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 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.
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!"
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)
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The Rev. Peter Faass
In an op-ed this past Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of two great American philosophers who lived at the turn of the last century and worked at Harvard. One was named William James and the other Josiah Royce.
Brooks describes these men’s over-arching philosophical viewpoints this way: “James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.”
He goes on to say that James’ philosophy took root and holds sway in our culture these days, but that based on the condition of our nation and society, it is Royce’s philosophical ethos we need to reclaim.
Here is segment of Brooks column where he explains why:
“James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So, for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain . . .
Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action. “The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty. The cause gives unity and consistency to life. The cause gives fellowship, because there are always others serving the same cause.”
As I reflected about Royce and his philosophy of loyalty and devotion to a cause that is binding and gives connection to human life, one person to another, I could not help but think of today’s first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Paul’s letter is written to a church community where there were great divisions based on class and wealth. A sense of entitlement and superiority had overcome some members of the Corinthian church, over those who had less resources or were of lower social status. Their loyalties were not to the cause of the Gospel but to their own needs. They felt that those different from themselves were not worthy of their concerns. To quote Royce, people had made themselves miserable pursuing nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
Paul admonishes this attitude in a decidedly Royceian way.
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Just as Royse was the philosopher of binding and connection to the cause of a healthy society, so Paul is the apostle of binding and connection to the cause of the body of Christ.
In our fragmented, divisive, me first society, the message of Paul and Royce need to be lifted up and embraced. To paraphrase Royce, “The loyal person serves. That is, she does not merely follow her own impulses. She looks to her cause for guidance. This cause tells her what to do.”
As followers of Jesus our cause is the body of Christ; a body that calls us to total interdependence, respect and mutual care. Our loyalty is to make our song this Gospel truth that regardless of who or what we are, we are all worthy, children made in the image of a loving God. We are called to sing that in that body there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. That is our cause. That is where our loyalty lies. And the world is more than ready to hear the healing good news of that cause, and to be made whole by it.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Rev. Peter Faass
Eighteen years have passed since the last time we heard about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and today’s story about his appearing at the River Jordan to be baptized by John. Eighteen years earlier Jesus was twelve years old and he and his parents had gone to the Jerusalem Temple for Passover. Eighteen years since he engaged with the rabbis at the Temple in deep theological conversations.
And now he is a thirty-year old man, ready to embark on his life’s mission to bring the word of God’s salvation to the world.
What happened in those intervening years? Biblical scholars speculate. Did he remain in Nazareth taking up the family trade of carpentry? Did he travel to India and learn the mystical ways of eastern religions? Whatever he did, he was sure to have engaged – as all young people do – in thinking about his life, who he was called to be, and of what worth he had in the world. And as a thoughtful and reflective person, he had most likely arrived at the realization that he was unique, made in the image of a loving God, and that that he was to honor that uniqueness by living out who he actually was, in gratitude to the One who made him.
He also must have known that at some point he needed to leave the protections of his family and their village of Nazareth. He had grown from being a youth into adulthood. It was time to go out into the wider world to live out his realities – the truth he had discerned - of his own life.
Jesus had grown closer to God in those eighteen years, and when John the Baptist appeared, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and people were flocking to John to be baptized, Jesus knew that there was a movement toward God taking place. It was a movement propelled by people’s desire to be whole and healthy, in a renewed relationship with God. For Jesus, John’s emergence was God’s call to him to do likewise: To be who he was called to be and in so doing be whole and healthy. To be, as they say, true to oneself.
In that moment when he emerges from the baptismal waters God affirms what Jesus had realized when he tells him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." The voice of God comes to him, acknowledging that he has made the right decision.
How that must have resonated with Jesus. God his father affirming his decision to be who he was, to be true to himself. While Jesus knew the path ahead would be fraught with perils, with people saying he was a phony, an apostate, a danger, he had God’s approbation – God’s love to sustain him - and that was enough. It was more than enough.
When I was twelve years old I came to understand there was something different about me. While other boys began dating girls and talking about the fascinating mysteries of the female sex, I became poignantly aware that I did not share this attraction. I was very aware that men were fascinating and of interest to me. But it was also crystal clear that this attraction was not to be shared with others.
My then church community, was clear from the pulpit, in Sunday School, and in general conversations, in conveying that my attractions were wrong, sinful, and not condoned by God. Much of the negative things the church and family and society say how being gay gets deeply embedded in our psyche. And we begin to believe them. These beliefs are hard to shake and cause self-doubt. They make you question your worth as a person.
In the ensuing years, as I grew older and reflected on my sexual orientation, I had few places to turn. But I did reflect and pray on this issue often . . . a lot . . . every day. Often this reflection was conflicted. For a while I joined a charismatic Christian group in high school, desiring to pray away the gay. My fervent prayers at the time were for God to heal me and make me “normal.” After about a year of that and no discernable reply from the Almighty, I gave up on the attempt.
In retrospect the lack of response was actually the response. In time I came to understand that. We don’t always recognize our epiphanies in the moment. While I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, I know that as I entered college an epiphany came over me and I heard the voice of God saying to me, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Be who I have made you to be. Be true to yourself, and all will be well.” That approbation from God has come to mean everything for me.
I spent another ten to twelve years maturing into that truth. Interestingly enough – and by no intentional design - it was at the age of thirty that I came back to my practice of faith, albeit in the Episcopal Church and not my old denomination.
The path forward through those years has sometimes been fraught with peril. People have called me a phony Christian, an apostate, a danger, and some way less savory things as well. But that epiphany of God’s approbation – God’s love - has sustained me and that was enough. In fact, it has been more than enough.
Regretfully that approbation of who I was, was not so quick in coming from my mother. But time and patience and the power of motherly love eventually brought her around as well. When in 1992 I told her that I felt a call from God toward ordained ministry, she did not rue my giving up a good paying career, and what I knew she believed to be a successful life. She didn’t say gay people would have a tough time in ministry. Rather she became my greatest supporter and cheerleader. She knew the road before me would be fraught with perils, but she sustained me on my journey with her love. Her love was a manifestation of God’s presence in my life and in that presence I once again heard the words, "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We all parent in various ways: As biological and adoptive parents, as grandparents, teachers, extended family, clergy, as the church community. And we all know young people who struggle with issues of identity and self-worth; about what value their lives have. Some are LGBTQ, others struggle with issues like body imaging, race, religion, class. They all carry heavy burdens in the guilt and shame baggage that society often heaps upon them in their struggles. Our responsibility as faithful Christians is to nurture their being thoughtful and reflective people. God calls us to help guide them so they arrive at the realization that they are unique, wonderful people, made in the image of a loving God, and that that like Jesus and all of us, they are to honor their uniqueness as children of God, living their lives with integrity and in gratitude to the One who made them.
In a nutshell, we are to be the voice of God telling them, "You are [a child of God], [you are] beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We do this for many reasons. There are many in society who tell them otherwise, including religious communities. There are many who bully and harass them. There are many who shame them and rob them of their human dignity. There are many who disown them and throw them into the streets to fend for themselves. And there are many who believe they can change them and make them “better.”
A recent writer of a letter to the editor on Cleveland.com bemoaned the growing number of state legislatures that were passing laws prohibiting so called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. They wrote that, “the goal in [conversion] therapy is not conversion but healing.” They went on to say that legislation should be written to, “guard licensed therapists from limitations on their healing art.”
The reality is that “conversion therapy” is pseudo-science; a travesty that is discredited by all legitimate medical associations. It is not healing, it is not art. It is profoundly damaging, a form of torture that wreaks havoc emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and often, physically on those compelled to engage in it. I have never meet anyone who has been successfully “converted” from being gay into a straight person. I have met plenty who have suffered terribly and unnecessarily as they were hounded into denying their authentic selves.
In a few moments we will renew our Baptismal vows. These vows are not just a bunch of hollow words that the clergy are compelled by the Book of Common Prayer to have us recite on certain feast days on the liturgical calendar. They are our holy vows to heal the brokenness of this world, just as Jesus did. They are the foundation of our faith in Jesus, because they reflect the values he incarnated for us. These vows are meant to be a plumb line hanging in our lives, guiding us into right behavior toward all: Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Striving for justice and peace among all people. Respecting the dignity of every human being. This is our work as followers of Jesus: loving people for who and where they are. All the time. To all we encounter. No exceptions. Ever.
These holy vows are what allow us to proclaim to all God’s children: "You are my [child], [you are] beloved; with you I am well pleased." Amen.
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev. Peter Faass
As we see 2018 fade behind us in the rearview mirror, we find ourselves in the midst of the season of resolutions.
Resolutions are commitments to make an amendment of life, turning from bad toward good behaviors. Resolution is the secular sister term for the theological word, repentance.
We tend to view resolutions as being an individual effort. People think, “I’ll give up smoking and be healthier,” or “I’ll lose fifteen pounds by a change in my diet and exercise.” And most resolutions have as their end goal a healthier state of being, either physically, mentally, relationally, emotionally or spiritually.
But resolutions can be taken on by groups and institutions as well. And actually, they should be because we all – individually and corporately - need to have our goal be a healthier state of being.
I read an article this week written by Mark Wingfield, an American Baptist minister, where he stated his hope for the church in 2019 is that our resolution will be saying three simple words: “we were wrong.”
We were wrong.
That’s a serious challenge to the church, and may be the most difficult thing we, as an institution, will ever be asked to do! After-all we are the institution that always gets it right, no? And admitting error about anything we have said or done will not fall easily from the lips of people who expect others to confess their sins, not themselves.
But Wingfield says, the church in fact has had gotten it wrong, still gets it wrong, and persists in doing wrong in many ways:
We were wrong on race, trying to prove a Biblical warrant for making Blacks inferior. We were wrong, and continue to get it grotesquely wrong, on protecting sexual predators. We were wrong about women not being co-equally made in the image of God. We were wrong on excluding people from the Eucharist and ordination due to their sexual identity. We were wrong to demand right belief for participation in the life of the church, forgoing the actual call of Jesus to engage in right practice.
So much of the church’s being wrong is rooted in its desire for control and power. Being wrong is often actually nurtured by the church, which stokes human fear and insecurity, thereby allowing the institution to engage in absolutism and certainty, versus encouraging people to live into Divine mystery. All too often the church trains us to worship the Bible as it has been interpreted through the lens of those who have an agenda based on control and power and of institutional preservation, rather than reading the scripture through the overarching narrative of love embodied in the gospel of Jesus. Through this lens the Bible becomes the inerrant word of God - albeit cherry picked words to meet the needs of the institutional – but to the detriment of Jesus being the Word made flesh.
Jesus was highly critical of this approach to the scriptures. In Matthew he tells the religious authorities, “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15:6-9)
Today is Epiphany; the day we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings at the manger in Bethlehem to pay homage to the Messiah. This story is all about how the institutional religion at the time of Jesus’ birth got it wrong. And like us, they got it really wrong.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, it was the belief of institutional Judaism that salvation was for Jews – faithful Jews – only. That as the chosen people they alone were entitled to the salvation of God. Now this belief , while based on cherry-picked scripture passages - contravened what had been proclaimed by many of the prophets, which was God’s plan was for universal salvation. Isaiah particularly undergirds the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan. Note that whenever the words nation or nations are used in scripture it is a reference to the Gentiles. Here are a few examples of Isaiah’s inclusivity of the nations:
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. (Is 2:2)
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is. 49:6)
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (Is. 25:6)
In these passages it is unambiguous that God’s plan is for all peoples to receive the light of God’s saving grace.
Yet the institutional religion of the time chose to ignore that message, rather proclaiming a more exclusivist access to God. And in so doing they got it wrong.
And then along comes Jesus, the Messiah – the Word of God incarnate. And who are among the first people who come to witness to his Messiahship and pay him homage? Three Gentiles from Persia!
“When they [the Wise men] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The Wise Men were over-whelmed with joy! I can imagine as they peered into the face of this child who came down from heaven for us – for all of us – and for our salvation, that this profound good news is what caused their joy. And all of a sudden – in that moment - what had been very wrong was made oh, so very right. Because God will not let wrongs persist. Because God will always right every wrong. And in Jesus we have the revelation of God at work doing just that.
Paul expounds on this truth in his letter to the Ephesians.
“This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles,” he writes. [Through Jesus] “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Paul of course was the apostle to the Gentiles, and he relentlessly battled with the early church in Jerusalem who had defaulted to the old ways of exclusivism, and were getting it wrong when it came to living into the wide embrace of Jesus’ love for all God’s people. But Paul’s persistence made the institutional church in Jerusalem see the error of its wrongness and he compelled them to make those wrongs right. His most well- known summation of this effort is captured in his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
Wingfield writes, “There is a day of reckoning coming – hopefully soon – when the church will have to give account not only for its hypocrisy” [in ignoring the Gospel] “but also for its silence” [in the face of the wrongs that have been perpetrated.]
“If the church of Jesus Christ is to be relevant in our mission, if we are to be agents of God’s reconciling love, we’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror . . . It’s time to say we were wrong.
And that’s just the beginning.”
It is Epiphany, a season when we lift up God’s revelations of new things that are intended to change us in some way for the better. In this season of revelations and resolutions my prayer is that the entire church universal look in the mirror and admit we were wrong. And more pointedly that we – you and I -as followers of Jesus, and as a community of faith here in the heart of the Van Aken district, we will take a hard look in the mirrors of our lives as well. And that in so doing we will have the integrity to say that we have been wrong. Those will be epiphany moments: moments revealing the radical, inclusive love of God in Jesus for all people. May the joy of that moment be the same joy of the Magi as they peered into Jesus’ face. And may that joy propel us to be agents of God’s reconciling love to all we encounter. That will be the beginning of a better way of life for all of us . . . but it will not be the end. Amen.
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.