Sermon for Pentecost 18 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know that I generally have little time for debates about how the church should or shouldn’t employ certain language which might rub against contemporary norms, not that they’re unimportant, but mostly because I find there are more important issues in theology and Christian ethics, and frankly, I find those issues more interesting. One of the issues which gets brought up fairly frequently in scholarly circles which I’ve tended not to worry terribly much about is the charge of anti-Semitism (or, more properly, anti-Judaism) in the Bible. With the exception of the author of Luke and Acts, every person who had a hand in writing the Bible was Jewish. Thus, even when John’s Gospel—the most frequent object of the charges of biblical anti-Semitism—refers to the “bad guys” as “the Jews”, we are seeing an internal division within Judaism between a group of Jewish leaders and a different group of Jews who were thrown out of the synagogue for following Christ.

Despite my initial disinterest in what I’ve taken to be a manufactured issue, all of this morning’s lessons can be taken in a way which might prove problematic, to employ an overused phrase. In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, we hear the word of God as given to the prophet which suggests that God has become very angry at His people. Because God looked for justice and righteousness in Israel and found the opposite, he has sworn to tear down the hedge which protects His chosen people from the ungodly who would devour the Promised Land.

The psalm adds an apparently later perspective, after the judgment proclaimed in Isaiah had taken place. The psalmist cries out to his Lord in words which seem to charge God with abandonment. While the God of Israel had planted a vineyard, He had indeed torn down its walls. The psalmist casts an accusatory “why?” and in what seems to be a defiant reminder to God of His own responsibility to His own people, the psalmist says:

Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.

The psalm we just read was not a song of praise but of protest, protest against none other than God Himself!

Shifting to the New Testament, Paul, in his Epistle to the Philippians, reflects on his Jewish bona fides:

[C]ircumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.

He immediately responds to this by claiming that he counts this rather impressive CV of Jewish piety as loss; he seems to be rejecting his own heritage and its value system. Indeed, he calls it “rubbish” in our translation. The word Paul actually uses here is σκύβαλα,which is, lets just say, a somewhat ruder word than “rubbish.” I’ll refrain from providing a list of possible English equivalents from the pulpit.

Finally, Jesus’ parable in Matthew appears to take things a step further. It is no longer an angry God (the landowner) who has despoiled the heritage of Israel, but the Israelites themselves, the evil tenants who killed the landowner’s messengers, the prophets.

The lectionary today has done a very dangerous thing in throwing all four of these reading at us in one day because, to be frank, they’ve made the assumption that the preacher who is given these texts to explain is not an idiot. We might assume that the majority of the clergy are smart enough to avoid the false conclusion these four reading might suggest when taken out of context, but centuries of Christian anti-Semitism stand as evidence against the claim that such an assumption is a safe one. Medieval persecution of Jews which were believed to have poisoned water holes and defrauded debtors were more than occasionally “egged on” by stupid clergy. A case can be made that there was more compliance than confrontation from the churches when facing the catastrophe which was the holocaust, and much of this might be attributed to the false and offensive belief that the Jews killed Jesus. Even today, there are sadly many who call themselves Christian but reject God’s own people and Jesus’ own religion.

So, how do we marry what I hope is our wholesale rejection of so-called Christian anti-Semitism with an appreciation of this morning’s lessons as being part of the inspired Word of God? I think Jesus’ own words can and should be our staring point. After he shares the parable, he asked his audience what should be done with the evil tenants, and they respond without charity and apparently (considering the fact that Jesus’ audience was Jewish) with a lack of understanding of the referents of his parable:

They said to him, “He [the landowner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus’ Jewish audience gives the argument which an anti-Semite would, because they didn’t understand the parable either.

Jesus immediately recognizes where this is going and he rejects the position:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

`The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Far from rejecting His people, God has come to give them a new and everlasting foundation, indeed to make them part of the foundation which cannot be shaken. There is a great deal that could be said by manner of explicating this, for which there is not nearly time enough in this sermon. For the initial questions which arise from Jesus’ words here, I would, for now, refer you to St. Paul’s argument in the Epistle to the Romans, particularly the eleventh chapter, which I think I preached on earlier this summer, in which the Apostle states without reservation that God has not by any means rejected His people, and that with regard to election, the faithful Jew (even if he does not recognize Jesus’ status as Messiah) is guaranteed salvation due to God’s irrevocable promise to his forefathers.

The Good News here for Christian or Jew is that God does not engage in breach of contract. God keeps His promises to Jew and Christian; He’ll never be so short on Grace that he has to cut back benefits or apply a means test, and for this we can be truly and eternally grateful.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 10 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve made various attempts throughout the years of trying to spend some time every day in silent prayer and meditation, and if you know me very well you’ll realize how difficult this can be for me. Praying the Office and other devotions (particulary Marian devotions) come easily enough, but quiet prayer with either an economy of words or none, comes far less naturally.

We seem these days to populate our lives with noise, and I am the worst offender in this regard. I listen to podcasts when I’m cooking dinner and doing laundry. My phone is constantly alerting me to emails and text messages which are often important and time sensitive and require quick response, but which do tend to invade the silence that all of us need from time to time. I do not believe I am alone in being captive (to a certain extent) to the noisy world in which we live. Turning the noise off, even for a few minutes sometimes seems beyond our ability.

In this morning’s Old Testament lesson, Elijah has retreated to Mount Horeb, which other biblical authors named Mount Sinai- the same place God had given the Law to Moses. He was seeking refuge from King Ahab and especially from Ahab’s wife Jezebel who desired the death of the prophet for challenging and defeating the followers of the pagan god Baal in a sort of tournament of miracles.

We can assume, though, that Elijah was looking for more than just a hiding place. He had already found a safe haven in the wilderness, and despite his own melancholy (which led him to desire death from starvation), God’s angels had ministered to him and kept him from falling prey to his depression. That Elijah made the long trek to Horeb—which we are told took him forty days and forty nights—suggests that he was looking for something more than just a “hidey-hole”. Rather, I believe he was seeking some kind of message from God, and what better place to find such a message than at that very place in which God’s greatest moment of self-disclosure up to that point (namely, the revelation of the Law) had occurred.

No doubt Elijah was hoping for a grand display of power. Moses had seen a burning bush on this mountain, and God had enclosed Horeb with clouds and fire while he communed with Moses at the summit. Elijah got what he was expecting in part: a wind strong enough to split rocks, a tremendous earthquake, and a firestorm. But in all these powerful signs, Elijah did not hear the message he desired from God. It was only after these apparently cataclysmic events that Elijah heard the still small voice of God, breaking through sheer silence.

And what does Elijah hear in that silence? It is not just a sense of calm or of affirmation. Elijah hears words of instruction. He gets his marching orders, as it were. He is told very specifically to anoint Hazael as king of Aram (modern day Syria) and to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel and to anoint Elisha as his successor as God’s prophet.

This is why quiet time with God is so terribly important. We’re not just out to feel God’s calming presence in some abstruse sense. That is certainly a secondary benefit we can gain from prayer, but it’s not the only reason we should listen in prayer as much as we talk. We need silence so that God can tell us what to do. He may tell us by giving us a sense of affirmation about some plans we mean to make or by implanting in our hearts feelings of unease about a course of action we ought not to take. This is how St. Ignatius Loyala suggests a decision should be prayerfully made, and I, for one, have found this an invaluable technique, as hard as I personally find it to put into practice.

God may even speak to us in discernible language as in Elijah’s case. I don’t know often this happens, and I think we are rightly suspicious when one claims God told them something. If that purportedly divine message makes claims which contradict scripture, church tradition, or a reasonable application of one or the other, then we are right to reject such a claim. Even so, God clearly and truly spoke in this way to the prophets, and undoubtedly does so even still to some. God has never spoken to me in the Queen’s English, but it his certainly possible that he could at some point choose to do so.

However God chooses to speak to us, though, we have to give God an opportunity. We have to carve out of our busy schedules moments for silence. I have often joked with Christians more preternaturally contemplative than I, that they can keep their centering prayer (which I’ve always found beyond difficult to get into) and I’ll just pray the daily office. Even so, I find that simply being quiet and present before God can do wonders, as hard as it is for me to do that. Even five or ten minutes of silent prayer and meditation can do wonders as we seek to become closer to God.

If you really believe that you don’t have five or ten minutes to do this, I encourage you to think again. Look at your day-planner and set some time aside. I put time for prayer into my calendar and my phone beeps at me and then I silence it for a while and I’m quiet. I’ve found it’s the only way I can stay honest with myself and God about praying as I should. However you manage to do it, if you try I think you’ll find that God will speak to you in a manner more clear and compelling than if we wait for an earthquake or a burning bush before we pay attention. Whether God speaks to you with an honest-to-God voice or with a small but discernible murmur in your heart, He will speak and He will give you that which is needful to accomplish His perfect Will.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 4 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The way we read scripture in church is by its nature problematic, necessitated by the fact that few would show up weekly for hours-long expositions on lengthy bible passages (though the Puritans may be one modern exception that proves this rule). Because we tend to get thematically connected “snippets” of scripture from week to week, the lack of context for a particular lesson may obscure its meaning. Here I don’t mean the historical and cultural and linguistic context of a passage, though that is always in danger of being lost. I mean, much more simply, reading a passage without the rest of the text that surrounds it can give us exactly the wrong impression of its meaning and relevance.

This morning’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is a perfect example. The five short verses we heard a few minutes ago might strike us as positive and hopeful. Jeremiah seems to be congratulating the prophet Hananiah for preaching a message of peace and liberation. He seems to be saying “Right on [that’s my modern translation of the word “Amen”] let the Lord bring back the captive Israelites from Babylon like you said!” This is exactly the opposite, though, of what Jeremiah is saying in this morning’s lesson.

In the preceding chapter, God told Jeremiah to warn Zedekiah the King of Judah–who had been appointed king by the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar–and all the people of their land not to rebel against Babylon but to remain in the uncomfortable situation of being a tributary to that great Empire and to come to terms with the fact that many of their countrymen had been deported and scattered throughout the empire as a means of discouraging rebellion. As a sort of object lesson, Jeremiah had fashioned and placed himself in a wooden yoke to symbolize the status which his nation would have to come to terms with and endure. He also gives a stern warning to those who might listen to a more welcome prophecy:

Thus says the LORD: Do not listen to the words of your prophets who are prophesying to you, saying, `Behold, the vessels of the LORD’s house will now shortly be brought back from Babylon,’ for it is a lie which they are prophesying to you.

In the chapter from which this morning’s lesson is taken, we are told that less than a year after this display another prophet does just what Jeremiah had warned against. Immediately preceding the lesson we heard, Jeremiah records:

In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedeki’ah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hanani’ah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying,”Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnez’zar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconi’ah the son of Jehoi’akim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

Jeremiah’s response is not “Right on, let the Lord bring back the captive Israelites from Babylon like you said!” Rather he employs sarcasm and irony to shame, we might even say to poke fun at, Hanaiah’s overly-optimistic prediction.

So, we might interpret Jeremiah here, tongue firmly in cheek, saying something like, “Oh yeah, all those doom and gloom prophets were a real buzzkill. Go ahead and revolt against Babylon. It’ll be easy! Plus, Nebuchadnezzar is going to through a party for all the captives and give them cake and ice cream before he lets them walk home.”

Apparently, Hananiah didn’t get the sarcasm, or didn’t care, and immediately after this morning’s lesson he took the wooden yoke off of Jeremiah and broke it to pieces. And what did Jeremiah do? He went home and then, at God’s command, came back with an iron yoke in place of the wooden one. Oh, and then Hananiah was struck dead. A decade later, King Zedekiah would rebel against Babylon, hoping an alliance with Egypt would make him prevail, but he was captured, Jerusalem and its temple were utterly destroyed, and the Jews would end up spending sixty years in exile before Cyrus the Great and the Persians would defeat their captors and let them return.

There is both a practical and a spiritual lesson this can teach us. The practical one is simple enough, but how easy we forget it. If somebody tells you exactly what you want to hear, he may not have your best interests at heart. He may, rather, just want to curry favor or manipulate you for his own ends. If something seems too good to be true, it may well be. I’m overly credulous, so I know this to be the case; for example, I should never be trusted to buy a car by myself.

The spiritual lesson is a harder one. There are obvious examples that hardly bear mentioning- the “Prosperity Gospel” approach of promising success and riches if you send enough money to the church or televangelist or whomever is really low-hanging fruit. Assuming that’s not where most of us are, though, I do think there is an even more pernicious trap we are all prone to fall into.

I have often heard folks say something like “I always leave church feeling better than when I arrived.” This can be both good and dangerous, I think. It’s wonderful when the experience of worship gives us comfort and peace when we so badly need it. It can be dangerous, though, if our entire spiritual life only serves to make us feel better. I think I said in a sermon some weeks ago, that God both comforts the afflicted and arouses the careless. Sometimes what each of us needs is to find God’s healing, calming balm applied to our weary hearts, and that should not be discounted. Sometimes, though, what each of us needs is for the Holy Spirit to give us a kick in the pants, to convict us when we are called to be more faithful or loving than we have been.

The biblical prophets were masters of both calling people to a greater faith and instilling hope for God’s provision in God’s time. Somebody like Hananiah might make a more successful preacher or televangelist, if success were measured not in a growing faithfulness and deepening spirituality, but in terms of people in the pews and money in the plate. But if our “success” is to be assessed in terms of our growth into “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” we may need more Jeremiahs, more Isaiahs, more John the Baptists.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel “in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” May God give us the ears to hear such messengers and the hearts to accept his message spoken through them, even when that message is uncomfortable–even when it calls us to repentance and growth and hard work–because God’s Kingdom is not won easily, but the prize is life and salvation in this world and the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.