Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (26 October 2008)
(Deuteronomy 34:1-12/Psalm 1/1Thessalonians 3:1-8/Matthew 22:34-46)
Love and Orthodoxy

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

I took an online quiz this past week to see if I am an orthodox Christian – orthodox with a small o. The quiz really just checked my understanding of the most fundamental tenets of the faith as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, and my willingness to affirm them as true. Do you know the Creed and do you believe the Creed? These were the questions. You should be pleased to know that I passed: fully orthodox with respect to the Creed.

I followed that quiz with another one – this one a bit more thoughtful and challenging – a quiz to see if I am a heretic. This quiz investigated my understanding of the natures of Christ (two natures – human and divine – in one person) and the natures of sin and salvation. According to the results I am 98 percent Chalcedon-compliant. That means I strongly agree with the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church, the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), which defined such things for the church and which condemned several heresies. The other 2 percent doesn’t trouble me: more than 2 percent of the church doesn’t agree with Chalcedon and more than 2 percent of the quiz questions were poorly written anyway. So, it seems that I am walking the right path of the true faith, and leading us all in that direction together.

All my life I’ve been given quizzes to check my orthodoxy; you have, too, if you have grown up in the church. The questions differ from denomination to denomination, but the intent is always the same: to determine if you are one of us or one of them. Maybe you’ve been asked one or more of these questions in one form or another.

1. Do you acknowledge the infallibility of the Pope and the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church?

2. Do you believe one is saved solely by grace, solely through faith, and solely in the name of Jesus Christ?

3. Do you regard baptism as essential for salvation?

4. Do you accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

5. Do you hold Scripture to be the verbally inspired, inerrant word of God?

6. Do you pray to Mary and the saints?

7. Do you employ musical instruments in worship?

8. Do you smoke, dance, drink, or chew – or run around with girls who do?

The list is seemingly endless – some of the issues essential and some less than trivial. People of faith tend to be suspicious of one another. I guess it’s only natural; we are dealing with ultimate issues of life-and-death importance. We want to be right. I suspect it has always been this way; it certainly was for Jesus.

Today the Pharisees come to quiz Jesus’ orthodoxy: Is this rabbi from Nazareth a good Jew or not? So, they ask him, “Rabbi, what is the greatest commandment?” Well, this isn’t a difficult question – certainly not compared to many that Jesus has been asked recently. It’s a test, certainly – a test of orthodoxy – but not really a trap. What is the greatest commandment?

To answer this question, Jesus has only to remember his prayers: practices and words he learned as a boy from Mary and Joseph. Twice each day, every orthodox Jew of Jesus’ day – almost certainly including Jesus, himself – recited the shema:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is 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 might (Dt 6:4-5, NAS).

This is the beginning of the Law and everything flows from it down to and through the prophets’ message. What better candidate for the greatest commandment? And so Jesus responds to the Pharisees: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38, NIV). But Jesus doesn’t stop here: he adds his own twist to the shema by linking this absolute love for God with a derivative love for those created in God’s image.

“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mt 22:39-40, NIV).

Perhaps commenting on this very exchange with the Pharisees some decades later, St. John the Apostle writes:

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21, NIV).

I’ve heard it said that true love is cross-shaped: it stretches vertically upward toward God – the first and greatest commandment – and it spreads its arms horizontally to embrace neighbors and even enemies – the second, related commandment. To say that love is cross-shaped gets it right on many levels.

So it would seem that Jesus passes this test of orthodoxy. The parallel account in St. Mark’s gospel makes this explicit when one of the Pharisees responds: “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk 12:32-33, NIV). It seems that not even the Pharisees can quibble over the orthodoxy of the shema.

I’ve seen – perhaps you have, too – Jesus’ answer used today as a test of Christian orthodoxy, as a very concise, summary of the essentials of the faith. At the home of an excellent campus ministry at The University of Tennessee, I once heard a guest speaker tell the gathered students that the gospel boils down to loving God and loving people. Judging by the nodding heads and the hands raised in agreement – hands raised at the prompting of the speaker – it seemed that love was the primary test of orthodoxy on that night, in that place. And, of course, love is also what the non-Christian world says it wants from us: not myths, not faith, not doctrine – just love that goes along, and gets along, and mainly lets people alone to do as they please.

But here I remember Einstein who once said that everything should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler. I fear that when we have simplified the gospel to love for God and neighbor we may have made it too simple and lost some things essential in the process. Without the fullness of the gospel – the proclamation that through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus is declared Lord and God of all creation, and has begun to put that creation to rights – without this fullness of the gospel, I suspect that love for God and neighbor fails at two essential points:

(1) We don’t really know what love means, and
(2) Even if we did, we are really unable to pull it off, to love as we should and must.

Imagine Moses, following the Exodus experience, coming down from Mount Sinai with tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God. He announces to the people gathered below: “Behold, the 2 Commandments of God! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. To live this law is blessing; to disobey is curse. Go and do.” There is a pause; no one moves. Then, Shlomo, in the front row, raises his hand. “Uh, Moshe…I’m not quite clear on all this. The love God thing – what does that mean, what does that look like?”

“Well, you’ve got a wife and kids, Shlomo: I know your beautiful Miriam and little Yitzak. You love them, don’t you? You know what love is. Now go and love God, only much better – with all your heart and soul and might,” Moses says.

But God didn’t leave the Hebrews to figure out this love on their own or to reason by analogy to human love. How did God really tell the Hebrews at Sinai to love him? Let’s scan part of the record.

1 When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession (Dt 7:1-6, NIV).

Any chance Shlomo would have come up with that on his own? No? Well, what about the dietary laws: kosher and treif – clean and unclean? What about prohibitions on mixing fabrics or shaving forelocks or planting two kinds of seed in one field? What about the requirement to have tassels on your undershirt or to camp out in shelters made of branches during Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles – or to clean leaven out of your home in preparation for Pesach? What about the mandate to circumcise males on the eighth day or to redeem the family’s firstborn child from God? What about resting on the Sabbath and making it a day of rest for slaves and animals, as well? Would Shlomo – or any good Hebrew – intent on loving God with all his heart and soul and might have come up with any of these things? I doubt it. And that is the problem with fuzzy statements like, All we need to do is love God: we do not know what love for God looks like until God tells us. It took the Law of Moses, the leadership of Joshua and the Judges, the priesthood of Samuel, the Psalms of David, the words of the prophets – it took all these revelations from God to even begin to unpack that greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. We dare not depend upon our own feeble, selfish, wholly inadequate notions of love.

Even the Law and the Judges and the priests and the kings and the prophets were not enough to teach us to love God. It took God himself, in the form of man – a Galilean, peasant rabbi named Jesus – to teach us what love truly is. St. John, that great evangelist of love, puts it this way:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10, NIV).

Only in Jesus do we come to know what perfect love – love with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind – really looks like. Only in Gethsemane when he cries out to God in anguished surrender, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done!” do we come to know what perfect love – love with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind – really looks like. Only at the cross, where a God-forsaken criminal bears the sin of all creation and yet surrenders his spirit in trust to God, do we come to know what perfect love – love with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind – really looks like. It is simply not enough to say, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind – unless you also say, Jesus. Love as Jesus loved; that’s what love looks like.

And the second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself? Do we really have any better idea of what this means? Would the Hebrews have guessed that neighborly love required them to leave the borders of their fields unharvested, or to give slaves and animals one day of rest each week, or to charge no interest on loans, or to return all property to its original owners every Jubilee year, or to build railings around the roofs of their homes, or to obey any of the scores of other commandments meant to ensure equitable, loving treatment for all God’s people? Without the revelation of the Law, the Hebrews simply could not have known what neighborly love is.

Even that revelation is incomplete; once again, it takes Jesus. The leitmotif – the recurring theme of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – is “You have heard it said [in the Law], but I say to you…” The Law – a necessary first step – was itself inadequate to define true neighborly love. We have not said “love” until we have said “Jesus.”

43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:43-48, NIV).

Only in Jesus do we come to know what perfect love for our neighbor – And who is not our neighbor? – really looks like. Only in Gethsemane when he cries out to God in anguished surrender, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done!” do we come to know what perfect love for our neighbor – And who is not our neighbor? – really looks like. Only at the cross, where a God-forsaken criminal bears the sin of all creation – all neighbors, all enemies – and yet surrenders his spirit in trust to God, do we come to know what perfect love for our neighbor – And who is not our neighbor? – really looks like. It is simply not enough to say, Love your neighbor as yourself – unless you also say, Jesus. Love as Jesus loved; that’s what love looks like.

And even if we gaze on Jesus and come to know what it means to love God wholly and to love our neighbor truly we find another, deeper problem lurking: we are really unable to pull it off, to love as we should and must. World history is testimony to our inability to love. War is testimony to our inability to love. Greed – of which we have seen so much lately -- is testimony to our inability to love. Borders are testimony to our inability to love. Divorce courts, and civil courts, and criminal courts are testimony to our inability to love. A wife’s tears and a husband’s anger and a child’s worry are testimony to our inability to love. Homelessness is testimony to our inability to love. Every five ticks of the watch’s second hand – five seconds that marks the needless death of a child due to hunger related illness – is testimony to our inability to love. The darkness of my heart – and dare I say yours? – is testimony to our inability to love.

What is the answer to my inability to love as I should and as I must? Jesus. His words to Nicodemus are his words to me and to you and to the world: You must be born anew. You must be born from above. Love doesn’t rise from the earth; it descends from above – from the Father, in the person of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. St. John again –

1Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. 2This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 5:1-5, NIV).

Through the grace of God, the Spirit gives us new birth in Jesus. This is true love for God: to give ourselves – heart, soul, and mind – to Jesus, and then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to love as Jesus loved. Is it a struggle? Of course it is. But only in Jesus, only in following him, do we come to know what love is and are we empowered to love God wholly and love our neighbor as ourselves. And that is, after all, the greatest commandment. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sermon: 19 October 2008

Sermon: 23 Pentecost (19 October 2008)
(Exodus 33:12-23/Psalm 99/1 Thessalonians 1:1-10/Matthew 22:15-22)
Whose Image and Whose Inscription

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

Politicians rarely answers questions – at least not directly, and generally not the ones posed them. I once heard a political strategist say that politicians never answer the question you ask, only the question they wish you had asked. They train for this; they practice it. And that training leads to exchanges like this hypothetical one – hypothetical but only just – in a debate between candidates A and B.

Moderator: Candidate A, do you support the Supreme Court’s ruling Roe v. Wade guaranteeing a woman the constitutional right to an abortion?

Candidate A: That is an excellent question and I welcome the opportunity to clarify my position on this important issue. The heart of the matter is access to quality health care and appropriate insurance coverage. In my health care plan, if you are currently covered by insurance and are pleased with that coverage, you may keep your plan and your doctors. If you are not covered, or are not satisfied with you coverage, you may opt to select any of the plans available to the U. S. Congress – high quality plans thoroughly vetted by the government. Health care is a fundamental right for all citizens.

Moderator: Well, moving along, Candidate B, do you support federal legislation legalizing same-sex marriage?

Candidate B: As my record clearly shows, I am, and always have been, a staunch supporter of marriage, unlike my opponent – that one. Over thirty-seven times he has voted in favor of legislation that would actually increase the tax burden on married couples making a combined annual salary of $25,000 or less. But under my tax plan, couples in that salary range would be exempt from federal income tax. I believe that the middle class is the engine that drives our economy and that good working folks – married couples trying to make ends meet – deserve our support.

If you’ve heard the presidential and vice-presidential debates lately, you recognize these kinds of non-answers as standard political babble.

Why can’t or won’t the politicians simply answer a yes or no question with a simple yes or no? Straightforward, clear, direct answers – in short, honesty – will cost them votes and they know it. If an answer satisfies one element of their constituency, it alienates another. Say no to same-sex unions and there goes the liberal vote. Say yes to a woman’s right to choose an abortion and kiss the conservatives goodbye. So, politicians hedge; they dissemble, they avoid – especially on the hot-button issues.

In first-century Israel there were few, if any, issues more hot-button than Roman taxes. The Romans invade and occupy the land, install their own government, impose a form of martial law, and then charge the Jews heavy taxes for the privilege of such oppression. Is it any wonder that Roman taxes and Jewish tax collectors were despised? During Jesus’ early childhood, another Galilean – this one named Judas, a good rebel name – led a band of Jews in a tax revolt against Rome. These Zealots were crushed and the crosses that held Judas and his followers splattered the landscape with the message: This is what happens to those who oppose Roman taxation. Judas was very dead, but very much alive in the hearts of the Jewish populace.

So, come the Pharisees to Jesus with a pointed question – a trap, as Matthew notes.

Teacher, we know you are good, and in truth teach the way of God. You are not concerned what others think and you show no deference to anyone. So tell us what seems right: Is it permissible to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not (Mt 22:15-17, paraphrase)?

Here, the Pharisees have devised – or so they think – a foolproof divide-and-conquer strategy. If Jesus answers, “Yes, it is appropriate to pay the poll tax to Caesar,” he will alienate a major segment of his supporters, the Jewish nationalists. If, to the contrary, he says, “No, the poll tax is a pagan infringement upon the rights and sovereignty of Israel,” he may well end up like Judas. This is a powder keg of a question. Most savvy politicians would simply sidestep with a non-answer; but, not Jesus.

“Show me the coin used to pay the tax,” Jesus responds to the Pharisees. (And isn’t it telling that Jesus doesn’t have one himself? Is that a comment on his poverty or on his dismissal of Roman sovereignty? Matthew slyly leaves that ambiguous: “You figure it out,” Matthew says to his readers and to us.)

“Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” There is no indication that Jesus took the coin from them; he just asks them to inspect it. “Whose icon is on the coin, and whose epigraph? Whose image does the coin bear, and whose inscription?” he asks them. I wonder if the Pharisees pause long enough actually to look at the coin before answering, or if they just automatically respond, “Caesar’s.” If they did look at it – these righteous, Jewish nationalists – they were confronted with an image of the emperor Tiberius surrounded by the inscription: Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus, high priest. These Pharisees know well God’s ban on graven images, yet they carry with them an image of Caesar who claims to be the son of God and the high priest of the divine Augustus. This scene drips with irony. They hold in their hands a graven image of a pagan god and use it to confront the living image – the exact likeness – of YHWH, God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. They hold in their hands an inscription honoring Tiberius as the son and high priest of divine Augustus and use it to test the one who bears the inscription, This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.

Jesus responds: “That which bears Caesar’s image and inscription belongs to him and should be given to him. But, that which bears God’s image and inscription belongs to God and should be given to him.”

Matthew comments that the Pharisees were amazed at this answer. I wonder if it was merely Jesus’ rhetorical skill that impressed them, or if they really “got it.” The Pharisees were just wading in the shallow waters with their question, just throwing their nets on the wrong side of the boat hoping in vain to catch something. Jesus forced them to cast out into the depths, had them throw their nets on the other side – and they hauled in the great Leviathan, something powerful and beyond their control. Jesus’ answer was really a dual question to them: Whose image and inscription do you bear, and to whom will you give yourself? And that question comes down powerfully to us: Whose image and inscription do you bear, and to whom will you give yourself?

It’s impossible to miss the echoes of the creation story, here.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26-27, NIV).

By nature and vocation – how God made us to be and what God made us to do – we are the image bearers of God. When the world looks at us and when we look at each other, we are to see the divine image and likeness – the icons of God. Orthodox churches are noted for their icons, and we, too have many – several beautifully handwritten. None of them contains an image of God, however. Why not? Ask a knowledgeable Orthodox Christian and he/she will remind you that God is invisible, that God lives in light unapproachable, that no eye has seen or can see God, so that no image is possible. This is all true; but, there is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason that we do not create icons of God: God created his own icons, in his own image and likeness, not with paint and brush, but with earth and breath – So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God’s icons are living, breathing, image bearers.

Of course, some icons are better than others; those of our resident iconographer, Susan, are sublime, and working with her, our girls produced beautiful first efforts, also. Others I’ve seen, while written with equal piety and faithfulness, simply do not bear the image well; they lack grace and symmetry and proportion. There is a metaphor here for the human condition. While man was created to bear the divine image, not all do so equally well, and none do so perfectly – save one. Sin has distorted and marred the image of God in all human icons – save one. All human icons need the hand and brush of the Divine Iconographer to perfectly restore the image – all save one. That one, perfect icon – that one, perfect image bearer – is Jesus, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (cf. Col 1:15 ff).

Through Christ, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the divine image is being restored in these sinful human icons.

[Girls, I want you to imagine something with me. If I were an artist I would paint a picture so you could see it; but, I have only words, so we’ll have to use our imaginations. Just because we are imagining the scene, don’t think for a moment that it is not real; it is the most real thing in the world. Imagine yourselves sitting at the dining room table with Ms. Susan, writing an icon of Jesus – like you actually did not so long ago. With each brush stroke the image of Jesus becomes clearer and more detailed. Now, imagine that standing behind you is God, and that God, too, has a brush: the Holy Spirit. With each of your brush strokes God moves his brush, writing an icon in your life. With every stroke of the Holy Spirit the image of Jesus in your life becomes clearer and more detailed. As you are writing an icon, you are becoming an icon. The Divine Iconographer is writing you. This isn’t just imagination; this is truly happening. Each time you worship, pray, read Scripture, walk in the ways of love and humility and joy and service, the brush strokes of the Holy Spirit make the icon of Christ clearer in your life. Remarkably, you don’t become less yourself in the process. The more you resemble Jesus, the more truly yourself you become. The kingdom of God is populated with living, breathing, flesh-and-blood icons of Jesus – all bearing his image, yet all remaining uniquely themselves – their best selves. You may not see or feel this happening, but don’t worry about that. We have God’s promise that it is, indeed, happening.]

Paul says it this way about all of us: When we turn to Jesus, a veil is lifted from our faces and we behold the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, and we are transformed into that same image, from one degree of glory to another (cf. 2 Cor 3:15 ff). The divine image is restored in us through our union with Christ. Whose image and inscription do you bear? We bear the image of our Lord Jesus Christ and of his Father and our Father.

Not that this image bearing is an easy thing, or a simple thing: the world continually tries to squeeze us into its own mold, to stamp its own image upon us. Paul urges us

in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:1-2a, NIV).

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world. Do not render to Caesar that which belongs to God. Do not become the image bearer, the inscription bearer of Caesar. This lies near the heart of Jesus’ second, implied question: To whom will you give yourself: to Caesar – the world and its powers – or to God?

We give ourselves to Caesar – we render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God – when we surrender our hopes and dreams and future to the politicians, the military, the stock market, the latest economic bailout plan – to any power or device of man. Let’s be clear. There is no Christian government, no Christian military, no Christian free market economy: all of these bear the image and inscription of Caesar. But the children of God, those bearing the Imago Dei – the image of God – those rendering unto God what belongs to God, proclaim Jesus as Lord and God the Father as King of kings; they beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more; they celebrate an economy of Jubilee generosity every day, sharing what God has given them with open hands and glad hearts; they sing Psalm 33, for they know it to be true.

12 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! *
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

13 The Lord looks down from heaven, *
and beholds all the people in the world.

14 From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze *
on all who dwell on the earth.

15 He fashions all the hearts of them *
and understands all their works.

16 There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; *
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

17 The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,

19 To pluck their lives from death, *
and to feed them in time of famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord; *
he is our help and our shield.

21 Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, *
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

22 Let your loving‑kindness, O Lord, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you (Ps 33:12-22, BCP).

We give ourselves to Caesar – we render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God – when we yield ourselves to the cultural values of the day. Caesar has no real cultural values, just cheap imitations and perversions of God’s design for creation. Caesar doesn’t know love –neither the love of God nor the genuine love of the image bearers of God – love that is patient and kind, humble and gentle, faithful and eternal. No, Caesar knows only lust – impersonal, selfish – a cheap imitation of true love. Caesar doesn’t know strength – neither the strength of God that trampled down death by dying nor the strength of the image bearers of God – strength manifest in meekness, submission, peace-making. No, Caesar knows only power – dominating, coercive – a cheap imitation of strength. Caesar doesn’t know wealth, just gain. Caesar doesn’t know joy, just distraction. Caesar doesn’t know sacrifice, just manipulation. Caesar has no real values, just cheap imitations and perversions of God’s design for creation.

We give ourselves to Caesar – we render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God – when we make love and service and unity contingent upon anything other than Christ. Caesar tells us that we can’t accept Juan and Rosario – meet their needs, welcome them, serve them, love them – because they are illegals. Caesar tells us that we must build fences and establish quotas because there are not enough good things to go around for everyone and we must get ours. Caesar tells us that we cannot forgive the debt of the third world or eliminate HIV/AIDS in Haiti and Africa. Caesar invites us to build our economic strength and standard of living on the backs of the world’s poor and underdeveloped countries, whose labor we exploit and whose natural resources we monopolize. Oh, but we render to God that which belongs to God when we proclaim that in Christ there is no Jew or gentile, no slave or free, no citizen or illegal, no first world or third world, no problem beyond resolution, no need too great, no love withheld. This is the way of the image bearers of God.

Whose image do you bear, and whose inscription? Through our union with Jesus Christ we bear the image of God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and the inscription, This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.

To whom will you give yourself? We will render to Caesar only that which belongs to him – our prayers, our submission – as far as possible – our taxes, our work for the common welfare, our witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But we will give ourselves – heart and soul and mind and strength – only to the one whose image we bear: the one, true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to whom be glory and honor in this age and the age to come. Amen.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sermon: 12 October 2008

Sermon: 22 Pentecost (12 October 2008)
(Exodus 32:1-14/Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23/Philippians 4:1-9/Matthew 22:1-14)
Three Weddings and a Banquet

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

What do the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised – those with little reason or means to celebrate – actually celebrate? Survival surely ranks high on the list – a full belly, a roof, clean water when these are available; most of the basics we take for granted are cause for celebration when you often do not have them. But beyond these fundamentals, what does the community gather to celebrate? Weddings – births, too, of course, but in the normal course of things weddings first. A wedding is an act of celebration, yes, but it is an act of defiance, too. No matter what powers try to dominate – personal or impersonal, human or natural – love will not be subdued and life will find a way. And that defiance, that hope, that promise must express itself in celebration. What better occasion than a wedding?

A peasant wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee was the occasion for Jesus’ first miracle. Sign is the word John uses instead of miracle, and a better word it is. A sign points beyond itself to a greater reality, a deeper truth. And when Jesus transformed water into wine – transformed shame and disaster into wonderment and joy – at this wedding, it was indeed a sign: a sign of new creation, a sign of jubilee, a sign that God – in and through Jesus – was sorting out and making right all that was wrong in his creation. John says the wedding – this occasion of great celebration – happened on the third day, in clear anticipation of that greatest of celebrations that would happen on another third day: the resurrection and the dawn of a new creation. From this time forth, we must see every wedding as a sign pointing to the justice and mercy and power of God, to new life in Jesus.

A wedding is also an affair of honor: so say the invitations.

The parents of the bride and groom
request the honor of your presence
at the marriage of their daughter and son
and at the reception, following.

It’s a very nice thing, isn’t it, to think that someone would be honored by your presence. And it’s an honor to receive such an invitation: to think that when a family sat down to list the most important people in its life you came to mind and you made the list. There is honor all around, flowing in every direction. So when you receive an invitation to a wedding, you rearrange your schedule, buy a present, and have your best dress or suit cleaned. You wouldn’t dream of not going.

Everything we know of weddings makes Jesus’ parable of the kingdom all the more appropriate and shocking.

It is like this in the kingdom of heaven: a man – a king – prepared a wedding feast for his son.

If a peasant wedding is cause for celebration, how much more the wedding of the king’s son and heir: all the elements of joy, hope, sign, and honor magnified. While the peasants might not – almost certainly would not – be invited, they might yet hope that the king’s joy would result in largesse that would spill over into their lives: increased sales for local merchants, a holiday, a brief reprieve from taxes – something, anything to cause the entire populace to join the celebration. And for those who received invitations? What honor to be the invited guest of the king at the wedding of his son, the future king. But – here’s the first shocking twist in the parable – none of the invited guests rearranged their schedules, none bought a present, not a single one had their best robe cleaned – no one acted honored at all. And in rejecting the great honor accorded them, they greatly dishonored their king.

Not only did they decline the invitation, they rebelled against the king by abusing the servants sent to announce the wedding: they seized the slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king responded with devastating judgment: he sent troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

This part of Jesus’ parable is directed pointedly to the chief priests and elders of the people, those who now stand in the temple questioning his authority. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, generations of prophets invited, beckoned Israel to the wedding. And now the son himself, the one in whose honor the banquet is prepared, appears and calls once again to Israel and its priests: “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it, went away, and laid plans to kill the son. And now they will be visited with the king’s judgment and wrath in the person of Titus, commander of the Roman armies, who will come with his troops, destroy those murderers, and burn their city. This part of the parable is pure judgment upon those who were called again and again, but who refused the invitation and rebelled against the king.

But the next section of the parable – well, that’s gospel, good news for the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised – for those with no reason to expect an invitation to the wedding banquet of the son.

Then [the king] said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

Wall Street wasn’t worthy; now, Main Street gets its chance: ordinary folk like you and me; people down on their luck like those served at the St. Demetrios soup kitchen; the despised and cast out like tax collectors, prostitutes, and drug dealers; the straight and the gay; the citizens and the illegal aliens. Come one, come all, come to the wedding banquet of the king: everyone received the invitation. And they came, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. This is the second twist in the parable: undeserving common folk receiving the undeserved uncommon grace of an invitation to the wedding banquet of the son.

The common folk and the rabble standing in the temple with Jesus that day surely recognize this parable as a description of Jesus’ own ministry: a ministry opposed by the scribes, Pharisees, elders, and priests, but embraced by the masses. They surely feel vindicated, until Jesus twists the parable yet a third and final time. Not all those invited – not all those compelled to come – are allowed to stay. For the king noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe. The king had him bound, hand and foot, and cast out into the outer darkness – a place of weeping, and wailing and gnashing teeth: a place of grace squandered. So, Jesus ends the parable with a word of caution: For many are called, but few are chosen.

This is the first of three wedding banquets we will visit this morning: a warning in the past, a cautionary tale of invitations refused, of judgment, of uncommon grace toward common people, and of grace squandered.

The second wedding banquet is not parable, but vision. Though seen and recorded only a generation after Jesus spoke his parable, this vision and this banquet are somehow beyond time, though they almost surely lie in our future. They are also beyond our realm, for they surely lie in heaven.

Then I [John] heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,

For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen,
bright and pure” –
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God” (Rev 19:5-9, NRSV).

This wedding banquet is the full dawn of new creation, when the sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings, when God’s will is truly done on earth as in heaven, when earth and heaven are one. This wedding banquet celebrates that time when

the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:3b-4),

and all things have been made new.

And who is invited to this great wedding banquet? Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, only those who have conquered through the victory of the Lamb, only those who have held fast to the faith and have clothed themselves in fine linen – the righteous deeds of the saints.

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:8, NRSV).

You’ve been to weddings; you know the buildup of excitement. The parents of the bride and groom are ushered to their seats of honor. The attendants process two-by-two – brides’ maid and groomsman – then the flower girl and ring bearer. And then there is that moment of stillness, of breath held, of time suspended waiting for the first notes of the “Wedding March” and the appearance of the bride. All stand, all strain for a first glimpse of the bride in all her glory.

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit [the angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel; like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels.

And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:9b-12a, 21-27, NRSV).

Is ever a woman more beautiful than as a bride? Is ever a bride more beautiful than the holy city, new Jerusalem? But what, after all, is a city? Not bricks and mortar, gates and streets, -- but people. The Lamb died and rose again not for bricks and mortar, gates and streets, but for a holy people, for the children of God once ruined by the fall but now redeemed and recreated in and through the blood of the Lamb who was slain but who is now alive forever. Alleluia. We, the guests unexpectedly invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb, turn out to be the bride of the Lamb. We, whose names unexpectedly appear in the Lamb’s book of life, turn out to be the bride of the Lamb. We, who deserve nothing but to be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, turn out to be the bride of the Lamb. What grace is this! What glory, that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ turns out to be the bride of the Lamb.

This is the second of three wedding banquets we will visit this morning: a vision for the future – a glorious tale of invitations accepted; of vindication; of amazing, uncommon grace toward common people; and of grace embraced and victorious.

One wedding banquet past, one yet to come: the wedding banquet we consider now is present. It is a small thing, really, easily overlooked. The meal is simple – just bread and wine. The guests bring no presents, just their bodies which they present as living sacrifices, made holy and acceptable – a reasonable act of service. They come at the invitation of the king’s son, whose banquet this is, wearing linen robes he has provided – robes paradoxically make white by water and blood. There is little pomp, and seemingly little happens: a story is told; prayers are offered; bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given to all; wine is taken, blessed, poured out, and given to all. That is all, but that is everything. When we break the bread and lift the cup in this wedding banquet, the barriers of time and space crumble and heaven and earth become one at this table. God’s future – the wedding feast of the Lamb in the holy city, New Jerusalem – comes rushing backwards into our present and we are there feasting with thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. It is Jesus himself who presides at the banquet. It is Jesus who feeds us – who feeds us upon himself. “Lift up your hearts,” the liturgy bids us. “We lift them to the Lord,” we respond, and it is true: at this moment we are with the Lord at the wedding banquet which was, and is, and is to come. And we are assured in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the body of the Son, and heirs of the eternal kingdom. We are assured in these holy mysteries that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We are assured in these holy mysteries that we are even now at the wedding banquet of the Son.

Three wedding banquets: a cautionary tale of judgment and grace, a vision of victory and promise, a foretaste of that banquet we shall share in the holy city, New Jerusalem, at the wedding of the Lamb and his bride, the church. The invitation still goes forth. All is ready; come to the feast. Amen.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sermon: 5 October 2008

Sermon: 21 Pentecost (5 October 2008)
(Isaiah 5:1-7/Psalm 80/Philippians 3:4b-14/Matthew 21:33-46)
This Particular Messiah

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

Shortly after his baptism in the Jordan and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus decides to return to Galilee, where he will establish his headquarters and conduct the majority of his ministry. Before he leaves the Jordan valley, he calls some disciples of John to come with him, to follow him instead of John; among them are Andrew and Philip.

Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” (John 1:44-46a)?

Like many good Jews of the day, Nathanael is looking for, perhaps even expecting, the Messiah. Why else would his friend Philip seek him out to announce the good news? Nathanael is ready for a Messiah, just not for this particular Messiah, this rabbi from the provinces, from the backwaters of Israel, from the country, from Nazareth in Galilee. Yes, Nathanael is ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one he can create in his own image – but not ready for this particular, flesh-and-blood Messiah from Nazareth.

This particularity of Jesus is a stumbling block from the very beginning of his ministry, and not just for Nathanael. The Pharisees long for a Messiah, for a son of David who will deliver them from pagan oppression and usher in the righteousness of God. Then Jesus comes to their synagogues, heals the sick and casts out demons – often on the Sabbath – feasts with tax collectors and prostitutes and other notorious sinners, and proclaims that God’s messianic age is reaching its fulfillment, is even now present, in him. Yes, the Pharisees are ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one they can create in their own image – but not ready for this particular, flesh-and-blood Messiah who up-ends all their cherished notions of law and righteousness and judgment.

The priests – at least some of them as evidenced by Zechariah’s song – wait expectantly for the Messiah, for a mighty savior to be raised up in the house of David, a savior spoken of by the holy prophets, a savior who will deliver the people from their enemies and from the hand of all who hate them (cf Luke 1:67-79). Then Jesus comes to the holy city, to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey at the head of a coronation parade: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Save us, son of David!” Then Jesus comes to the temple and drives from it all who profane that house of prayer by making it a den of thieves. Then Jesus comes claiming authority over “church and state.” Yes, the priests are ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one they can create in their own image – but not ready for this particular flesh-and-blood, whip-wielding Messiah who usurps their authority and challenges the priesthood and Herod and Caesar.

It is the particularity of Jesus that is always the problem. The world knows it needs saving. It reaches first for this savior, then for that one: a military savior, a political savior, an economic savior, a scientific savior, even a spiritual savior. Yes, the world is ready for a Messiah in the abstract – one it can create in its own image – but not ready for this particular Messiah who was crucified, buried, and resurrected and who now sits enthroned in heaven, from which he will one day come to judge the living and the dead: not this particular Messiah, Jesus.

Even the church falls prey to this scandal of particularity. This particular Jesus of Nazareth – the Messiah, the son of David – has been replaced by the more universal Jesus the Christ, son of God, personal Lord and Savior. And, of course, when Jesus is removed from history, when he becomes primarily a personal article of faith, then he can be – and often is – recreated in one’s own image. Sometimes the 21st -century church seems to have little interest in a 1st-century Jewish Messiah, to that particular Messiah rooted in a history and culture and context not our own. The church seems concerned that the more Jesus is placed in his particular Jewish setting, the less meaning he will have in our setting and lives.

Yet, that is precisely what Scripture insists upon: a very particular Messiah firmly rooted in a very particular story – Jesus, son of David, Messiah of Israel – through whom God will sort out all that is wrong with all of creation. It is an inescapably Jewish story. God chose to work through a particular people, to work in and through their history to deal with sin and death and to reconcile all creation to himself. It is the particular story of covenant, exile, deliverance, law, land, kingdom, judgment – and finally of a particular Messiah, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.

The particularity of this Jewish story and this Jewish Messiah are central to the gospel text (Mt 21:33-46). Jesus’ parable is filled with ancient, prophetic imagery which links him to the work of YHWH in and through Israel, and which points to him as the fulfillment of that work.

Some 700 years earlier, in a time of national decline and growing threat from Assyria and later Babylon, Isaiah received his prophetic call while in the temple: a vision of God enthroned in heaven, thrice holy and lifted up; a vision of seraphim and living coals from the altar in heaven; a commission to speak to a people who would hear but not understand, see but not perceive (cf Isaiah 6). And Isaiah sang – a love song to the Beloved, a song of the vineyard (Isaiah 5).

5Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;righteousness, but heard a cry!

For sins of greed and injustice and idolatry – for failure to be righteous Israel, a blessing and light to the nations; for failure to recognize and honor God – the vineyard of Israel will be judged, trampled down, and left desolate: and this at the hands of a pagan people.

24Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
25Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them; the mountains quaked,and their corpses were like refuse in the streets. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.
26He will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; Here they come, swiftly, speedily!
27None of them is weary, none stumbles, none slumbers or sleeps, not a loincloth is loose, not a sandal-thong broken;
28their arrows are sharp, all their bows bent,their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, and their wheels like the whirlwind.
29Their roaring is like a lion, like young lions they roar; they growl and seize their prey, they carry it off, and no one can rescue.
30They will roar over it on that day, like the roaring of the sea. And if one looks to the land—only darkness and distress;and the light grows dark with clouds.

As in the song, God whistled for nations far away: Assyria came for Israel and Babylon came for Judah, and the Beloved’s vineyard was trampled down.

And now Jesus, this particular Messiah, takes up Israel’s story and sings Isaiah’s song of the vineyard anew for a new generation – a new chapter and a new verse (Mt 21:33-46, NRSV).

33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

This is Isaiah’s song with a twist, and rest assured that the priests and elders to whom Jesus “sings” it recognize it as such. It is a song of judgment. Those to whom God has temporarily entrusted his vineyard – the very priests and elders God raised up to shepherd his people – have failed to hear the song of Isaiah and the message of the prophets; they have rebelled against God by rejecting the authority of this particular Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own son. And now, they will be judged and trampled down and cast out.

But there is yet more to this parable. Israel, as God’s covenant bearers, has been entrusted with the vineyard of the nations; the covenant was to Israel but for the world. Israel was blessed in order to be a blessing. And now that Israel has rejected the authority of this particular Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own son – Israel, too, will be judged and trampled down and cast out. As before with Assyria and Babylon, so now with Rome: forty years and Rome will come to destroy utterly the temple in which Jesus now stands to tell his parable, the priesthood who now hears and rejects him, and the city and nation over which he this week wept great tears. This parable – this variation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard – is the story of Israel, and Israel’s particular Messiah.

But, this is not the final verse of the song or the final image of the parable. There is yet a promise of redemption. Yes, the vineyard is trampled; the son is killed. Before the week is out Jesus will lie dead in a borrowed tomb, crucified at the instigation of the priests and by the hand of the empire. Yet, this particular Messiah will rise again on the third day, defeating sin through his death, defeating death through his resurrection, reconciling all creation to God through his ascension. This, too, was part of the song, part of the parable, kept hidden from the foundations of the world but revealed in these last days. And those who disdain the particularity of Jesus – of this particular Messiah – and the particularity of the Jewish story, are now confronted with the great truth that only by fulfilling his vocation as Israel’s rejected Messiah – only by being this particular Messiah – could Jesus fulfill the covenant, deal with sin and death, sort out all that is wrong with creation, reconcile man to God, and become Jesus the Christ, the universal Lord and Savior of all the nations. There is no, and can be no, personal Lord and Savior apart from this particular Messiah, this particular story, this particular song, this particular parable.

And so Isaiah sings another song, a song of restoration, a song of fruitfulness restored to God’s vineyard, a song of a particular Messiah.

3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (Is 55:3-7, 12-13, NRSV).

Isaiah sings of an everlasting covenant, an irrevocable promise between YHWH, Abraham, and the numberless offspring of Abraham – a covenant of reconciliation and restoration. We are among the blessed children of Abraham. We are joint heirs with faithful Israel of the promises of God. We are in-grafted to the root stock of Israel and reconciled to God: and all this only through this particular Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

You’ve heard it said that the devil is in the details. Maybe so; but the Lord and his Messiah are in the particulars.