Sunday, October 26, 2014

The "Greatest" Issue: a sermon

Year A Proper 25, October 26, 2014
“The Greatest Issue”
St. Thomas Church, Richmond, VA

Mel Brooks, dispersing his wisdom through laughter, sums up most of the world’s point of view with a single line.  “It’s good to be the King.”  We wrestle with this notion, no matter our perspective.  There are implications to his statement, and there are even more implied.  If you are King, then things are supposedly the best, despite the paranoia about losing one’s position and the sycophants who wrestle for attention.  But the implications are what it means to be anything other, or one far from the seat the power.  The pull to be the best, or to side with the best, is so steeped in our approaches and understanding that it is a hard thing to shake.  We are aiming to position ourselves, or wheedle our way to the center, whether we are conscious of it or not.

As the children are becoming more and more social in middle school where I teach, the jockeying and ranking is ceaseless.  Even if it is to not be the worst.  The meanest and nastiest of comments come from the kid that thinks he can stay out of the bottom rank in whatever position they are in if he can just put someone else in the position below him.  She turns on anyone who can be seen as less than her if she thinks it can work.

The games do not stop when we leave middle school.  If only.

We keep up with the Joneses.  Or we play the “More Humble Than Thou” game.  Looking to see who is best, or where we rank.  And it is hard and almost impossible to opt out.  They even tried to drag Jesus into the ceaseless ranking game in today’s passage.

The Pharisees, assuming the priority and importance of their religious and social stances were out to put the young rabbi to the test.  This itinerant preacher could not be all that, just by the sheer nature of who was following him.  Today’s reading is the third of the gotcha scenarios tossed at Jesus from competing parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees had just been put in their place, when a young Pharisee lawyer asked a common question that had been wrestled with in Jewish circles for years.  

“Rabbi,” the lawyer asks, “of the 613 commandments in the Scriptures,” remember this is just the Torah, the Five Books of Moses we are looking at here, “Rabbi, of these 613 commandments, in your opinion is the greatest?   In your own words, please.”

Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."  

Jesus said nothing new here.  Rabbis and commenters had been saying and teaching this approach across the years.  And while these learned men gathered to come back with a response, Jesus poses a question of his own.

22:42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David.”

Now, as a portion of the gathered followers of Jesus, we have a hard time not hearing this question as Jesus being self-referential.

Now the Pharisees probably saw it as a theoretical, or a rhetorical tit-for-tat.  We asked him some questions to watch him dance in front of the crowd he had gathered there in the Temple.  He had told some accusatory parables that we have preserved in chapter 21 of Matthew.

Jesus quotes Psalm 110. He directs the Pharisees attention to a Psalm attributed to David, speaking to how the Messiah will conquer his enemies.  The Messiah is at the right hand of the Lord.  The Lord will deliver his enemies under his feet.  Jesus continues here:

22:43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
22:44 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

In Jewish society, the son could not be seen as greater than the father, and a son could not be Lord to his elder.  Jesus is playing a verbal and cultural challenge with the Pharisees.  The Messiah is the “son” of David, a descendent.  But from the very words of David, he is seen to acknowledge the supremacy of the Messiah, one foretold to be his descendant and potential heir to his greatness.  Jesus’ query won the day, as we see in the closing of today’s reading:

46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

SO, Jesus wins the semantic battle.  He is the greatest.  We see him as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises and hopes, and would seem to be the greatest in our books, too.

But here is the problem.  The sticking point, that we know the rest of the story.  Jesus, while the greatest, did not allow himself to be put in that role.  He refused to play the game.  

There is a hymn of the early church that Paul quotes in the second chapter of Philippians.  Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, and he, by his choices, fulfills and embodies these to the fullest extent possible.

Philippians 2:5-8

5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.

Jesus loved God with all he had, his heart, his soul, his mind.  And he loved us, his fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey as much, if not more, than himself.

If we stop at the point of Jesus being a good and moral teacher, he did not say anything new that had not been said before.  Others had quoted these two commandments as the greatest.

If we look to the miracles Jesus did, Deuteronomy, in fact the very passage we read cites Moses as the greatest miracle worker that has ever been seen.

So what makes Jesus so special?  What makes him worthy to be seen as the Messiah?

By what he did, being obedient to death, even death on a cross, and rising in new life is what makes him the greatest.

Jesus in his choices over and over again, said that his way would not be the way of the world, where it is seen as good to be the King.  When he was lifted up, after miracles and at the Transfiguration, he demanded silence be kept until after…

And, at the Triumphal entry, he did not come riding in on a stallion, challenging authority, but on a humble donkey.  A statement of what type of authority he would be in and of itself.

The issue of greatness, of raising oneself up, is a challenge and a hardship that is as great a temptation as ever, if not more so.  We live in an age of celebrities are celebrities because they have been named such whether they have done a single thing of value or not.

In the Thessalonian passage, Paul again, points to how he came into the city, proclaiming the Gospel without demands and facing adversities.

2:5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;  6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Like Christ came to the world, Paul came to the city of Thessaloniki, humbly, and over the course of time, he came to love and care for those to whom he was sent.

The greatness expounded upon today, finds its nature not in domination or supremacy, but in deep and abiding love.  Paul’s love for Thessaloniki.  Christ’s love for us all.  Our love for those given to our care and nurture.  So how do we do this?

Looking back at Jesus’ words, his commandments we are to love God with all of us, without hindrances or compartmentalizations.  And how do we do that?  Look at the second command, to love our neighbors.  Now we can play the play the semantic game of who is my neighbor, and Jesus’ response to that was the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we were urged, to “Go, and do likewise.”  But rather, instead of looking at who is not our neighbor, let us just look at who is.  Let us start there.  There are many who need our love, our ministry, our attention.

The world may say that it is good to be the King, but we are called to show what we find to be the greatest by what we do.  And they will know that we are Christians by our love, yes, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Cost of a Soul: a sermon

“The Cost of a Soul”
St. Thomas’ Richmond
Year A, Proper 23 Oct. 12, 2014

I took some days off recently, and had the pleasure of picking up my favorite story, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.  It is a huge book, and I will be at it for a while.  It seemed appropriate and the timing was right for me to pick it up again.  If you have ever read the book, it starts with a 60 page explanation of a very minor character compared to the rest of the book, Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu, Bishop of Digne.  Minor though he may be, he stepped in and granted Grace when it was needed, and in doing so set off the chain of events that became the rest of the story.

The story’s main character, Jean Valjean was on his way home after being imprisoned for years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nieces and nephews.  As he had no place to stay, the humble Bishop Bienvenu invited him into his home, and seated him at his table, and served him with silver that the bishop had inherited from his aunt.  Bishop Bienvenu was known for living simply, and giving most of what he had to the poor.  This one inherited gift was his only thing of value in his home. 

Late in the night, in the wee hours, Jean Valjean who had learned in prison to take care only for himself steals the silver service and runs away.  Police see him running out of the city, and stop and search him finding the silver in his bag.  Not believing him, they drag him back the Bishop Bienvenu and confront him there, repeating Jean Valjean’s story that the silver was a “gift” from an old priest.  The bishop says that Jean Valjean was right.  They were a gift, but that there was an error, Jean Valjean had forgotten the most expensive part of the service, the large silver candlesticks on the mantle, and the Bishop hands them to Valjean.  The gendarmes, the police, are surprised and the Bishop thanks them and sends them on their way.

I now quote from the book, starting with the Bishop speaking:
‘Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.’
Valjean, who did not recall having made any promise, was silent.  The bishop had spoken the words slowly and deliberately.  He concluded with a solemn emphasis:
‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good.  I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’

In all of Western literature we wrestle with this idea, this idea that is beyond our comprehension, the idea of Grace.  Brennan Manning says, “There is nothing we can do than can make God love us any more, and there is nothing we can do that would make God love us any less.”  It is not fair.  It can often seem not right.  It is scandalous.  It is Grace.

If you look at the passages today, they all argue and wrestle with Grace. 

In the Exodus passage, Moses is on the mountain receiving the sacred laws that will be the foundation of the people God has saved and called to be God’s own.  Meanwhile, down below, the people forgot how they got out of Egypt and took the easy route.  They made a cow statue, the fertility god Baal.  And when Moses arrives, he wrestles with God arguing for Grace.  Moses reminds God of all that had been done to get them to this point, and then in one of the most radical verses in the Bible, Exodus 32:14 “And the LORD changed his mind…”   I know many who would need to rethink their theology with that verse.  But Grace rules the day.

Paul is instructing the Philippians, reminding them in how to keep the way of Jesus’ community of Grace:
4:8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

4:9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

We have a response to Grace.  We can call it Amazing, and it is.  We can be overcome by our unworthiness to the point of being frozen and feel powerless.  But in our redemption, we are called to be agents of Grace.  We are called to be Transformed.  We are called to be New Creations. 

In the Gospel parable, we love that King sent out his servants to beat the bushes and to have the banquet hall filled.  This is the epitome of Grace.  But the story does not stop there, and this is the part where we squirm.  Where is Jesus going with this?  At the banquet there are expectations.  This is the King’s home.  There are expectations in response to this gracious offer.  The King was surprised to see someone without their best on.  He asked the poorly dressed man where the his wedding robe was.  The man was speechless in response, and he was thrown out. 

Now Grace can only come from God, but the nature of that Grace comes in our response to it.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his most read work, The Cost of Discipleship, speaks of Cheap Grace, Grace which is cheapened by our response to it, and Costly Grace, Grace which is responded to by us seeing and living our lives appropriately to this costly gift which we did not deserve, but received nonetheless.

Bonhoeffer here:
“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?...

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
So then, what are we to do?  When we come to this table today, are we coming because it is what one does?  Or do we come seeking transformation and renewal?  God did not come in Jesus to make bad people good, boring people cool, the mean nice, or the lowly popular.  Jesus came to make the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to rise again.  We are not talking about a nice Gospel, or a polite Gospel, but a powerful Gospel.  We speak of the Gospel of Grace.
Grace is the bishop claiming Jean Valjean’s soul, and giving it to God.  It is the loss of priceless silver, as it is the death of the Son of God.  And for those of us who choose to be enfolded by the Grace, it is the power to walk from the sin that clings so closely to become who we were born to be.  We do not become less of who we are in the Transformation but the whittling down of the layers on the outside, until we can in Christ be who we were meant to be.  Like a master sculptor, Christ pulls off the parts that were not intended so that the Beautiful can be transformed from the unshaped blocks of stone.
One of the most beautiful parts of this Gospel of Grace is that we are invited to be a part.  We are blessed to be blessings.  We don’t pay it back, we share it forward.  We give from the glorious gifts we have been given.  The Korean War Memorial reminds us that Freedom Is Not Free.  And in the same way, Grace is not Gratis.  It cost someone much for our gift.
Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  So many hold onto something, some sin, some worry, something they can control, instead of giving it all so that it may be transformed as well.  Come, let us let go of what we hold onto so closely and actually has hold of us.  Come, let us prepare for the banquet that is waiting.  The call is here.  The invitation is here.  What we be the nature of this Grace?  Is it cheap or costly? 

Lord, help us to always be mindful of the cost of a soul, and in so doing, save us from ourselves.  Amen.