A little time with Isaiah

Readings for Sunday

The purpose of a sermon, I think, is to help folks encounter the Gospel – the good news of Jesus. So, I tend to focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But encountering the Gospel is not just an encounter with a written record. In fact, it is never just that. The Gospel is a living thing; our encounters are lively and intimate. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John reliably point us in a good direction. But they are guides along the path, not the destination. And not the only guides.

Isaiah
Isaiah being irresistible…

I say that as a way of acknowledging that I’m not much focused on this morning’s Gospel… Because the passage from Isaiah is just too irresistible.

Isaiah, whoever we may mean when we use that name, wrote a long time ago. He, if it was in fact a “he”, wrote over a period of several hundred years… so “he” either lived a very long time, or he had some help.

The book of Isaiah divides neatly into two parts and it would be lovely if the parts followed some sort of linear, timely progression. But they don’t. The prophet offers us a landscape, not a road map.

As a very basic premise, we (the faithful Jews of Isaiah’s time, the disciples of Jesus’ time, and us) are given the Law of Moses to help us live our lives in a way that pleases God. The role of the Prophet is to help us understand the law, and to warn us when we aren’t getting it right – we still need that help today.

The pattern in much of Isaiah, as in other prophets, is to draw attention where we are in

Isaiah Scoll 2
Portion of a scroll of Isaiah

rebellion against God’s law, and to call us to repentance and amendment of life… or else…

In recent times we have developed the notion that Prophets are in the business of predicting the future. This notion of prophesy is hard to resist when the Gospel writers appear to have scoured Isaiah for predictions of Jesus’ birth. But really the task of the prophet was to tell people of urgent issues in their own time, not some far-off future.

The imagery in the book of Isaiah is quite compelling and it couples with the Birth of Jesus in powerful and beautiful ways – but we need to keep in mind that while we may find predictions of the distant future in ancient prophets, Isaiah was not predicting anything. He was telling folks off…

If we let our view of prophets shift too far in the direction of predicting future events, then we lose the immediacy and relevance of the prophets in their own time. And the big danger in that is that we then lose the immediacy and relevance of those same prophets in our time.

destruction of sodom
Destruction of Sodom – at least as an artist conceives it

So, what do we encounter in Isaiah from this morning’s reading? Well we seem to encounter a prophet who is in a bad mood… “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom… you people of Gomorrah.” This is a tough start. These are two cities that were wiped from the face of the earth. Their destruction hints that our own potential destruction may be coming… Rulers and citizens and all…

If you haven’t lost heart already, think about what comes next: “I (meaning God) have had enough of your offerings… trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… Your new moons and festivals my soul hates… even though you make prayers, I will not listen.”

Abandon hope tshirt
Who knew a nifty t-shirt was available…

Yikes. God does not want us to come to church. God has had enough of our offerings. God will not even listen to our prayers. Where can we go from here? It seems that Isaiah has just read to us the sign that Dante places over the gates of Hell: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. How do we get from this point to the good news of Jesus?

The purpose of the Prophet is not to bring us to despair, but rather to bring us to repentance. And what Isaiah is doing in his pronouncement is telling us that lots of good words and lots of wonderful offerings and many beautiful liturgies do not add up to repentance. Repentance is going to have to start somewhere else.

Isaiah has some good starting places. Cease to do evil and learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Of course, we will hear this list again… from the mouth of Jesus.

Orphans and widows had a particular place in the society of the time – and that was not a good place. Your value and status in the community came from the family and the family was a projection of the father. A widow had no status because it died with her husband. And orphans had no status because it died with their parents.

Isaiah is talking about the most powerless people in the neighborhood… the people nobody wanted to even notice… And Jesus, centuries later, is saying the same thing – apparently, we didn’t learn. In modern times, widows and orphans are no longer the great pariahs of society… but we have not eliminated that place, we’ve just relegated other people to it. Isaiah and Jesus are both calling us to repent…

But then Isaiah takes this marvelous turn. After we’ve been told that our prayers and our worship are worthless and that blood is on our hands, Isaiah says come, let’s talk. Let us reason it out… our sins, which are blood red, can be washed white as snow… if we are willing to become obedient.

If not, we will be devoured by the sword. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Following Jesus is about relationship. Our relationship with God, our relationship with our brothers and sisters, our relationship with all of God’s creation. Was Adam’s sin about an apple or about damaging the pure and direct relationship he had with God? Sodom wasn’t destroyed because of sex, but because they refused hospitality… they refused relationship with strangers and, in so doing, refused God. The sin of neglecting widows and orphans, or whoever it is that we wish to avoid, is in rejecting relationship.

shema wall plaque.jpg
Shema Yisrael – Temple Creed

The ancient Jewish understanding of the obligation to God is the ancient Temple creed – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength. In Christian Tradition that is paired with the command to love our neighbors.

These days there are those who like to cast themselves as prophets – and they fill this role by predicting destruction. Natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods, as well as tragedies like airline crashes seem to bring these voices out of the woodwork. God is punishing us because… of whatever. The Rev Pat Robertson, a rather infamous televangelist, after the events of September 11, 2001, boldly asserted that God had lifted the veil of protection from the United States because of – and you can fill in the rest…

But notice that while Isaiah does hint that great destruction is possible, maybe even imminent, what he really wants is for us to love the people around us, especially the ones we don’t want to love – those persistent widows and orphans…

Br Andrew used to joke about a preacher’s message which seems to say that God loves us so very, very, extremely much that he just can’t wait to blast us to smithereens if we get one step out of line… That is not the good news of Jesus.

The good news of Jesus is that God’s loving and forgiving grace is always poured out for us – even when we do not know it or accept it. And especially when we don’t deserve it – since we never deserve it…

Our response to God’s grace, as in the days of Isaiah, is to live in faith and to seek justice for all of creation. Martin Luther King taught that justice is the calculation of God’s love. The call from Isaiah and from Jesus to us is to seek to love all of creation, and to let ourselves be loved. Nothing more and nothing less.

Jesus with kitty
Who could resist this… Jesus loves cats.
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Who is my neighbor?

Readings for Sunday, July 14

This morning’s reading from Luke begins with a special type of question – a rhetorical question. It has a purpose that is not to get an answer. So, it’s not, in some sense, a true question. It’s a test.question-mark-2110767_960_720

What must I do to inherit eternal life? The translation we heard this morning describes this person as “a lawyer.” And it’s hard to resist making “lawyer” jokes… But this person is not a lawyer in our modern sense. He is a scholar in the Law of Moses – a scribe. Throughout the Gospel stories, scribes and pharisees are targets of scorn. We tend to hear the two terms together – as though the “Scribes and Pharisees” are a unified group, which they are not. But to be honest, the scribes and pharisees that we meet in the Gospels are little more than a collection of shallow stereotypes. Their purpose is to confuse or confound Jesus. And that, in fact, is exactly what this morning’s “lawyer” is trying to do.

So, the question is not a question and we need to let go of the notion that the scribe is really interested in knowing anything about eternal life. But how is it a test?

Well the scribe, or lawyer, or what have you, is not questioning eternal life. He is questioning Jesus’ authority to speak about things having to do with religious life. He, the scribe, is an expert in Jewish law and tradition. So, the obvious assumption for everyone else in the room is that he already knows the answer and he is testing to see if Jesus really knows…

biases-clipart-law-symbol-1So, Jesus responds by tossing back the question… what do you read in the law? What does it say? Jesus is basically asking “don’t you already know the answer to your question?” Now it is the honor of the scribe that is being tested.

And the scribe gives what is perhaps the safest answer for any question having to do with Jewish law – you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and mind. This is the ancient temple creed that is the basis of all law. Except that the scribe has added something… The creed comes from Deuteronomy. But the scribe embellishes – you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That comes from Leviticus.

In Matthew and Mark, we hear this answer from Jesus – you shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know it as the great commandment. But it’s curious that here in Luke’s telling, it is the scribe, not Jesus, who puts these two commands together. This may add a little credence to the combining of the commands – after all, the scribe is an expert in such matters. Or perhaps the scribe has already heard Jesus make the association and so he does as well to trick Jesus somehow.

Whatever the case may be, Luke is making an important point. At that time, study of the law was considered of greater value than living the law… We might tend to think of that as hypocrisy today, but that may be a bit unfair. In order to study the law, you had to live it – but you could study beyond your ability to live. Think of it this way: I can be a great student of music without being a good musician.

When the scribe says love the Lord your God and love you neighbor as yourself Jesus says “you have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.” Love is not a theoretical construct that you can learn about by studying… This must be frustrating to the scribe, who has built his life on the assumption that his quality of study is his most important quality. You must love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. This is not a study opportunity – it’s a call to love.

If the scribe were sensible, he’d stop here. But that is not what he does. He has another question… The previous question was a test, this question is a trap.

Who is my neighbor? In the tinder box that was and is the middle east, this is an explosive question. By saying who my neighbor is, I also say who is not my neighbor. It is a question that has been at the heart of much violence.

Jesus does not give a direct answer. Instead he gives a parable. And by teaching in parable, Jesus manages to give an answer that is both timeless and always relevant. So, we must pay attention.

Good SamaritanIt is the story of the good Samaritan – and we all probably know the story well. But let’s review a bit.

A certain man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is all we get to know about this man… Was he rich or poor? Jew or Gentile? Roman or Greek? We know nothing – because it doesn’t matter.

We do know that he has chosen a dangerous road. When Jesus tells us he was going down to Jericho, he really means down. Jericho is nearly twelve hundred meters below Jerusalem. That would be about 350 stories… The narrow and treacherous path goes wadikelt1through various gorges and drops, skirting cliffs and all sorts of hazards. And if the natural hazards were not enough, it is a road through wild country. There is no rule of law. No Highway Patrol. Sensible people do not travel this road by themselves… but here is a certain man, all by himself, on this wildly dangerous road.

Naturally, things go badly. Robbers set upon him. Everyone could see this coming. The robbers take all his stuff and leave him for dead. This is exactly what the listening crowd would expect. A man sets of on the Jericho road by himself… this is the only possible outcome. Like in a horror movie where there is a noise in the basement, and somebody heads down the stairs… It always ends badly.

But Jesus adds some details to make the story interesting. There are other strangers on the Jericho road this particular day. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan… A cluster of three is an ancient story telling device. We still do this today with jokes that begin with something like a doctor, a nurse, and a lawyer walk into a bar…

The third person is supposed to follow the pattern of the first two. Jesus’ third person breaks the pattern. A priest and a Levite are respectable and powerful. But the Samaritan doesn’t just break the pattern, he shatters it.

It is as though my joke started: A doctor, a lawyer, and a pig walk into a bar… By convention, these people should be equal or of ascending importance… by putting the Samaritan in the final position, Jesus has insulted the priest and the Levite. This is certainly his point. The priest and Levite are no more precious in God’s sight than the Samaritan – just don’t tell them. The doctor and lawyer in my joke are no more precious in God’s sight than anyone else. This is something we can be reminded of day by day.

But just in case we don’t get it from the setup, Jesus fills out the story. The priest does nothing for the man by the road, and nor does the Levite. We can make all sorts of assumptions about their need to get to some appointment, or their fear of taking a risk, given how dangerous the road is.

But the Samaritan does intervene. And he withholds nothing in his intervention. He even follows up at a later date to see that things have gone well.

Portrait Of Mister Rogers
Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor? asks the scribe. The one who shows mercy – the scribe answers his own question. And Jesus says go and do likewise.

Surely Jesus instruction to the scribe is an instruction to all of us. And to whom should we show mercy? I believe that is why Jesus tells us nothing about that man on the Jericho road. Was he a good man? A criminal? A thief taking a dangerous road to escape arrest? A religious person or a total non-believer? I tend to feel sympathy for him, but for all we know he is a predator. He may have been on that road to rob others… It doesn’t matter.

helping man
From Riots in Detroit in 1943, two white men help a badly beaten black man to safety. Who is my neighbor?

The call from Jesus is for us to show mercy not just to those who we think deserve mercy… We are called to show mercy to all who are in need of mercy.

A sermon for a challenging Gospel…

Readings for Proper 8

Luke’s Gospel this morning gives us a number of difficult messages. It’s hard to tell if Jesus is being sarcastic, or nasty, or what… and it’s not easy to see what this Gospel reading calls us to do.

It’s helpful to have a little context. This passage occurs in a section of Luke’s Gospel that scholars call “The Journey to Jerusalem”. Easter is well behind us by now, but in this part of the Gospel, Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem… toward Crucifixion. The disciples seem to be doing their best not to think about this, but it’s clearly on Jesus’ mind or, as Luke would seem to have it, on Jesus face.

This is not the only telling of the Gospel with a journey to Jerusalem, but Luke’s journey is strangely cluttered. It starts with rejection. Jesus and the disciples enter a Samaritan

2jerizim-samaritan-village-e1362159630197
Ruins of a Samaritan Village in the foreground.

village, but the Samaritans will not receive them. This is a major breach of social custom in the middle east, where travelers are always to be welcomed. While there has almost always been tension between the various religious and ethnic identities in the region, tensions still very present today, there was also an understanding that strangers were to be welcomed. So, Jesus and the disciples had every reason to expect that they would be welcomed and good reason to be quite offended when they were not.

James and John, the hot-tempered disciples, are all set to take action. They want to call down fire from heaven and destroy the Samaritan village. They want to go from bad etiquette to an act of war in one easy step. And not just an act of war, but what we today would consider a war crime – they want to destroy the community, women and men, adults and children, everyone and everything.

This might be a distant echo of the destruction of the city of Sodom, which also refused to welcome strangers. But it seems quite presumptuous. We don’t have any indication from anything in scripture that James and John, or any of the disciples for that matter, have the power to call down fire from heaven. We don’t have stories of Jesus calling down fire from heaven. Where on Earth do James and John get the idea that this is something Jesus may want them to do? Or that they have the power and authority to do it?

Luke has been drawing subtle parallels between Jesus journey to Jerusalem and the Prophet Elijah, whose last journey was to Gilgal. The Lord sends messengers ahead of Elijah to prepare the journey and Jesus sends messengers ahead to the Samaritan village.

The_doom_of_sodom
The Ruin of Sodom – at least in modern imagination. A “loving” act?

Elijah is renowned for calling fire down from heaven… But Jesus has brought a new covenant, a new relationship with God. The God of Vengeance that Elijah knew is now known as the God of Love – the three-personed God: God  who made us in love; Jesus – God’s beloved and our beloved; and the Holy Spirit – love overflowing and surrounding us. 

So, when James and John want to go nuclear, Jesus says no. Jesus has not come to destroy us, but to save us… all of us… Jesus has come not just for the faithful Jews but for the Samaritans… The disciples have trouble sharing Jesus. And we still have trouble sharing Jesus, sharing God. But Jesus doesn’t belong just to Episcopalians, or just to Christians… or even just to people… Jesus is Lord of All Creation. And it is Jesus’ desire, God’s desire, that none of that be lost.

So far, the message in today’s Gospel is challenging, but not shocking. We know that God’s love, expressed in Jesus, is boundless and unconditional. We know that God loves our enemies and that we are called to love our enemies as well. This would be much easier if our enemies would just be more lovable… Or if we could somehow rationalize that calling down fire from heaven on our enemies was a loving act… And, to be honest, contemporary Christians often find ways to rationalize vile behavior as somehow loving.

But Luke goes on – and he seems to wonder off into the tall grass. As Jesus and the disciples walk on someone (One of the disciples? Someone who just happens to be there on the road?) volunteers that he will follow Jesus anywhere. We know that Jesus is not

foxes
No particular relevance, but they sure are cute…

just out for a stroll. He is walking toward Jerusalem to be executed. Jesus replies that foxes have dens and birds have nests, but he has nothing. Jesus seems to answer a question that has not been asked…

Foxes and birds are at the mercy of nature, but even that mercy is greater than what Jesus and the followers can expect… Jesus wants to be sure this person knows what they are volunteering for.

Another is ready to follow just as soon as he buries his father. It’s not clear if the father is dead or alive at this point – but it’s a reasonable assumption that he is dead. So, the son has a matter of hours to bury him. Jewish funeral customs were complex, but quick. Nobody, friend or foe, could be left un-buried. But Jesus says let the dead bury the dead… you go and preach the Gospel. It sounds harsh because it is. One of the greatest duties in the Jewish faith is the duty to bury the dead, but Jesus is saying that there is an even greater duty – one that supersedes all other duties, and that is the duty to share the good news.

So, a third person volunteers that they will follow – just as soon as they say goodbye to friends and family. And Jesus, who seems to be in a pretty foul mood, says if you put your hand to the plow and look back, you are unfit for God’s kingdom.

This is also part of the subtle relationship Luke is drawing between Jesus and Elijah. Elijah calls Elisha to follow him – and at the time of the call Elisha happens to be plowing. Elisha asks to be allowed to kiss his father and mother before he follows. Elijah, it seems, is a bit more permissive than Jesus. Why is Jesus so harsh?

Some speculate that if you look back while plowing, then you are likely to have a crooked furrow. And if you have one crooked furrow, then all the subsequent furrows will be crooked – and your field will be a mess… I’ve never had my hand on a plow – but I have

ox plow
This is the view looking forward – so you can see why looking back would be tempting…

in fact seen ox-drawn plows at work. So, I don’t buy this explanation at all… Ox-drawn plows are, to say the least, tools of contemplation. You move very slowly. The person with hand on plow gets to look all around at everything… Oxen will not be rushed… And none of the furrows that I have seen are particularly straight.

I think what Jesus is talking about is our attitude and commitment. When we set about building the Kingdom of God, we can’t do so by looking backward. If we are looking to the past, we will bring the past – the old injustices, old vices, old affections – with us. These things have no place in the Kingdom.

They will, in fact, keep us from the Kingdom. This is why it is hard for those who love money to enter the Kingdom – their affection is divided. Loving and wanting to honor family hardly seems like a vice – certainly not in the way of loving money or power – but in God’s Kingdom, we are all one family. Our identity on this earth is not our identity in Heaven.

While acknowledging family and loved ones seems harmless enough, a great deal of evil has come from this practice. Our identity with family, with tribe, with clan, with political party, with nation, with whatever, all become ways of dividing our people from the “others.”

James and John, when they want to have fire rain down from heaven on the Samaritan village, have to see the Samaritans as “others.” We want fire to rain down on them… we don’t want fire to rain down on us…

And Jesus says no. There is no us or them… There is no Jew or Greek… No Christian or Muslim… No male or female… No liberal or conservative… There is us – Children of God. Creatures of God’s creation. We are one with all of God’s creation.

This is the path we walk with Jesus. It is a path where our identities of who are come to an end just as Jesus’ human flesh and blood identity comes to an end when he reaches Jerusalem.

In this morning’s Gospel we are being reminded of just how vast the cost of this discipleship is.charism_wordle_w_background_b

Day of Pentecost

Readings for this day – in case you are curious…

The story of Pentecost is already rich, but I want to add another bit of reading to the morning. This is part of a sonnet by Kenneth E. Boulding. Professor Boulding was not primarily a poet. He was a highly regarded economist and lecturer in economics. And he was also a highly convicted Quaker with a zeal for peace and justice – my kind of economist.

We know not how the day is to be born, whether in clouds of glory, tongues of flame, as once at Pentecost the Spirit came, or whether imperceptibly as dawn; But as the seed must grow into the tree, so life is love, and love the end must be.

The day of Pentecost is a day of excitement and of power – of the in-breaking of the spirit. God taking on the flesh of the disciples and using them to speak. Not just God with holy-spirit-coming-like-a-fire-doveus, God in us.

The events described are so startling that they can almost seem magical. A group of people suddenly start speaking languages that they have never spoken before. Witnesses attest that these aren’t new or unknown languages – they are the native languages of those gathered around; As though just by being in South Africa I could understand and speak Xlosa, or Zulu, or Afrikaans. That would be a miracle.

I’ve heard various attempts to try to rationalize what happened. These languages weren’t, after all, from the other side of the planet – they were from the same region and were routinely heard in Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples had subliminally learned these languages and then, through some type of hypnotic parlor trick, were coaxed into speaking them.

Almost nothing in that rationalization appeals to me – and I love to rationalize… But we might take a cue from the notion of a parlor trick, from modern day conjurors of parlor tricks. The key to understanding the work of illusionists, of magicians, is to not be distracted by the thing that demands your attention – by the waving hand or wand or whatever. The real action is someplace else. The skill of the magician is to distract us. This approach, of course, ruins the fun of the illusion, but does give clearer insight into what is going on.

So, I look again at this passage from Acts, but looking away from the Disciples and their wondrous ability to speak in tongues – the thing that seems to demand attention…

And what do I notice? The thing that jumps right out at me is that the crowd is not amazed by the ability of the disciples to speak in tongues. They are amazed at their

Keep Calm poster
Part of a fun series of posters – available from the web site KeepCalmAnd@posters.com

 

ability to understand. “How is it that we hear in our own native language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

I have always thought of Pentecost as a story about the miraculous ability to speak but those eye witnesses experienced it as a miraculous ability to hear.

So much of our Christian practice these days is about sharing, about spreading the good news. That is wonderful and good. But a great deal of our Christian practice needs to be about listening. What is God saying to us? How is God calling us? If I am to carry God’s good news into this broken and hurting world, I surely must spend a great deal of time listening to God. Otherwise I’m likely to carry my idea of God’s good news into the world – in other words, my news. And that is not God’s call to us.

As monks here at this monastery (and this is true of all monk’s in all monasteries) we spend a big part of each day in silence. We eat many meals in silence. We spend a large part of our prayer time in silence. We do this so that we can hear God.

Someone asked me once why God only speaks when we are silent. It’s not that God only speaks, it’s that we can only hear when we are silent. God speaks in a still voice – and uses few words. The silence is about our ability to listen. God is always speaking to us, always present with us. We, and I include myself at the head of the list, are often not ready to listen. Thankfully God is forgiving as well as persistent.

So, this miracle of Pentecost is that an entire crowd of people could hear God speaking to each of them in their own language.

We know this about God: God comes to us where we are. God reads our innermost thoughts and ideas. God knows our hearts. And God loves us, each and every one of us. It’s incomprehensible. We, as humans, can have a great deal of superficial love. We’re human, we do the best we can. But God’s love is never superficial. God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. And God loves us.

So here we are on this day of Pentecost. In the great cycle of the Church Year, this is the turning point. Jesus has been present in the flesh with the faithful – but now Jesus has Holy Spirit and Mary Magdalaascended, gone home as it were. And we’re still here. But we’re not alone or abandoned. We are surrounded by the Holy Spirit – not just surrounded… Filled!

This is part of the symbolic meaning of our Eucharistic celebration. By partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, we become part of the body and blood of Jesus.

It starts with listening – just as on that first Pentecost all those years ago. As Kenneth Bouldling reminds us, we don’t know how the day is to be born. It’s not a story about the ability to communicate, it’s a story about the ability to listen. The more we think we know about what we’re listening for, the more likely we are to drown out that voice of God.

Are we prepared to be surprised by God speaking to us, through whatever means, in our own native language? It sounds simple enough, but I have to admit that I probably listen more for God to speak in some exulted “language of the temple.” And the miracle of Pentecost is that God speaks in the languages of our hearts.

We can’t even restrict our listening to spoken language – since God speaks to us in music, through flowers, through other creatures that share our lives, through all of creation. All these things speak to us of their creator… of God.

And so, we pray for open hearts and minds that will let us hear the voice, the music, the dance of God that is all around us.

 

pentecost
Holy Spirit Descending

Sermon for Easter V

Here are the readings…

For much of Eastertide we hear stories of things that happened between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension – which really makes sense as we are between those two events… But the Gospel for today is more prominent in Holy Week, rather than in the events after Easter. It is the scripture that gives us the name Maundy Thursday. 

The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin of the anthem that was part of the liturgy in ancient times: Mandatum novum do vobisant_mandatum_novum which itself comes from this part of John’s Gospel. Mandatum, over time and with the gentle erosion of linguistic evolution, becomes “Maundy” and then attaches to a day – Maundy Thursday. 

And this is part of John’s Gospel that we heard this morning. The specific quote is “I give you a new commandment (mandatum novum do vobis), that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV) 

Here is another Mandatum novum: “Your priority from now on should be to love one another. Copy my love for you. If you love one another, people will recognize you as my followers.” (Good as New) 

A few striking things: 

This is not really a new commandment… It’s not the first time Jesus has talked about the importance of love. We recall when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength;” and the second part “love your neighbor as yourself.”  

This, in turn, is really a paraphrase of the ancient temple creed found in Deuteronomy. Shema yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. […] You Shema-P_1-72dpishall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  

God commands the faithful to take this command to heart, to teach it to the children, to recite it at home and when travelling, when you go to bed and when you arise… 

You’ll notice that Shema yisrael does not contain the second part: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus has slipped something in…  

We tend to understand this as two great commandments, one – love the Lord your God; and the second  Love your neighbor as yourself. but we really need to understand them as different expressions of one command. 

We cannot love God unless we love our neighbors. We cannot love our neighbors unless we love ourselves. We cannot love God, who we cannot see, unless we love ourselves and our neighbors who we can see. 

What is new in John’s Gospel is that Jesus has gone a step further from the ancient command. Jesus tells us that we are now called to love as God loves.  

We are not just called to worship and love God, but to act in a Godly way. If we want to follow Jesus, then this is what we must do. This is the new commandment. 

In case we have doubt about how big a deal this is, Jesus amplifies that everyone will know us by our love… This is our identity… our essence… God is love and so love is the thing that defines us as Godly. 

In the history of the Christian church we have not always been known by or for our love. We, as a tradition, as a people, as individuals… This phrase turns around in a fascinating way: If we do not love one another, then we are not followers of Jesus… not disciples… not Christians. 

There is an interesting nuance between “commandment” and “mandatum” or “mandate” – and it’s a nuance that pops up in English, not in the original languages.  

Command is a rather broad word – it refers to a system of control. Beyond that, it can require that we must do something, or that we must not do something. A command can demand or forbid.  

Mandate, in modern usage, has come to mean specifically something that we must do. Mandate is a positive word – much more specific than command which is neither positive nor negative. 

So, we have a mandate… not the memory of a mandate, or the re-enactment of a mandate, or a reflection on someone else’s mandate… We have a new mandate. We are to love one another as God loves us. 

Sometimes it seems that we struggle to make the Gospel and complex as we possibly can. We have ideas about what we can eat on which days, about how we should worship and pray, about how our society should be formed, about what kind of clothes we should wear, what kind of hymns to sing, what kind of politics to support…  

1200px-Peanut-Butter-Jelly-SandwichWithin our own Order we had, many years ago, a simmering spiritual debate about the nature of peanut butter… Is it a “butter” or is it a “jam” in it’s essence? The reason for the debate? The Order had the understanding that, during Lent, it was not good to have butter and jam on your breakfast toast. But if peanut butter was, in essence, a form of jam, then surely you could have peanut butter and jam… This was considered a spiritually important discussion. 

The Order of the Holy Cross is not the only religious institution to engage is this sort of religious hair splitting. In the middle ages, theologians seem to have spent a great deal of time debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  

Missing in such discussions is love. Where is the love? We can make all the clever arguments about faithful living through pins and peanut butter, but Jesus is so clear – the only way to live in faith with Jesus is to love. Everything else is, to be polite, fertilizer. 

One other question that comes to my mind is why is the Lectionary confronting us with this particular lesson today? Usually we hear about the new commandment on Maundy Thursday. Here in this season where we hear about the various encounters between the risen Jesus and the always struggling disciples why this? 

Well, some would say that if we could only hear one piece of scripture, this would be it. If we heard only one sermon, it should be on this passage of scripture. This is Jesus defining for us in clear terms what it means to be a follower of Jesus. From a liturgical drama standpoint, crucifixion and resurrection are the peak of the story, but from the humble follower of Jesus, this instruction is it. Jesus died and rose from the dead so that we could love one another as Jesus loves us.  

So, the question is not why this week… the question is why not every week? Every day? At every moment of our lives? 

And in fact, we do hear this at all times and in all places – for this is what Jesus always says to us. We have a mandate to love one another as we are loved by God. It is the only command we need to hear – for from it proceed all good ways of living. 

Sermon for Easter III

Today’s Readings…

Easter is now a few weeks behind us and this morning’s Gospel reading finds us, appropriately enough, with the disciples also just a few weeks after Easter. It’s an interesting section of John’s Gospel because it is the postlude, if you will. John’s Gospel has already concluded with resurrection stories of Jesus and the disciples. Some scholars believe that this entire section is an addition to the original Gospel… An add on… Who knows…?

This “second ending” for John provides and interesting parallel to the start for John. In John’s telling, Jesus is first recognized when he responds to a critical shortage of wine at a certain wedding in Cana by transforming water – and it’s not just wine that is provided,

boatload
Disciples with nets full – can’t wait for breakfast…

its vast quantities of excellent wine. Jesus tries to keep a lid on it, but people’s eyes are opened, and at least a few see Jesus for who he is.

Now here in the aftermath of crucifixion and resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples, but they don’t know him – just as the wedding guests at Cana did not know Jesus. In previous resurrection encounters Jesus has been in Jerusalem. But here he is at the sea of Tiberias – also known as the sea of Galilee. Cana, as it happens, is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. This is about where it all began. What started with changing a shortage of wine into abundance now continues with changing a shortage of fish into an abundance.

I don’t think John is just engaging in clever point-of-unity story telling. For the story that he gives us is complex and unclear. Either it is a story of terrible backsliding on the part of the disciples, or a story of deep and powerful symbolism. My guess is that it is both.

The backsliding story is right there on the surface. Jesus has been crucified and has risen. But somehow the disciples have wandered back to their old lives as fisherman – and not too successful fishermen at that. It appears that they have given up and gone home. Jesus has commissioned the disciples to carry the Gospel, the good news, to the world, but here they are back at their nets on the sea of Galilee. They have gone in a circle. Nothing has changed.

The story of deep symbols sits on top of that. Jesus has sent the disciples out into the world – he has made them fish for people. But here they are in the dark of night not even able to fish for fish, let alone people. Jesus, the light, the bright Morningstar, comes with

galilee
Sea of Galilee at dawn

the dawn and now the nets are nearly destroyed because there are too many fish. In their own darkness the disciples can do little. With the light of Christ, all things are possible.

As at Cana, it is the miracle of abundance that opens the disciple’s eyes and they recognize Jesus.

John adds a rather comical moment… When Peter realizes that it is Jesus and that he, Peter, is naked, he does two things… he puts on a garment and he jumps in the water. Peter just can’t wait to get to Jesus. He’s so enthusiastic he jumps in the water and rushes to shore, while the other folks are left to

Konrad-Witz-Miraculous-Catch-Of-Fish-881x728
You can’t quite tell – but one of the disciples is naked… and Jesus is watching.

slowly bring in the heavily laden boat. Peter is impetuous.

When they all get to shore it’s time for breakfast – fresh fish and fresh bread. We know the story of “the Last Supper” that becomes the model for our Eucharist… but here in John’s Gospel, this is the last meal, not supper but breakfast. This is the last time the disciples eat with Jesus. This could have been chosen as the model for our Eucharist… except then we’d be having bread and fish. I have to say I’m glad we went with an earlier meal and settled on bread and wine.

To me there are two things we need to realize.

First – we live in a world of abundance. Too often we live in a mindset of poverty… that we don’t have enough… Not enough wine… not enough fish… The greed and avarice this breeds destroys our society and our souls. If I don’t have enough, then I can’t give to those in need because then I will have even less. I can’t help others until I have enough… except I never have enough.

The richest people on earth strive and struggle to get even more. And that leaves a great number of people without food, without safe drinking water, living in retched conditions, and suffering. We live in a world of plenty – something that has not been true in the past. We have enough food to feed everyone. We have enough resources to house and clothe everyone. But we live in a mindset of scarcity. This is not a faithful way to live the Gospel.

Second – Jesus is always with us. Perhaps the disciples got discouraged and went back to what they knew before Jesus – back to their lives as fisherman. But Jesus has not abandoned them. Their faith may be weak, but Jesus is faithful. And Jesus arrives to strengthen the disciples.

Now, some two thousand years later, we still live by faith. And we are still aware that Jesus refreshes our faith in various ways. At times we face doubts, questions, perhaps a sense of uselessness or even failure in this endeavor to follow Jesus. That is OK. Turning away from Jesus just gives us an opportunity to turn back to Jesus – and we know from the Gospels that Jesus always and joyfully welcomes us back.

This morning’s reading goes a little further. We have this conversation between Jesus and Peter – who was so excited to see Jesus that he rushed to shore. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than these – and the meaning of the question is a bit unclear. Does Peter love Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus? Or does Peter love Jesus more than he loves his fellow disciples? Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Love me yes or noPeter insists that he loves Jesus and Jesus has a simple response: Feed my lambs. We get three versions of the question and each time Peter insists that he loves Jesus. Remember at the time of the crucifixion that Peter has denied even knowing Jesus three times…

Some folks want to hear Jesus command to feed or tend the sheep as a way of putting Peter in charge – Jesus, the good shepherd, is passing on that duty to Peter, with the other disciples (and by extension the formative church) being the flock. And if your goal is to assume authority it’s a good understanding. But John’s gospel is not really concerned with developing church leadership.

In the context of John’s gospel, Jesus has been clear that our love of God will be visible in our actions. We will be known by our love. Jesus has just demonstrated his love of the disciples in an abundance of fish and bread for breakfast. Jesus has told the disciples that they are to love others as he has loved them.

We’re not meant to simply wait and watch for Jesus to show up. There is a quote attributed to Saint Francis; “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” The only thing we know for sure is that Francis didn’t say this… but it’s still a good guide. Our lives, our actions, our deeds must show the Gospel. If they don’t, then are words are pointless.

Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, defend those who are defenseless, care for the sick and comfort those who are sorrowful. By doing these things we live the Gospel of God’s love

tear-side
Grieving at a grave site

and, in so doing, we share that Gospel with those around us.

The disciples left their old lives as fishermen to follow Jesus. But here at the end of John’s Gospel we find the disciples back at their nets. I think this is exactly where they are supposed to be. It’s not exotic and it’s not heroic. But God’s Kingdom is built daily by simple, faithful acts. Their faithful lives as fishermen is what God desires… an ordinary faith.

So, we, the successors of these various disciples, are called to attend to daily, mundane things, but in a way that witnesses to God’s abundant love and grace. In this way the world is transformed.

Easter Sermon

Alleluia – the Lord is risen!

Here are the readings for the curious…

Jesus lives! This is an occasion of great joy, but we must be sober for just a bit. We must remind ourselves that Jesus lives despite our best efforts.

We were, after all, in the crowd shouting “crucify” just a few days ago. We might console ourselves that we were just actors reading a part – but that lets us off the hook too easily.angry-mob There is no escaping the fact that Jesus died at human hands – hands like ours. And if we examine ourselves in the clear light of Easter morning, we will find that we still fail to recognize Jesus… still deny Jesus… still crucify Jesus. Jesus is still dying at our hands.

If we work at it hard enough, we can take the Alleluia right back out of this Easter celebration! I’m not proposing that we do that…

The truth is that when it comes to killing Jesus, there is another inescapable fact – we have failed. It’s just that simple. We failed. Human hands did their best. Jesus was crucified to the very best of our ability and was good and stone-cold dead – three days in the tomb. Yet the Lord is risen indeed! Could there be any sweeter failure?

So here we are on Easter Sunday – a happy bunch of failures…

But Jesus hasn’t risen just to show off… It would seem that Jesus is not finished. Jesus has more to say.

In dying and rising from the dead, Jesus isn’t just demonstrating the power of God – the invincibility of God. There is a subtle but extremely important lesson. Jesus is telling us something about the persistence of God in our lives – our personal and private lives…

Let’s look how Mary of Magdala finds Jesus. She has come to the tomb and found it open. This means something is wrong. She raises the alarm. Others come to her aid and mary at tombinvestigate the scene. We have a small crowd on hand. But this isn’t when Jesus greets Mary – when there is an audience. He waits until she is once again by herself – weeping. Jesus comes to her, to each of us, in our private moments of despair. Or perhaps this is when we are vulnerable enough to be aware of Jesus’ presence.

“Don’t hold on to me” Jesus warns Mary. Is this a safety warning? And if so, who’s safety are we worried about? Could Jesus be injured by Mary’s touch – or could Mary be injured by the raw power of Jesus?

Or is it something else. Is this a more profound warning. Could Jesus be warning Mary not to hold on to what has been, to what has passed? Perhaps, in a way, Jesus is saying don’t hold on to who I was – because I am.

This is a very powerful message for all of us who worship and seek to follow a living great-i-am.gifGod. We can’t hold on too tightly to what we have known, to our experience, to our traditions – and at the same time we can’t let go. Living relationships are complicated, messy, and wonderful. I think Jesus is calling Mary to be in a living relationship, rather than to live in her memories… calling not just Mary of Magdala, but each of us to a living relationship.

Jesus is not terribly concerned with comforting Mary. He might have said: “Why do you weep, Mary, for I am alive again and the nightmare is over. Everything will be all right.” But he doesn’t give her many comfortable words. Instead he gives her a job to do. “Go and tell the others I am ascending.”

Now the others are already having a hard time keeping up with the plot. They have probably only just barely begun to comprehend that Jesus is dead. Now they are learning that he is not dead, but alive. And to this confusing mess Mary is told to add that he is ascending… I’m not sure this piece of information is going to clear things up.

But look at what Mary of Magdala does. She goes to the others and says, “I have seen the

CR Altar
Altar at Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield UK. This marvelous piece of art is open at the back, to create and empty tomb.

Lord.” This is the first thing out of her mouth. This is not what Jesus has told her to say. This comes from her own heart. I’m not at all sure I understand what Jesus means when he says I am ascending, but I do know what Mary means when she says I have seen the Lord.

I, too, have seen the Lord!

Jesus dies. Jesus rises. Jesus lives and comes to us in very personal ways. And we are given this example of Mary of Magdala. Jesus comes to her in her grief, her despair, her sorrow, and asks her to do something. Jesus calls her to witness. And she does this in her own way – I have seen the Lord.

So how does Jesus find us on this joyful Easter morn?

Perhaps tired – to the point of exhaustion… We’ve been keeping vigil for a very long time… And that on top of the seemingly endless activity of Holy Week.

Perhaps sad and guilty. We’ve had time to call to mind the ways we have failed to follow Jesus and the ways that we still, to this day, continue to deny and crucify Jesus in our hearts and in our lives.

Perhaps fearful. The events of Holy Week have forced us to think about death. We know that Jesus faced death and that we too will face death; our own, or even more painfully, the death of someone we love and do not want to live without.

Perhaps joyful. We know that our redeemer lives and that our sins are forgiven. That we are beloved children of God and heirs of God’s Kingdom.

It is in this mix of emotion that Jesus comes to us, asking us why we weep. Telling us not to be afraid. Warning us not to try to hold on too tightly to what we have known. To be witnesses of the love of the Jesus.

This is our baptismal covenant – we die to the old and are born again to new life in Jesus the Christ. It is, I think, not something that happens once and for all, but happens a little more each day.

Regularly we push Jesus out of our lives – maybe just for a moment, maybe for a long time. In big and little ways, we crucify Jesus. Just as regularly Jesus rises and comes back to us.

This is the durable, patient persistence of God. We can do our absolute worst – and at times we do… Yet when it comes to killing Jesus we will always fail. At times we may even be blessed to say, as Mary of Magdala says, that we have seen the Lord. Alleluia!