Rev. Peter Faass
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . . Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey . . . But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Whew! Clearly John the Baptist was not an Episcopalian. You brood of vipers! Even in our worst internecine disputes we Episcopalians cloak our anger and disdain for one another in polite language. Bless your heart; did you really think you would be cleansed of sin with your hypocritical life-style?
What about John’s diet? What place-setting fork do you eat locusts with anyway? I wonder what we would do if John showed up in church some Sunday morning?
John the Baptist did not mince his words and he did not cut a proper figure. What he did do was preach the truth in love, which is the point of a prophet’s whole mission. John was fearless. His faith was strong and his trust in God resolute. Whenever John saw evil – in the state, in the established religion, in the crowds that gathered around him - he rebuked it.
When King Herod married his brother’s wife – his brother was not divorced by the way – John railed against the king’s immoral behavior. When the leaders of institutional religion feigned repentance of sins to receive John’s baptism, he called them out on it. Let’ face it being called a viper is not a compliment in any age. If people were living lives that ignored God, John upbraided them.
John’s message can be distilled down to one simple phrase; clean up your act. The Messiah is coming and we have serious work to do to prepare for him.
That work is this: You need to repent of your sins, which means facing the chasm between who you believe you are and who you actually are. It means bringing light to the dark places of your life by asking hard questions of yourself and engaging in the challenging work of amending your life.
John was a light that lit up the dark places, preparing people for the greater light that was coming into the world, so that they could repent and be light themselves. There is no better way to prepare the way of the Lord than that.
In our Collect today we prayed that God “give us grace to heed [the prophet’s] warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer;”
How might we heed the prophet’s warnings, repenting of our own sins and preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ?”
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is St. Nicholas Sunday. St. Nicholas is the predecessor of our American Santa Claus, whose origins are rooted in the New Netherland’s colony and the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is a delightful celebration of gift giving, limerick writing, music, great pastries and conviviality. Yet Sinterklaas is a celebration in need of redemption because it is marred by one very disturbing component that undermines its joyfulness. What mares the celebration is St. Nicholas’ helper Zwarte Piet or Black Pieter. In the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas, the saint comes from Spain and is accompanied by Moorish servants who give out gifts and sweet treats to good children and apply a switch to the bottoms of those who are not good and take them back to Spain. These servants are the Zwarte Piets. This finds its origins in the days when Spain occupied the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. On the face of Zwarte Piet seems harmless enough, at least to many people.
The problem with the Piets is that they are white people in black face, whose lips are exaggerated with bright red lipstick. The Piets also don frizzy haired wigs, gold earrings and harlequin outfits and they act like simpletons. In other words the Piets are white, colonialist era, caricatures of Africans.
We are familiar with this depiction of Blacks in American history, which is rife with similar imagery. I am reminded of this watching the 1940’s film Holiday Inn where the white actors perform the Lincoln’s Birthday skit in black face. Watching this scene makes me cringe. How could Whites have been so callous, I think? Yes, it was a different era, but still.
In some ways, Americans have made progress with our racism. And clearly, as we have poignantly discovered over the past several years, we have made very little progress indeed. The Dutch find themselves in the same predicament. Some folks understand that this racist caricature is wrong, while others are adamant that it is not, claiming that Piet is an integral part of Dutch culture.
This camp insists Piet is not a racist depiction. He is black from the soot he acquires when he comes down the chimney, they protest. This is a disingenuous argument as the Piets are already black when they arrive in the country with St. Nicholas three weeks before the holiday. This argument is also undermined by the fact that the Piets clothes are immaculate; only their face and hands are black. Let me ask you; who goes down a chimney without getting their clothes dirty?
Many protest – sometimes violently - the racism charge, saying Zwarte Piet is an innocent part of a children’s holiday. They believe no harm is done; that’s it just plain fun. They accuse those who make that claim of racism as are being politically correct.
I will observe that it is almost to a person only White people who defend Piet. The large Black Surinamese population in the Netherlands have protested Zwarte Piet as have a growing number of Whites. But many Blacks have also been cowed into not being too outspoken for fear of retribution.
A New York Times Op-Ed piece several years ago, prominent Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, said this: “Until recently, Black Pete was uncontroversial. Not because the Dutch are particularly racist, but because Sinterklaas, like the royal family, is sacred in the Netherlands, perhaps because of a dearth of other, specifically Dutch traditions. A matter, in other words, of conservatism . . . [but the Sinterklass tradition is] even more important [to the Dutch] today, given the view that, in order to safeguard the Dutch national identity, homegrown culture and folklore must not be tampered with — a view expressed primarily, though not exclusively, by the extreme right wing [and I would observe xenophobic] Party for Freedom . . .
As the defense of traditions has grown stronger, so has the criticism that Black Peter is a racist holdover from the Netherlands’s colonial past. In January 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government stating that Black Peter perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens and constituted a “living trace of past slavery.” This year, many municipalities are banning the black face, opting instead for either rainbow Piets or White Piets with a simple smudge or two of soot.
The irony imbedded in this controversy is that the Netherlands is a nation with enormous pride in its rich history of tolerance and acceptance for the marginalized and persecuted peoples of the world. According to the historian Russell Shorto, the country is arguably the birthplace of Western liberalism. Yet the Netherlands is clearly a place where there is a chasm between what much of the population believe they are and who they actually are. There is a dark, blind spot – one of profound Pharisaic hypocrisy – that needs a prophet’s refining fire to redeem it.
Why do I tell you about this controversy in another country 4,000 miles away? You might think it is because of my own Dutch ethnicity. That certainly drives me. I am ashamed by this obdurate refusal to see the unrepentant sinfulness of the continued defense of Zwarte Piet.
But more importantly I relay this issue to you because the Zwarte Piet issue has undeniable parallels to the use of the Chief Wahoo symbol by the Cleveland Indians; an issue we continue to struggle with here in this city.
Defenders of the Chief Wahoo emblem use many of the same arguments made by those Dutch defending Zwarte Piet. It is innocent and harmless fun, they say. There is no racist intent it’s just a caricature. It is an integral part of our history, our culture, and our identity. Those who think otherwise are just being politically correct.
As in the Netherlands, Clevelanders supporting Chief Wahoo are mostly White. My sisters and brothers, the attitudes of those who defend Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo are dark places that need the light of the Gospel shone on them to illumine them for what they are: institutional racism.
Preserving an emblem that causes pain, discomfort and offense to people who are Black or Native American is wrong. If protecting one's cultural heritage requires offending and thereby diminishing the inherent value of another group of people, it is not worth conserving. Because of that, Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo need to be tossed into the dustbin of bad history. To say that is not to engage in political correctness, it is to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is take the Gospel seriously.
We are called to be voices in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Today, in our own culture that call to prophetic action becomes increasingly urgent as the diminishment and hatred for others rears its ugly head and threatens the wellbeing and human rights of many. As in the times of John the Baptist, God calls us to speak the truth in love about sinful, dark behaviors that threaten this nation- even if it means offending people, even if it means literally putting ourselves on the line - especially with those who refuse to confront their own sinfulness. This may mean we need to start with ourselves.
Advent is about preparing our lives for God who, taking human form, became one of us, to help us recognize and repent of our sins, and to learn to care for each other – particularly the most vulnerable and despised among us.
May we as followers of the One we prepare to receive into our hearts this Christmas, do just that, beginning here and now.
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.
Rev. Peter Faass
This evening we honor Richard Hooker, one of the great Anglican Divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Now while the term Anglican Divines may conjure up images of a 1960’s singing trio, "ala Diana Ross and the Supremes," they were actually a group of extraordinary theologians who helped develop Church of England doctrine and polity in those tumultuous years following the Protestant Reformation –whose 500 anniversary is next year – and Henry VIII’s schism from Rome.
Along with Hooker, the Divines included such lofty thinkers as John Donne, George Herbert, and William Laud. If I were ever asked that classic question of “Who in history would you invite to a dinner party if you could only ask four people, these guys would be my “A” list!
Hooker was especially influential during the reign of Elizabeth I, a woman one of my Church History professors at General Seminary fondly referred to as “our foundress.”
Elizabeth came to the English throne after her two half siblings, Edward VI and Mary Tudor’s brief but violent reigns on the throne. Their common father Henry had been little interested in the details of the Church other than who was in charge of it so that he could obtain a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn, and who had control of the Church’s considerable wealth, especially that of the monasteries. His son Edward on the other hand was strongly influenced by the Continental Protestant reformers. When he came to the throne at Henry’s death, Edward and his court advisors clearly steered the English Church in a decidedly Protestant direction. Because he was sickly, Edward’s reign was short. At his death the throne went to Mary, a devout and ardent Roman Catholic. She steered the Church back to Rome, but not without some considerable conflict and bloodshed. Edward’s and Mary’s were a bloody period in English history between the Protestant and Roman factions. Mary was ruthless and hung and burned at the stake hundreds of Protestants. We have her to thank for that adult beverage known as the Bloody Mary; something to chat about the next time you’re at brunch.
Mary too reigned briefly. No one is quite sure why she died, although court intrigue through history would have us believe that her Protestant detractors slowly poisoned her with a touch of arsenic in her afternoon tea.
When Elizabeth gets to the throne, England is in chaos, threatened to be rent asunder by religious conflict. By then, it had grown worse as not only was it between Protestants and Catholics but between the extreme Puritan sect who loathed Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church of that day, and between the Roman Catholics who loathed that same Anglican Church as well as the Puritans.
Elizabeth – an astute leader – realized that in order to save the nation she needed to quell this religious dissent. So she charged her Divines, primarily Hooker, to come up with a theology, doctrines and polity that would subdue the dissent. What Hooker and his associates came up with was something called The Elizabethan Settlement, which was really the document and act of Parliament that established the Church of England as we have received it in our day.
There are two important components of this new doctrine that are specific to Hooker. One is the understanding that Anglicans would make decisions about their faith based on scripture, tradition and reason. This is the famous three-legged stool of Anglicanism still used to determine how we will live as a Communion to this day. The second was the doctrine of the via media, Latin for middle way. Via media is a term of apologetics or theological reasoning. The idea of a middle way, was a brilliant concept developed by Hooker to forge a way forward between the papalist Roman Catholics and the radical reformers who threatened to destroy England in Elizabeth’s time. And it worked. Through Elizabeth’s leadership ad force of will and Hooker’s finding a theological methodology to bring the dissenting parties together, England’s religious wars subsided and the nation came to be one of the great powers and empires of the world.
Now the via media is not just some sort of process of compromise. It is not a wimpy, milquetoast dilution of one’s passions or beliefs. Ideally via media is a process of deep listening to and caring about what those you differ with are about. It is about more than just arbitration or negotiation; it is about hearing how God’s voice is present in even the most fractious of debates; religious and otherwise. It is also about mutual respect and a desire to move forward together discerning how God may be at work creating a new thing that will bring us together and not divide us. Which is the whole point about God’s work in Jesus among us, I would observe. Via media is finding the way between extremes. Yes, it may be a letting go of something, but that is done for the greater good. With the understanding that we are stronger and better as a person, a people, a religious faith, a nation and a culture when we can stand united and not in enmity or worse, bloodshed. As a priest I know once described it, via media is not some narrow path, it is a broad highway of multiple lanes embracing as many people in it as it can as it moves forward together.
Just as in Edward, Mary and Elizabeth’s time, we live in a time of great chaos and enmity; a period of horrific divisions and the fear of violence in our nation. Fear and hatred of others is rife. An ugly and frightening monster has been awakened and unleashed in this nation, most especially in this presidential election cycle. The threat of civil unrest is a real one and it is an unrest that could destroy our precious values and us as a people of liberty and justice for all. Early 21st century America is feeling a lot like sixteenth century England.
We would be wise to see Richard Hooker’s great doctrine of the via media as a way to help us address the situation we find ourselves in today. Patient listening, mutual respect for the other, a willingness to let go so we can find something new and better and a desire to move forward in unity is the only way we will heal the divisions that threaten us. And in so doing we will become that great, multi-lane highway, embracing all nations, peoples, creeds and races, which is not only an American ideal, but God’s as well.
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 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?
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.