Sunday, October 25, 2020

21 Pentecost, 20-A: Practitioners of covenant love

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46 

Living in covenant relationship can be a challenge. So many things can divide us from within and without. That’s why we prayed in our Collect that God might increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. As followers of Christ who are pushed beyond our comfort zones on a regular basis, we seek to hold fast to our faith that God is guiding us in every circumstance so that we might embody hope in the face of injustice and respond with charity to hatred or fear. 

About every week I have at least one conversation with someone who has hit their wall. The top five culprits in their dead-end experience are the helplessness they feel over how or when we might stem the destructive tide of the coronavirus, their heartbreak over revelations of a systemic racism they simply hadn’t noticed before and what to do about it, their anxiety over an increasing sense of economic instability for so many, the daily assault of our political divisions in the news, and relationships on the brink of rupture or already lost, either to illness or ideology.

We may not have solutions to the ills of the world - yet, but we can do two things; love God and neighbor as self. At least that’s what Jesus recommends. 

In today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, another group of religious experts, lawyers this time, makes their attempt to publicly entrap and discredit Jesus. Feigning respect by calling him Teacher, they ask Jesus to teach them which commandment in the law is the greatest.

Without hesitation, Jesus answers them by holding up the divine command for covenant love - and it is two-fold. Quoting first from Deut 6:5, which is also the second line of the Shema, a prayer his listeners would have prayed every day, Jesus holds up what our part of covenant love with God looks like: we are to love God: totally – with all the strength of our hearts, minds, and souls.

He completes his answer by quoting from Leviticus, holding up what covenant love with one another looks like: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love, agape love, is active and concerned with the welfare of the other. As one commentator says, “The person who loves with agapao love will want to do something positive for the beloved––to find a way to help.” On these two commands, which have equal weight, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets.

Then Jesus asks the Pharisees a question of his own and it seems he had two purposes in mind. The first was to confront the preconceived notion most people, including the religious leadership, had about the Messiah. Whose son is he? They answer David’s son but Jesus proves them wrong using Psalm 110, which says, “The Lord said to my lord…” How can the Messiah be David’s son and his Lord? He can't.

The second was, I think, to stop the useless intellectual battling and open the minds of his listeners, to reveal to them the shocking reality that their thinking and assumptions just might be inadequate in comparison to the abundant graciousness of God. His plan worked. The religious leadership was confounded and no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The challenge of letting go of preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about how God might be acting to redeem, however, continues for us to this day. What do we think?

Are we called as Christians to win arguments? To what end? Does doing so keep the divine law of covenant love?

There is a symbol in the church called the Christus Rex. It’s a cross with the body of the triumphant risen Christ on it, robed in white, arms raised in prayer, and a crown on his head. This symbol visually forces us to go beyond our preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about death and resurrection life. It connects us to the scriptural stories of the resurrected Jesus, who was unrecognizable to his closest companions - at least at first - doing something as spectacularly unexplainable as walking through locked doors, and something as mundane as eating fish with his friends on the beach.

Whenever we think we know something with certainty, all we need to do is look at a Christus Rex to remember that all we know is what we think we know, and our assumptions may be limiting God’s redeeming work in the world right now.

For the early Christians, God’s redeeming work was limited by their preconceived notion of inclusion. Did a person have to be a Jew, and therefore circumcised, in order to be a Christian? In the end, the answer was no.

Today, God’s redeeming work just might be being limited by our preconceived notions and our lack of discipline in keeping the divine command of covenant love. The evidence we have of that is that there are real divisions among us fomenting growing helplessness, hopelessness, and broken or lost relationships.

When we rely on our thinking to address these issues we rely on an inadequate tool. Jesus teaches us to focus instead on the divine command for covenant love and act from that. Our purpose is not to be right but to be loving.

And we discern how to do that, how to practice covenant love, by praying together, holding fast to our friendships instead of our biases. Then we can build our servant-listening muscle remembering that what may sound like anger is often fear, and what may seem like a big to-do over nothing is often a hurt that is inadequately expressed or understood.

Approaching someone with agape love is the only way we will hear what’s behind their words and perceive what’s behind their actions. Only then can we do something positive for the beloved one before us, and find a way to help. Then will the graciousness of God be upon us, prospering the work of our hands. (Ps 90 :17)

Let us pray. God of love and mercy, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, that we may become disciplined practitioners of covenant love. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

20 Pentecost, 2020-A: Our sacred work

Lectionary: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 

En el nombre del Dios, ques es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

The line between religion and politics is always a popular discussion online and in the news. Should religion be involved in politics and vice versa…? 

In the gospel reading today, some Pharisees, that is, members of a religious sect who were kind of the religious alt-right of their time, joined up with some unlikely allies, Herodians, who were presumably members of a political party supporting the Roman occupiers. Their purpose of this unholy alliance was to entrap and discredit Jesus using the issue of paying the Roman poll tax.

Here’s some background information that is helpful to know: 

1) The Roman poll tax was an annual head tax. Basically, this was Caesar taking money on a per-person basis and in return, he didn’t hurt or kill them. It was rather like a mob payoff. 

2) It was required that the tax be paid with the denarius a Roman coin with a value akin to a day’s pay – not an exorbitant amount for each person, but cumulatively it generated a healthy haul for Caesar. 

3) Jews held the coin to be a graven image, and therefore, idolatrous. They also held the inscription on the coin to be blasphemous. Since it was also the currency of the land, many Jews used the denarius despite the religious law against it. A few, like the alt-right Pharisees, refused to use them at all, which put them in a bind: break the law of God and use the idolatrous coin or break the law of the land and get punished by the Roman occupiers. 

This is the conundrum they brought to Jesus. Would he advise his listeners to break God’s law or Caesar’s? Either way, he would be toast. That was their plan anyway. 

But this is Jesus. He knows what they’re up to and he tells them so.

Bring a coin, he says. Whose face is on it? The emperor’s, they reply. Then Jesus gives his answer and it’s theological and political genius: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The political genius of this is: Know the truth of your moment in history. Give Caesar the coin with his image on it, Jesus says. He thinks it belongs to him anyway to do with as he pleases.

Here’s the theological genius: We know as we read this, that Jesus is the 2nd person of the Trinity, the one through whom all things are made. ALL THINGS. What things, then, are not God’s? All things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources - including all coins – everything belongs to God. Genius!

Recognizing this and living faithfully into it, is the very definition of stewardship. If all people belong to God, then who can we allow to be hungry, or homeless, or un-shoed in winter? Whose physical and mental health needs can be overlooked or underfunded? If all people are God’s, who is our enemy?

We can only exclude today those whom Jesus excluded as he died on the cross. Oh right, he died once for ALL as St. Paul said (Ro 6.10). Likewise, we can exclude no one.

If all time belongs to God, then isn’t it important for us to establish a harmony of rhythms of our time at work, with family, and with God in prayer?

Do our activities speak love? Are they serving the welfare of God’s people, including ourselves, and thereby bringing God glory? Do we hold the precious gifts of our earth in trust for future generations?

What about our finances? Ah, that’s the sticky one, as we saw in our gospel today. Do we hold our wealth as a gift given to us for the accomplishment of God’s purposes or do we, like Caesar, think it belongs to us for our own purposes? Jesus made the answer pretty clear, I think.

The world is a difficult place and life is so hard for so many. As the pandemic continues, the numbers among us who are hungry, unwell physically or mentally, lonely, unemployed, or trapped in fear or anger, steadily increases.

But we have Good News to share and the responsibility to share it – by our words and our actions. The world is desperate for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Just listen to the news (only a little – too much might make you crazy!)

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once said Episcopalians need to get busy “committing to making a practical, tangible difference…helping the world look more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare… It’s sacred work” he said.

To do that, Bp. Curry recommends we make five things a priority: Formation, Evangelism, Witnessing, Relationship, and Structures that serve our mission. We have much of this happening right now at Calvary. For example, our formation currently includes Inquirers Class, Bible and book studies, and a plan for Christian formation for the upcoming seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany adapted to the COVID restrictions. We’re also working on an Inquirers Class geared to children and youth.

Calvary’s evangelism has blossomed with online Daily Office services that enable people to deepen their relationships with God and one another through prayer everyday - something that wasn’t happening before the shutdown.

Our Interim Parish Summits, which begin today, will lay the groundwork for examining our institutional structures so that we can ensure our structures serve our current divine mission. It’s important, faithful work being done here at Calvary – sacred work.

The Church has traditionally supported its sacred work through an annual stewardship campaign calling on people to ‘give sacrificially’ like Jesus did for us. Over time, this has come to feel more like a Roman poll tax than a joyful offering, so let’s faithfully re-frame it.

Jesus said, “Give… to God the things that are God’s.” It’s pretty simple: everything is God’s - including us. Our bodies, our relationships, our activities, our finances, our resources, our church, our prayer – all belong to God.

So don’t give sacrificially – Jesus already did that – once for all! Instead, let’s give until it feels really good! Let’s give gratefully, generously, joyfully - knowing that each of us has been chosen by God to be here in this time and this place, to activate resources entrusted to us to make the world here in Columbia and Boone Co. more like the dream of God.

Annual campaigns are important. Financial resources are necessary for a church to fulfill its divine purpose. As you consider your 2021 pledge to Calvary, hear what St. Paul says about stewardship: “…For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable… I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need...” (2 Cor 8. 9, 11, 13-14)

We are called to participate in making a tangible difference in our world. We who have enough to eat are called to share food with those who are hungry. We who are accepted according to societal preferences of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or economic standing are called to build bridges of friendship and inclusion with those who are marginalized in our time – modeling Jesus who served those judged to be unworthy in his time.

Those who have financial means are called to take up their responsibility and support the church’s mission and ministries so that Calvary can fulfill its divine purpose: being a living, activating vessel of the Jesus movement.

As St. Paul said in today's letter, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you…” When our church buildings were closed by the pandemic, Calvary let our community know that they matter, by immediately setting up a Blessing Box and adapting the Saturday CafĂ© to a To-Go format. The hungry were fed. The houseless were supplied with food and personal hygiene products. Our COVID Help Fund recently saved two families, furloughed from their jobs due to COVID, from eviction.

Calvary is living proof that there is no nightmare the dream of God isn’t already overcoming and the people in our area are seeing the truth of that proclaimed and lived in this parish. That’s why the theme for this year’s pledge campaign is: Serving Community with Gratitude and Generosity.

We are grateful for all God has given us and we want to continue to give generously to our community. I pray everyone will give to Calvary’s ministries during this fall campaign as generously as God has given to us, giving until it feels really good, remembering that all things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – all of it belongs to God. And that our work, serving our community in God’s name with gratitude and generosity, is sacred work. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

19 Pentecost, 2020: A moment of holy discomfort

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14 

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” That’s such an ominous ending to a pretty harsh sounding story, and I always get nervous when Jesus sounds ominous. So did the Pharisees and Scribes to whom Jesus was directing his remarks. 

The parable of the wedding banquet is only found in the gospel of Matthew, and it is in keeping with the author’s purpose to show that Jesus is the Messiah… that in Jesus, “God has begun to fulfill the promises to Israel.” It is also the last teaching Jesus does in the temple before his conflict with the Jewish leadership escalates. 

This parable was meant to sound ominous. Jesus was deliberately pointing to a present evil and calling attention to the disastrous consequences that would follow for those, specifically religious leaders, who remained complacent and self-focused rather than faithful.

From the beginning, God called the people of Israel into covenant relationship so that through them the good news of salvation might be brought to the whole world. Remember God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) And in Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)

In today’s parable, Jesus is announcing that this promise is being fulfilled. In Jesus, God’s plan of salvation is about to break out of the House of Israel and reach the ends of the earth - and the Jewish leadership doesn’t want to hear it.

They, like so many today, have grabbed hold of God’s grace as if it were theirs to own and give to those whom they choose. This is at the core of classism. A few hoard the resources meant for many, then justify and legitimate doing so. When we look at the disparity of resource distribution in our country and in the world today, it seems clear that the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity continues to elude us. 

Jesus’ listeners have become so accustomed to being ‘chosen,’ that they have become complacent, even hypocritical, about it ignoring the rest of what being in covenant relationship required of them. They were called to be “a light to the nations,” to be imitators of God in the world, to reveal God’s grace to the world by the example of their lives. (NISB commentary notes)

But the lives of the religious establishment Jesus is confronting were far from that description, and Jesus slams them for their lack of compassion, their lack of justice, and the arrogance of their self-satisfaction. It is a harsh confrontation, but as harsh as it is, Jesus is actually doing what God always does… making room for repentance… giving the Pharisees and Scribes the chance to make a new choice.

He does this using words that have deep meaning to his listeners. For example, they recognize that the ‘banquet’ symbolizes the kingdom of God, that the slaves represent the prophets of Israel, and that those receiving the invitation represent the chosen people of Israel. They know that the invitation is the call of Israel into a covenant relationship with God, but as the parable says, …they would not come.

So more prophets are sent, Jesus says, this time with the message: the king is still waiting, “everything is ready…come to the banquet” but they still refuse. When they finally did respond, they were insolent and violent, mistreating even killing the prophets.

Enraged by their insolence, the king (God) sends armies to destroy them and burn their city. Some commentators have suggested that this reaction by God seems a bit overdone. That was on purpose. Rabbis often used exaggeration to make a point; and Rabbi Jesus’ point was: they are living in a way that is unacceptable to God.

So finally, God sends out a third group of prophets. These are meant to be understood as the followers of Jesus who will soon go out telling everyone they meet about the new age being inaugurated in Jesus, the Messiah of God.

This third group is told to go out into the streets. The original Greek of this word translates as ‘thoroughfare’…which is a road that is open at both ends. Go out beyond the boundaries, Jesus says in the parable, and gather all you can find …the good (the Jews) and the bad (the Gentiles)… and invite them into the kingdom of God.

But then the parable takes a darker turn. The king comes upon one of the new guests, who, though he did respond to the invitation, is not wearing a wedding robe… The king commands that the guest be tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Why was this poor soul cast out and punished? Well, he made two mistakes which Jesus’ listeners would have noticed.

First, he failed to honor the king by doing what was expected of him as an invited guest. In those days, guests at weddings were expected to wear wedding robes. Vesting, that is, putting on new clothing, represents putting on a new identity. Think about our Baptism and Ordination rites.

The wedding robe is the symbol of a new identity, a converted life. Refusing to wear the robe means being unwilling to be converted. That was the guest’s second mistake.

This part of the parable is a warning to the new guests at the banquet, the New Covenant guests - us. We are the Gentiles Jesus foretold would be invited to the banquet. As such, we are now included among those called to be a light to the nations and bearers of the good news in the world.

As chosen people, we are called to honor God… remembering that our salvation is God’s gift, freely given. We can’t earn it, and we don’t own it.

We have been invited by God to vest in the robes of our new identity and our lives must reflect that identity. The living out of our Baptismal vows must actually happen in our works, not just in our thoughts and prayers.

To be clear, putting on our ‘wedding robes’ and intentionally converting our lives doesn’t mean we weren’t good people serving God well before. It means, as St. Paul said last week, that we haven’t finished the race so we press on…

Vesting in a new identity given to us by God can be unsettling. See if this sounds familiar: “But we’ve always done it this way.” Well, right now, “this way” isn’t working. The video evidence of the suffering of members of our family in God cannot be denied anymore. Their cries cannot be ignored. This is a moment of holy discomfort meant to call us to conversion of our lives. 

By issuing a continual invitation to live a converted life, Jesus gives us the chance to convert in ourselves whatever still needs converting or needs converting again until the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity no longer eludes us or anyone else, but is an apparent reality for all to see. Only then will we live as one in justice and in peace.

I close today with an adaptation of the Collect for the Oppressed, which we shared in our diocesan clergy meeting this past week. Let us pray:

Notice the suffering, generous God, of the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us and help us to notice too. Then lead us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 826)