Don’t Worry? – a mid-week reflection

Today, the Church remembers Catherine of Siena, who died on this date in the year 1380.

Let us pray.

Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Gospel lesson appointed for today is select verses from Luke chapter twelve.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”


Whether it is coming from Bobby McFerrin or Jesus of Nazareth, “Don’t worry, be happy” is easier said than done.  In what feels like the 10th year of Coronatide, I found myself getting viscerally angry at Jesus for these “words of comfort” to his disciples.  As usual, Biblical texts taken out of context can be detrimental to your health.  What seems like simple platitudes from our Lord are actually part of a much larger teaching by Jesus on the dangers of following him long-term.  See, a crowd of many thousands had started to follow Jesus.  The crowd was so large that, in order to hear him teach, they had begun to press in so close that some were being trampled.  As Jesus looked at the crowd, he realized that many of them were there for the wrong reasons – thinking they had hitched their wagons to the next King of Israel and looking forward to a life on easy street.

The first time Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension the crowd, not to worry, he does so in the context of dying for their faith.  “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.”  After the parable of the rich fool, who after a bountiful harvest built bigger barns rather than sharing his largesse and died that very night, Jesus continues with this series of warnings not to worry about earthly things, but rather, to remain focused on the greater things of the Kingdom of God.

Catherine of Siena was born in 1347 as the twenty-third or twenty-fourth child of her mother, Lapa and father, Giacomo.  One of a set of twins, Catherine’s sister, Giovanna died shortly after birth.  In all, her parents lost just under half of their 25 children at a young age.  Catherine’s first few years were spent under the fear of the black plague that killed upwards of 200 million people in Europe between 1347 and 1353.  As the plague came to an end, Catherine and a brother went to visit one of their married older sisters, and on the way home, at the age of five or six, she had a vision of Jesus seated in heaven with Peter, Paul, and John.  By the age of seven, she vowed to give her life to God.  For the majority of her life, Catherine lived under her own strict rule of life.  As a third order nun, she did not live in the monastery with her sisters, but remained at her family home.  Rather than enjoy the comforts of her family’s relatively well-to-do lifestyle, she was constantly giving away all of her food and clothing.  Her only meal most days was the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  Amidst all of this, she also found herself in the middle of not one, but two controversies involving competing Popes.

If anyone had reason to be prone to worry, Catherine of Siena did, and yet, she always chose the harder path.  Whether it was becoming a nurse so that she could treat lepers or nearly being assassinated in a riot after the death of her friend, Pope Gregory the eleventh, Catherine set her hope on Christ, and found reason to have faith.

Maybe Jesus has a point.  We have very little to do with the rain or sun or the yield of the harvest.  Ours is not to worry about how much toilet paper gets produced in a week, but only to give thanks when the Kroger shelves are stocked and to share of our abundance when we come across a 24 pack in all its glory.

Don’t Fall for It

Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical Hamilton is as popular in my household as it seems to be around the globe.  Despite its popularity and the fact that the touring group came through Nashville last month, we have not scraped together the two-grand it would cost for our family of four to see it.  We’re very much looking forward to the film adaptation.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have most of the songs memorized.  While not 100% age appropriate for our kids, they found the soundtrack and have been singing every non-swear word to every song for more than a year now.  One our favorites is “Aaron Burr Sir,” which depicts the moment when Alexander Hamilton first meets Aaron Burr, who (spoiler alert) will one day be the man who kills Hamilton in a duel.  In the song, Hamilton seeks out Burr to talk about his desire to attend Princeton in an accelerated program, which Burr had just recently accomplished.  Upon finding out that both he and Burr were orphans, Hamilton exclaims, “You’re an orphan? Of course, I’m an orphan.  [Gosh], I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”  In the song, Burr, only about 20 at the time, is already a polished politician.  While in real life he was active in the Revolutionary War effort, in the musical, Burr is depicted as a quiet, behind the scenes, negotiator type.  He encourages Hamilton to keep quiet, “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”  A rousing pub song by some of the revolution’s key players interrupts their meeting, until the song comes to an end with Hamilton bluntly asking the young lawyer, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

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Hamilton’s question is one that has been asked over and over again in so many different ways throughout human history.  Life in America in 2020 has many of us asking this same question.  The Bible has a lot to say on the question of what it is that we are called to stand for.  In fact, all of our lessons for today invite us to think long and hard about what we stand for so that we might be better prepared to not fall for whatever our favorite outside force, false god, or social media feed might have us believe.  These lessons invite us to make a choice between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.  Like it was for Aaron Burr, making the choice between these two kingdoms can be quite challenging.

Standing near the edge of the Jordan River, just outside the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses spoke to the children of Abraham.  After years of teaching, leading, and settling disputes, the now 120-year-old Moses is ready to impart his final wisdom upon God’s people.  Moses knows that he won’t be entering the land with them.  He knows that they have been prone to wander from the commandments of God.  He knows that they will need all the help they can get to stand firm in their faith when they come into this land thought to be flowing with milk and honey, and so he says, quite simply, “You’ve got a choice to make between life and death.”  Life is the way of love.  Life is available to those who put the love of God above all else, who walk in the way of Lord, who obey the commandments, and who follow the Torah.  Death, on the other hand, comes to those who fall for the allure of false gods, who choose the love of self over the love of neighbor, and who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  “What will you stand for,” Moses asks, “life or death?”

Rarely does the Psalm seem to fit in the with the overarching theme of our lessons, but even here, the psalmist is clear that those who stand in God’s commandments will find joy, while those who fail to keep the law will be forsaken.

In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is forced to respond to several conflicts in the life of the church.  In the midst of their fighting with one another, Paul writes to remind them of the faith upon which they first learned to stand in the light of Christ.  He calls them infants in Christ – they have forgotten how to stand in love, and instead are crawling around in anger and bitterness.  It isn’t about Apollos or Paul, Paul writes.  They are not the ones in whom your faith stands, but rather, it is in God alone that we are able stand.  They might have planted the seed, or tended the soil, or watered the earth, but it is God who made each Christian in Corinth to stand upright, to grow in faith, and to produce the fruit of righteousness.

Finally, then, we come to a rather challenging portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus takes many well-known laws and turns them on their heads.  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you insult a brother or sister, you are liable.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, if you look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall divorce your wife by decree,’ but I say to you, if you divorce someone out of convenience, you have sinned.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, don’t swear an oath at all, let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that everyone in this room has fallen short of the ethical standard that Jesus sets for us here.  Jesus lifts the bar so high as to be impossible to achieve, which is the whole point.  As followers of Jesus, the first step toward standing tall in our faith is recognizing that we are totally incapable of doing it on our own.

History has shown, over thousands of years, that left to our own devices, human beings will fall for anything that makes us feel good.  We are suckers for instant gratification.  Each time your phone dings to let you know someone liked a photo, your brain shoots off a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good, and eventually, it happens enough that you become addicted, seeking that rush that comes with each notification.  We’ve fallen for it.  The twenty-four-hour news channel of your choosing is there to make you angry or scared, which again, releases chemicals in your brain that over time you begin to think you can’t live without.  That chemical addiction keeps more eyeballs glued to the TV for longer periods of time, which allows them to sell ad space for more money.  We’ve fallen for it.  The entire advertising industry is built upon the reality that human beings can be convinced that we don’t have enough of whatever it is they are selling and that only by buying, drinking, eating, coveting what they have to offer will we ever be truly happy.  We’ve fallen for it.  Unable to stand, infants in the faith, too many of us spend our days watching the news and crawling around social media lobbing insults at each other.

Jesus invites us to stand up.  Better yet, Jesus takes us by the hand and helps us to stand, and then to walk, and then to work, building up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by choosing life, and obeying the commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors.  So, what do you stand for?  Is it the cross of Christ or have you fallen for whatever it is that the world is selling these days?  Choose life.  Choose the way of love.  Choose to stand with Christ.  Standing with Jesus is so much more rewarding than crawling around in the messiness of anger, fear, and vitriol.  The Psalmist is no Lin-Manual Miranda, but he does sum up the reward of our call to stand with God quite well, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Amen.

Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

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Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?

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JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?

Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

The Call to Follow

Why preach?  I don’t mean this existentially, although there are some who would ask this question that way.  Why, in a world that is increasingly skeptical of “experts” do preachers think they have the right to stand before their congregations and tell them anything?  That’s not the question I want to ask.  As a preacher, you’d assume that I am fairly well convinced of the power of the homiletical craft.  Rather, as one who preaches, I have to regularly ask myself, why?  Why is this sermon worth hearing?  Why this text?  Why these words?  More often than not, the why question comes down to asking myself, “what is the goal of the sermon?”

For many these days, the goal of a sermon is to offer a practical lesson from Scripture that is applicable for our lives.  This is a good goal, by and large.  Sermons that get stuck in the past – historical lessons on what was happening in the context in which Jesus lived – can be interesting, but won’t get much traction over time.  It is helpful to bring the story forward and to help our people and ourselves understand what this particular bit of holy writ has to do with life in 21st century America.  The downside, of course, is that we tend to over emphasize ourselves in the text.  Eisegesis and vapid moralization aren’t all that far away when the goal of the sermon is to make the text offer some lesson for our congregation today.

These questions and concerns came to mind this morning as I read the short Gospel passage appointed for this week.  It is the familiar story of Jesus calling Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John from their family fishing boats to become “fishers of people.”  My initial reaction was to think about what was happening in the hearts and minds of the four newest Disciples that would allow them to drop everything and follow Jesus.  I wondered about the reactions of their families.  I worried for their livelihoods.  I pondered what it might take for each of us to respond immediately when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  While I think these are all worthwhile questions and would make for a decent sermon on the text, I found myself wanting something more.

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It can’t just be about me.  The goal of the sermon ought not just be about giving the congregation something they can hold on to or motivating them to change their lives in some way.  Rather than another sermon admonishing them to drop everything and follow Jesus (which isn’t really a thing for 21st century Christians), what if the sermon focused instead on the call to follow in and of itself?  What if, instead of focusing on the response, the sermon looked deeply into the one who does the calling?  Isn’t that what grace is all about?  Not about how I can get myself over the hump to follow Jesus, but how by God’s grace, Jesus brings me into the kingdom.

The text doesn’t give us much to work with, but I think there is something there.  The one who is preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near beckons.  The one who is called the Son of God calls us by name.  The one who is the Good News invites us to share in it.  There is more to dig into here, and time will tell if I can find a sermon that doesn’t devolve into “will you follow Jesus?” but for today, I’m adjusting the goal of my sermon; not to motivate us to follow, for that is God’s job, but rather, to focus on a deepening relationship with the one who calls.

For all the saints who from their labors rest

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via CatholicLane.com (I really hope Popes wear the triple tiara in heaven)

One of the peculiarities of the life and ministry of an ordained minister is the role that place plays in one’s ministry.  Having taken a new call at the first of this year, I am no longer a priest in Foley, AL, but a priest in Bowling Green, KY.  This means a lot of things.  Personally, it means that the beach is no longer ten minutes away, fresh seafood is not readily available, and October mornings in the 30s.  Professionally, what has struck me most profoundly is the immediate switching on and off of pastoral relationships.

While I still pray for and love the people of Saint Paul’s, I am not longer their pastor.  In a social media world, it means being very careful about how I reach out to posts of illness and loss.  It means that I won’t officiate the funerals of people with whom I had long and fruitful relationships.  On the other hand, here in Bowling Green, the move means an immediate beginning to relationships.  I step in to long-term health issues, family dynamics, and restorations.  Reasonably, it takes a while to build these relationships, and sometimes, life short-circuits them.  Officiating funerals in the early stages of one’s tenure is an interesting experience.  I may not know the deceased at all, perhaps we only met a few times, maybe health problems meant that even if we did meet, we were never really able to know each other.

While I may not be able to offer the same sort of personal reflection that I used to in Foley, my role these days isn’t all that different than it once was, to share the good news of the hope of the resurrection in Christ Jesus.  My job at a funeral is to offer thanks to God “for all the saints, who from their labors rest,” while at the same time ensuring that even in our grief the name of “Jesus be for ever blessed” and highlight “their rock, their fortress, and their might.”  Because in the end, the Feast of All Saints’ is less about the millions who have followed the way of Jesus, even Popes in triple tiaras, but the Savior whom they followed in life and in whose rest they now live eternally.

Happy All Saints’ Day, dear reader!

Giving our Lives to God – a sermon

The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.


Today marks the beginning of three pretty awesome weeks here at Christ Church.  Alongside the other great stuff we are always doing, we get to add a commissioning of our music ministries, a fall festival for our Sunday school, the English Country dancers meet next week, our Youth and Campus Ministries are joining forces for an All Saint’s Day service, and we will rejoice in a successful stewardship campaign on November 5th.  To top it all off, we get to celebrate a baptism each of the next three Sundays.

I am of the belief that baptismal celebration should encompass the entire Sunday.  So, whether we are splashing water at 8, like we are this week, or 10, like the next two weeks, all the signs and symbols will be present at both services.  The Paschal Candle is lit, reminding us that through our baptism, we all share in the light of Christ.  The font is in the crossing as a visual reminder that each of us comes through the font, to the table, and out into the world.  The altar hangings are white, symbolizing the washing away of our sins that occurs in baptism and was secured in the resurrection.  And, no matter which service you attend over the next three weeks, we will all have the chance to renew our baptismal covenant.  In so doing, we are reminded of the basics of discipleship, the minimum requirements of those who claim a stake in the Kingdom of God.

Episcopalians often focus on the second half of the covenant.  We talk a lot about “respecting the dignity of every human being” and “seeking and serving Christ in all persons.”  These are good and noble actions, but we ought not forget that they follow a statement of our faith in and reliance on God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as three other questions about the life of faith.  The primary question in that list of five is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”  This question is first in line because if we fail to fulfill these basic practices of discipleship, none of the others is possible.  Without regular study of scripture, the mutual support of other Christians, nourishment at the Table, and an ongoing life of prayer, there is no foundation from which we can persevere in resisting evil, share the Good News, love our neighbor, or work for justice and peace.

I could be biased in suggesting this.  After all, I did spend the first half of this week at the Discipleship Matters Conference, but I don’t think so.  Instead, I think that the very real need that Christians have for study, fellowship, worship, and prayer are in the mind of Jesus as he goes toe-to-toe with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson.  Lest we forget, this story takes place in Holy Week.  Jesus has already entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna.  He has already flipped the tables and run out the money changers from the Temple court.  Things are getting increasingly hostile between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be.  The Pharisees are intent on ridding themselves of this meddlesome Rabbi, but they know that they have to be sneaky about it, because they fear how much the crowd loves Jesus.  Again and again, they come to him with topics for debate, hoping to trap him in his own words.  Again and again, Jesus outwits them, offering a vision of God’s Kingdom that is grace beyond their wildest imaginations.

In our today’s lesson, we hear of one particularly devious attempt wherein the Pharisees, a group of devout Jewish rabbis intent on restoring the purity of Israel team up with the Herodians, a group of Jews who were friendly to the Greek culture and loyal to the Roman government, to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  It may seem like a straightforward question, but it is not.  The tax in question is the census tax.  Every year, every occupied person in the Roman Empire was required to pay a denarius, approximately one day’s wage, to Rome to support the occupation forces.  Essentially, the oppressed had to pay for their ongoing oppression.  If Jesus were to say “yes, it is lawful,” he would become wildly unpopular, and the Pharisees would have the opening they needed to get rid of him.  If he were to say “no, it is not lawful,” then the Herodians could turn him in for sedition.  Somehow, Jesus avoided both possible outcomes by asking to see the coin required to pay the tax, noting that it bore the image of Caesar, and answering, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

In the ongoing chess match between Jesus and the religious authorities, this is nearly check mate.  They leave him amazed.  His rhetorical skill is unmatched.  In asking to see the coin used to pay the census tax, Jesus turns the question on its ear.  No longer is it about the tax, but it is about the role one’s religion plays in their life.  The coin bore the image of Caesar as well as an inscription that called the emperor the son of god.  Not only was paying this particular tax financially onerous, but the very act of carrying that coin meant you were guilty of violating the first two of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt have no other gods but me, and thou shalt not make a graven image.  A faithful Jew would take delight in getting rid of that coin as quickly as possible.  “Give it to Caesar because it certainly doesn’t belong to God,” Jesus insinuates, “and give to God that which belongs to God.”

The coin bears the image of Caesar, but human beings, Genesis tells us, bear the image of God.  Everything we are, everything we will become, and everything we have belongs to God.  Our very lives, every breath we take, comes from God.  If we are going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then we must be willing to give our whole lives back to God, which in the end, isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  We give our minds back to God through studying scripture and theology.  We give our hearts back to God by using the compassion that comes from them to motivate us to loving service and by opening them up to God in prayer.  We give our hands back to God by reaching out in care to those in need.  We give our feet back to God by walking into work, school, grocery stores, and hospital rooms radiating the love of God.  We give our wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.

In Baptism, we offer our lives back to God.  For little ones like Jocelyn, her parents do so on her behalf, promising to do their best, with the help of God and the body of the faithful to help her grow in study, fellowship, worship, and prayer.  What about you?  As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What might you be holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is about being a good steward of the gifts that God has given us, then maybe these next three weeks are an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given you, your heart, your mind, your gifts, and your worship.  Jesus invites us to give to God the things that are God’s. by giving God our whole life.  Amen.

Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.

Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

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