Playing Like Children

Happy Independence Day!  We’re creeping up on 250 years as an independent nation… which is just a middlin’-long time on the world stage.  It’s not nearly so long as Israel had been on the world stage when Jesus came along.  Israel shared some remarkable characteristics with America, and some significant differences, as well.

Israel looked at itself as the shining city on a hill, which every other nation wished to emulate.  They were and are, after all, the chosen people of God.  If you don’t believe them, just ask them; they even have it written on a scroll.  It was almost sacrilege to think otherwise.  We Americans have the same self-assuredness: we are also the city on a hill that every nation wished to emulate.  I wonder if the same is still true.  We have it carved on buildings.  It’s almost sacrilege to think otherwise.

Jesus looked around one day and saw people concerned about the wrong things.  He saw people worried about the outward appearances of others, or how much money they had, or how others might be able to help them move up in the world.  He saw people worried about drinking the right vintage of wine, or eating the right food, and doing so with the right kind of people. 

I think that’s the point of our gospel, and I think the observations Jesus had 2,000 years ago are just as apt today:  Some people look at others and see someone trying to watch their weight, or not eating meat, or who don’t drink, and think to themselves, that’s not the right type of person for me.  Some people look at others and see someone who eats at McDonald’s 3 or 4 times a week, or hangs out down at the pub, or invites the “wrong type of people” over for dinner, and thinks to themselves, that’s not the right type of people for me.  Or maybe the wrong type of people have the wrong color skin.  Or fall in love with a person of the wrong sex.  Or worship in the wrong manner.  And Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

When I got out of the Army, we spent a lot of time getting ready for a baby.  And while we did that, Amy and I applied to college.  We went and visited the campus and rented an apartment a few blocks away from the school.  And then we looked for a day care.  We didn’t have a lot of money, and had to find a place that would accept a newborn.  The only place we could afford was literally on the wrong side of the tracks.  It was run by an African-American Baptist church, and it was, maybe, our luckiest break in raising Leigh Ann.  She was the token white kid at the school.  Due to our schedules at school, Leigh Ann spent 8 or 9 hours a day at day care.  In truth, her teacher there, Ms. LaDonna, raised Leigh Ann more than we did and maybe better.  That little school was her life.  She loved being there and she loved her teachers.

And she learned, I suspect, the most valuable lesson of her life there.  She had the opportunity to learn the value of people who didn’t look like her.  One day when Leigh Ann was 3 or 4 years old, we took her to a local park that had a playground.  There were a couple of little girls her age playing in one part of the playground, and a couple of little girls playing in another part.  We didn’t know any of them, but Leigh Ann walked up to one of the groups and asked if she could play with them.  They looked at her and asked, “Why do you want to play with us?  Why don’t you go play with those white girls?”  It was kind of a hard lesson for an innocent little kid to learn: that sometimes people judge you before they even get a chance to know you.

That, I think is the lesson God hopes we can learn: that people have value, even if we don’t know them.  All people do.  People have talents and skills that can complement our own.  If you want to be purely cynical about it, people have value in what they can do for you.  But people have value even if they can’t do something for you.  Because people have value in what they can offer to others; perhaps more importantly, people have value in what they offer to God.  You don’t get to decide what that is; nor do I.  I don’t know who God finds valuable; only God the Father knows.  And no one knows the will of God the Father, except the Son.  I only hope that I remember to see what God sees when I look at others, no matter who they are; because my bet is God finds everyone valuable.

What we can do and what is needful now is to continue the work to protect those who need protecting, even if that protecting means only a cup of cool water.  Our church and city are pretty good about it.  But we can do much more.  We can continue to wear masks when out in public to protect others, rather than to menace.  We can continue to segregate ourselves to protect others, rather than segregate others to keep them from being lifted up.  We can continue to offer others out of our bounty rather than hoarding to buffer our largesse. 

We’ve done a great job in the past year; and we need to continue trying new things to see what works today.  Because this is the legacy of our country; it’s who we, as a nation, truly aspire to be.  These are the homeless, tempest-tost, and we are standing beside a door of shelter to keep one-another free of disease; to provide solace, as we are able.  By taking action to support others in positive ways, we will play the flute while others dance and mourn with others when they wail.

The Prophet’s Reward

Today’s gospel is about punishment and reward, or maybe risk and reward.  Doesn’t look like it, but it is.  Oh, I’ll give you the first half.  Jesus tells us to be welcoming and who we should welcome, and what benefit there is to that.  For example, he says that if one gives even a glass of water to a little one, one will not lose his or her reward.  I think, as an aside, that might mean that we already have a reward.  That’s not my point, but it’s an interesting idea to ponder.

The rest is a little bit more obscure.  If one welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet, or the righteous in the name of a righteous person, then that person also receives a reward.  Let’s go to the showcase showdown and see what we might win.  Contestant number 1 is the prophet.

Let’s look, for example, at Jonah.  Jonah was a prophet sent by God to the city of Nineveh with the message that everyone from the king on down should repent.  Jonah instead boarded a ship that went the other way.  This kind of ticked God off, so the ship foundered during a storm, Jonah had the crew throw him overboard and Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish, who later spit Jonah up onto the beach.  That’s not much of a life.  Jonah repented and went on to Nineveh, as commanded.  When he announced that the city would be destroyed in 40 days, the King of Nineveh, uncharacteristically, listened and decreed that the entire city, including the animals; would repent.  How was Jonah rewarded?  He was left to sit in the dirt by the side of the road.  Jonah was treated well; most prophets are killed when they deliver their message.

Let’s look, instead at Contestant #2, the righteous man.  I think there are 2 examples: those who are inwardly righteous and those who are outwardly righteous.  Matthew talks about the first type several times.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus remarks, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”(5:6)  And again, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”(5:10)  Jesus also says to “strive for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”(6:33)

On the other hand, Matthew quotes Jesus, saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (5:20)  What are we to make of this?  Dictionary.com defines righteous as “characterized by uprightness or morality.”  That’s what the Scribes and Pharisees purported to aspire to.  But I think Jesus saw their efforts often as a show for others’ benefit, without a lot of inward piety.  Many were, I think in Jesus’ view, more concerned with the letter of the law and in pointing out the faults of others who had a harder time in life, than in actual pious devotion.  But the pious devotion, I think is what Jesus was looking for.  Matthew reads, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”(9:13)

Interestingly, Dictionary.com also reports the slang definition for righteous, “absolutely genuine or wonderful,” a la the Jeff Spikoli character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Jesus criticized the outward shows of piety a number of times.  Matthew quotes him admonishing His disciples, “‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”(6:2) “‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”(6:5)  Our goal as Christians should be pleasing God, rather than the adulation of men.  Seeking that absolute genuineness rather than trying to impress others is what God finds wonderful.

Now about the risk.  We talked about the showboating; the risk there is, I think, losing oneself in that adulation rather than receiving the reward that Jesus espouses.  But there’s other risk.  We see that today, with people arrested for leaving water out for border crossers.  People protesting the unfair treatment of others.  Panhandlers arrested, but also people giving to panhandlers arrested.  There is judicial risk and physical risk for some.  I think Jesus saw that sort of risk in Israel and I think God sees it today, as well.

And I think Jesus’ response is that our relationship with God, and our willingness to do the things that God wants us to do outweigh civic statute—even the civic statutes enumerated in the bible.  What God values is set out over and over—sometimes obscurely; sometimes very concretely.  Micah tells us God’s will: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. (6:8)  What’s the most important thing to do to be right with God?  Matthew quotes Jesus summarizing the Law: “’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.” (22:37-40)  How do we love God and our neighbor?  Jesus tells us over and over again.  Here in our gospel lesson and repeatedly, Jesus tells us that when we show mercy to the least in the Kingdom, it’s as if we’re doing that for God, Himself.

This week, I’m taken with Micah’s summary.  Do justice.  Sometimes justice means showing kindness to those trapped in an unjust system.  Love Kindness.  Sometimes kindness means doing the hard thing, like excising an infection and cauterizing a wound.  It would be most kind if the wound didn’t exist, but sometimes a painful remedy is the kindest response we have available.  Walk humbly.  For many of us Americans, this has often been a stumbling block for the past 80 years.  Do justice.  Love Kindness.  Walk humbly.  Those are big shoes to fill.  They were in Micah’s time.  They were in Jesus’ time.  They are today. 

Maybe as we separate ourselves from others for their and our own good, that’s the practice we are undertaking or should undertake.  Maybe as we separate from others for their and our own good, that a practice we should work on.  The reward isn’t something this world is likely to bestow upon us, maybe it’s a reward waiting for us when we meet Jesus face to face.  But maybe it’s a reward already in our hearts.  Think about the people you know who are truly happy.  How do they act toward others?  I’ll wager most are kind and merciful and humble.  That’s the reward of the truly righteous.

On the Baby, John the Baptist

I spent most of my life being the youngest.  I was the younger brother.  I was the youngest cousin on one side of my family—the oldest was the same age as my mother.  I was the third youngest on the other side.  I started school at 5 instead of 6, so I was typically the youngest in the class.  After 12 years in the military, I expected to be one of the oldest in my class at Officer Training School, but I wasn’t.  About half of our class was prior service; the oldest was a chief master sergeant with 19 ½ years in… I don’t know why he thought that was a good idea.  It was kind of a shocking realization along the way when I discovered I was older than my peers, rather than younger.

So, I rather sympathize with John the Baptist, whom we celebrate and commemorate today.  He was born out of sync with many of the kids his age.  Elizabeth and Zechariah, his parents, were old.  Elizabeth was thought to be beyond her child-bearing years and barren.  Zechariah was of a similar age.  And life in the Middle East—even for a well-to-do priest like Zechariah and his wife, was pretty hard and usually short.  But lo and behold, Elizabeth discovers she’s pregnant.  Imagine, if it wasn’t your experience, being in your 40s or 50s and finding out you’re pregnant.  I was 21 and I don’t know how I did it.  I can’t imagine being my age with a newborn… it makes me tired just thinking about it.

This was the world John was born into.  All of his parents’ friends were grandparents.  He had to cope with that, and his parents had to cope with a new social circle.  I expect John did not have a typical childhood for his day.  And all of this began at birth with the lovely soliloquy we Episcopalians call the Song of Zechariah and include as a canticle in the Daily Office.  I wonder how much thought Elizabeth gave to her husband’s pronouncement that her only son would be a prophet of the Most High—a designation that threatened kings to whom prophets spoke truth to power and that usually ended poorly for the prophet.  I wonder if she was afraid or proud of the fate Zechariah laid on the newborn?

About 6 months after Elizabeth found out she was pregnant, along came Mary, most likely a young cousin, probably a mid-teenaged girl, to visit with news that she was pregnant, too.  I imagine, though admittedly without proof, that Mary was kind of a surrogate daughter to Elizabeth, and I always have the picture of Juliet and her nurse from the Shakespeare play in how they interact.  So, I suspect it was a pretty homey relationship between Zechariah’s and Joseph’s families as John and Jesus grew up… maybe not an every-day relationship, but certainly a summers and holidays kind of relationship.

I suspect as the boys grew up, they were friends and rivals.  And I suspect that the elder boy, John, often had the upper hand, as he was just a little older, a little stronger, a little ahead of Jesus in his schooling and development.  I suspect there was a bit of difference in the upbringing of the priest’s son and the carpenter’s son, too.  I wonder if it was a shock when John—named at birth as a prophet of God—discovered that his younger cousin was the Chosen One whom he was to foretell.

I think the example of John is an incredibly profound one.  He grew up, I suspect, as something of a doted-upon favorite before being eclipsed by his younger cousin.  He learned the fervor of liturgy and worship at the feet of his father and learned the role of a true prophet in the synagogue.  John was born a tragic hero worthy of a Greek tragedy, and that’s how we see him played in the opening of Luke’s gospel.  The prophet from birth accepts his role as speaker to power and forerunner of the one who would come to show God’s people the true way with humility. 

But today we see the hope of unexpecting and loving parents… parents who hope for something miraculous and wonderful for their son, just like all parents do.  And they get it—something miraculous and wonderful that changes the whole world for the better.  I just wonder if it’s what they expected.

I Alone, Against the World

This morning I’m going to make a logical leap, but I think it’s an accurate one about our relationship with God and what our gospel today says about it.  My understanding of this goes back nearly 20 years now.  The World Trade Center had been destroyed and the Pentagon had been severely damaged a month prior.  I’d been involuntarily activated by my reserve unit for about a month and I was studying about Afghani culture and heritage, and some of the nuances of Afghani Islam and how it diverged from Saudi Sunni or Iranian Shia Islam.  I learned about the overarching moral code of the Afghani people called Pashtunwali, which talked about the honor of men and things like retribution on the one hand, and duty towards guests, on the other.  There was a saying I learned that ran through Afghani culture that goes something like this:

I alone against my brother

My brother and me against our cousin

My family against the village

My village against the nation

My nation against the world

I later learned that this world view runs through Muslim culture across nations—you can find references to similar sayings from the Bedouin people, or the Tuareg nomads in northwest Africa.  I alone against my brother.  I imagine this makes for, at once, a very lonely existence, and also a very welcoming existence.  I must always be on my guard because everyone is out to get me.  But also, everyone is out to get us, so I must be always ready to come to the defense of my brother, or clan, or faith.

I’d suggest there are vestiges of this philosophy everywhere, in every culture.  We talk about ethnic minorities or even majorities here in America and around the world who fight for others of “their kind” against any enemy.  We talk about the culture of “the thin blue line” where police officers support others—even if they’re in the wrong—because they continue the tradition of the thin blue line.  The military does it.  The Catalans of Spain do it.  The natives of Australia and New Zealand and the Americas do it.  White people and black people both do it.  Different peoples of the Orient do it.  Teenage girls do it.  It’s me against the world, and my people against everyone else.  Either you’re in, or you’re out.

In Jesus’ time, there were the Jews who were a people set apart—against everyone.  There were the Romans: who looked to conquer and “civilize” the rest of the barbarian world under the Pax Romana and the Greeks before them.  So did the Assyrians and the Persians and the Egyptians before them.  They all tried the same thing.  And along comes Jesus and our gospel for today with Matthew’s report of this uncharacteristic saying from Jesus:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It seems that Jesus is espousing the same characteristic.  And maybe what Jesus is acknowledging is this seminal truth that he sees in the people he encounters.  It’s me against the world; it’s us against them.

But I don’t think so.  Maybe Jesus is actually saying, “I know this is the way of things, but it doesn’t have to be.”  It may be for a while, but my aim is to change this paradigm.”  I think Jesus is saying, it isn’t “I alone against the world.”  Rather, it’s me and God with the world.  Rather than me against my brother, it’s me and God, and how can we care for my brother?  My brother and me and God, and how can we be for our cousin?  My family and God, and how can we be for our family?  How can my family and God be for the village?  How can we and God be for the nation?  How can we and God be for the world?

I think in this passage, Jesus is also acknowledging the strife inherent in changing paradigms.  Jesus recognizes that mankind views it as almost a sin to go against the group.  We see that in the news today.  We see cops committing the sin of putting down their shields and riot helmets and kneeling in front of groups of protesters.  We see the sin of a black protester carrying an injured white police officer out of a mob and returning him to the security of the police line.  We see the sin of beginning to acknowledge that we screwed things up and persecuted others unjustly in the past and profited from that persecution and enslavement.  How could someone commit the sin of admitting fault?  How could someone commit the sin of accepting blame?  That’s not how we play us vs. them.  But the truth is, those aren’t the sins; those are the golden calfs.

What Jesus, I think, is inviting us into in this passage is “us with God in service to others,” and I think Jesus here is acknowledging that it’s going to take a long, long time to get to that point.  When it’s me and God in service to the teenage girls that my sister doesn’t like in high school, she’s going to be mad.  When it’s me and God in service for Uncle Fred, who my dad hates, Dad is going to be mad.  When it’s us and God in service for the neighborhood with a different ethnicity than ours, the power brokers in the neighborhood are going to retaliate.  When it’s the church working to throw out that box of junk in the attic that Ol’ Mrs. McGillicutty (may she rest in peace) donated to the church 3 decades ago—that no longer works or has meaning, the priest or the Senior Warden is going to get an earful.  When it’s our nation putting the good of others before profit, the corporations are going to protest.  When it’s me wearing a mask not to keep myself safe, but to keep you safe, and asking you to do the same for me, then I’m infringing on your rights.

Jesus 2,000 years ago, I think was saying, it’s time to start a new thing, where it’s us and God working for the other instead of me alone against the world.  There is no “are you in or are you out, because you’re all in with God.  No one is out.”  Maybe now, 2,000 years later, we have the rumblings in our society that it is time for a change.  It’s time for a change where we look away from retribution for our enemies and focus on duty towards the rest of the world as guests and fellow members of God’s household.  It’s time for a change where we focus on us and God rather than me, alone.

Black and White

Today’s readings present stark contrasts for many people.  A lot of us think of the world in either/or binaries, and we see that playing out in our lives right now in a number of ways.  Either you support the police, or you support Black Lives Matter.  Either you’re a supporter of the 2nd Amendment or you’re for gun control.  Either you’re for the stay at home orders or you’re for unrestricted reopening of society.  Either/or is a dangerous binary, because it’s a false one.  There often are no black and white, off/on choices when real people become involved… or something changes in a person’s opinion when that person is suddenly affected by a choice they railed for or against when the choice was just an abstract.  I think we see that illustrated in different ways by our individual readings today.

I know what our reading from Exodus promises to the Children of Israel this morning and how they interpret God’s words.  God talks to Moses and has him relay to the Israelites, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”  For the Israelites, there are several binaries: they deal with who they were in Egypt vs who they are now that God has rescued them from Egypt.  But for those Israelites, they are still the people once held captive by Pharaoh.  They are also who they became after their release.  There were individuals who were faithful to God before their release, and also after.  There were also some who lost their faith, or gained new faith, and some who still wouldn’t truly follow God in their hearts, regardless.  But they were all chosen.  They were all God’s treasured possessions.

I’m going to suggest a word replacement exercise for our story from Exodus.  Perhaps God tells Moses, “If one,” instead of, “If you.”  That would render the story, “If one obeys my voice and keeps my covenant, that one shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but that one shall be for me a priestly kingdom and holy nation.”  Or maybe, “a citizen of my priestly kingdom and holy nation.”  Here, all the Israelites belong to God, and in addition, any of the Israelites who choose, have the opportunity to be citizens of a priestly kingdom and holy nation.  But with this reading, that opportunity isn’t limited to only the Israelites; all the world has the opportunity to graft into that priestly kingdom and holy nation.  Perhaps we all enjoy those benefits, even if we sometimes fail to always meet the bar that God has set.

Paul’s letter to the Romans offers another binary, that I think we interpret as a false one.  It seems it’s often used by some groups of Christians to separate the us from the them.  Paul writes today, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is seen by many as God’s removing of the guilt of sin while at the same time declaring those who don’t share in this faith as ungodly.  But it seems to me that sometimes people forget about the rest of the paragraph.  Faith is just the beginning of our obligation.  Having faith and confessing it is the starting point of grace.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, our faith ebbs and flows; it isn’t constant.  However, God expects more of us; just as he did in our Exodus lesson.  Faith is not a passive thing.  There is also work to be done.

Paul goes on to spell this out for us.  “We boast in sharing the glory of God, but also in our sharing in God’s suffering,” he writes.  “That suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”  The boasting of faith is only the first step.  There is also the work of sharing in Jesus’ ministry, which gives us the hope of a share in God’s kingdom, but also the hope of creating God’s kingdom.

I had a mentor along the way who once told me that to be a successful priest, I needed a foundation of prayer in the Daily Office.  And I needed the work of outreach.  Because, he told me, there will be periods of life when I may not find solace in the Eucharist.  And I needed one or the other of the first 2 to see me though those periods of the last instance.  See, God understands the frailty of the human condition, because God came to earth to experience it along with us.  That’s why there are no binaries.  If God had wanted that, God would’ve made a fleet of robots instead of us imperfect beings.  But the imperfection allows us to grow and change.

For some of us, the present time is one of heartbreak, because we don’t have the solace of the Eucharist.  But we do have other things.  We have personal devotion.  We have the renewal of community, perhaps not within the doors of this building, but in our broader community; with our next-door neighbors.  We have the opportunity to make the world a little better for another in some unexpected way.  We have the labor of outreach; perhaps in ways that we hadn’t envisioned it before.

That’s actually the message we have in the Gospel.  Jesus didn’t do everything all the time.  Matthew shows us that today.  Jesus sent the 12 out to do the work.  What did Jesus do?  Maybe he prayed.  Maybe he went fishing.  Maybe he took a nap.  There were times when Jesus very deliberately prayed or went to a specific place to pray.  What did the disciples do?  Sometimes they prayed, too.  Sometimes they fell asleep.  There were times when Jesus went to the temple and even taught there.  Sometimes, He just sat across the street and had a cup of joe and people-watched.

God knows we are incapable of constant praise.  That’s what God created the angels for.  Or maybe they get days off too; I don’t know.  But God also created us in all our variety.  In God’s economy, I think nothing goes to waste.  It’s ludicrous to believe that God created all the billions of people that have lived and are living and will live just to allow our faith group into heaven.  Or our nation.  Or just 144,000.  Or just this parish.  God created all of us to try and grow and develop.  To try new things; to sometimes try the black, or the white, but more likely, some shade of grey inbetween.  God created us to try and become better human beings ourselves, and to lift others up and give them opportunity to become better human beings.

God created us not perfect just like God, but imperfect to learn to be like God.  Sometimes in learning, we make mistakes.  Sometimes we fail.  But that’s when we have the opportunity to become even closer to God: by persisting, by growing, by learning to do better.  Every day we encounter black and we also encounter white.  And God made them both and God called them both good.  Don’t believe me?  Just look to the sky for a day.

Scary Sunday

The service for this sermon can be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/john.tober/videos/10157856094971549/

This Sunday is called Trinity Sunday.  It’s one of the principle feasts of the church, but it’s really pretty downplayed by a lot of clergy.  I think a big reason for that is that it’s a scary Sunday.  There is the specter of saying something heretical that hangs over us when we talk about the Trinity.  It’s scary because we’re trying to explain something that is unexplainable, so it’s easier and safer to kind of gloss it over.  It’s really easy to say what God is not.  It’s really easy to explain what the Trinity isn’t.  But it’s really, really difficult to explain what the Trinity is.

In the Halloween episode in the 7th season of the Simpsons animated TV show, Bart and Homer encounter a doorway into the third dimension.  After many Simson-esque hijinks, the pair return to their normal two-dimensional world changed.  And when the other characters ask about the experience, Bart and Homer can’t explain it.  In a sense, that’s what we’re talking about, but in another, it’s even more complicated, because we try to talk about something we haven’t experienced, or if we have, it’s only in the most oblique way.

In our reading from Genesis, we get our first glimpse of who God is.  All three persons of the Trinity are there and unified in activity before the beginning of creation, but we see them described in human inadequacy.  First, we encounter God the Father.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”  God the Father is the creator from whom all things come.  Next, we read about the Holy Spirit.  “…while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The Holy Spirit moves through all realities—our reality and God’s additional reality which we don’t share—acting to imbue reality with God’s desire.  And finally, before anything in our reality comes into being, we have the one who is Jesus, the Word, already there: “Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”

The imperfection in our understanding and our language has given way to what the church has called heresies.  But I suspect a lot of heresy arises out of our own imperfection.  The Simpsons created their own heresy in the 3d Homer episode.  While trying to explain what Homer and Bart were experiencing, Professor Frink draws a square on a chalkboard and explains, “Suppose we extend the square beyond the two dimensions of our own universe along the hypothetical Z-axis.  This forms the three-dimensional object known as a cube, or a frinkahedron, in honor of its discoverer.”  Clearly for us, a three-dimensional square is known as a cube, and not the heretical term, frinkahedron.  But even though Professor Frink has the greatest knowledge of the characters, his understanding of this new reality is imperfect, and his expression of it is limited by the imperfect language of the Simpsons’ universe.

I think the most perfect understanding we have of who God is and what God is, and what God’s intention for God’s creation is, may be found in the 1st book of John, where John writes (I’m paraphrasing for my point), “Love is from God… love is God.” (1 John 4: 7-8)  In our limited understanding, that may be the best we can approximate the cube that is God, without calling it a frinkahedron.

God created an imperfect universe.  I’m sure God had reasons, but I don’t know why and that’s part of my imperfect understanding.  When we talk about God’s creation, and what changes we might wish to make to approach our idea of God’s perfection, we often begin the thought with, “Well, in a perfect world, I’d…” and then name the change we would make.  Maybe the reality is, From God’s vantage point, the universe is perfect… or perfectly what God wants it to be.  We ourselves are incapable of creating something that is perfect.  But we are able of taking something imperfect and improving it.

Just look at the cell phone.  200 years before Christ, some Greek guy created an artifact we have recently rediscovered and named the antikythera mechanism to track the movements of the heavens, which is still remarkably precise.  In 1623, the first mechanical adding machine was created.  In 1961, the first desktop calculator was invented.  When I was a kid, Apple sold the first commercially available, home-built computer.  And since then, we have made smaller and more precise computer chips, capable of more and more calculations.  But they aren’t perfect.  Perhaps, as good as they become, they will never be perfect.  But that doesn’t keep us from trying to achieve that end.

Our true aim, our telos, should be approaching the perfection that is God.  It stands to reason that if God is love, then our truest aim should be the emulation of the love God shows to us and shares with us.  The love that God does in the Genesis Creation story and throughout our scripture is an active thing.  Through history, God draws us into active expressions of love.  We do love like God’s by emulating the ministry Jesus taught us while here on earth.  We do that, as Matthew tells us elsewhere in his gospel, by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and foreigner, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. (Matt. 25:35-36)  That’s what we should be about today, and every day, because that’s who Jesus says he is and that’s the evidence we have of what Jesus was about.

We should also be about looking for the divine in whomever we encounter.  We should be about having compassion for creation and empathy for God’s creatures.  By searching for the divine spark in others, perhaps we can help God to create a Kingdom that is a little more perfect, even if we don’t understand it fully in our own imperfection.  Perhaps by trying to love God and one another just as much as God loves us when God loves us into being, we can love things like injustice and hatred and bigotry out of God’s creation.

“Finally, brothers and sisters…” if we act in God’s love, we will begin to “Put things in order[.]  Listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. [and] All the saints [will] greet you.  [And] The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

 

 

The Martyrs of the 1880s and 2020s

The service for this sermon may be found at: https://www.facebook.com/john.tober/videos/10157846360706549/

The Uganda Martyrs are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between January 1885 and January 1887.  They were killed on orders of Mwanga II, the Kabaka—the king—of Buganda.

In 1875, a letter appeared in Britain purporting to be an invitation from the king of Buganda, Muteesa I, Mwanga II’s father, to send missionaries.  Because of this, the Church Missionary Society dispatched Alexander Mackay in 1877. A group of French Catholic White Fathers, led by Père Simon Lourdel appeared two years later. Meanwhile, Arab traders from Zanzibar had introduced Islam into the kingdom. This effectively led to a three-way religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court.

By the mid-1880s, many citizens and powerful figures in Bugandan society had been converted by each of the three groups, and some of the converts held important posts at the king’s court.  Muteesa himself sympathized with Islam, but many prominent chiefs had become Christians.

Kabaka Mwanga II succeeded to the throne in 1884. He was concerned at the growing influence of Christianity and the rise of a new class of officials, distinct from the traditional territorial chiefs, who were educated, had a religious orientation, and wished to reform Gandan society.

A year after becoming king he ordered the execution of several courtiers who had converted to Christianity. Encouraged by his prime minister, on 29 October 1885 he had the incoming Anglican bishop, James Hannington, assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom. This may have been deliberately intended to ward off a potential British invasion.

The deaths took place at a time when there was a three-way religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court. The episode also occurred against the backdrop of the “Scramble for Africa” – the invasion, occupation, division, colonization and annexation of African territory by European powers.  Meanwhile, the various European powers were scrambling to annex different areas of Africa as colonies, sending militaries and missionaries to the continent and dividing it up to their political ends.  The German annexation of what is now Tanzania sparked further alarm.  A few years after, the English Church Missionary Society used the deaths to enlist wider public support for the British acquisition of Uganda for the Empire.

The Catholic Church beatified the 22 Catholic martyrs of its faith in 1920 and canonized them in 1964.

What can we learn from the Ugandan Martyrs and from our readings today?  We could talk about Christian sectarian violence.  We could talk about Christian majority nations occupying Muslim nations.  For many white people, it’s an uncomfortable line to draw, from European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US today.  Perhaps, in America today, that’s exactly what we need to talk about as our nation is gripped by violence against people of color by largely white civic authority.

Matthew quotes Jesus, “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”  Throughout history, that quote can be taken two ways.  I think one way to take it is that people with no power who follow Jesus will be hated and despised by those power and will be persecuted by those in power.  I think another way to read this is that people in power will illegitimately use the name of Jesus to support their persecution of those who are powerless.  And as unpopular as this opinion may be to some, I think this is what’s happening in America today.

Jesus’ sympathy is always—always—with the underdog, the persecuted.  It is with the Samaritan, who was reviled by the Jew of Jesus’ day.  It was with the adulteress, not with the crowd who wanted to stone her to death.  It was with the hungry and the sick.  It was with the publican who approached God asking for mercy rather than the Pharisee who approached God to boast.

Paul’s advice is to endure and to have sympathy for those who also are forced to endure.  In his letter to the Hebrews, he writes, “Recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”  Endure and expect that God sees the struggles of the downtrodden and will see them uplifted.

The alternative, arguably, is the history of the US.  The “ancient history” beginning 400 years ago, or the recent history of last week and last night.  The prophet Habbukuk wrote,

“Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!”

You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.

The very stones will cry out from the wall,
and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
and found a city on iniquity!”

Alas for us all!  Because this is us, as a nation.  And we are hearing the very stones cry out and the plaster respond.  For the past—what 40 years?—the response of politicians when a tragedy occurs is, “It’s too soon,” and “the family needs time to grieve,” and, “the community needs time to grieve,” and, “the nation needs time to grieve.”  I can tell you the families of those who die wrongly will always grieve.  The community will continue to grieve.

The hope of politicians is that they both will forget.  But I think we can see today that the nation doesn’t forget.  And the time for atonement has, perhaps finally arrived.  Perhaps we’ve come to the time in our history when “the one(s) who endure to the end will be saved” from us who are privileged.  Perhaps we are at the point in our history when “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations;” before the end comes.

The Pentecost Miracle

The service for this sermon can be viewed online at: https://www.facebook.com/john.tober/videos/10157836775201549/

This morning is Pentecost Sunday, or as our cousins across the pond call it, Whitsunday.  It got that name because today is one of the 4 principal days in the church for baptisms—the Easter vigil, Pentecost, All Saints Day, and the Feast of the Baptism.  And so, this morning, people who weren’t being baptized or non-church-goers would see a parade of people walking first thing in the morning down to the village church of St. Swithin’s in the Marsh all dressed in white to celebrate their baptisms.  Sally and Bill would look at each other over their cup of morning tea and ask one another, “What are those Christians doing all dressed in white?”  And the other would respond, “Don’t you know?  It’s Whitsunday.  Today’s the day they all dress in white.” And sometimes Bill would ask his friend Fred down at the mill and Fred would begin to tell Bill about baptism and the God that loves us enough to come down from heaven to be with us.

I think there is a miracle in today’s Pentecost reading, but it isn’t that the disciples spoke to the crowd in their own language, or even that the crowd of different people—from all across the known world at the time—could hear the voice of God in the message the disciples gave.

The disciples who followed Jesus were all united in the upper room, presumably in worship.  All of them were united in their openness to receiving God’s message.  All of them were united in going out into the world to deliver that message to whomever they encountered.  And they encountered people from Iran, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, the Former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and Rome.  There were Good Jews and pagans in the crowd.   There were, basically, people from every nation and color and faith in the crowd… whom God loved, regardless of how they accepted the message.

Peter’s explanation begins very simply.  Peter quotes the prophet Joel, who quotes God himself: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”  Peter and Joel tell us that God blesses kids and old people, free people and servants and slaves.  Everyone will be saved.  Everyone.  Not just the people who look like I do or talk like I do or think like I do.  Everyone.

There were people who didn’t like that message.  Many of the Jews didn’t like that message, because they thought the disciples were saying they were no longer the Chosen People.  The Romans didn’t, because, well, they were Romans and therefore better than anyone else.  If you continue to read the Acts and Paul’s contemporaneous letters, even some of the Christians didn’t like that message.  All through history there have been peoples and individuals who haven’t liked that message.  But you know who does?  God does.

Today we are a motley bunch of disparate people.  We look at one another and see the differences: skin tone, language, lifestyle, nationality, religion.  God looks at us and sees the sameness.  It’s not the best example, but my parents had 2 different children: a boy and a girl.  Eventually, their children were a Jew and a gentile.  One lives in an historic city on the Eastern Seaboard, in the wrong part of town.  The other lives out in the sticks in horse country in the Old Southwest.  We eat different food.  We celebrate different holidays.  We dress differently.  But we are both our parents’ children and our parents love both of us, regardless of the lifestyles we lead.

My grandmother had, at the last family reunion, 94 offspring.  We gathered together from all over the country—maybe all over the world.  We married people from different parts of the nation and world.  We go to different churches—those of us who are Christian—or other houses of worship, or none at all.  My grandmother collected stamps and coins when she was alive, and every year she would send a grandkid and great grandkid a coin for their birthday.  Every year.  Every kid.  It didn’t matter who the kid was, or even if the kid wrote Grandma and said thank you.  It didn’t matter if the kid got good grades in school, or cleaned their plate at dinner.  Every kid was treated the same.

God has, at last count, approaching 8 billion children.  All of them are different.  Our psalm this morning praises God for this diversity:

O Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.

You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.

You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.

You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104:25, 28-31)

 

I am as different to the person across the street as I am to the person across town, or across the state, or across the nation, or across the world.  That diversity is a strength; it’s something to be cherished.  I couldn’t raise horses like our neighbor across the street.  I can barely keep a plant alive, unlike his wife.  I can’t grow a cash crop like my neighbor down the street, or fix a car like my mechanic.  I can’t do finance like a wall street banker; I make less money than Bill Gates and I’m better off than the homeless guy on the street corner.  I can’t make a baby and I can’t heal her when she gets sick.

But we are all people and worthy of the divine flame that God has given each of us.  We are all equally worthy of justice and mercy.  We are all equally worthy of love and respect.  We are all equally worthy of the consideration of others despite our culture or our creed or the melanin content of our skin.

God is good at creating diversity to accomplish God’s plan of salvation for the world.  We as a world, as a nation, as a people, as individuals, seem to be good at drawing lines on maps and putting up walls and subdividing tracts.  We’re good at criticizing and condemning and complaining.  At a time when we should be concentrating on keeping healthy ourselves and safeguarding others—whomever they may be—we are adept at pointing fingers and blaming.  We’re accomplished hoarders and jealous takers of stuff and ideas, of rights and respect.

The miracle of Pentecost isn’t that the disciples were somehow able to communicate to others.  The miracle of Pentecost is that God was able to unify them to reach out to others and show a diverse crowd that God loves them all, each and every one.  And that the crowd believed them, if only for a moment.  The crowd believed that God not only loves me, but that God love you.  And him.  And her.  And that we should, too; if only for this moment.

 

Fiery Ordeals and Crosses Row on Row

The video for the Sunday service for which this sermon was written may be found at: https://www.facebook.com/john.tober/videos/10157817330951549/

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” What telling words for these times!  All through history we have experienced fiery ordeals… sometimes big things like plagues and famines and wars; sometimes little things like asking that girl out in 7th grade and getting shot down in front of all her friends.  It’s little looking back at it, but man, is it a big deal in 7th grade.  It’s almost the end of the world.

102 years ago, we celebrated the survival of the world from the calamity of war on November 11th at 11:11 in the morning.  It’s often thought that Memorial Day is tied to that conflict, but it’s not.  Memorial Day goes back another 53 years to the end of the Civil War.  In the years following, communities would come together to remember the fallen from that conflict, as well as loved ones who have passed on, in what came to be known as Decoration Day.  In 1971, Memorial Day was recognized as a Federal holiday.  Tomorrow, at 3:00 across our nation, people will pause and remember those who gave their lives for our nation.  For me, Memorial Day always brings to mind chrysanthemums, because when I was a kid we would often go to the cemetery with my grandmother to put mums on my grandfather’s grave.

To remember our fallen soldiers, nothing seems more poignant than the poem Flanders Fields, by John McRae (my scansion).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses,

row on row, that mark our place;

and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.

Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep,

though poppies grow in Flanders fields.

 

            “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” I think the lesson from Peter’s letter and from Flanders Fields is that there are always crises; there are always ordeals.  And they are hard.  They are hard to conceive of; they are hard in the moment, and for many, they are hard in retrospect.  Asking the girl out in 7th grade was hard.  The threat of war at 18 was hard.  Standing at attention on the ramp at Kandahar as bodies were loaded on an airplane bound for America was hard.  Standing in an empty church that has to be closed to fulfill the gospel message of loving god and one another as ourselves, rather than with the doors flung open, and preach a message of hope today is hard. 

But the message of Flanders Fields is not the crosses, row on row that mark places; though for the soldiers’ loved ones, they are important, and for statesmen who send soldiers to war, they are vital.  The message of Peter’s letter is not the sharing of Christ’s sufferings, though for us Christians, Christ’s suffering for us is vital.  The message of the church today is not the empty building; though for us today, keeping our population safe and limiting exposure to potential vectors of disease is vital. 

The message is, rather, the throwing of the torch to be held high, and the shout for joy when God’s glory is revealed.  The message is that the work of the church—that’s you and me, not this building—goes on.  That’s the hopeful message of today’s lessons: that the essential work of the church goes on.

There are lots of people that are smarter than me and more eloquent than me.  Yesterday, the bishop-elect of Missouri, Deon Johnson, remarked,

“The work of the church is essential.
The work of caring for the lonely, the marginalized, and the oppressed is essential.
The work of speaking truth to power and seeking justice is essential.
The work of being a loving, liberating, and life giving presence in the world is essential.
The work of welcoming the stranger, the refugee and the undocumented is essential.
The work of reconciliation and healing and caring is essential.
The church does not need to “open” because the church never “closed”. We who make up the Body of Christ, the church, love God and our neighbors and ourselves so much that we will stay away from our buildings until it is safe. We are the church.”

 

So, this Memorial Day weekend, let us remember the good work of those who came before us—the soldiers who lie in Flanders Fields, the saints of the church, my grandfather and the mums on his headstone—and look forward to where the torch they’ve flung before us is leading us.  Let’s look forward to the glory of God that will be revealed by the work we are given to do, wherever we are.

The Greatest Commandment

The video for the service this sermon is taken from may be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/john.tober/videos/10157797381706549/

For the past several weeks we have taken our gospel readings from the Gospel of John.  I’ve remarked before about the differences between John and the other three gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels because they all are very similar in content—synoptic meaning, “of, or forming a general summary.”  John is a bit different.  In John, Jesus sometimes comes across as a bit spooky, whereas in the others, Jesus as a character is pretty down to earth and relatable.  When we think about a being such as God, it is sometimes hard to imagine God being like you and me rather than a being of unlimited power and wisdom.   But God is both.  One scholar suggested that the difference between John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels is that the three explain how Jesus is like God, while John explains how God is like Jesus.  That sounds like it might be saying the same thing, but it really isn’t.

This morning, John reports “Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What exactly does that mean?  Depending on who is doing the counting, there are any number of commandments attributed to Jesus… almost as many as the laws of Torah, which our Jewish brethren number at 613.  As a good Jew, Jesus was more than familiar with Torah and ably responded when asked, which is the greatest commandment?  The synoptic gospels all relate Jesus’ summary of the Law: “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”(Mark 12:28-31)  But John doesn’t record this exchange.

The gospels all relate stories of Jesus discussing aspects of the law or God the Father’s commandments.  We could argue that when Jesus talks about these things, Jesus is trying to teach us about how a person is to relate to God—how we are supposed to reverence the awful, fearsome, wonderful being that is God.  Jesus is teaching us how to relate to God.  But in John, we learn how God sees God’s relationship with us, and the commandments of God take on a new connotation.  It’s not a one-way street, with us people directing our love to God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.  It’s a two-way street; Jesus teaches about a reciprocal relationship where God first loves each of us with all of God’s heart and soul and mind and strength, and we are to emulate the overwhelmingness of that love to the best of our ability.

In John, there are only two passages where Jesus explicitly gives commandments to His followers.  In the 13th chapter, Jesus tells His followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)  I suppose this can be taken 2 ways.  It may be that Jesus is saying something like, “I came down from heaven; took the trouble to be born and live with you, be with you, teach you to do stuff, feed you, travel with you, teach you, and ultimately die for you and then invite you over to my father’s house for a sleepover… and so, you should do this for other people, and that’s how people will know that you are my followers.”  On the other hand, (or maybe it’s the same hand), perhaps Jesus is saying, “I chose to have a personal, intimate relationship with you, a stranger, and invited you into my heart.  And you should seek to impart the same love and concern for the people you encounter. And that’s how people will know you’re my follower.”  That’s an incredible ask to give to the disciples, and to us.

The second time John reports Jesus giving a commandment can be found in the 15th chapter.  Much like our first example, here Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:10-14)

My suggestion this morning is this.  Perhaps this morning Jesus sets up an equation wherein the synoptic gospels tell us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, is the same thing as John’s gospel telling us, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  The difference in these two teachings being, in the first case, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are saying this is how we can try to be like our God who is incomprehensibly more than we are; but in the second case, John tries to show us this is the way God is incomprehensibly more than us.