to us. These are part and parcel of restoring the good creation.
My sisters and brothers, these commands are the hard work of obedience and being faithful. No one ever said being a follower of Jesus was easy. But we do it because these commands are compelling reasons to turn all creation away from evil and sinful behaviors. We do it because they are the only way to break the bonds of evil that desires to shackle us and keep the world from God’s intended state. That is why we offer agape love to the most vile of people. The good and the just see that the rain falls upon them and know from whence it comes, and they are nourished by it to continue forward on the road to restoration of God’s good creation. And they pray that in so doing the evil and the unjust will turn toward the good as well.
Ultimately we cannot move toward the fulfillment of justice and righteousness without being obedient to God’s commands.
After Daniel’s horrific visions of the brutality wrought by those four kings upon his people, God reveals to him that the evil times will not endure. “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever,” he is told. (Dan. 7:18) In other words God encourages Daniel and the Jewish people to persevere, assuring them that all will – in God’s time - be well. God does the same for us today. God in Jesus assures us that even in the darkest times, light and love will prevail. Evil can never, ever trump God’s desire for the righteous and all of creation.
In a few moments we will baptize Cecelia Jo, our newest saint in the church. In the Baptismal Covenant her parents and godparents will be asked if they will “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” And they will reply – hopefully! – “I will, with God’s help.” We should hear that question being asked of all of us.
What is critical to remember as we respond in the affirmative is that we renounce those evil powers by loving them, loving them as we want to be loved, loving them as Jesus loves us. In so doing evil is diminished and transformed; and as that happens we draw closer to that time when the rain and the sun fall only on the good and the righteous, because the Creation has been restored to its original goodness. And love wins.
Luke 18: 9-14
Rev. Peter Faass
Whenever I used to get a little too full of myself as a child, a little too proud of how great I was, a little too big for my britches (as they say in some circles) my Dutch maternal grandmother would level a very steely gaze at me and exclaim, doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg. Translation: behave normally, that’s crazy enough!
As I read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector I found myself channeling my grandmother, saying to the Pharisee, doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.
Oy! Is this Pharisee full of himself or what?
Let’s envision this scene. This guy goes to the Temple to pray. So, as we hear his prayer it is important to note that Pharisees – as scholars of the law – took pride in their scrupulous adherence to it. He winds up standing near a tax collector, certainly one of the more despised people in that society. Standing proudly – dare we say arrogantly - he says, “ ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'” Do you know people like this? I don’t mean people who tithe their income; we need more of those! But people who are just so impressed by themselves, how good, smart, generous, pious, etc, etc. etc. they are. And they never loose an opportunity to remind you of it.
Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was a Jew, but he was seen as a traitorous Jew because he worked for the evil Roman Empire. And not only worked for the Empire, but used his position to extort more than the required taxes from people to line his own pockets with. Ethically he was certainly a compromised person. He too goes to the Temple to pray. But his prayer is a complete 180º turn around from that of the pious Pharisee. The tax collector, “would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'’’ He was totally aware of his sinfulness and threw himself completely on God’s mercy.
This parable is directly linked to the one we heard last week about the widow and the unjust judge; they are two pieces of a whole as they are both about prayer. In the case of last week’s parable, Jesus tells us how we are to engage prayer with unrelenting persistence, confident that God will in due time, provide us with what we need.
This week’s lesson is about how we are to approach God in prayer. Jesus uses two polar opposite people to illustrate his point: one at the presumed top of the heap and the other at the presumed bottom of the heap.
Notice that the Pharisee really prayed with himself, not to God. While he did address his prayer to God, his arrogant words reveal that he was completely absorbed in self-congratulations. We can imagine his arms wrapped around himself as he patted himself on the back. Good job!
No person who is proud and full of his or her self can truly pray to God. No person who despises others can authentically approach God in prayer. To do so defies an over-arching theme of the Bible. Proverbs 16:18 states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Well, if pride is leading us toward self-destruction it certainly can’t be leading us to God.
Here is a fact. Those who trust in their own righteousness will always end up regarding others with contempt. You can’t make distinctions – draw a line in the sand – between yourself and someone else and be righteous in the eyes of God. Yet the Pharisee does precisely that with the tax collector.
In Facebook, a colleague posted that his sermon would be based on the parable, “The Pharisee and the Bad Hombre.” Think about it.
The Pharisee is so self-righteous that he ends up disdaining a laundry list of others. And those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace to redeem them.
In prayer we are not to lift ourselves above others. Rather we are called to humility, remembering that we are but one of all humanity who are sinning, suffering, sorrowing people, all coming before the throne of mercy, just like the tax collector did.
While this parable is about prayer, ultimately it is really about our relationship with God.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he states, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2: 12-13).
Friends, it’s enough work to work out our own salvation with God without condemning other people who we believe to be beyond God’s salvation. Let’s leave that to God.
In true prayer, we should be setting our lives besides the life of Jesus. When we set our lives beside that of Jesus the only thing left to pray is “God be merciful to me – a sinner.”
It is critical to do this because as people who are aware of their own need for grace and forgiveness –which is all of us - will not be able to despise other people. Only those who are able to develop empathy for others can receive God's grace. And in that empathy, God’s love and mercy blossoms in our lives.
Pope Francis wrote a book last year titled, “The Name of God is Mercy.” He writes this:
“We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers [and sisters] live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness . . . [we need to reach out to] everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without caving in to the temptation of feeling we are just or perfect. The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are or looking upon the many ‘wounded’ we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy. So we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in our brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam in his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need for repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy Spirit – the Grace of God- acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one.
He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes, when some Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of the sinner when he stands at the threshold, when he [desires to return to right relationship with God.]”
My sisters and brothers, Pope Francis beautifully describes how God’s merciful embrace works in our lives. And that grace comes to us through our humble prayers before God, which nurtures the growth of empathy for all humanity. In that prayer we each feel God’s merciful embrace and we are moved to see all other persons with compassion and give them that holy embrace as well. In that prayer our lives change, because it is in that moment we are transformed and we are able to respond with gratitude to the immense and unexpected gift of God’s grace and mercy to each and every child of God. Just like that tax collector. And that mercy heals the world.
Pope Francis, “The Name of God is Mercy”, Random House: New York, NY, 2016, p. 67-68.
Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16:31
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
Tell me who you think will solve this. Tell me who you think can fix our collective state of being, the status quo of our living that includes as a foundational truth the devaluing and criminalizing of Black and brown bodies to the point of death.
Who do you think can fix this?
Who do you hold responsible for fixing this?
I talk with friends, I follow conversations on Facebook and Twitter, and I read books & blogs on racism, and it’s clear that there are many fixes. There are many good and necessary efforts toward uprooting racism, and truthfully we need every tool at our disposal to uproot racism. People I know and read have a variety of opinions about where to start or which efforts to prioritize:
The police system needs to be overhauled: not because every police officer is problematic, but because the historic foundations of policing are inherently racist and so the system of law enforcement needs revision if it’s going to be proactively anti-racist.
The justice system needs to be exorcised of its demons and redeemed of its biases against Black and brown persons: from public defenders’ offices to the selection of juries to mandatory sentencing laws to the privatization of jails & prisons.
It’s also essential for white folks who to account for our participation in and our unwillingness to stand against racism. More than that, white folks need to talk to white folks about racism, we need to hold each other accountable for our prejudices, we need to teach each other that the white experience is not the only experience. In particular we Christians who are white need to speak up to other white Christians and testify that Christ’s commandment to love one another is at risk if we do any less than work wholeheartedly against personal & systemic racism.
Those are just a few tools and avenues in the work against racism. Where do you look for solutions?
Where and with whom do you place the responsibility for change?
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals,
in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth
and their plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)
In this particular season of American racism, this is what I hear when I read Psalm 146:
Do not put your trust in police systems,
in which there is no help.
Do not put your trust in justice systems,
in which there is no hope.
Do not put your trust in white folks,
in whom there is no hearing.
These are all mortal
and by their mortality, inherently sinful.
When their self-righteous breath departs,
they will return to dust.
Only when they return to dust will their plans perish.
It’s a dismal paraphrase of the psalm, perhaps, but then again several of our scripture readings this morning have a rather hopeless cloud hanging over them – did you notice?
Amos 6 is less than reassuring: “Alas to to you who relax on their couches, who drink a glass of wine, who pause to enjoy a bit of musical harmonization, not minding the suffering outside your doors. You’ll be the first to be punished for the injustices of the world when the LORD finally holds us accountable for failing to love one another.” How bad was the injustice? Amos wrote that the people’s living was so outrageously contrary to God that it was as if they were trying to plow the sea for a harvest. (Amos 6:12)
The thread of biblical misery continues in Luke 16: Jesus tells the parable of a rich man and a poor man who die. In the afterlife, the poor man is waited on by angels while the rich man is tormented by flames. For the first time in his life (and death), the rich man is in need and dependent on someone else for relief. And Abraham, who’s monitoring the whole situation, shrugs and says “Too bad for you.” When the rich man asks if the poor man can be sent with a warning message to the rich man’s brothers, Abraham shrugs again and says, “People don’t really like ghosts.”
Far from a parable of good news, Luke 16 discourages the notion that all will be better if we can just be patient for the sweet by-and-by. To the extent that we look at the pain & suffering, racism & hatred in the world around us and believe that heaven will be the great equalizer, that God’s grace will comfort all who have suffered and cover all who have sinned, Jesus disrupts us in the most strident terms,
“Woe to you who have anything to do with the suffering of another. It would be better to throw yourself into the sea. Otherwise, plan to repent and confess at least seven times a day.” (Luke 17:1-4)
Who do we look to to fix this world of ours?
In what or in whom do we hope against the hopelessness of racism?
If we’re waiting for our sins to turn to dust along with our mortal selves, if we’re waiting for God’s grace to make us all one in the afterlife, Luke’s parable of the rich man and the poor man paints a picture of a judgment day that will feel worse before it feels better.
So then, hoping in heaven seems to be less than a guarantee.
Perhaps we hope just to live a little better, day by day, to keep our priorities grounded in faith according to the admonishments of 1 Timothy 6: to fight the good fight of faith, to hold fast to God’s commandments, to avoid greed, to pursue righteousness. But faith did not save a Black man who was at the wrong end of a police officer’s gun in Charlotte and in Tulsa. Righteous living didn’t save a Black woman who was arrested in Texas for failing to use her turn signal.
God help us, where and in whom are we to place hope?
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD:
the One who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever,
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry;
the One who sets the prisoner free
and opens the eyes of the blind,
the One who lifts up those who are
weighed down and weighted down,
and watches over the stranger;
the One and only LORD
who upholds the orphan and the widow
but ruins the ways of the wicked.
This is the LORD to whom we sing praises
for generations. (Psalm 146)
It is neither easy nor simplistic to say to one another, “Hope in the LORD,” at a time when hope feels so foolish.
But it is all and everything we have.
“Hope in the LORD” is the beginning of our efforts against racism. It is the foundation and motivation for living with love. “Hope in the LORD” compels us to look upward and outward when fear and stress would otherwise draw our shoulders and our spirits inward in self-protection.
“Hope in the LORD” is the rock we cling to at the end of each day, when racism remains even though we are tired. “Hope in the LORD” is the courage we have to sleep, believing that God has dreams still to give us that are more compelling than our nightmares.
“Hope in the LORD” is not a free pass from doing the work. It is not a dismissal of systems from being held accountable. It is the impatience that we will not wait for the princes of Psalm 146 or the rich man of Luke 16 to understand their dust & their sin before we demand the fullness of life. It is the conviction that our own dust & sin must not deplete another’s fullness of life, must not deplete our own full living in unlimited love.
“Hope in the LORD” is not easy but it is a yoke worth bearing — worth sharing and carrying together.
“Hope in the LORD” is a song worthy of singing through eternity.
Friends, let us hope when hope seems hopeless.
It is all we have.
Amos 8:407; Luke 16: 1-13
Rev. Peter Faass
I’d like to speak about two words that have entered the national lexicon in a big way this past week: deplorable (or as it was used, deplorables) and irredeemable. Both terms were used by one of the two major political party presidential candidates in a speech a week ago Friday in reference to supporters of the other major political party presidential candidate, who then demanded apologies. These two words became fodder for the media – and partisan ammunition to stir up our emotions, one way or another.
I know some of you are probably cringing that I am preaching on an issue that has consumed our national political life for the past week. “Please stay out of politics, Peter,” you may be thinking. “This is the church and we should not meddle in that world. We’re not supposed to be political. We are here to save peoples souls not offer commentary on the presidential campaign. Plus, think of the IRS! What if they see us as being partisan and take away our tax-exempt status?”
Well, some of that is correct and some, well, not so much. Yes, we don’t want to risk our tax-exempt status, and of course we are here to save people’s souls, our own included. We are here to bring about God’s reign, which is a place of all souls – without exception - living in harmony as we love one another as God loves us.
Understand this: Our mission to build up God’s reign is why it is imperative for the Church to always offer the Gospel perspective on what is happening in the world (all of it) – and that includes the political realm. Please don’t tell me that Jesus wasn’t political, because he most certainly was! Remember – he was arrested and put to death for sedition against the state. It doesn’t get more political than that.
Let’s start with the word deplorable. It was used to reference to a segment of people in our country whose political sentiments and social leanings are seen by that one presidential candidate as being deplorable. These deplorables include people who hold racist, Islamaphobic, xenophobic and misogynist views – to name a few deplorable beliefs- and want to support and vote for politicians who share these views.
As we have witnessed, it is not just these deplorable beliefs that these particular people want candidates to support, but legislation and enforceable actions as well; legislation and actions that by there very nature increase hatred in our culture and are of such an incendiary nature that they incite violence.
While the use of the term deplorable was awkward and ill advised, it was – the truth be told - accurate, especially when viewed through the lens of the Gospel. These are deplorable views and desires. We are Christians, and it the Gospel lens that Jesus calls us to look through as we steer the course of our life’s journey. Hatred and violence toward people who are different from us, regardless of what that difference is, is not a Christian value – ever. Jesus condemned all hateful beliefs that diminished any human being’s dignity.
With that understanding, this is the hard challenge before us: What’s going to determine how we respond to these deplorable beliefs and those who hold and engage in them? What will command our allegiance: our political affiliation or our Christian faith? As Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, “No [one] can serve two masters; for [you] will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Well, neither can you simultaneously serve God and whatever political ideology you hold. If you try to do so you will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Who are you going to love?
If we are to truly follow Jesus, we must serve God and the values of His reign first and foremost. We must not serve our political affinities, especially when the values tolerated by our political affinity have become beliefs that unequivocally defy the values of God and His reign.
Now we come to the word “Irredeemable.” When calling out the beliefs and behaviors of those deplorables, the same major presidential candidate also stated that because of their beliefs, that they were irredeemable. In other words, so heinous are these deplorable beliefs and behaviors that these persons are beyond redemption, beyond salvation. Well, no, that is absolutely not true when we look through the lens of the Gospel. The Christian faith believes that there is no person or behavior that people engage in which is irredeemable.
In one of the Good Friday anthems, we profess that “O Savior of the world, who by your cross and precious blood has redeemed us.”
That means all of us, without exception.
In the Nicene Creed, we profess that “for us and our salvation [Jesus] came down from heaven.” Not some of us, all of us, and maybe even especially so for those folks who hold values antithetical to God’s reign.
The entire purpose of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, was to redeem and save all Creation... every last person, every last iota of it. Jesus’ life and ministry relentlessly worked proclaimed that goal. In the three parables (the lost coin, the lost sheep and the Prodigal Son) we discussed last week, God relentlessly works to redeem whom and what others believed were irredeemable.
Many of us believe that there are, in fact, people – lots of them - who are beyond redemption. We roll our eyes or shrug our shoulders with disbelief when Jesus forgives prostitutes, adulterers, extortionists and most poignantly, those who crucified him even as he hung upon the cross. We believe them to be irredeemable. By believing that, we also believe two things that defy the faith we profess to hold:
When we profess to see life through the lens of the Gospel, but still believe that there are irredeemable and deplorable people in the world, it certainly is dispiriting. Mercifully and thankfully, it is not irredeemable. Such is God’s grace.
As we encounter more bizarre speech and behavior in this election, never forget that the word of God we receive through Jesus Christ is not some archaic, meaningless text without practical application to our current times and in our lives. It is a living, vibrant word that can heal what drives this dysfunctional election and the brokenness so many people feel, which causes them to fear and hate and hold deplorable views of all kinds.
None of us need to hold fast to deplorable beliefs when we strive to follow Jesus. None of us, or the circumstances we find ourselves in, are irredeemable and beyond God’s passionate desire to heal and love us. Ever.
My sisters and brothers, we need to decide. We can’t serve two masters. We need to choose either God or deplorable beliefs. Who are we going to love?
Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
At our Wednesday morning Bible Study, some students mentioned that the parables of Jesus had lost their relevancy because they were too agrarian with all their sheep, seeds, stalks of wheat, soil and fish metaphors. Some folks thought we needed to contemporize the parables to make them punchier and more meaningful. Here’s a new version for one of today’s parables that might better resonate with us at Christ Church.
"Which choir director, (with 100 choir members) who loses one tenor, does not leave the 99 sopranos, altos and baritones in the wilderness and go after the one tenor who is lost until she finds him? When she finds him, she lays the tenor on her shoulders and rejoices. When she comes home, she calls the entire congregation saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my tenor who was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one tenor who repents and returns to the choir than over 99 righteous sopranos, altos and baritones who need no repentance.”
The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin are part of a trilogy. Immediately following today’s text is the third in the triad, which is of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The entire trilogy is a set piece whose meaning is found in the first two verses: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The religious authorities are once again grumbling, engaging in the character assassination of Jesus as they seek to disparage him as an immoral person, unfit to be a bearer of God’s message. By doing this, they hope to undermine his reputation and turn his followers against him (Sounds like a political campaign, doesn’t it?). Today, they condemn his association with notorious sinners: Tax collectors, who were Jewish and worked for the Roman Empire; and sinners, who included those who broke the moral laws and those who did not maintain ritual purity as practiced by the Pharisees.
Religious authorities applied the Law harshly, lacking forgiveness, compassion and grace. The authorities were also highly adept in pointing out the inequities of others while boasting of their own purity, often seeing themselves in a perfect relationship with God – and therefore righteous.
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly addressed how exclusionary and hypocritical this belief system was and how it damaged the fabric of society. Jesus disapproved of this behavior in his words and deeds, which was why he intentionally associated and dined with those hated tax collectors and sinners. By doing this, he showed that there is no one, regardless of their sins, real or perceived, who is beyond the love of God. God desires all of us to be in a right relationship with God.
Last Sunday, we baptized baby Sean Alejandro. In the rubrics for the Baptismal liturgy tells us that “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” Once that relationship is established between God and the newly baptized, nothing can break it. I would push that theological envelope even further: I believe that indissoluble bond already exists between God and all humanity – Christian and otherwise, baptized or not. That bond is established by the sheer fact that we are creatures created in the image of a loving God. God loves us and always will love us.
To undergird that message of this indissoluble bond (which is not believed or practiced by the religious authorities), Jesus tells these three parables about being lost and found:
The first two parables start with common daily events in that culture: a shepherd loses a sheep from his flock, and a woman loses one of her ten denari. Notice how these parables emphasize the person’s absolute commitment to find what is lost (By the way, the shepherd and the woman represent God and the sheep and coin, children of God). Action verbs are used for the shepherd and not the sheep: Leave, go after, finds, lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends.
Action verbs are also used in the tale of the woman: Light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, finds, and calls together her friends. The parallels of these stories emphasize the relentless seeking of God, who is committed to find the otherwise hapless lost sheep and the passive lost coin.
No repentance on their part is required (As if sheep and coins can repent!).
A stunning theological conclusion happens in both parables: “there will be more joy in heaven” and “joy in the presence of the angels of God” when what was lost is found. Heaven celebrates when a lost person is found and returned to right relationship with God. These parables reveal a divine point of view that reframes why seeking and finding matter.
Theologian Joseph Fitz Myer puts it well: “Repentance does not take place without the provenience and the initiative of the gracious shepherd.” Repentance finds its origins in God, and it occurs because God took the initiative to affect it.
This truth gets vividly portrayed in the Prodigal Son:
““When [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again. But the father wasn’t listening (Luke 15:20-22).”
The son is far off when his father spots and runs towards him with his arms open to embrace and kiss him. After the father does this, the son begins to repent. The father is so joyful to have his son back that he doesn’t hear his son’s repentance. The son has already been forgiven because he wanted to return to his father. This powerfully tells us that repentance finds its origins in God’s indissoluble love. We aren’t required to repent to receive God’s love. He always loves us.
This parable also results in rejoicing. The son is finely dressed, wearing the family ring, a fatted calf is roasted, and a huge party ensued. Rejoicing when a lost person was found and restored to right relationship with God did not square with the religious practices of Jesus’ time, especially as it occurred before repentance was offered. It frequently doesn’t with our own religious practices as well.
The irony and lesson in these three parables lies in the statement “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”
This was a poignant dig at the religious authorities, who believed in their own righteousness, their own perfectness in the eyes of God. None of us is truly righteous, at least not all the time. All of us get lost now and then. None of us can claim to be better than another: Holier than thou doesn’t fly in God’s reign. These parables point a finger at our religious hypocrisy.
Op-ed writer Nicholas Kristoff recently wrote an article titled, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong Too?” He writes, “One puzzle of the world is that religions often don’t resemble their founders.”
He then quotes Brian McLaren who states, “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”
It is this very behavior that Jesus condemns in the Pharisees and scribes who strayed far from what the Law of Moses intended. Kristoff continues, “[If religion] were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world –and surely Jesus would applaud as well.”
Is Jesus a member of this church? Are we finger pointers at others’ faults or do we embrace those who have been labeled as outside of God’s love? Does Jesus applaud our seeking and finding the tax collectors, the sinners and yes, even the lost tenors and welcoming them as beloved children in the fold of God’s love? When we do that, we hear his applause, we know his love, and the reign of God draws ever closer to us. Then the party begins!
Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14: 25-33
Rev. Peter Faass
Good grief. "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Really? Hate your family, your own life? Does Jesus require us to hate so that we may faithfully follow him?
This is the second time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus called us to behave in bizarre, counter-intuitive ways as Christians. Well, at least on our good days.
He certainly was on a roll. Three weeks ago, Jesus proclaimed to bring fire to the earth and that he was no peacemaker, coming to sow division. Plus, he eagerly awaited that fire to be kindled! Luke’s image of Jesus turns our preconceived notions about him upside-down and inside-out.
I don’t know about you, but I would prefer not to hear about hate, especially from Jesus. The world and our culture are already so overloaded with messages of hate. It seems as if you can’t go online or turn on the television without being washed over by a tsunami of it.
We are confronted by this challenging Gospel message, and the epistle is not an easy out, as it concerns the equally challenging topic of slavery. What’s a preacher to do? Well, examine both because these texts have something valuable to contribute to the way we are supposed to live our life in the world today.
So first Luke. It’s important to know that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, which was a common rhetorical device in his day. Using the word “hate” and saying we have to hate our loved ones, and even our own life in order to follow him, is meant to grab our attention. And hey, it worked!
In this passage, Jesus expects - even demands - undivided loyalty when we choose to follow him. He wants us to seriously think about what that undivided loyalty and fidelity entail. His two stories undergird the meaning. In the first story, a contractor is building a tower; in the second, a king is going to war. Each needs to calculate the cost of their endeavor before embarking on it. These stories compel us to count the cost of what it will truly entail to be faithful followers of him – because the Christian life is expensive, demanding our commitment of resources of time, attention and money.
I’m not talking about calculating the cost of achieving our salvation in this passage. We can’t earn our salvation. That’s been done, completely taken care of by God’s grace alone. Any Lutherans in the congregation thinking I was suggesting works over faith can breathe easily!
This passage is about the cost of discipleship, which includes the image of carrying the cross. By carrying your cross (which is essential for true discipleship), we carry the choices, burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment – a commitment to a way of life that is devoted to bringing the Reign of God. That’s certainly what it meant for Jesus, and for us.
Carrying your cross doesn’t mean bearing a burden that leads to suffering and death. It is working through challenging and sinful situations, so you can achieve the fullness of the precious gift of life you have been given, here and now. The cross always leads to resurrected life in the present.
Luke’s clarion call about carrying your cross is moving past the sinful behavior of tribalism: the tribalism of family; the tribalism of religion; the tribalism of race; the tribalism of gender; the tribalism of economic class; and the tribalism of health status.
In Luke, Jesus picked up the cross of moved beyond tribalism at the very start of his ministry. In chapter four, just as he returns from spending forty days in the wilderness, we are told:
“He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 17; 18-21)
Jesus self-identified as the one Isaiah foretold, the one who would heal all the ailments of the human condition, making us whole. He was the one who would lead us away from our narrow, tribal ways of living and free all people from the shackles of prejudice that enslave the human person, giving them freedom, dignity and respect. He did this unwaveringly and great commitment. That was his cross to bear.
To carry our cross and faithfully follow him, we also must, without wavering, work to free all people from the tribal shackles that enslave them. We must also carry the cross to free ourselves from the tribal shackles that enslave us.
This is why we must hate anything that we give our loyalties to, preventing us from fully picking up our cross. A house divided – with split loyalties – cannot stand. You can’t serve God and mammon. You can’t be half-free and half in bondage. When we follow Jesus, it’s both all freedom and dignity, or it’s nothing.
When we baptize baby Sean Alejandro this morning, we will be reminded of that cross we are asked to carry Christ’s followers when we recite our Baptismal Covenant and commit to respecting the dignity of every human being. We commit to doing this to role model a better way of life for him as he grows into the fullness of Christ. We want a better world for him and all people. We want to build up God’s reign.
And now the letter to Philemon…
Paul’s short letter appealed to a man named Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, who had run away and sought shelter with Paul. Paul converted Onesimus to the Christian faith. Because Paul believes that in Jesus one is no longer slave or free, he desires to move Philemon to a new way of life; a slave-free life. He wants Philemon to carry his cross and free his slave Onesimus, since the Gospel always sets us free when we give up sinful ways of life.
It would cost Philemon to set Onesimus free. The Christian way of life is expensive. Freeing Onesimus would exact a price, and not just in monetary terms. By freeing Onesimus, Philemon’s sense of status and in his relationship with Onesimus would mean that Onesimus would "no longer [be] as a slave but . . . a beloved brother.”
A Biblical commentary I read asked this about the letter to Philemon: “Could it be that Paul is calling his readers (including us) to see every human being through the lens of the gospel message of freedom and dignity, to shine the light of the gospel on every situation and then to listen for how God is still speaking about every cultural practice and in every moral question we face in our communities today?”
We desperately need to see though that gospel lens today. Tribalism is having a resurgence.
New York Times op-ed communist David Brooks wrote this on Friday. “Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider? Are you one of the people or one of the elites? Politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables.”
Defaulting to these crude identity lines based on tribalism is a cancer threatening to destroy our entire culture and world. We have the cure.
But we must pick up that cross and carry it, which means we must choose where our loyalties lie.
The transforming power of the Gospel yearns to shine its redeeming light in a dark world. Are we willing to commit to picking up our cross and follow Jesus, working for the freedom and dignity of every human being?
If we say yes, we will free ourselves of those sinful shackles of tribalism that enslave us. The choice is ours to make. Where do our loyalties lie?