He Loves Us So
Betrayal by his friends and colleagues, condemnation by the community that raised him, scorn and mockery, taunting and humiliation, torture, an excruciating execution, and finally death. As we reflect on this, our Lord’s Passion, the thing that seems most important is that question why did he do it?
The answer may seem familiar to you, but I’d like to take the time to tell the story of the answer to this question as it played it out in my own life. And it’s my prayer that something in this story will resonate with you today.
It was late spring/early summer in my little town of Berrien Springs in rural Michigan. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, but if you had the chance to see me that day, I suspect that you would have assumed that the sky was slate gray from the brooding, stormy, look on my face. I had a copy of the complete works of William James in my hand (I was in college), and I was seriously thinking about throwing this Christianity thing in the garbage and becoming perhaps a religious skeptic like James was. Because I realized that the Church I loved didn’t really love people like me.
To be a gay college student in a rural Midwest Christian college town, is very challenging. Especially if you were a Theology major, which I was at the time. But it didn’t bother me much at first. I’d grown up in a very unique version of conservative Christianity that my whole family had, in one way or another, dedicated their lives to for generations. And I fully expected to continue in their footsteps. When it slowly dawned on me in High-School that I was “one of those”, people, I thought to myself that as long as I followed the rules of our denomination, which was if you’re gay don’t be in any relationships, I was fine. So I’d just ignore that part of life, and get on with the rest of it. A recent Presidential candidate who grew up not 20 minutes south of where I lived in a similar climate didn’t come out of the closet until he was 34! And I definitely planned to exceed that example.
It was fine, for a while. But as the controversy about whether gay relationships were valid heated up in my denomination, and the topic of gay Christians started to be discussed more and more on my college campus, I began to realize that what I believed didn’t just affect me and my personal life, it affected the lives of all of the other people around me. The people I was hoping to minister too. I also realized that in regions of the world where people who thought like my Church did had more influence in the political process, being gay was illegal. People went to jail. Were being tortured and beaten, even killed. Just for who they were. And the reasons given for this brutal treatment were often the same arguments that my Denomination made for why they were against gay relationships. In some of these countries, the people making these arguments were members of my own church.
I began to realize that these teachings caused harm, but, even more significantly, I began to realize that we didn’t HAVE to teach these things. We were choosing to interpret and apply the Bible in ways that were causing people unnecessary harm, for reasons that had nothing to do with science or facts, but only a conviction, that a group of people were inferior to others. And realizing that the Church that I loved, that had taught me to love others, to be just and honest and true and good, and fight for the oppressed, and stand up to things that caused others harm. That this Church that I had dedicated my life to could be involved in anything like that. It broke me.
I realized for the first time that my Church wasn’t safe for me or people like me. And if my church wasn’t safe, what Church was? Maybe Christianity was too dangerous a faith to be a part of. Maybe all religion was. This is where I was at that sunny day, as I wandered the roads of my little town.
But as I walked along the road a song started playing in my head:
“Jesus, blood, never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus blood, never failed me yet, this one thing I know, that he loves me so”.
Again and again that song penetrated my head and my heart. I repeated it over and over as I walked along the road. I thought about all the good things God had done for me and my family through the years. All the miracles wrought, all the strength our faith had given us, all the love we experienced as members of this flawed, broken, but spirit infused body of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I reflected on the One who chose, of His own free will to become incarnate by the virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified died and was buried for me and for you and for everyone. And I looked up at that sunny sky and I said: “Jesus, I know who you are. You would never give up on me, so I won’t give up on you”.
I made a lot of changes in my life after that. But as you can see, I’m still here, in the Christian faith, because of this night when God, who so loved the world, gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. That’s John 3:16. 1 John 3:16 says: “We know love by this that he laid down his life for us”.
So why did Jesus suffer all of these things? Why did he die, such an ignominious death? And why does it matter? It matters because every time we hear this story on Good Friday, we remember once again about Christ’s love that can change our lives and transform our world into the paradise of love and friendship that it was always meant to be.
The God We Need, Not The God We Want
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
There’s a Holy Week prayer that states, “O Holy Jesus, we remember that many who claimed you as King on Palm Sunday shouted ‘Crucify’ on Friday.”
What caused the crowds who hailed Jesus with their wildly enthusiastic Hosanna’s on Palm Sunday to turn against Jesus so that they wanted him dead and gone by Good Friday?
Those sage theologians Mick Jagger and Keith Richards offer some crucial insight into this question when they sing:
“You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
The Rolling Stones would have understood what the crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and Good Friday did not: that in Jesus they were not going to get what they wanted, but in Jesus they would end up getting what they needed.
You see the crowds who hailed Jesus as King, waving palm branches and throwing down their cloaks before him, did so because they wanted a Messiah who would lead them to overthrow the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior, a mighty leader of King David’s lineage. As the events of Holy Week unfolded and Jesus did not so much as lift a finger to organize an insurrection, (in fact he prevented any violence on the part of his followers,) these same crowds came to the realization they were not going to get the Messiah they wanted. And so, in their eyes he was a failure, a disappointment and they turned on him. By Friday those who had proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” were screaming for Jesus’ blood. When Pilate presented the arrested Jesus to the crowds saying, “Here is your King!” the crowds cried out, “Away with him! Crucify him!” (Jn. 19:14c, 15a)
William Temple, one of the great Archbishop’s of Canterbury once said, “If you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are, the worse it is for you - it were better for you to be an atheist.”
That’s the lesson we can learn from the crowds in Jerusalem that final week of Jesus’ life. False images of God always lead to huge disappointment for those who see themselves as being religious. Our false ideas of God will lead us to believe that God has failed us, because we don’t get what we want.
But it doesn’t only lead to disappointment; the failure of our false images can incite people to resentment, hatred, revenge, betrayal and violence. Not getting the god we want infuses people with hideous ugliness.
Look at the current debate in the public square with voices of progressive Christians rising up against right-wing Evangelicals who have created a god they want; a god of hatred, exclusion, and even violence, but deny the God they need, which is the one and only God, the God of radical inclusion, non-violence and love. And as we have witnessed, when political leaders follow the gods they want, it leads not only to bad public policy, but an endangered society. When the false god you want encounters the God you need, things can get very ugly.
Which god do we profess? The one we want or the one we need? The one we pray, “thy will be done” to, or the one we say, “my will be done” too.
When we don’t get what we want, when things do not turn out the way we desire, when we believe God doesn’t answer our prayers, or at least doesn’t answer them in the way we want, we ask “Why?”
I am sure the people who wanted Jesus to lead an insurrection against Rome and instead got a non-violent, pacifist, asked “Why?”
“We thought you were the one. Why did you fail us? Why did you let yourself get arrested? Why didn’t you fight, draw swords? Why did you have to die on a cross? The Messiah’s not supposed to get crucified.”
I know plenty of people who struggle with serious doubts and even have left their faith behind because they keep asking God similar “why” questions. Why did this person have to die? Why do I have cancer? Why do millions go hungry every day? Why did I loose my job? And when they do not get the answer they want their faith crumbles, some even leave their faith, even calling it false. Oddly enough this fulfills Archbishop Temple’s observance that they would be better of being an atheist. But is what they need still present in the God they think has failed them?
The truth is, God is not absent when the why questions come up in life. We just get focused on what we want that we fail to see the presence of the God we need.
Jesus also had his moments when it all didn’t make sense to him. Moments of fear, doubt, feeling abandoned by God as he endured some of the worst “why” evoking treatment any human being could imagine. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed to God, “If it be possible let this cup pass from my lips. Never the less, not my will, but your will be done.” In that plaintive prayer we understand that Jesus can’t get what he wants, because if he did, we would not have the Messiah we need.
Brian McLaren writes this about Jesus in Gethsemane: “Jesus is trusting God. He believes that, whatever happens, God can turn it for good. I have tried, but I have never succeeded in imagining a trust more naked and pure than this.” McLaren says.
In the midst of facing unspeakable suffering, pain, humiliation, abandonment and death, Jesus trusts God.
His is an incomparable witness of being the Messiah we need, not the one we want. And he does this for us.
On the night before he died, at that last meal with his disciples, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given . . . for you.”
And he says this to people for whom he was the biggest disappointment: the man who would betray him, the man who would deny him three times before the morning dawned, the men who would run from him like so many rats deserting a sinking ship when he was arrested.
“This is my body, which is given . . . for you.”
And he gave his body for us as well. Everything Jesus endures – including our false ideas of who he should be - he does for us so that we might have life and light and hope in his name: Even for those who profess the false gods we want, even for those who are disappointed in him; even for those who have abandoned him; even those who no longer believe.
My sisters and brother, if you try to get to Easter without going through Good Friday you end up with a false god. You may believe that to be a perpetually happy god who will make you always feel good. But ultimately, that god will let you down and let you down hard. Because of your pain, fears, and uncertainties this happy god may be the one you want, but that god has no ability to provide you with hope or light or new life; only of temporarily forgetting your problems. This is a god who is an escape from reality, a god who anesthetizes you with false promises. That god is impotent. That god has no ability to turn the worst that life will bring you into anything good. This is not a god to place our trust in. Although you may want this god, you don’t need this god.
That’s the lesson of Holy Week. In all it’s myriad events we witness the God we need: the authentic God of compassion and forgiveness and radical love, the God who comes to know our human pain and suffering – (who bears the scars of our wounds) and who then over-comes it all - including death itself - through love.
Trusting in God’s desire to bring good out of all things, Jesus got to Easter. In Jesus we get the God we need. We get the God who actually saves us from those false gods. Because of that with Jesus we too will get to Easter and new, resurrected life. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Do any of you know people who are perpetually looking for something to be aggrieved about? You know the type: the person who, regardless of how good or joyful something is, will always, always find something is wrong with it, and then be affronted. I call these folks the “champagne-de-bubblers”: people who get a lovely flute of French champagne and commence to take a stir rod and vigorously mix it, removing all the glorious effervescence. Leaving it flat and lifeless.
The older son in this parable of the two sons and the father, is definitely a “champagne-de-bubbler.” He is aggrieved and deeply affronted by how his father welcomes his prodigal son home. He expects dad to punish and even disown his younger son, casting him back into the wilderness of famine and destitution, but instead dad gives him a hoe-down and beef barbeque, welcoming the younger son back with great joy.
Okay, I get it. This parable rubs you the wrong way. It gets your hackles up. It’s up there with that dissonant parable of the workers in the field, who regardless of how many hours they have labored under the hot sun, doing back-breaking work, all get paid the same wage by the field owner. It’s not fair, it’s not just, we think. Merit counts, and the longer we work the more we should be compensated.
I know many of us will hear this parable of the reprobate younger son and think the same thing: Merit counts and of course the older son is aggrieved because he has worked hard, is obedient, and loyal to his father, and then he – in his mind’s eye - gets nothing. Bubkes, as they say in the Yiddish. In the meantime, the greedy, debauched, wasteful, and disloyal younger son, who has frittered away a large portion of the family patrimony, has the chutzpah to come back home, hat-in-hand, looking for food and shelter.
The older son has every right, we think, to be aggrieved and angry with his father. We would feel the very same way, if faced with a similar situation. And we would be just and right to do so.
Except this parable isn’t about what we believe is right and wrong. It is not about our retributive concept of justice.
This parable – as are all the parables of Jesus - is about relationships. It is about how will we treat another person who has behaved badly? Will we forgive as we have been forgiven? Will we love as we have been loved?
Or will we default to the ways of the world and bear grudges, seek vengeance, be aggrieved, shunning or disowning people we see as being in the wrong, and in the process make them an exile, putting them out of the family, out of the community?
All too often in situations where we see someone behaving contrary to what we understand as being right and just, we demand our rights. Because, well, we have rights! And we place those rights, (and their attendant feelings) over and above our relationship with others. We see our rights as being first and foremost.
Yet is this true for God? Let’s look more closely at this story.
The younger son has asked for his relationships to be healed. He knows he has broken his relationships with his father and family by his disgraceful behavior. He has violated all that was sacred in family and community bonds. He knows this, and so does not even ask to be restored to filial privileges, to have his rights as a blood heir recognized. What he says is, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
He didn’t ask for forgiveness, because even he believes his actions as being beyond it. He merely confessed. He’s just looking for enough to eat so he doesn’t starve. He’s not seeking grace. Yet to his surprise, he receives it. Abundantly.
And the father? Well, before he even hears the younger son’s confession, he jumps up and runs toward him.
“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Dad didn’t even have to hear a word uttered. It is enough to see his son who had broken relationship with him, and all that was valuable to the family, return home. The father’s response is more than the son could ever had dreamed of. Because right relationship is paramount in God’s family.
Now look at the older son. He feels that the relationship between the younger son and the family have be irreparably damaged. That based on his values of right and wrong, the younger son is beyond redemption. He represents all of us who think this way as well. We who live by human precepts of justice and merit, and place our pride, fueled by our rectitude, over and above restoring relationship, healing divisions, and offering grace. The parable shows that those who live by these standards can never know the joy of grace. They can’t hoe-down and party, enjoying great barbeque, when others receive the grace we would deny them.
You know, when you have siblings, you cannot be a daughter or a son, without being a sister or a brother, as well.
Several years ago, my sister chose to become estranged from me. I’m not sure of the exact reasons because she refused to speak with me, despite my imploring her to do so, repeatedly. She was going through her second divorce at the time and I was coming into a good relationship, which may have been a partial reason for her distancing. But I’m not really sure, and all I can do is speculate. I suspect the reasons are complex – at least for her -and therefore difficult to articulate. Our distance has grown over the years. Initially there was some contact, with greeting cards exchanged at holidays and birthdays. And then those just stopped when a birthday card from me to her came back marked as undeliverable. Since then I have learned – thank you, Google – that she lives in Florida. From what I can glean it’s not a great life she is living. Although I am very mindful that’s my subjective older brother viewpoint. It may not be hers.
We are one of two siblings and the only remaining living members of our family. Because of this, the loss of the relationship seems enormous. We have no other family. We are it and we are what we’ve got. And so the broken relationship is not pretty, at least for me. In fact, it’ s often painful. I think about my sister every day. And my emotions about the estrangement run the gamut. I am frequently disappointed and sad. Sometimes I feel aggrieved, as if a great injustice has been visited on me. At other times, especially at holidays and celebrations, I feel lonely. And occasionally the breach induces anger and resentment within me. Look at all we’re missing, I think. Life’s runway is short and getting shorter. How painful would our estrangement be to our deceased mother.
I share this personal experience with you because I know many – maybe all – of us have similar circumstances in our lives; where we are estranged, for whatever reason, from someone who we once held close. Who we had bonds of relationship with. And then circumstances occurred where something was done to betray that relationship. It could be with a sibling, a parent, a formerly beloved friend, whomever.
And the temptation in these situations to respond by being the older brother in the parable - to feel aggrieved and angry and resentful – is powerful. It is a temptation to reciprocate the separation and to tell ourselves, just wait until I have a chance to get even. Just wait until she comes to her senses and calls and comes to visit and I have an opportunity to bring my human understanding of what is right and wrong, my values of what justice is, to bear upon her.
It’s mighty tempting, and of course as a person of faith, I know it’s wrong. Because I have a sister and I need to be her brother, if the opportunity presents itself, to be back in right relationship with her.
So, my prayer is that if she stops ignoring and rejecting me I will be the father in the parable. That I will have the grace to offer grace if she does come home, and that I will not even wait to hear what she has to say to me to give her that grace because love requires no confession or restitution. I pray I be filled with compassion and run out as fast as my legs can carry me to embrace and kiss her. And then I will make a reservation at Fire or L’Albatros and order up champagne and a great feast to celebrate, because at this juncture of my journey I know the relationship is everything.
And I pray that the older brother, always lurking inside of me, will join in the celebration and not stay outside pouting and feeling wronged. Because to do so is to cast myself into the outer darkness.
And I pray the same for you all in your broken relationships, as well. That you find the will within you the desire to offer grace and not be aggrieved if the opportunity presents itself that you can be reconciled. That you be compassionate and not spiteful. That you enter the party and eat and dance your butt off.
When the opportunity presents itself to heal our broken relationships may our response be to emulate the father’s joy, because that is the joy of heaven. It is the joy of the lost come home, and there is nothing sweeter to God, and hopefully to us.
God, Sin, and Punishment
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Our Gospel lesson from Luke today is in three parts. The first two are about a Roman slaughter of Galileans by Pontius Pilate, and of a tower collapsing and killing eighteen people. They are events that seem to be well known to Jesus and his audience, but regretfully not recorded in any extant documents so that we can verify them. The third part is a parable about a fig tree, a topic Jesus uses on several occasions in the Gospels.
Parts one and two make clear that people attributed these tragic events to acts of an angry God against people who had sinned.
“At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’” (Luke 13:1-)
It was a deeply held belief in the Judaism of that time that sin lead to suffering. This belief of sin leading to punishment found its origins in Moses and the Ten Commandments. In Exodus Moses tells the people, “The Lord [is a] God merciful and gracious and slow to anger . . . but by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:6b, 7b) In other words not only is sin equated with suffering, but its stain carries from one generation to another. People suffered for the sins of their forbearers. Just like Christian theology long held that the original sin of Adam and Eve is passed onto all successive generations.
Yet, centuries after Moses, the Prophet Jeremiah dismisses this harsh and difficult belief. Offering hope for the restoration of Judah after the decimation the Hebrews had suffered during the exile, Jeremiah proclaims to the people, “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” (Jer. 31:29-30)
So, there was a theological split in Judaism, with some Jews believing that your sins, and the sins of your ancestors, would result in personal malady or even death. With other Jews seeing sin as something one was personally responsible for. Regardless, both camps saw a correlation of sin inciting God to bring harm, illness and even death in a person’s life.
Jesus confronted this belief on several occasions. In the Gospel of John Jesus is about to heal a blind man. His disciples ask of him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn. 9:2 NIV) Jesus replies, “"Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” (Jn. 9:3)
The connection between sin and bad behavior by you or your parents, resulting in some tragic punishment by God was one that Jesus said was not true.
God doesn’t cause life’s calamities. If humans die by the sword or accident or natural disaster it is not because God has arbitrarily chosen to punish them for their sins.
Those Galileans were not killed because of their sins. They were brutally murdered by the Romans. Which is definitely sinful behavior on the Roman’s part. The Tower of Siloam did not fall and kill eighteen people because God punished them for their sins. It fell because it was either weakened from an earthquake, or more likely, poorly constructed – maybe with watered down mortar to save money by an unscrupulous contractor. Which again was definitely sinful behavior on his part.
The Muslims at worship in their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last week did not have their blood mingled with the sacrifice of their prayers because, as some egregiously postulate, their faith is sinful. They were murdered by a deluded, hate-filled, white supremacist whose deology and faith are so deranged and distant from the ways of God, it caused him to engage in the heinous sin of taking human lives.
God did not cause these events.
We need to stop blaming God for all of life’s ills. We need to take responsibility – both individually and corporately – for the sinful behaviors we engage in and visit upon others. Of “what we have done and what we have left undone,” as the Confession states. And we need to make amendment of life to correct our sinfulness. In other words, we need to repent. God is totally about all these things, especially repentance and returning to right relationship with God.
This is why Jesus adds the story of the fig tree to the references of the two tragic events. God is the God of redemption, of second and more chances. God gives even an unfruitful fig tree another chance to produce good fruit. You see the tree’s unfruitfulness indicated it was not in right relationship with God. Yet it gets another chance to repent of its unproductive, sinful ways and amend its life to live in relationship with God, as God desired it too.
Let me paraphrase the “God is still speaking” slogan used by our friends in the United Church of Christ. God is still calling; God is still calling us to repent and amend our lives from our sinful behaviors. God does this by using the manure of forgiveness. But that opportunity for repentance is not infinite. Which is why Jesus is so insistent, even strident, for us to engage in repentance. There is a final judgement, and how we have lived our lives matters.
As we repeatedly hear in Advent, none of us knows the hour when the final judgement will occur. There is ultimately a final chance, and then no chance, we just don’t know when. This means every day we have to live as though the next thing we do is our one last chance to put things right- to reject our sins - before the judgement comes. There really is no hedging our bets here. God is the ultimate bookie and knows the odds way better than we do. If we refuse to change despite God’s repeated appeals, there comes a day when we are shut out. Not by God, mind you, but by our own deliberate choices.
Just ask those five foolish virgins in the parable how that feels!
And our own deliberate choices impacts us corporately as well as individually. Communities of faith, cultures, political ideologies, and nations are not exempt. Israel as a religion and as a nation-state repeatedly confronted this truth. We are all called to turn away from sinful things that violate God’s purposes such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation of others. We are called to repent and turn towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God, and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, care of the most vulnerable, and showing compassion and respect to all people.
The nation and its leaders who choose the wrong way will suffer. And make no mistake about this, we are living that painful reality right now. People are suffering because of sinful behavior, idolatry, lack of compassion, apostacy and a blatant, thumb-your-nose attitude toward any desire for repentance from these sins. But judgement will come. We can rest assured of that. And righteousness will prevail. We can rest assured of that, as well.
Repent. Live your life as if today was your last. Turn away from the assumptions, attitudes and actions of sinfulness, and live into the values and practices of the Realm of God as taught by Jesus. Your life depends upon it.
The Devil Is In The Details!
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Last week Saturday, Anthony and I went to the Kurentovanje festival in Cleveland. Kurentovanje is a Slovenian celebration that occurs before Lent and is meant to drive away winter. The reality is that the festival is an excuse to gather Slovenians and wanna-be Slovenians together, to eat delicious Slovenian sausages and pastries, drink Lasko beer, and dance to fabulous polka music. So, if winter isn’t exactly driven away, at least you can forget about it for a while as you party.
The centerpiece of the festival are Kurenti, which are creatures that originate in the Slovenian Alps. When they appear in these pre-Lenten days winter is supposed to flee in fear. The problem is that Kurenti are not very fearsome and are in fact pretty lovable, resembling large walking haystacks with cow bells attached on their waist. It is when they swing their hips, making those clanging cow bells ring, that winter is supposed to flee from the sound. So adorable are the Kurenti, most people I saw that day fled toward them, wanting to engage them in a polka, or taking selfies.
But there were some truly terrifying and evil looking creatures at the Kurentovanje. Outside on an enclosed patio area there was an ice sculpting competition taking. When I opened the door to this patio from the building we were in, I encountered two creatures that so frightened me, I nearly leapt out of my skin. Standing there - enjoying a couple of beers - were two Krampus’s. Krampus is a central European creature of Germanic origins. He usually appears around the feast of St. Nicholas and is meant to frighten children into being good, so that they get treats for the holiday. If they are not good, Krampus drags them into the woods. Pretty frightening stuff. Evidently these two Krampus’s felt that they could be of more use beyond the month of December, and supplement the more gentle Kurenti into frightening winter away.
Have you ever seen a Krampus? Their bodies resemble the Wookie in Star Wars; big, tall and hairy. But their heads. On my gosh, their heads are big half goat, half demon with long twisted horns, ruby red glowing eyes, mouths agape with huge razor-like fangs. They are devilishly terrifying, the personification, (or better put, creaturization) of pure evil. Winter and I were ready to flee at the sight of them.
Today’s Gospel story is of Jesus’s being driven into the wilderness for forty days and being tempted by the devil with three significant temptations: the desire to turn to material things – like bread in both its literal and metaphorical sense – for creaturely comforts and gain; the temptation of power and control over earthly principalities, in return for fealty to the devil; and the temptation to test God to see if God is true to God’s self.
This event in Jesus’ life is what we premise the forty-day season of Lent on.
I often wonder what image comes to mind when we hear of these three temptations of Jesus by the devil. What did the devil look like?
Did the creature in the wilderness look like Krampus? Or maybe a little demon in red tights with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork? Maybe he looked like Al Pacino in the film The Devil’s Advocate? Or better yet, the bald, androgynous, spectral creature that slithered around in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ?
These are all personifications of the devil, Satan and evil. Certainly, something that looked like one of them, or a combination there-of, was what Jesus encountered and resisted. Right?
Yet my hunch is that it was none of the above. In fact, all of these images of the devil and evil are products of the human imagination. And as such, they can allow us to trivialize evil as a caricature, a mythological creature, a Hollywood fantasy. Something to frighten children into behaving. As anyone of those things, we can then dismiss evil as being real. But doing that is to fall into evil’s trap. “Let me manifest myself as a cartoonish, Halloween caricature that they don’t take seriously, distracting them from the real me,” evil says.
The Church takes evil seriously. In the Great Litany we beseech God to deliver us, “from deceits of the world, flesh and the devil.” In the baptism service parents, godparents, and if old enough, the baptismal candidate themselves, are asked if they will, “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” Evil is a very real, powerful, insidious and seductive force in the world. And it is relentless in trying to gain entry into our lives. Witness that at the end of Jesus’s temptations we are told, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” Evil wasn’t done or defeated. It just went away to plan a new assault, waiting for a better opportunity to invade Jesus’s life. And so it does with us as well.
This is why the Church takes evil seriously. We understand how insidious its soft, seductive voice whispering in our ear is like as it attempts to lure us toward it, and away from God.
In the first letter of Peter we are told, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9a) That is what Jesus did in the wilderness; he resisted, firm in his faith. His witness is an object lesson for us to learn from.
The devil tempted Jesus with creaturely comfort and lucre, with power and control, and of tempting God to prove God’s authenticity. All three violate the Ten Commandments and the distillation of the law that Jesus gave us to love God and to love neighbor. All three are idolatry, which is arguably the greatest sin addressed in the Bible.
In those three temptations, Jesus needed to decide how he was going to live his life. Enslaved to the ways of the devil and the world, or loyal to God and the values of God’s reign. In each instance, despite how enticing the temptations were, he chose God, not the devil.
We all get tempted by the devil with those very same temptations each day. And we, like Jesus, need to decide who we will be loyal too: the ways of the evil or the ways of God.
Have you ever heard the expression, “the devil is in the details?” It’s true. Evil loves to work in the minutia; in the seemingly small things of life.
Too often we relegate evil to the identifiable macro events: 9/11, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, the crimes against the people of Yemen. These are evil, but they occur as a result of the accrual of the small ways as evil invades our lives.
When we gossip about, slander, demean or engage in character assassination of another person, that’s evil at work in our lives.
When a family member, friend, co-worker or neighbor make anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist or homophobic comments, and we stay silent in the face of it, that’s evil at work in our lives.
When we intimidate, denigrate, bully, manipulate, plot against, or abuse someone, that’s evil at work in our lives.
When we are parsimonious toward giving of our time, talent and treasure to organizations that work for justice, righteousness, harmony, beauty and peace in the world, but are extravagant with those resources to fulfill our every whim, desire and lust, that’s evil at work in our lives.
Those may seem like small things. Some even innocuous. At best we might consider them bad behavior. But trust me, they are evil insidiously at work in us. And they more we engage in them or allow them to go unchallenged, and the more others see us do them and emulate them, they accrue to the big explosions of evil that blow up in the world. We have only to look at what has happened in our own nation these past few years to know this is true.
We are in the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday’s invitation to a holy Lent calls us, among other things, to engage in self-reflection and repentance. I invite you as we begin our journey through this season, to reflect on how evil has gained entry into our lives, and to repent of those things we have said and done to aid and abet its power and influence. Then renounce this evil power that corrupts and destroys God’s creatures. When we do we make a new beginning, forgiven and redeemed by God, so we can role model our Savior Jesus, resisting the wiliness of the devil in all its iterations, and finally “beat down Satan and his insidious ways under our feet.”
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
We are finishing the season of Epiphanies today. From the manifestation of the baby Jesus to the Magi in Bethlehem, to today’s transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top and his revelation as being God’s son, the Epiphany season is one that not only lifts up the various revelations of Jesus as the Messiah, but maybe equally as important, helps us to recognize those moments of epiphany that occur in our own lives.
For instance, it is always an epiphany moment for me when at the end of this service a group of our children will come forward to bury the Alleluia, as we prepare for Lent. Seeing them proudly process down the center aisle with the elaborately decorated letters for the Alleluia banner that will resurrect at Easter, is an epiphany. Watching them stand before us just before placing those letters away into a basket with a felt cover, is always a revelation of God’s love to me. Their innocence and joy remind me of the epiphany Jesus gave to his followers when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16) This was a significant epiphany to those who heard Jesus say it, as the culture of the time believed that children were – at best - a nuisance who should be kept out of sight.
And that epiphany about children inspires us at Christ Church to treasure our children, and to lift them up as the precious gifts that they are. And in so doing to honor those who Jesus said were the ones to whom the kingdom of God belonged.
Children are fully incorporated into our common life; and are often the center of it. There is no shutting them away or silencing them. No sound proof quiet rooms where parents with chirping babies are isolated from the congregation. No separate communion service for them, or denying them the sacrament. No saying that children are our future, when they are really our present. If, as Jesus said, children own the kingdom of God then we have a lot to learn from them, because they reveal a vision of what that kingdom is like. They are an epiphany.
Of course, the gospel of Luke is plentiful with these kind of epiphanies; revelations of Jesus saying certain rejected people were of great value, versus a culture that said they were not.
This was true of Gentiles, women, children, the sick, the poor, the bereaved, the un-believing, and the outcast. All of them, in all their iterations, were people who were not only welcomed by Jesus, but beloved by him. And in each instance, when he accepted and loved those who were considered of little value, it was an epiphany – a revelation of how God’s grace works in the world.
Christ Church has a rich history of taking these epiphanies of Jesus and incarnating them in our common life as a faith community. We have been intentional in welcoming the little children, and the big one’s as well. Of honoring women as co-equally created in the image of God, along with men. Of seeing all people – regardless – of being worthy of respect and dignity. Of creating a safe environment where all feel welcomed, loved, accepted, valued and affirmed for who they are. In other words, of hanging the plumb line of love into the midst of how we decide what to do as followers of Jesus.
These epiphanies are not our submitting to the pressure of the secular culture, or of not being a Bible centered church, or of our trying to be relevant and cool so we can be seen as hip. In fact, just the opposite is true. These incarnated epiphanies are deeply rooted in the scripture, and therefore they are our Gospel truth as we strive to follow Jesus.
We have seen plenty of instances where others who claim the name Christian do not see these epiphanies as we do, or don’t believe they’re epiphanies at all. These others do not hold them as sacred revelations of Jesus, as we do.
Three events of the past few weeks are poignant reminders of that reality.
In preparation for the 2020 Lambeth conference that gathers all Anglican Bishops around the world at Lambeth Palace in London every ten years, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, last week disinvited from Lambeth the spouses of bishops in same-sex marriages. Heterosexual Bishops with husbands and wives are still welcome. Fifteen years after the uproar of Gene Robinson’s consecration and certain Anglicans are still squeamish about gay Bishop’s, especially married ones.
In response to the ever-increasing revelations of the sexual abuse of children in Roman Catholic church that has been on-going for decades, as well as the recent revelation of of a significant homosexual presence in the curia at the Vatican, many bishops, priests and laity are now blaming a culture of homosexuality as the cause for this child abuse. Gays are being scapegoated and even witch-hunted out of churches for a situation that has a myriad of complex factors at play, the least not being the dishonesty, entitlement and the mentality of “protect the institution at all costs” - even at the expense of the well-being of our children - by those in power, from Rome on down to the parish level.
This past week our sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church who meet at General Conference approved a plan, called the Traditionalist Plan, that will continue to deny LGBT people full inclusion in the life of that denomination. This plan expressly forbids LGBT people from ordination, and prohibits ministers from performing same-sex marriages. That decision has come as a serious disappointment to millions of adherents of the UMC. Going into the recent General Conference there was considerable optimism and hope by many UMC folks that a more embracing option called the One Church Plan would prevail. This option would have permitted the local parish to decide who to ordain and marry. It was a way forward that allowed those who had experienced the epiphany recognizing the dignity and humanity of LGBT people to stay in the denomination without threat of schism. Yet it failed and the vote was not close.
Our epiphanies are not understood by everyone to be epiphanies.
The story of the Transfiguration is a poignant reminder that the three closest disciples to Jesus – Peter, James and John - did not understand that mountain-top epiphany revealing Jesus as God’s son either. They failed to grasp it. In fact, despite repeated epiphanies of who Jesus was they remained obtuse to the whole Jesus endeavor, at least until after the Resurrection. The immediate juxtaposition of the story of the epileptic boy following the story of the Transfiguration proves their lack of faith. The un-understanding disciples could not heal the boy, revealing their obtuseness to the new message of Jesus and the way of life he proclaims.
This annoys Jesus to no end. "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” Jesus scolds them.
This is how I feel about Archbishop Justin Welby and those Anglicans in league with him. It is how I feel about the Roman Church and its response to the tragedy of child abuse. It’s how I feel about the UMC folks who remain unaccepting and untransformed, rejecting the epiphanies that acknowledge the full humanity of LGBT people. You faithless and perverse people, how much longer must we bear with you? Understand this: Regardless of what you do, love is more powerful than legalism. Love is more powerful than our institutions. Love is more powerful than hate. With Jesus love comes before all. And love always wins.
Despite the disciple’s obtuseness, Jesus persisted, and so must we. He comes down from the mountain and gets back to work: Preaching and teaching, revealing his epiphanies of God’s love right up to his death on the cross; the greatest epiphany of love the world has ever witnessed.
We too must continue to work to proclaim the epiphanies that have been revealed to us in Jesus. They are our Gospel truth.
For people from other traditions who cannot attend their denominational church in this moment of pain, we must provide a safe harbor. Not as an evangelism opportunity, (That’s sheep steeling, which we don’t do. And any way it only results in moving the pieces on the game board.) but as an opportunity to offer gracious hospitality to those who feel as if they currently are at a precarious point in their faith journeys.
For people who feel rejected by their denomination, we can encourage them to stay the course in their respective denominations and parts of the Communion, as difficult as that can be. We can support and sustain them to follow the voice of the Spirit and continue to bear witness and proclaim the revelations they have received, so that they may be bearers of light in the dark places. Just like we did in this Episcopal Church fifteen and more years ago.
And because this task is just not possible for all people, depending on the degree of their wounds and hurts, we can be a home for them. And we can love them back to health and wholeness.
All three are options are places where love can be nurtured. And where love will win.
Epiphanies and dreams give new meaning and cause to our lives and journeys, but they also point back to the struggles and tasks we have had to bring about the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed. They also prepare us to continue in those places where the struggles continue. If we are faithful, we can’t stop or escape this reality. There are always new vistas and transforming experiences ahead for those of us who do. Be assured, they all lead to the fruition of God’s reign. And that is holy work, as well.
Amen to that!
Philippians 4:4–9; Matthew 5:1–10
The Rev. Peter Faass
This evening we honor George Herbert, priest and poet of the Anglican Church.
Herbert was born in 1593, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke. His mother was a friend of the poet John Donne. George attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and became the Public Orator of the University, responsible for giving speeches of welcome in Latin to famous visitors, and writing letters of thanks, also in Latin, to acknowledge gifts of books for the University Library. This brought him to the attention of King James I, who granted him an annual allowance, and seemed likely to make him an ambassador. However, in 1625 the king died, and George Herbert, who had originally gone to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but had his head turned by the prospect of a career at Court, determined anew to seek ordination. In 1626 he was ordained, and became vicar and then rector of the parish of Bemerton and neighboring St. Peter’s Fugglestone, not far from Salisbury. By the way, I would love to be the vicar of a parish in a town named Fugglestone, someday! But, I guess I’ll settle for Vicar of Van Aken.
Herbert served faithfully as a parish priest, diligently visiting his parishioners and bringing them the sacraments when they were ill, and food and clothing when they were in want. He read Morning and Evening Prayer daily in the church, encouraging the congregation to join him when possible, and ringing the church bell before each service so that those who could not come might hear it and pause in their work to join their prayers with his. He used to go once a week to Salisbury to hear Evening Prayer sung there in the cathedral. On one occasion he was late because he had met a man whose horse had fallen with a heavy load, and he stopped, took off his coat, and helped the man to unload the cart, get the horse back on its feet, and then reload the cart. His spontaneous generosity and good will won him the affection of his parishioners.
Today, however, Herbert is remembered chiefly for his two major writings: the first being his book of poems titled, The Temple, which were published after Herbert's death. Several of his poems have been turned into hymns, in particular "Teach me, my God and King," number 592 in the hymnal, "Let all the world in every corner sing" hymn number 402, the gorgeous, “Come my way, my truth, my life,” hymn number 487, which set to the tune The Call by Ralph Vaughan Williams is a hauntingly beautiful and sublime with theological truth, and my personal favorite – no surprise here – hymn number 382, “King of Glory, King of Peace”, set to the tune General Seminary by David Charles Walker. But, of course.
The other book Herbert is renowned for is A Priest to the Temple (usually known as The Country Parson), a book that offers practical advice to rural clergy on how to be a good vicar. In it, he advises that "things of ordinary use" such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to "serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths." This second book is foundational reading for classically trained Episcopal and Anglican priests, and one which we are very familiar with, but not necessarily always fond of . . . or at least the impact The Country Parson has had in setting up expectations of the priesthood which are, well, let’s just say, beyond achievable.
Herbert was thorough in giving details of what a good country parson should do in his post. For instance, in chapter XIII titled “The Parson’s Church” he writes, “the Church [must] be swept, and kept clean of dust or Cobwebs, and at great festivals strawed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense.” Thank goodness they didn’t have indoor plumbing back then as you know unclogging drains would have been listed, as well! In chapter XXIII titled, “The Parson’s Completeness” he writes, “The Country Parson desires to be all to his Parish, and not only a Pastor, but a Lawyer also, and a Physician.” Again, good thing there was no internet and WiFi back then, as you just know being a computer techie would have been another duty heaped on the parson by Herbert.
In every detail of parish life Herbert created a model for what he thought was the perfect parson. He also set up the model for an over-functioning and exhausted one, as well.
There’s a tongue in cheek meme that appears on social media periodically called, The “Perfect” Pastor, which says:
“The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. (I stand before you, an imperfect pastor.)
He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone's feelings.
He works from 8 AM until midnight and is also the church janitor.
The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a new model car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church.
He is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience.
Above all, he, or she, is handsome and beautiful.
The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time each week with the senior citizens.
He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church.
He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be available when needed.
The perfect pastor always has time for church council and all of its committees. He never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.
The perfect pastor is always available to anyone who needs him on demand, but spends much of his time reading and studying, while being out in the community forging relationships!”
Alright it’s funny, but sadly it’s also true and describes a condition called Herbertism: a condition by which the laity have unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of their clergy, and that the clergy all too often fall for and try to live into. Such is the degree to which clergy have tried to live up to the standard of The Country Parson over the centuries that a pastoral care book for clergy was published several years ago titled, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry.
But is Herbert at fault here for creating the paradigm? The author of the book, Justin Lewis-Anthony thinks not. “The memory of Herbert celebrated by the Church is an inaccurate one, and, in its inaccuracy, is unfair on Herbert himself and his successors in the ordained ministry,” he writes.
At least two factors are at play.
Herbert idealized the idea of the priesthood in his small, rural parish. And like all ideals, it was never one any human being could actually live into in its fullness. Like the values of the Reign of God that we heard in Matthew’s Beatitudes, we strive to do our best achieving them, knowing we will not always succeed, and yes, even fail.
Herbert also died young; he was only a priest for less than four years. During his brief tenure he was the bright, starry-eyed young priest who, with his first settled- parish, brings a lot of zeal to his work - which is always refreshing - but, also often naïve and unrealistic.
Herbert died before his ministry could be, as Lewis-Anthony states, compromised . . . [by] mundane bruises and cavils and accommodations that make up everyday life in a community of sinners trying to be saints.” In other words, the realities of life. The reality is his premature death lionized Herbert and his writings. He was a hero, a role model, even an avatar. And because of that, starry – eyed clergy have taken the model of The Country Parson to be literally achievable ever since. And so, have the laity.
The end result is that his writings have been taken so literally as to distort them and, in the process, led to a distorted model of ministry. And it is we, not Herbert, who are to blame.
George Herbert is redeemable, and so is this situation. The passage from the letter to the Philippians helps guide us in so doing, and I think offers a more realistic view of what Herbert’s life and ministry actually were all about.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul writes. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing these things . . . and the God of peace will be with you.”
Gentleness, truth telling, being honorable, working for justice: these are the qualities that seem to encompass Herbert’s life and which he strived for. They are a healthy Herbertism and should encompass all our lives- clergy and laity alike- because they are of Jesus. Doing so will make the way our clergy lead their lives more realistic and less stressful, and as a result the life of the entire congregation healthier. And if that is the result of healthy Herbertism, then the peace of God will truly be with us all.
The Realm’s Values Are Bombshells!
Genesis 45:3-11; Luke 6:27-38
The Rev. Peter Faass
The passages we have heard from Luke these past two weeks are his version of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Both have Jesus proclaiming the ways of life that are part and parcel of the Realm of God. They are a list of values by which followers of Jesus are called to live.
Luke makes some significant counterpoints to Matthew’s version that indicate a different focus for his message. I’d like to kick back to the opening of last week’s Gospel for a moment, which states, “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place.” This sermon is not delivered on the lofty mountain, but rather on a level place. It is why Luke’s version is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. The geographical distinction of being on a level place and not a mountain is critical for Luke’s message. Some prophets use of the word “level” provide the background for its use here. The word “level” often referred to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning. In Jeremiah we read, “Human corpses shall fall like dung upon the [level place], like sheaves behind the reaper, and no one shall gather them.” (Jeremiah 9:22) Luke wants to be clear that Jesus is down here now, not up there. And he is down here and not up there so that he can teach the way of the Realm, through the beatitudes, in the midst of the world, which is the level place; in the midst of the nitty, gritty, often harsh reality of life.
His beatitudes are a counterpoint to the values which that world holds: values that say you hate your enemies, that you seek revenge against those who harm you, that you curse those who abuse you, that you physically beat up someone who strikes you, that you offer the bare minimum to those in need . . . if anything at all. While standing in the broken level world, Jesus teaches the ways of the present and coming renewal of the world via the Realm of God. In a nutshell, he is proclaiming the end of the world’s level place values.
And wow, the Realm’s values are bombshells! Each one is a challenge. They are where the rubber hits the road for we who profess to follow Jesus. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” These are virtually an impossible set of values to attain to, at least consistently. I mean, maybe, maybe on a really good day we can achieve one of these, but it isn’t easy. We are too human, too broken, too infected by the values of the level place to do so.
Jesus’ disciples expressed great frustration with these values. When at one point he told them that it would easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the realm of God – who because of his wealth was considered particularly blessed –they were aghast! “Then who can be saved?” they exclaimed. “But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
We live in the level place here in the 21st century no less than the people of Jesus’s time. The values of that world – lust for power and wealth, a propensity for violence - create corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning in abundance in our world. The values Jesus proclaims are in total conflict with the assumptions of the market place, Wall Street, corporate board rooms, Capitol Hill, the White House, Hollywood, and much of the media that shapes American culture. Our leaders and heroes are more likely to be neither poor, nor non-violent, nor humble, nor loving. And those churches that preach the heresy of the so-called prosperity gospel are equally culpable. No where in the scripture does it say that God desires you to have an expensive German automobile, or a mansion, or diamonds, or a private jet. Those are the values of the level world in sheep’s clothing, barely. God desires you to have wholeness of body, mind and spirit. God desires you to have authentic life, not loot.
Because of the values of the level place these people and institutions hold, materialism reigns in our lustful, gold- plated culture, and unbridled violence grows in our homes, streets and schools. Greed breeds more greed. Violence breeds more violence. Lust for power breeds more lust for power. Hate breeds more hate.
This is why we must hold the values of the Realm of God as the plumb line in the midst of the level place, which is what Jesus was doing. Whenever we encounter the values of the level place we must love in return, because love is of God and with love all things are possible. We must “do to others as we would have them do to us.” We must love one another, as we have been loved by Jesus. As Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry states, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
The love that Jesus and Curry speak about is agape love; a love that has us feeling benevolent towards another person, regardless of what that person has done to us. Agape love guides us to desire nothing else for another person – even if they hate and revile us – than to be good and kind to them. And that we will deliberately, even if they insult us, treat us badly or injure us, only seek their highest good. Now this is not about letting those who injure us off the hook without their being remorseful and desiring an authentic amendment of life. This is not about cheap grace. But we must initiate the healing and the forgiveness God calls us to when we are maligned, even when the other may not respond in a like manner. We must be the proverbial, “better person.” And we can only achieve this by a force of will that finds its source in grace and love.
Joseph in our Genesis story exhibited agape love toward his brothers. Maligned and sold into slavery by his brothers because they found him to be an insufferable brat and were envious of their father Jacob’s favoritism toward him, Joseph had every reason to hate and despise his brothers and seek revenge on them. And when he became the second most powerful man in Egypt, after the Pharaoh, he wielded enormous power of life and death over people. When a famine in Israel compels Jacob to send his sons to Egypt to buy grain, Joseph and his brothers are reunited, only they do not recognize him. After a series of encounters he finally reveals himself. “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" he says. “But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” Dismayed is an under-statement. I suspect they were terrified as they realized the one they had treated so abysmally now had the power of life and death over them, and they expected the worst.
Yet Joseph does not succumb to the values of the level place. By force of will he allows the ways of agape love to determine how he will treat his brothers, allowing him to feel benevolence toward them despite what they had done. He only sought their highest good and that of his father Jacob and his people. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. Tears of the joy of agape love. Jesus calls us not to go low to the facile ways of spite and vengeance. They are the easy way out. Rather he calls us to go high, engaging in assertive, pro-active action; to muster up the strength of a force of our wills to engage in agape love when we encounter the values of the level place. To counter them with the values of the Realm of God, which will be stronger than hate, hostility, greed and violence.
We are close to Lent. Instead of giving up something, I encourage you to take on the discipline of forcing your will to engage in agape love when you encounter the values of the level place. Let benevolence be your guide instead of hate, as you love those who have harmed you, seeking their higher good. In doing so you will be hanging the plumb line of the Realm of God in your life and the lives of those you encounter. And that Realm will draw ever closer to its full fruition when you do so. And trust me, as it does, Christ will be resurrected in you this Easter in ways you never imagined!
The Rev. Peter Faass
So, this is an odd scenario. Simon Peter and the fishermen have been out on the water all night fishing. And they have come up empty. Jesus then tells Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." And so, they do and the next thing you know there is such an abundant haul that the nets begin to break from the weight of the fish, and the boat begins to sink.
Of course, Jesus always knows where we only see despair and hopelessness, he sees possibility. Yet instead of seeing the hope of a financial boon in the abundant fish, Peter is struck with fear. He falls to his knees – an interesting maneuver as he had to kneel on some slippery fish covering the bottom of the boat – and declares himself to be a, “sinful man.”
And here is what makes this scenario so odd: Jesus replies, “"Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." Does Jesus think that Peter is fearful of having to catch fish versus people? Is he implying that people are easier to catch – read evangelism – than a net full of fish? If so, and it certainly reads like that, this is to be the only time in Christian history that anyone has made a statement implying that catching people will be easier than catching fish! That evangelism of humans is easier than fishing, or anything else for that matter. Good heavens, I know people who would rather walk across hot coals barefoot than ask anyone to come to church. Episcopalian’s approach to church growth is a bit more laid, back, reticent, if you will.
I saw a cartoon recently by Episcopal cartoonist, Jay Sidebotham that captures perfectly our reticent approach. There’s an aquarium set up by the ocean’s edge. An Episcopal Church Welcomes You sign is planted next to it in the sand. The caption states, “Any fish from the ocean are invited to jump into the aquarium if they happen to be passing by and feel like it.”
Yep, that’s us. Our church is the aquarium in the sand. Warrensville Center Rd. is the ocean. Any fish passing – or more likely, driving - by are invited to jump on in . . . if they feel like it.
Now if they do. . . well, we do quite well with those fish. Newcomers repeatedly tell me that one of the things that attracted them to Christ Church is the authentic and warm hospitality they experienced when they came here . . . once they jumped into our aquarium. I have seldom heard anyone say they experienced a warm invitation to come to Christ Church when they were out doing breast-strokes in the big wide ocean. In other words, we like our humans caught, and in the net, before we engage them in our faith community. Caught fish may have caused Peter to be afraid, but they give us our highest confidence.
Yet, we have so much to offer. So much good news to share. I am not going to list all of those reasons now. You already pretty much know them. And if you are unsure, I invite you to reflect on what attracts you here. What about Christ Church enriches your life, drawing you into closer relationship with God in Jesus?
Peter was compelled to reflect on that very question, repeatedly. What about God in Jesus attracted him to a closer relationship with Jesus? To want to be a part of that community of disciples that followed him, to the point of dropping everything to do so? But being a bit of a cheese head, it took a while for the epiphanies Jesus and God presented him, for the reasons to do so to sink in.
You see that net and its myriad of abundant fish made a critical statement about God and the reign of God Jesus came to proclaim. It was an epiphany. There were all kinds of fish in the net that morning. The three most prevalent fish in the Sea of Gennesaret are a flat white fish, commonly known as St. Peter’s fish, carp, and catfish. Interestingly the first two are fine for Jews to eat as they have scales and fins. Catfish on the other hand do not and therefore are not kosher. In Leviticus we read, “Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams—such you may eat. But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters—they are detestable to you and detestable they shall remain.” (Lev. 11:9b-11a)
Yet all these different types of fish are in the net. By the way, the fish do not represent fish. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, sometimes a fish is not just a fish. For the purposes of this story the myriad of fish represents people from all iterations of humanity: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. The inclusion of all types of fish in that net informs us that the salvation Jesus brings is for all, not just for a few, This message gets powerfully bookended for Peter in the book of Acts (which Luke is also the author of) in the story of Peter’s revelatory vision. Another epiphany. This vision occurs during a great controversy in the early church about who can be a Christian and who can’t; who’s in and who’s out. Peter adhered to the official church policy that in order to become a Christian one needed to convert to Judaism first, as the early church believed it was a sect of Judaism. The two central issues debated were the necessity of male circumcision and following dietary laws; or keeping kosher.
In the Acts story, Peter is invited to the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who is a Gentile. And he goes. Now this is pretty brave as Jews were considered ritually impure if they stayed in the home of Gentile. While there he has a vision of, as the text says, something like a sheet coming down from heaven. “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” (Acts 10:11-16)
Okay, think about it. “Something like a sheet” and a net are pretty similar. And both are filled with kosher and non-kosher critters. Like the fish in the net, the critters in the sheet represent humanity in all of its iterations.
Peter’s vision is not primarily about eating non-kosher food, although it does help persuade the early church to give up its insistence that Gentile converts keep the dietary laws.
The message of the sheet – like the message of the breaking fishing nets – is that God’s reign will include all types of people, from every family, language, people, and nation, as one of our BCP prayers states.
That’s an evangelical message that people are ready to hear, although they may be surprised to hear it. For too long they have been, like Peter, believers who thought that a whole lot of prerequisites were required to be a part of the faith community. And that a whole lot of people would never make the cut. And many of those prerequisites were onerous and difficult and ended up driving people away instead of accepting them, embracing them all, just like Jesus did.
Maybe we too have put a bunch of prerequisites up, some of them of our own creation, preventing us from telling people the good news about the Gospel. Maybe we do this because, like Peter, we feel we are sinful people, or like Isaiah when he is called by God to be a prophet, that we are unworthy, “a [person] of unclean lips,” as Isaiah says as he tries to avoid doing what God called him to do. But God abjured from accepting that excuse and instead he cleanses Isaiah of his perceived unworthiness. Then God asks him again: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And [Isaiah] said, "Here am I; send me!"
Peter too eventually got the message . . . better late than never. He stopped seeing himself as a sinful man and heeded God’s call. He learned to embrace all people and worked to include them fully in the life of the church. Will we?
There’s a lot of fish in the ocean. They swim by us all the time. We have a really nice aquarium at Christ Church. Will we go out into the ocean and tell all those wonder fish about us and invite them in? Or will be we content to wait to see if they jump in . . . if they feel like it. Like Isaiah, let our response be, "Here am I; send me!"
God be in our Listening
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
God be in our listening,
Christ forgive my speaking,
Spirit move through our living
so that together we might discern your redemption. Amen.
In the days of political turmoil, during a time when allegiances were easily swayed, in an ancient but-oh-so-familiar season when faith was greatly informed by fear, the word of the Holy One came to young Jeremiah, saying,
“From the time outside of time, I have always known you, Jeremiah,
and from the beginning, I have consecrated to be part of my work.”
And Jeremiah replied, saying,
“Oh wow, God, I don’t know. There’s really nothing about me to suggest that I’m the one you want, and the political landscape right now is kind of rocky for prophet work. [eee---whooooo-tsk-mmm] I don’t know.”
If he had had Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth at his disposal, Jeremiah might have said to God,
“I’m only a child. I speak like a child. I know only in part, so I’ll only be able to prophesy in part. Whatever I know, it’s only in a mirror dimly. I can’t possibly know fully.”
As it turns out, saying “I don’t know” was precisely the response God was seeking.
“I will give you words,” God said.
“I will give you visions,” God said.
“You don’t need to know fully. The work to unfold is mine: I will pluck up and pull down, I will destroy and plant, I will overthrow and rebuild. You don’t need to know.”
In contrast, the Gospel of Luke offers a scene in which the people of Nazareth know everything they need to know about Jesus: he is Joseph’s son. These are the people who watched Jesus grow up after his family came back from Egypt. These are the same people who saw him fine-tune his carpentry skills alongside Joseph. These are his friends and childhood playmates who celebrated their faith together, who learned to read from the scrolls in synagogue when they were kids. They know Jesus…
…and they certainly know the political tensions in which they reside, living in a Jewish village within a Roman-occupied territory. What they know is that anyone suspected of revolt is still arrested. What they know is that poverty still shapes their lives. What they know is that a new king has not yet arrived to heal the sick, to bring sight to the blind, to make the lame walk again, to relieve them from systems of oppressions. The man they know without a doubt to be the son of Joseph has declared what they know to not be true: the ancient prophesies have not yet been filled, no matter what Jesus declared in the synagogue.
And enraged by all that they know, the friends of Jesus, the friends of his parents, the community that is most familiar with him, becomes violent toward him. Because of what they know.
Because they know where he’s from and who his family is. Because they know the same faith stories that he knows. Because they know that those stories are still unfulfilled. Because they know that Elijah saved a hungry widow at Zarephath and they are still waiting for Elijah to come to them too. Because they know that Elisha healed Naaman, a Syrian and a leper, and they are still waiting for healing to reach them too.
They are mad because they know…and they simply cannot make room for anything else to be possible, so they resort to violence.
Tell me: how do you react when someone disputes what you know to be true?
It could be as simple as your certainty that the cheapest gas station is in Bedford Heights, and you won’t hear a word from anyone who tries to tell you that there’s a cheaper and closer gas station in Highland Hills. It might be your perspective on government that someone challenges—perhaps you have always held that any injury or injustice within the government will right itself by the very nature of democracy, but someone challenges your certainty with an argument that change cannot occur without protest. Maybe you’ve always absolutely known that a friend, a community member, a family member, is an upstanding guy…but someone tells you that he has caused significant harm.
How do you react when someone contests what you know about Jesus, or challenges what you believe about how God works in the world? How do you respond when someone tells you that they know you, when their entire definition of you contradicts what you know about yourself?
Certainty can be a kind of violence when it disallows for possibility. Knowing can be a brutality when it obstructs the space someone needs to consider wonder or to ask questions. Conviction can look like rage when it is overwhelmed with the worry that something might be imaginable that we don’t know or understand.
The people of Nazareth knew that their hope for a new messiah had not yet been fulfilled because poverty still haunted them, because sickness and disease still threatened them, because the oppression of the Roman Empire still shaped their daily lives, because Jesus—bless his heart—hadn’t done anything in Nazareth to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor except maybe carve a few rocking horses for the kids. So when Jesus said something else was possible, and not only possible eventually but happening now, that the fulfillment of prophesies was taking hold now, the townspeople’s certainty welled up in rage and they drove him to the edge of a cliff.
Still the poor are cold at night, still the sick cannot access healing without great expense, still the diseases of racism and of gender violence eat away at our spirits, still governments overthrow other governments, still empires stockpile weapons, and Jesus—bless his heart—whispers to us from the text and shows up to us through others, saying, “the year of the Lord’s favor is fulfilled.”
And the invitation of faith is not to become certain. The invitation of faith is to join Jeremiah in confessing, “I don’t know, God. The world is full of evidence to the contrary…but I’m willing to admit that everything I know about the world and about myself and about you isn’t everything. I’m willing to wonder what else might be.” The invitation of faith is not to live with absolute certainty, but to live in—to participate in—the possibility.
In faith, not knowing is the start of personal imagination, community participation, and holy inspiration. When we confess “I don’t know,” what we begin to see more fully is what else might be—what else God might be about—through love.
What we know will come to an end: the certainty of poverty, the constancy of violence, the frenzy of politics. The ways of living that we established and ritualized for the sake of certainty in this all-too-predictable world will also come to an end. And when it all ends, the dim mirror of our certainty will end and everything we’ve never known and everything we’ve only dreamed will be revealed face-to-face.
Until then, we continue to practice the possibilities of love.
What we do not know
“Love never ends.
There is always faith to plant,
there is always hope to share,
there is always love to dwell within and between you.”
And for centuries we have
1 Cor 13 suggest that confessing our “dim mirrors” makes way for knowing more fully the endurance of love, the pervasive spirit of hope, the stubbornness of faith. (sidebar: same descript of hope and faith)