Sunday, June 26, 2016

Distractions: a sermon Proper 8 2016

“Distractions” 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8
June 26, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Some weeks you know what you will preach the moment you read the text. Other weeks, you read the text, looking for Jesus to speak, for the Good News to jump out. And some weeks, thankfully very rarely, you read and reread and re-reread and go to commentaries and still nothing comes. It is hard for God to speak when we are distracted, which is why I think Jesus so often went off to a lonely place to get free of distractions and tune in on God.

Another aspect of trying to get up here and give something worth hearing is wrangling with a text. The lectionary is wonderful that way, making Susan, Frank and I preach sometimes from texts that are not our friends. I will confess I would be more likely to kiss a moose than to pick today’s Gospel as the foundational Scripture for a sermon. I could have gone the easy route, and jumped into Galatians and done the fruit of the Flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit. But after heading off to a lonely place, I felt the need to listen some more, to wrestle some more and see what God might be willing to teach me here.

So, like Elisha chasing after Elijah to see if the mantle might fall on him, let us chase after Jesus and see what good news might be hiding in Luke 9 for us.

In reading it, there is the commonality of Jesus being headed to Jerusalem, followed by 5 ways in missing the point. So maybe today’s lesson is a cautionary tale. DO NOT DO THIS. Let’s see.

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

I find it fascinating that Luke describes the motivating factor in Jesus going to Jerusalem as his ascension, the ending of Luke and also the beginning of Luke’s book of the Acts of the Apostles. The Ascension is the pivotal factor here, and to do that Jesus has to go through Jerusalem, both the place and all the horrific events that took place there for Jesus. He is focusing on Jesus being glorified, not crucified, and I think that makes a profound difference.

“He set his face,” he was bound and determined. I remember when the girls were young and whatever it was was VERY important to them, them would take my face in both their hands and made sure I was listening. They set my face. Well, Jesus did the same for himself. He was bound and determined to get to and go through Jerusalem. This is the key point that underlies all that we are about to look at. Without that, some of these just do not make sense. So as we go through these next 5 DON’T DO THESE, remember, Jesus is a man of singular focus as of now.

And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

Now, admission clear here, some of these stories will require some filling in the gaps or interpretation. By this point, Jesus and his throng were becoming sizable. He needed advance staff going ahead of him. It is the equivalent of a bus driver calling ahead to a restaurant to say, “We have a bus full of hungry teenagers stopping in 3 hours. Get cooking.” Jesus’ party is no different. His messengers let the Samaritan village know that they were on route, but also, that they would not be staying. “They did not receive him, because his face was set for Jerusalem.” I read this to mean that they wanted the Teacher to come and stay with them. They wanted time with Jesus, something more than a lunch break. If that is all you want Jesus, do not bother stopping, they seem to be saying.

What was the Samaritan village’s distraction this day? Not getting what they wanted. How many times do we do the same thing? How often do we get derailed by things not being what we expected. We can be as petulant as they were, it seems. When we get into this situation, when we get focused on what we want instead of what is offered it can break our relationship to God. There is a huge element of trust, God is God and I am not, and maybe God knows better what is needed, or at least the bigger picture. My petty wants cannot even be taken into the consideration of things. I think this is the boat that village was in. We want a long visit, or nothing at all. But James and John’s response was just as bad.

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
James and John, the sons of Thunder, were calling for fire from heaven to smite this belligerent village. They wanted Jesus honored, and here he is rejected. They had no idea what was coming. Yet, when these Elijah wanna-bes asked Jesus if they should smite them with heavenly fire, Jesus rebuked them. Thank you, Jesus.

Now think about it. What is the distraction here? Jesus is single-minded. The village being petulant is no worse than his disciples seeking revenge. NEITHER one was something he wanted to do nor had time to deal with in that moment. The distraction of seeking revenge, or if we need to clean it up “putting people in their place” is just as bad. In our spiritual life, thinking ourselves superior, or being the judge and jury are both not what we are to be about. Jesus wants us focused on following, not smiting. Not our job, but we all know the church is too often seen as doing that. What next?

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

So this would be follower, approaches Jesus very enthusiastic. “I will follow you wherever you go,” Then Jesus goes and gets all Jesus-y. Why do you bring up foxes’ dens? Why mention birds’ nests? Why say you have neither? For me, it all comes down to Jesus’ motivation and this follower’s motivation. What are a fox’s den and a bird’s nest? Security. They are home, that place where we can let down our guard and be ourselves. Home can be a distraction, too. This follower was seeking security. This follower wanted to be safe. Jesus let the person know, you cannot be safe following me. I have no security. Jesus had turned his face to Jerusalem. He knew the outcome, and it definitely was not secure. When we follow where Christ will lead we cannot see over the brow of the hill. Where he leads we have no clue. I love that our two seminarians are both back today, serving at the altar. There is much uncertainty in what will come next for them. None of us, if we are truly following Jesus are secure in the way the world wants us to be secure.

Caveat here, we are secure in Christ. That is different. I think Jesus is saying to this would be follower, you are not going to get what you are seeking here, my friend. This will not happen. It was actually very loving of Jesus to nip it in the bud. The myth of control that we all seek gets in the way. Jesus calls us to follow, not steer. Our drive to security is a distraction when Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem.

To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

This one is a hard one to hear, because Jesus sounds so mean. When we read it, we assume that this man’s dad just died. If so, Jesus was not hearing the obligation a Jewish son would have had to take care of his father, especially his funeral. Remember how Jesus worried about his mother even from the cross, looking at Mary and the disciple he loved?  And even Jesus had the disciple step in and take care of his obligation?

Now, because we would mention a funeral only when it was time for one does not mean that they would. It could, be sure you hear me say that, it could not does mean that. But what I hear in the man’s excuse is, “Let me take care of my familial obligations, and then I will do what the Kingdom needs.” He is saying, “I want to follow you, Jesus, but…” The distraction here is obligations. What do we choose to entangle our lives with? Jesus loved his friends and family. He was not heartless. I hear a deeper story, when one’s understood obligations get in the way of our following of Christ. Jesus is singularly focused and asks that of those following him.

Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Another hard statement here, another excuse. “Let me go say goodbye.” I think Jesus knew, if you go back home you are not going to follow. Sometimes those strings of attachment keep us from following Christ. We are shackled by what we embrace. The idea of looking back, like Lot’s wife, might be the death of us, or of our faith. Our focused Jesus says, “No one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Hard words. Jesus wants us focused as he is focused. Also, using his metaphor to the full, if you look back while you are plowing, you are going to be crooked. We need to look ahead.

One night, Stephanie and I were on a sailing trip in the Florida keys with friends, and we were trying to come into a harbor late. The reefs made it tricky. We had to line them up just right to make it in. If they were aligned you could make a straight shot between the reefs. I could not look around, or be distracted by the sunset. My focus had to be the lights and they would guide us safely home. Jesus’ advice to the follower was the same. Stay focused. Even our loved ones can be a distraction from committing ourselves to the Kingdom.

So, in all of these excuses and distractions Jesus gives us a model to follow, himself. We need to let go of our wants, our need to be on top, the myth of control, our obligations, and our clinging entanglements, and focus on one thing. That one thing, as Jesus put it, is the Kingdom of God. None of these things were necessarily bad, except maybe smiting villages with fire from heaven, but they were all distractions. And the distractions we can let go of.

As Paul closed the reading for today from Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” We are not in this alone, we are still following someone, and he loves us even when we get in our own way with all these distractions. Maybe my wandering this week, without that needed focus, is exactly the same problem all these early followers had, if so,  Lord, please forgive. Thank you, Jesus, set our face, and may it always be focused on you. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forgiveness Always Comes First: a sermon

“Forgiveness Always Comes First”
Proper 6 Year C 2016, June 12, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond

It is always a curious thing, which comes first. The chicken or the egg? The thought or the feeling? Coke or Pepsi? Or how about soccer or football?

We ponder these things. And yet, most of the time it is moot. However, sometimes, what we assume to be new is already true.

I remember when I was in my teenage years, I came back from camp, very serious, and asked my mom if we could talk. We sat down together, and I delicately told her that I thought that God was calling me to be a minister. She responded with, “Of course you are. That is all you ever talk about.” What was news to me, and new to me (or so I thought), was already a done deal, signed and delivered in her mind. What moved me about how she responded was that she already had arrived at the destination I had just perceived. After the initial surprise, it struck me funny at the time. What was a big and ominous life decision for me, to her was my following my natural inclinations and interests. Funny how we see things.

In today’s Gospel, we see the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, and in his unpacking of what she has done for him gives us a unique view into the nature of Grace and the character of God.

Now you might think I exaggerate, or I am using a rhetorical device here,  but in looking at the Gospel this week it struck me how I have never heard anyone speak to this, much less preach on it in all the Sundays I have been in Church. If they did, I must have missed it. Maybe that explains my initial surprise and then delight.

A woman hears that Jesus is dining in her town, and goes and finds a way in to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears and a precious jar of ointment. You heard me preach on another version of this not too long ago. After the host grumbles that no real prophet would let a sinner like her touch him, Jesus addresses the host’s inaction and compares it to her actions.

Jesus begins, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

Jesus uses his anointing as a teachable moment, a time and place where he can point to this woman and let them see the difference between where they are and where she is.

They were still in a model and understanding where there was an exchange. You do this for me, I will do that for you. When Jesus came into this home, he was still being checked out by the host. “Let’s see if this guy is the real deal or not.” You see, he was important enough to invite home, but not good enough to pull out the good china and silver. All the customary observances of an honored guest were ignored, and Jesus was polite enough to not mention it… until...

Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

Now how we would probably say this is “Who does this guy think that he is? I mean really, he thinks he can forgive sins?”

In a little while, after our Prayers of the People, we will have the Prayer of Confession and at the end of that I will do one of the few things that takes an ordained priest to do, or a consecrated bishop, and that thing is to pronounce pardon. But even there, it is a funny thing. As a priest, I am not doing what Jesus is doing here. I am pronouncing the pardon of God for all our sins, and in my priestly capacity I declare it. This is much the same as in a wedding when I declare, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Once it is said it is recognized and real. It is a change in condition, from one status to another. In pronouncing pardon I am declaring it done that God has forgiven our sins. But Jesus took it further.

Jesus declared this woman forgiven and saved. He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Now I want us to look closely at the line that already came.

In so many of our relationships things are tit for tat, you do this and I will do that. We turn so much of our lives into transactions. Too often with our loved ones, even.

But Jesus is very clear, this woman came in under the condition of being forgiven and saved. What she did for Jesus did not allow enable or begin ANYTHING. We too often read it this way because of the way we THINK. Our bias shows.

“I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

The pivotal word here is “hence.” Her sins, which were many have been forgiven, HENCE she has shown great love. The forgiveness came first.

With God, the forgiveness always comes first.

I think in my life all the times where I did not immediately forgive, or I waited till I got an apology. Contrition makes us feel better. Contrition helps us see that we are right, or even that the offending party deserves our forgiveness. (Or, even worse, the opposite, I will withhold my forgiveness till I see that they are sorry.) And maybe that is why we get this whole Grace concept all wrong.

For too many of us, we see God the way we see the world. We fit God into our worldview instead of fitting our worldview into the vantage point of the God revealed in Christ.

In so many ways God is patient and kind, repeating over and over as author Brennan Manning points out, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more and nothing you can do that will make God love you any less.”

This woman, whose sins were many, found Grace, and it poured out of her, in her actions, in her tears, in her precious ointment all over Jesus’ road-weary feet. She just heard that Jesus was in town, go back and look, and she arrived and would not let anything keep her from responding with her love.

In Luke’s account, this story is not just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion like in the other Gospels. Luke sets it apart, to emphasis the Grace of the story, I think. His whole Gospel is about Jesus the welcomer, the one inviting in. Zaccheus. Blind Bartimaeus. The hemorrhaging woman who caught the hem of his garment. All those excluded are welcomed in. And even this outsider, this sinner scorned by the host, is uplifted over the one who had the rank and privilege to host the dinner party. In Luke Jesus invites into the party all those who no one else would have considered. That is Jesus. And by definition, that is Grace.

The “hence” of Jesus’ statement throws out the transaction. We might hear it as, “Wow, this lady spent a lot on this huge gift to me, so yeah, I think I will forgive her.” THIS COULD NOT BE FURTHER FROM WHAT TOOK PLACE.

Walking through the host’s door, she was forgiven. Before that, walking out of her house with the ointment, she was forgiven. Even before that, doing whatever she did to “gain” the reputation she had, she was forgiven. She was loved and forgiven before she was even born. And the good news today is, so are we.

Our reaction to this may be like the host, we have not had much forgiven so we do not love as much. Or like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son parable, we did not run away and we did everything right and it is not “fair.” That transactional thinking is rearing its ugly head again. We want God to bless the Good, the Righteous, and scorn the Bad, the Sinners, the Others-Out-There-Weeping-In-The-
Darkness. But God is not like we are, God loves us just like we are. Nothing more, and nothing less than that. We receive UNCONDITIONAL, NON-TRANSACTIONAL LOVE. And that my sisters and brothers is what we call Grace.

And that is why we call Grace amazing. God is not transactional about forgiveness. God’s forgiveness reaches beyond time and space, it predates our best days, and it predates our worst. As Manning said, “There is nothing we can do that would make God love us any more, and there is nothing we can do that would make God love us any less.” THANKS BE TO GOD.

We want to put things first, like getting our act together, or making ourselves worthy of God’s love. God laughs at that naivete, but in a loving way. We put the cart before the horse. God’s love pulls us into relationship; our worthiness does not, and could not, pull God into loving us. Forgiveness comes first, and Grace always wins.

The Apostle Paul in today’s reading shows the wrestling match here, and entirely dismisses the way he was raised. He throws out the rule-keeping and the crossing-of-Tees and dotting-of-Eyes. He rejects those who are in Christ’s church and still try to keep accounts of rights and wrongs, both theirs, and probably more often the case, those of others. He begs the Galatians and us as well to reside in the Grace of God, and let go of the rule-keeping approach to trying to appease God. We cannot. We just cannot. And the best part is, WE DO NOT HAVE TO EVEN TRY.

Let me let Paul speak for himself, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

This week, try and look with new eyes. Turn off the judgment. I understand, it is so very hard. We have been programmed to do it since our earliest days. And in its place, let us ask for God to open our eyes and begin to see with the eyes of Christ, both others and ourselves. Let us make a solemn vow to not “nullify the Grace of God.” And slowly the world will turn until it comes out right.

Thank you, God, that you are not finished with any of us yet. Amen.