Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few or maybe none that I find more confusing and more troubling than the one that we just heard. This is the story that is sometimes titled in Bibles: The Parable of the Talents. And I reckon that it troubles me so much because, here in the West, here in 2020, it is so, so easy to read it as an allegory – an allegory that functions as a celebration of individualism, of the wild accumulation of wealth, and of God’s love as something that you and I must earn. And indeed, an allegory for how God will punish us if we do not earn God’s love.[1]

In other words, it is so easy to read this story as an allegory for a very particular, very Western, and very modern way of living your life.

Within this allegorical understanding, the guy with the money is clearly God.

The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, a CEO went on going on a long business trip. And he summoned three senior managers into his corner office, high, high up the in sky. To one manager he gave five billion dollars, to another two billion dollars, to a third one billion dollars.

The first senior manager took the five billion and bought Amazon stock. And he doubled his money. The second took his two billion and bought Home Depot stock. And he doubled his money. The third took his one billion and bought a term deposit. And his investment didn’t even keep up with inflation.

The third senior manager was a total loser.

One day, the CEO came back – the managers knew the time and the hour when the CEO would come back because the CEO’s personal assistant texted them ahead of time – and the CEO summoned the senior managers into his corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me five billion dollars and I made five billion dollars. Here is ten billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me two billion dollars and I made two billion dollars. Here is four billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. And then the third came forward. (Remember, in jokes and in parables, things happen three times: twice to establish the pattern, a third time to break it.)

Before the third senior manager handed over his money, he made a speech. He explained his actions. He said:

Boss, I know that you are a massive jerk. You take things that don’t belong to you. You’ll do anything to get rich, no matter how much your actions debase you and everyone around you. And because of that I am terrified of you. My knees knock when I am in your presence, I am actively working not to wet my pants right now.

Here’s your one billion dollars.

And the CEO replies:

You know that I take things that don’t belong to me, did you? You know that I will do anything to get rich, did you? Then you should have done like the other senior managers and invested my flipping money. I’m taking your one billion and giving it to the guy with ten billion!

Hey first senior manager! Hey second senior manager! Open the window of my corner office in the sky.

And they do so.

And now grab senior manager three’s legs! Let’s throw this senior manager three out and down, down, down onto the hard pavement below.

And they do so. And as the third manager’s screams recede and then abruptly end, the CEO looks at senior manager one and senior manager two and he says:

Well. The rich get richer. And the poor get poorer.

The Word of the Lord.

What do we think about that? Via the CEO’s behavior, have we just witnessed the actions of God?

No. No, that cannot be the right reading of this story.

While God totally gives us gifts or talents and God delights when we live into them and we thrive, God does not make God’s love is in any way conditional on what we do with our gifts. God never responds to us by sending us to a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know that from scripture and from your every encounter with God.

Here’s the good news. Jesus agrees with you.

Here are a few clues.

First, remember that Jesus is telling this story to a group of folks who are living under occupation, most of whom are of modest financial means, many of whom live in poverty. Few or none of the people listening have any firsthand experience with investing, least of all with investing at the scale that Jesus talks about in this story. (There is considerable debate, by the way, as to how much a talent is worth in modern dollars. Some scholars reckon that a talent is equivalent to as much as 20 years wages. Regardless, it is a staggering amount of money.) So, none of these three servants or slaves in the story are going to be someone with whom the listeners identify. This story isn’t a story about them, it isn’t about whether they are trying hard enough in life. Unless you are absurdly wealthy, it probably isn’t a story about you.

Second, notice who gives the moral of the story. Often Jesus will tell us a parable and then, at the end, he will share a moral with us. But that doesn’t happen here. The wealthy man pronounced judgment on the third slave. And then the parable continues. And it is the wealthy man who says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The wealthy man isn’t God. The wealthy man is a wealthy man.

Third, Jesus constantly contrasts the Kingdom of God with violent human kingdoms. Jesus consistently says: God’s Kingdom isn’t like Caesar’s. Be not afraid. Do not worry. You don’t have to earn your way in. You aren’t going to get punished if you do it wrong. Remember just a few weeks ago the Parable of the Vineyard. The laggards, the latecomers get paid the same. Jesus tells us this persistently through his teaching. And he tells us most emphatically via the cross, whereby he refuses to respond to Empire’s violence with violence of his own. And notwithstanding his refusal to pick up a sword or a gun or to drop a bomb, he wins anyway. Love wins anyway.

In the resurrection, the Kingdom is victorious. And the only blood that is spilt is that of God’s.

The cross tells us this story ain’t an allegory, that it cannot be an allegory. And I wonder if what I talked about earlier – how this story leaves me confused and troubled – isn’t actually a deliberate choice by Jesus. I wonder if he is saying, through this tale, the same thing that he says when he declares that the love of money is the root of all evil. If you love money, this story says, you will end up doing evil things, things that leave you confused and troubled, things that leave you ashamed and hurt and that leave people around you ashamed and hurt.

Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that people fear you: don’t be like the boss. Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that you need to be afraid of your boss: don’t be like the servants.

Money’s a tool, sometimes a necessary one. But money is totally unworthy of your heart, of your fidelity, of your worship. So choose the Kingdom. Choose love. Be not afraid. Instead, be free.


[1] This sermon draws on the work of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Paul Nuechterlein.

All Saints Sunday by The Rev. Dick Toll

Lessons:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today is All Saints’ Day on the calendar.  You have just listened to the Beatitudes which represents the teaching of Jesus as he spoke to the hearts of people…people that surrounded him on the Mount of Beatitudes at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

I have visited this site in the Holy Land many times.  It is always awe inspiring to look out on the Sea of Galilee and hear once again the words of Jesus.  In my visits the most memorable was when I got up early at a hostel that I was staying at across the road from the Mt of Beatitudes.  I arrived as the sun was coming up.  And I was the only person there.  Usually I have experienced hundreds of people with tourist groups.  I found myself in a deep meditation while walking and meditated upon on the words of Jesus that have been a hallmark of the Gospel message for centuries.  Teachings to live by…..Blessed are you!  Teachings that people found meaningful to the point that history defines people who have followed in the foot steps of Jesus to be called “Saints” because of their exemplary lives…people who are good, kind, honest, patient in accepting Jesus into their lives.

You have offered names of those to be honored this day and we will lift them up in prayer.

I believe that today is a day that we remind ourselves where we come from.  In the hustle and bustle of modern day life we often do not explore history in the lives of those who have given of themselves in their own times and generation.  These persons who are known and unknown who are the saints within history.  We need to capture these moments of the past that have provided some very special people who continue to speak to us today.  My thoughts turn to Francis of Assisi who is a favorite saint.

But, we may forget he was a spoiled rich kid who grew up and went off to the crusades in the 13th Century.  He was so distressed by the violence during his time in the crusades his effectiveness was realized when the Muslim Sultan of Egypt allowed his order of Franciscans to become the custodians of the Holy Land in 1217.

Well after his death, his supporters claimed the Holy Sites in the Holy Land and even until today make them available for pilgrims to visit.  Franciscans remain on the front line in trying to keep Christians in the Holy Land.  In the 1940’s, Christians were 18% of the population.  Today, it is less than 1% and it continues to shrink.

I have stayed at their pilgrimage site at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and celebrated communion at a chapel that goes back to the Roman Empire.  The followers of Francis still reflect the prayer of Saint Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace.”  We are recipients of this wonderful human being and his relationship with the person of Jesus in his life.

When we look back into the lives of these individuals who have defined the meaning of Jesus Christ in their day and time, it helps us to find our way through the challenges of our own day.  We do not spend enough time reflecting where we come from out of history and those people who in their own time confronted good and evil .  Their choices are still resounding in our lives.

I have found over the years that moments stand out for me.  What do I mean by that?  And ahh hah moment,  a sermon that I remember, a book that I read that clarifies for me an issue, a conversation that comes back to me.

When I was in seminary, I was struggling with my background of being raised in a culture in Texas that was quite literal and fundamental in its Christianity.  I was caught up with issues of creation, evolution, science, and religion.  Who were the saints I was suppose to listen to?  What did they have to offer me?

One day a professor at the seminary was sharing the thoughts of Saint Augustine of Hppo….a 4th century bishop who was converted to Christianity in his early 30s.  He is well documented in his writings and opened many doors to the people of his time.  The professor pointed out his views of Creation.  What we experience in the discovery and our learning of Creation and it’s mystery of  what God has created and is ours to discover and relate to.  We are given gifts to explore the meaning of Creation which is already there and is up to us to find it’s meaning.  Scientists have always been a part of All Saints throughout history.

I have often been put off by the way science and religion have conflicted over the past few centuries.  Much of the religious argument dismisses science.  It gives a bad name for Christianity.  When I was six years old, my appendix burst.  My six year old life was in danger.  I can still remember the pain of lying on the couch and screaming.  My Father called the doctor who came by the house and sent me to the hospital.  It was 1945 and penicillin was a new drug that saved my life.  I received shots every four hours, night and day.  Science and life.

I had open heart surgery in May with two values replaced.  I put my trust in God, prayer, and my doctors and I thank God for the skill of those who have helped me through this period and the prayers of this parish.  I do not remember a lot of what happened before and after surgery but one memory is very real.  I was being wheeled into the operating room and I was semi-conscious as the surgery door opened.  I thought to myself…I should say a prayer…so I tried to mumble through The Lord’s Prayer.  As the doors opened to surgery, I got to the end of the prayer and instead of saying “Amen”, I said “Ut-Oh”.   I woke up ten hours later in ICU looking at my wife, Elaine.

Again, God has given us Creation to live in, to explore, to choose our path of learning, to be All Saints.

I want to make a point today with our history as the Episcopal Church and All Saints.  I believe it is true that the Book of Common Prayer has been second only to the Bible as the book that is most read by people.  The Book of Common Prayer came into use during the reformation in the mid 1500’s.   It was in English.  Now it is in many languages throughout the world.  Much of the Reformation issue was in offering the use of the Bible and worship in the language of the people.  Individuals were burned at the stake because of this issue of language.  The Bible and Prayer Book were given to us by many Saints throughout history.  Most of them we have no idea who they were.  I have here a Bible and Prayer Book from 1578.  It is in English and is 30 years before the King James Bible.  It is known as the “Breeches Bible” because in Genesis when Adam and Eve saw they were naked they put on their breeches.  How English can you get?

The Prayer Book that is part of this book had only been in usages for about 30 years.  It was written by people, some known and many unknown who were the saints of history.  Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1540’s and 50’s was the chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer. The Catholic Queen Mary of England at that time refused to accept his recantations of not accepting the Pope.  I stood on the spot where he was martyred in Oxford, England in 1556.   Some of the prayers in our Prayer Book can be traced to the early 4th, 5th and 6th centuries of the Church.

The All Saints Collect for today is the same Collect in this Prayer Book of 1578.  I wonder who was holding this Prayer Book and Bible as the Spanish Armada invaded England in 1580? 

Let me encourage you to read through the Book of Common Prayer as you live through this pandemic and discover for yourself all the Saints, known and unknown, who gave us this book.

We honor ourselves on All Saints Day.  Remember who we are as individuals.  Each person within creation…you and me…we are unique to creation.  There has never been and never will be anyone like me or you.  We are unique.  Each of us.  Our gifts, our history, our experiences, our relationships, our decisions, our faults, and on and on.  There has never been another person in the world like who we are and never will be because each of us is unique.  I have a mantra I try to pray as I go through life.  It helps to center me and to keep me focused, “God I am yours you have created me for yourself and for your purposes alone have I been created.”

It is within this perspective that we need to realize that we make a difference in the way Creation moves forward.  It may be our special gifts, our relationships, our intellect,…it may be any number of things, but we make a difference.  It may be our vote.  I am often moved by the astronauts in space that have taken pictures of our planet and how small we are amidst the vastness of the universe.  But like a grain of sand on the beach, we are part of a total that God had created.  We are to nurture the saint within us and those who offer their sainthood to us… past and present.

Finally.

One of the modern day people we honor in our own history is Mother Theresa from Calcutta in India.  She is so well known as to her ministry with the poor, the sick, and the dying.  What a unique and wonderful human being she was.  A quote from her is well worth remembering on All Saints Day.

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow Sunday by Sunday, continues to take us in a sequential way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have listened for a bunch of weeks running as Jesus has told us short stories. And it is apparent that these stories have alarmed at least some of the religious and civic authorities who are listening. Because they decide today that they need to push back – more than that, that they need to trap Jesus. And their traps looks like this: They are going to ask Jesus whether or not folks like him and his followers ought to pay tax to Rome.

This is a question that has no good answer, especially when it is asked in public. If Jesus says yes, that is an insult to all of his followers, to everyone who is enduring the oppression of empire. To say yes to paying tax under occupation and within a system in which tax collection is corrupt (tax collectors are something like the Ancient Near East’s answer to the Mafia) is for Jesus to announce that he is okay with being a collaborator and with participating in a crooked system.

To say no, however, is to insult empire itself. And that, as anyone who has endured life within a dictatorship can tell you, is to risk getting disappeared in the middle of the night. When you are living in East Germany or modern-day China or Israel under the boot of Rome, announcing that you will not be giving your money to government is something that you do at your peril.

This is a gotcha question, a deadly question.

But if this question phases Jesus, if his heart starts racing when he hears it, we see none of that on the outside. Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. If this scene were happening right now, maybe he would ask them to produce a twenty-dollar bill.

And he asks them:

Whose head is this?

Although folks who know ancient Greek tell us that the question might better be translated a little differently. They suggest that the question that Jesus is asking would more accurately be rendered:

Whose image is this?

That’s a significant distinction. Because if you are even passingly familiar with scripture, then and now, you know that to ask about someone’s image is to evoke the Book of Genesis:

God made them, male and female, in God’s image.

It is after making humanity that God says that everything that God made was very good.

Whose image is this?

And suddenly it is the folks asking seeking to trap Jesus who are in a dangerous place, who have no right answer. Because to answer that coin depicts someone made in the image of God is to announce that there is an authority far greater the emperor. And in a time when the emperor controls life and death, when Rome says that the Emperor is a god himself, to suggest that the emperor is subject to anyone or less powerful than anyone is to engage in a reckless act of subversion. But to deny to this is God’s image is to engage in sacrilege, it is to declare that there are places and people to whom the power of God does not reach.

Maybe there is a moment of excruciating, expectant silence as the authorities weigh their answer. Jesus is giving them a holy opportunity to offer a daring response. And the authorities – well, they are suddenly wondering why they began this conversation in the first place.

And then, after pausing forever, at last they speak. And because the fear of Empire has beaten down their theological imaginations, they answer Jesus’ question literally:

That is the emperor’s image.

And Jesus lowers the currency. Like a magician done with his trick, he hands it back to whoever leant it to him.

Then,

he says to the authorities,

I guess you’d better give it to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s.

The authorities are, the text says, amazed. Although gobsmacked might get closer. Do they leave with their tails between their legs? Or do they leave with a crack in the armour, with an opening to something beautiful and new?

Today, McLeod has discerned a call to be baptised. Normally, this would be an occasion for many people to gather to celebrate. But we can’t do that in pandemic: there are just a few of us here in the courtyard. But we are trusting that there are many more of you on the far side of the screen, that there we are surrounded by what Paul wonderfully calls so great a cloud of witnesses right now, not only in heaven but also on the internet.

As McLeod enters into the baptismal waters, Jesus us will ask you and me the same question that he asks of the authorities. Jesus will introduce us to McLeod and say:

Whose image is this?

And in the pause before we answer, Jesus will speak again. He will invite us to look around us. If you are here in the courtyard, look at the other people with you in this place. If you are home, maybe look out the window. Perhaps there is someone walking past your home. Maybe, if you don’t live alone, there is someone sitting beside you or working in your kitchen. Jesus says:

Whose image is this?

And again, Jesus will speak before we can answer.  Jesus will show us the earth itself. The trees, the birds dancing across the arc of the sky, the ground beneath our feet. God’s first creation, what Augustine calls the first Bible. And Jesus will ask:

Whose image is this?

And then once more – I know that jokes and parables tend to feature things that happen three times, but Jesus is asking us a fourth time this morning – Jesus will show us that in the baptismal waters we can see our own reflection. He will point at that reflection and say:

Whose image is this?

How shall we answer? This question maybe isn’t frightening in the same way that it was in Jesus’ day: the secret police aren’t going to come get us if we answer in the wrong way. But I want to suggest that it remains a life and death question. And it remains a question to which this world, to which the powers and principalities, to which what Dorothy Day called the Dirty Rotten System invites us to give theologically unimaginative and dangerous answers.

This System invites us to look at our fellow human beings and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: That is a consumer. The primary value of this person, maybe the entire value of this person, is in their capacity to spend money, to buy stuff. And the world is very clear about who someone who no longer has money. That person is a loser.

The System invites us to look at creation itself and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: This is a resource to be used up. The primary value of this earth and the creatures upon it is the goods and the services that creation can yield to me.

The System invites us to look at ourselves reflected in the waters and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: Here is someone who is inadequate. My skin is not great, my tummy is too big, my hair is kind of sad. I am difficult to get along with. I may be unlovable.

Notice that all three of these answers are about money, about the love of money. Jesus is still holding a coin as he asks us about them.

And each of these answers to Jesus’ question is a God damn lie. Each of them is heresy, a rejection of what God has told us about our neighbour, about creation, about ourselves. We know that there is a better answer, a holier answer. We know what the answer is. So let’s offer it.

Now, I know that Episcopalians don’t like shouting stuff out, and I know that it is kind of weird to be at home and shouting stuff at the computer screen (although I actually do that fairly often) but I’m going to challenge us to see if we can put down out academic reserve a little bit and to shout out our answers this morning. The question is Whose image is this? And the answer is, This is the image of God!

Do you want to do a practice run? Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

As McLeod gets ready to step into the waters of baptism, we look together at him. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look around the courtyard at one another or out the window at our neighbour or at our family members or roommates, people whom we have maybe seen slightly too much of these past few months. Jesus show us each of them and asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at creation. The fragile wonder of it. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground which holds us up and to which, one day, we will return. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at ourselves. This one, for some of us, will be the hardest. Our hands. Our feet. Our lungs breathing in and out. Our faces. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

If we take the answer to Jesus’ question even passingly seriously, it cannot help but change us. If the man lying on the street is the image of God, dare we ignore him? If the earth is the image of God, dare we abuse it? If you are the image of God, dare you speak to yourself with anything less than love? We are the Body of Christ. We are, somehow, not only followers of Jesus but participants in Jesus, members of Jesus. His story is our story. And remember what Jesus discovers in baptism. It is what you and I discover in baptism. We are the image of God. In the waters, the dove descends upon us, descends upon you. And the voice of the Father says, This is my child, the beloved. In whom I am well pleased.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

We are in the middle of a run of stories by Jesus. The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year, is taking us Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells us one parable or one folk tale after another.

On September 13th (and I’m identifying each of Jesus’ stories by the titles that they are traditionally given) we heard the story called The Unforgiving Servant. On the 20th followed The Generous Vineyard Owner. September 27th gave us the tale of The Two Sons. Today we hear about The Wicked Tenants. And next week we’ll hear the story of The King’s Son’s Wedding.

These run of stories feature themes such as power, duty, obedience and disobedience, reversal of expectation, violence or even revenge. Maybe most of all, they feature the themes of forgiveness, of love, of new life.

And four of the five of stories begin in a way that gets totally lost in almost every English translation. In the original Greek, four of the five begin with a double identification of the first character whom we meet. (I’m drawing here, and throughout this sermon, on the wonderful scholarship of Paul Nuechterlein and Andrew Marr.)

The Unforgiving Servant tells us of a man, a king.

The Generous Vineyard Owner speaks of a man, a housemaster (or a landowner).

The Wicked Tenants, today, is the same: There was a man, a housemaster.

And next week, in The King’s Son’s Wedding, we’ll hear of a man, a king.

Do these double identifiers mean anything? Possibly not. Clearly most translators think that they don’t, as witnessed by their choice to collapse the double identifiers into a single one so that today, for instance, we simply here there was a landowner. And the translators may well be right, this may just be a manner of talking in Greek and, before that, in the Aramaic that Jesus and his friends spoke. Certainly, English is full of double phrases that add little or no meaning: An added bonus is the same thing as a bonus; a free gift is the same thing as a gift; twelve midnight, it turns out, is midnight.

But I wonder. There is so little superfluous information in scripture. A modern book will tell you how tall someone is and what they are wearing and what the weather is like because these things help you to envision the scene. Scripture generally doesn’t do that. If scripture tells you about these things it’s because the story won’t make sense without them: we hear about height when Zacchaeus meets Jesus because otherwise we won’t understand why Zacchaeus is climbing the tree; we hear about clothing in the story of Joseph because otherwise we won’t get the fullness of his brothers’ jealousy; we hear about weather in the calming of the storm because without it we won’t understand the danger that the disciples face.

There was a man, a landowner.

Why does Jesus give us this double identification?

Here’s a guess.

There is a long history or habit of reading the stories of Jesus as though they were straight-up allegories. This habit might be particularly intense in the time in which we now live. This way of looking at scripture is to understand it as something like a puzzle which it’s our job to decode. In the case of a parable, it’s our job to figure out which characters represent which people. Which characters are the stand ins for the Roman occupiers? Who are the stand ins for the religious authorities? Who is the stand in for God?

And to be clear, this reading isn’t wrong. I read the story of The Unforgiving Servant exactly this way a few weeks ago. But what it isn’t and mustn’t be is the only way of reading Jesus’ stories, the final way of reading Jesus’ stories. To do so to reduce them to a riddle with which, once solved, you need no longer wrestle. I have that parable figured out: check! No! The parables have a surplus of meanings. If we approach them with curiosity, they will always be new to us.

I want to suggest that the most common allegorical reading of the series of tales that we have been hearing is to cast the person with power in the stories – the king, the landowner, the housemaster – as God.

What if Jesus is cautioning us against that through his double identification?

There was a man, a landowner.

In other words, Jesus says, there was a landowner, and that landowner was a human being. Not God!

Let’s listen to the parable again.

Once upon a time there was a landowner. A landowner who, in case you were wondering, was a human being. This landowner made a vineyard. And boy, it was nice. There was a tasting room and everything. But business took the landowner to another country. And so he leased the vineyard to some tenants.

The tenants did not turn out to be awesome.

They didn’t pay their rent. And when the landowner sent his employees to collect, the tenants beat and killed the employees. The landowner sent more employees. And the tenants did the same thing. And so the landowner said: I know! I’ll send my son. They will be sure to respect my son. And so the landowner sent his only child.

But the tenants murdered him too.

And Jesus as he often does, ends the parable with a question. A question for everyone listening, a question you and me:

What will the landowner do to those tenants?

And his audience answers:

The landowner will come with an army and put the tenants to the worst death you can imagine.

Which is such a reasonable answer. The landowner gave these guys chance after chance. One envoy. A second envoy. His own son. Three strikes and you’re out. Violence is exactly what a reasonable person would reach for in a situation like this one.

And if God is the landowner, then we have just learned something about God. God is generous, maybe even generous to a fault – sending his son might have been a little reckless. But in the end if we cross God enough times: look out. God will crush us.

What do we think about that?

Here’s what I’d like us to notice. I’d like us to notice how this story about a man, a landowner contrasts with the story of the Bible and, in particular, with the story of Jesus.

God sends the prophets. And they are greeted with contempt and violence. God sends John the Baptist. And John is greeted with contempt and violence. God sends God’s only son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus. And Jesus is greeted with contempt and violence. Jesus is murdered by the state. But the one whom Jesus calls Father raises Jesus from the dead.

And what happens then?

Well, Jesus tortures and kills everyone who was ever mean to him, right? That’s how the story ends. Isn’t it?

I can’t see you through the screen, but I trust that you are shaking your heads right now.

That isn’t how the story ends.

In the resurrection, what Jesus does is what he did in his earthly life. He tells stories, he teaches, he feeds people.

In the resurrection, the violence of empire is defeated. Empire does its worst, and the power of God turns out to be greater. Greater in the sense that even death cannot hold back Jesus, cannot hold back God. And greater in the sense that God reveals the futility and brokenness of the state’s violence by refusing to participate in it. For Jesus to come back and kill everyone would, in a real way, be a vindication of empire – it would be an announcement that empire’s philosophy, empire’s way of being was right the whole time. You will know who is right, you will know who the winner is because their violence is greatest.

And God says: No. God says what one of his prophets, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King would famously said all those years later. You will see these words on lawn signs across Portland:

Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

One there was a man, a landowner. And he behaved the way that human beings so often do. He responded to violence with violence. But not God. God responds to violence with resurrection.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


Back when I was first working as a stagehand at the start if the 1990s, I had a colleague whose driver’s license said Michael but whom we all knew as Woody. I don’t know if Woody liked being called Woody, I don’t know if it was a name that he would have chosen for himself. In fact the evidence suggests that it was not preferred name.

The way that touring Rock and Roll shows work is that there is a core crew that travels with the band and then there is a local crew, people who live in the city where the band is playing and who supplement the travelling stagehands. And the two crews meet at the beginning of the day on the loading dock, everyone tells everyone else their names. Hi, I’m Martin. I’m Chris. I’m Sarah.

Woody and I were on the local crew. And at the start of the day, Woody would say, Hi, I’m Mike. And it didn’t matter. Within half an hour, everyone on the road crew was calling him Woody.

The lore, the rumour, is that the origin of Woody’s nickname was not a charitable one. That he was so called because his head was thick, like wood. If that’s true, then I understand why he wanted to be Mike. And I regret, I am sorry for not honouring the name that he wanted to be called.

In the Gospel, there is this guy named Simon. But somewhere along the way, folks start calling him Rocky or the Rock. In most English translations of the Bible he is called Peter. And because Peter is just a plain-old name in English, we can forget that this is a nickname, laden with meaning. Other languages don’t have that forgetting problem: if you are reading the New Testament in French, the name Pierre is also a noun that means rock. In Biblical Greek, Petros means rock. And in Aramaic, which Jesus and Simon speak to each other, Simon’s word/name is Kepha, which is sometime transliterated in English Bibles as Cephas. In other words, in the scene that we just heard, Jesus says to Simon:

You are Kepha. And on this kepha I will build my church.

Some English translations try to preserve that. They have Jesus say:

You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.

So here is the question. Much as Woody had a driver’s license that says Mike, the Rock has a driver’s license that says Simon. And I wonder: does the Rock feels the same as Woody? Does he wish that people would call him by his real name?

I am asking this question in seriousness. It may seem like it has a thoroughly obvious answer: today, so, so many churches are called St. Rock’s, St. Peter’s, and we know that the Rock went on to be the first Pope, the founder of the church. But I want to suggest that the answer might not be obvious in Jesus’ time. And might be especially unclear if we didn’t have the Gospel of Matthew. Because this is the only Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the name Rock in the way that we just heard him do.

Remember where else and how else we hear about rocks and stones in the Gospel. Rocks are things that you trip over, they are stumbling blocks. Rocks are things that are tied around your neck as punishment; here is the millstone. Rocks are things that you hurl at people as a means of execution; here is the woman who is caught in adultery. Rocks are things that you would never give to your child when the child wants bread. And – remember we heard this story just last month – rocky soil is where the seed doesn’t grow, where the word is received with enthusiasm but the hearer falls away as soon as hardship or persecution shows up. Given what we know about the Rock, about Peter, and how the story of the passion goes, it would be very easy to read that as a shot at him:

You are the Rock, the one without depth, the one who grabs the seed for a moment and then lets it go and runs when things get hard.

So, we can well imagine that in this moment when Jesus calls Simon Rock, that Simon’s shoulders slump. This is the nickname that he has been trying to shake forever. And he thought that, with Jesus and with his new friends, he had found a community that could love him as he is, that could honour his real name, that didn’t need make themselves feel bigger by tearing him down, that wouldn’t call him Rock.

Jesus says,

You are Rock.

And Simon tries to be a good sport, he tries to keep on smiling. But you can see the pain in his eyes.

But then Jesus keeps on going. He does something that Simon totally doesn’t expect. He reinvents his nickname, he gives it a whole new meaning.

You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.

I imagine Simon standing there stunned. Wait a minute, he thinks to himself, wait a minute. I always thought that to be a rock is to be thick or dangerous or incapable of growing things. But Jesus is talking as though to be a rock is to be strong and solid and stable, to be that from which everything else rises.

What if? What if what Jesus does for Simon today is something that he also does for you and for me? Maybe there is a name that you have been carrying for a while, for years. It could be something as literal as an unchosen and unwelcome nickname. Or that name could be something a little more like a story, a story about how you are unlovable or a bumbler or always saying the wrong thing or never meeting the standard that everyone else meets, a story about your deep and secret wound.

And when you meet Jesus, he says your old name out loud. But unlike everyone else who has discovered your wound and named it, he uses your name not to hurt you but, rather, to set you free. He shows you how your hurt is what allows you to be empathetic, how your failure is what allows you to understand your neighbour, how your rejection is what allows you to love.

You are the Rock, says Jesus, and on this rock I will build my church.

Simon, who just a second ago felt like he had been punched in the guts, starts laughing out loud, laughing with joy.

Yes, he says. Yes! I’m the rock.

And all of his friends start laughing too, the way that friends do sometimes even when they don’t quite understand the joke. The slap their sides and howl and tears roll down their cheeks and one of them says:

Does anyone know why we’re laughing?

Maybe Jesus is thinking of this moment, of this sudden and free and joyous laughter, of the Rock, when he says:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 9, 2020

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

 

Peace Be Still.

Jesus in the middle of the storm.

Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that we hear six times across the Gospels.

Maybe, way back when, this was two stories, two encounters with Jesus, one in which Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat while the storm thunders all around – there are three stories more or less like that preserved in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and then another in which Jesus walks on the water – those are in Matthew, Mark, and John. Or maybe the story or encounter was one in the beginning, and as memory shifted the way that memory does across the years, the way that stories do as they are told around the campfire, it divided into two strands.

Regardless, Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that the Gospels tell us six times. It has that sixfold telling in common with the story that we heard last week, the one that we sometimes call the story of the loaves and the fishes. This repetition suggests that Jesus’ first friends and then the early church reckoned that these encounters mattered deeply to understanding Jesus and to following Jesus.

In Jesus’ life, there is a malleable and a permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical. Jesus does things and says things and things happen to him that are real and symbol at the same time. So, last week, we saw Jesus feed hungry people. And way before we look for anything heady or spiritual in this miracle, let’s name and honour the earthy reality that when people are hungry, Jesus feeds them. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same, to feed people when they are hungry.

And beside and within that intensely literal act of service, there are layers upon layers of metaphor. When we are with Jesus, the story tells us, we find creativity, generosity, possibility, compassion, fecundity, the absence of limitation, holy surprise. We are fed in so, so many ways.

This week – Jesus in the storm – is the same. At the story’s most basic level, there is something primal taking place. Heavy rain, high waves, a hard wind, lightning and thunder. Many of Jesus’ followers, most of Jesus’ followers, fish for a living. And if they are afraid of the storm, you know that it’s a bad one. This is a little bit like when you are on a plane and the turbulence gets intense. When that happens, I always look at the flight attendants: if they don’t seem nervous, I’m not going to get nervous, their calmness means that this is merely an unpleasant experience rather than a dangerous one. If they look afraid, by contrast, I’m going to start putting the finishing touches on my will.

And this week, the fishers, those who have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours out on the water, are afraid. Herb O’Driscoll, the wonderful Irish-Canadian preacher, has joked that Jesus’ calmness in the storm, whether that calmness takes the form of sleeping or of casually strolling on the surface of the lake, is proof that Jesus doesn’t fish for a living. Jesus, unlike the disciples, doesn’t know enough to be afraid.

The storm rages. This intense storm, this terrifying storm, this dangerous storm, this storm that may end in drowning rages. This is the sort of awful experience during which someone like you or me might call out God’s name.

God, help me. Please.

And from the deck of the ship, as we call out to God, what do we discover then? We discover that God is there, that Jesus is there. God is not watching from some distant cloud or castle or mountaintop. God is there in the middle of the storm. We see God walking on the waves, being pushed up and down by the swells, now rising, now falling, never breaking his stride, never losing his balance.

This is good news and hard news. It is very good news indeed to discover in the storm that God is not somewhere else. Alleluia.

And it is hard news to discover that God being with us doesn’t mean that there is no storm. The storm rages anyway.

And the storm – here is that malleable and permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical– in addition to being a very concrete and real and dangerous thing, is also this archetypal image for chaos, for uncertainty, for the absence of control, for volatility, for fear.

God is present in these things. And the storm rages anyway.

If the Gospels were a novel – they aren’t, there are a thousand and one ways in which the Gospels resist being classified as a modern book – if the Gospels were a novel, then Peter would be the character whose role is to stand in for you and me. As a child, I adored Agatha Christie’s mysteries and, in particular, I loved her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. And the Poirot books work in significant part because of Hastings, Poirot’s friend and assistant and sometimes biographer, the guy who is amazed where the reader would be amazed, confused where the reader would be confused, who does and says the thing that the reader would do or say.

Peter serves much the same function in the Gospel. At the transfiguration, he says what you or I might say: Let’s build houses and stay here forever. When Jesus says that he will be crucified, Peter, like you or me, takes him aside and says: Lord, you have to stop talking that way. When Jesus nears the end, Peter is the one who swears that he will never abandon Jesus and who then flees in fear – that’s something that I might do and maybe that you might do, no matter how much we wanted to stay.

And today, in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the storm, Peter is the one who sees Jesus walking on the water, dancing on the surging waves. Peter has one of those bracelets on his wrist that says WWJD: What would Jesus do? This is the question of his life. And he sees that the answer to the question What would Jesus do in the storm? is that Jesus would walk on the waves.

And so Peter kicks one leg over the side of the boat and then the other. He puts his weight down on the water. And for a little while, it works. Peter walk for several steps, getting nearer to Jesus, rising and falling with the swells as he does. But then he notices the danger, the impossibility, the absurdity of what he is doing. I don’t know if you have had the experience of learning to ride a bike, the grown up or older child who was helping you letting go and giving you a push, and you are able to ride exactly as long as until you don’t think about how your balance works and how much landing on the asphalt would hurt.

I think that something similar happens here. Peter starts thinking about what he is doing. And instantly, his leg punches through the surface of the lake as though he were breaking through ice. He is in up to his thigh, suddenly soaked. And sinking.

Lord, save me! he says.

And right away – Jesus does not leave Peter in his fear – Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him.

Oh, Peter, Jesus says. And I imagine that there is a big smile on his face. You almost did it. You of little faith.

And then the two of them get back into the boat, Jesus holding the now sopping wet Peter by the arm. Does Peter walk a little bit on the way back? Or does he kind of half swim? Or does Jesus carry him?

When they get back in, the storm stops. There is peace. And the fishers, they fall down on the suddenly still deck of their boat and worship Jesus.

Truly, they say, truly you are the son of God.

What does this end to the story mean? I’m not sure. But I do know that somehow it is right, that it is true. That in this moment when the real and the metaphorical intersect in the storm, Jesus comes to us and there is peace. Peace be still. I think that this moment is what Richard Rohr is talking about what he says that folks who are in deep communion with God find this okayness with life. Not because the storm doesn’t happen, not because they never experience grief, loss, unfairness, or suffering – they totally do. But because they know in their bones that Jesus is there with us as the storm rages, and that Jesus, always, always, brings us safely home.

 

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

July 26, 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 28:10-19a

Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

View You Tube video of the sermon here.

 

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

The Sunday readings always present a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes they’re very closely related, and you can easily see a theme emerging. Other times it’s harder to find a connection among them. So for a preacher, it’s easiest just to pick one reading (usually the Gospel) to focus on, which is what I, in the interests of efficiency, usually do.

But this morning I’d like to see how we might draw on all three of the readings to try to make sense of our current predicament.

The parable that Jesus tells provides the framework for the predicament: God has planted the world – our world, God’s creation – with good seeds, but somehow the fields are full of weeds.

This will not surprise any gardener, and it must have touched a nerve with his peasant audience. You plant a vegetable garden in carefully prepared soil, and before you know it, the weeds are outcompeting what you planted. Then it becomes a constant chore to dig up and eradicate the weeds before they take over the garden and you lose what you planted. If you’re careless and allow the weeds to grow they take from the soil valuable nutrients that your vegetables need, so any self-respecting gardener works hard to control the weeds.

But this is not how God’s garden works, according to Jesus. Instead, God lets the weeds grow, until the final harvest, when weed and wheat will be separated. As with many of Jesus’ parables, this must have left his listeners scratching their heads. It doesn’t seem to be good cultivation technique. In fact, it seems almost irresponsible.

But Jesus is addressing the world as it is. The world, our world, is a messy place, which all his listeners also understood. God created the world and everything in it, in beauty and goodness, but it seems to us to be filled with wickedness and sorrow. Paul acknowledges this in Romans: all of creation is in “bondage to decay” and is “groaning in labor pains,” waiting for God to redeem it.

We can relate. Disease, violence, bigotry and hatred, poverty and economic anxiety. The sufferings of our present time seem almost overwhelming, and the evils of the world seem to come from many sources – from the outright wickedness of some, from the indifference of others, from willful ignorance of yet others, and from our own failing to do what we know is right. We find ourselves uncertain what to do, and we are afraid.

But Paul counsels his followers not to fall back into slavery to fear. It seems to me that much of what makes me angry about the world today is people – all of us – acting out of fear. We fear disease and harm so we act selfishly. We fear the loss of our familiar ways so we refuse to adapt to necessary changes. We fear those who are different from us – by ethnic background, religion, politics, class, ability – so we attribute to them evil motives, when they, too, are acting out of fear of the unknown. And so fear causes all of us to spiral downward together into hopelessness and inaction.

Jesus has a different take on our situation. Don’t worry about the weeds and focus instead on the coming harvest, Jesus suggests. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul says. Hope IS our salvation. Not a blind hope that ignores the continual stream of bad news but a hope for the full revelation of God’s rule.  A hope that even in an age of anxiety looks for signs that God is present and working among us.

Our ancestor Jacob spends much of his time in Genesis fleeing from one place to another out of fear of what may happen to him. At one point he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and has a visionary encounter with God. He receives a promise of God’s future blessing on him and his family, a promise of God’s presence and protection, a promise so expansive and without limit that it might have seemed absurd. But Jacob finds hope in it. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he says in wonder. That’s a good mantra for us to repeat at this moment: Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.

If I pay attention to the signs of hope around me, I may just be able to perceive the reality of God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of a life-crushing pandemic.

I live in a suburban neighborhood where we don’t really know our neighbors. But that has changed since the shutdowns of the last several months, as people are more at home and we’ve struck up conversations outside. On the Fourth of July something took place that we had never experienced before on our block, in our 30+ years here. We gathered in the street, from small children to old folks, pooled our fireworks and put on a display for the enjoyment of those sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk.

Not really a big deal, but I found in that evening of blazing light and explosive noise and laughter, and children screaming, and applause, a sign of the presence of God’s new community of life and peace and joy. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Hope, Paul says, is the assurance of things not seen. And currently we don’t see much in this world to make us confident that God is in charge, or that the groaning of all creation will soon end, or that we will all soon be able to join together to solve our mutual dilemmas.

But we, people of faith, are called to search out and find hope in the world, even when it seems outlandish. We are called to find it even in the smallest moments and in unlikely places, and to proclaim it to others. We are called to act as if we had confidence that God’s fields of wheat will soon come to maturity and be harvested, and that the bounty of God’s creation will be shared with everyone.

Amen