Sermon for St Mark’s, Pentecost 15
Show us the road to freedom begins in forgiveness, that we may pray for those who trouble us, bear less and less malice until we are truly clean, and not become bitter when others do not meet us in reconciliation. Prayer of Brother Roger of Taizé
There is an old Vermont farmer proverb: A couple was moving to a small town in Vermont, and on the day they arrived, on the outskirts of town they passed a classic Vermont farm. It was a lovely, peaceful Norman Rockwell scene. As they passed the front gate, there was the farmer standing by the entrance, just standing. The driver pulled over to the side, and said to the farmer, “Hey old man, is this a friendly town to live in?” The farmer noticed the couple for the first time, and said, “The town you came from, was that a friendly town?” The driver considered, and said, “Yeah, I think so.” Said the farmer, “Then you’ll find this town friendly enough.” Moral of the story? Be sensible of the baggage you carry as you move through life.
It works with friendly towns. Makes sense. If you bring friendliness you probably will find friendliness. It works with forgiveness, too. If you bring forgiveness you will probably find forgiveness. The converse is more obvious – if you are unforgiving, forgiveness will elude you.
So, for your consideration, who do you need to forgive? From whom do you need forgiveness? And what about self-forgiveness? Isn’t that the hardest? In light of Jesus’ dramatic parable this morning, I offer a few observations on forgiveness, aspects to encourage your thinking, and practice your transfiguration.
First, forgiveness is not a distinctly Christian virtue. Religious people and non-religious alike request and grant forgiveness almost every day. Many of the incidents are small, often unintentional, but when they are serious, or intentional, or repeated, they need care and attention. Everyone knows forgiveness, and has experience.
Second, to Peter’s question whether seven times forgiving a repeated offense is enough, you need to know Jesus’ seventy-seven prescription was not pulled out of the air. There was a certain man, named Lamech, familiar to Jesus and his disciples from the early Hebrew history (Gen 4.24). Lamech once boasted to his wives about his capacity for retribution. If attacked, he would exact vengeance seventy-seven-fold. That memorable number applied to forgiveness would have been stark to Jesus’ hearers. Jesus’ way is to practice forgiveness early, instead of retribution. Life is not saved by getting even. Because you never get even: the offended party gets even, and then the other gets even more “even”. Then comes the grudge, then a feud, and vengeance becomes excused as “justice”, violence runs rampant, and eventually the whole world burns. A far cry from a friendly Vermont town, but just as predictable.
Third, while we are enjoined to practice unconditional love, we are also expected to practice conditional forgiveness. Jesus’ formula last week about going privately to one who has offended you, and if unsuccessful take a couple of church members with you on a second visit, and if that doesn’t work tell the whole congregation (the congregation probably knows all about it by then) underscores that offenses must be addressed before they can be forgiven. Trivia can be overlooked or explained away, but the serious offenses can be forgiven only on condition they are addressed.
Remember this is a kingdom parable, not social advice. This is about the heart of God, which always works for reconciliation, healing of memories and relationships, and the wonder of life. Even when reconciliation is not possible, it is about the offended party releasing as much of the sting as possible, so that one is not further crippled by holding grudges. Another maxim is this: holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.
Remember as well, we pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That does not mean we forgive just enough to by, just enough to get our own sin erased from God’s notice. It is not bargaining, or earning God’s forgiveness. It is remembering where we came from. We have been generously forgiven, so it is a kingdom expectation that we will be generous with our forgiveness. Once there was a brother in a monastery who was caught stealing. A trial was held, and the Abbot was expected to conduct the trial and make final determination. Abbot Makarios refused, saying he had been forgiven so much, how could he sit in judgment. It is compassion which drives the will to forgive, and compassion unpracticed dries up.
It is interesting that this Gospel story is paired with the Exodus story of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, but more sensational is the destruction of the pursuing Egyptians. We are taught to see it as God liberating his people. The Egyptians saw it differently. These slaves were owned by the Egyptians. They were property under the law. And in their rebellion, these slaves running away was damaging to the whole country’s economy and to the dignity of Pharaoh and the self-respect of every Egyptian. They were just in their pursuit. Ah, but the story is told from the perspective of the escapees, who saw destruction of the Egyptian military as God’s vengeance. However, compassion moves across religious lines, sometimes upturning religious certainty. I remember a Rabbinic commentary that there was no rejoicing in heaven when the sea closed in on the Egyptians. The Rabbi taught that unlike the Hebrews when the sea closed in, in heaven YHWH was silent. When one of the angels asked about this unexpected reaction, YHWH explained the sadness. “The Egyptians are my children, too!” I wonder if Jesus knew that story, or if the Rabbi lived later than Jesus, if he knew what Jesus was teaching.
All that said, the rest of the story is that forgiveness is hard work. If I didn’t tell that side too, then the Church is really out of touch with real life. Forgiveness is hard work. It has been said that the most natural human emotion is revenge. You don’t have to think. There is no discipline required to hit back. The most unnatural human emotion is to forgive. That is God’s business, and it is why we work for transfiguration of our spirits into God’s Spirit, our hearts into God’s heart. We must master pride, resist blaming, heal our own wounds and remember that we have been forgiven. Forgiveness is hard work, but pulling one self out of quicksand is also hard work.
This is a “For What It’s Worth” sermon. You know about forgiveness. You have practiced it all your life. Perhaps there is some new insight here, but you know best your own history of forgiving. For the rest of that history, though, I leave you with Brother Roger’s prayer:
Show us the road to freedom begins in forgiveness, that we may pray for those who trouble us, bear less and less malice until we are truly clean, and not become bitter when others do not meet us in reconciliation.
A Sermon for Marilyn, Priest
Ordination, 9th September 2017
More than a few years ago, many more, I offered a Sunday morning adult class entitled, “What’s Good About the Episcopal Church?” It was pure propaganda, I guess, because I was young and loved the Church and knew there was much to commend it. However, few people came. That was in the Diocese of Virginia, in the seventies, and few people came, they told me, because they too loved the Church and saw little need to rethink the matter. Those were the times when a new social study appeared in bookstores entitled, The Power of Their Glory: America’s Ruling Class: The Episcopalians. Those with hair the color of mine may remember that book. Others will say, “Are you kidding me?”
When next I offered the class, in the eighties, I was in western New York, and more people came. The difference was that some of those people were antagonists. “Yeah,” said one, “I want to hear what you think is so good about this Church, but I know you have to say that. You are paid.” I probably didn’t change any minds.
But in the current millennium, a social paradigm has emerged that surprises many Church folk. A generation has risen of thinking people, productive, active young citizens, who have no experience of church in any form. Sunday worship is not a “given”. They have never been inside Church buildings, know only what scandals the newspapers reported, and while most are not disapproving or disgusted, they are certainly disinterested. “What’s Good About the Episcopal Church?” among them would draw more yawns than people.
Yet by the grace and intention of the Spirit the Church continues, and we Episcopalians are learning.
We are learning not to take our heritage lightly, nor to play fast and loose with what we stand for.
We have learned that getting out of Church is at least as important as getting into Church. If what we say and do inside the Church has no expression outside the walls, then it has no meaning inside the walls.
We are discovering that Jesus would probably not attend our Church, but would prefer to meet us where people suffer, where people are in need, where people are weeping.
We are learning the Church is not God, but also that we can share real friendship with God.
We are learning that we need other Christian denominations (the Lutherans especially have been our teachers), and that there is much to be learned about this magnificent God from other religions.
We are learning that while fear is an effective motivator, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.
We continually renew our vows to respect the dignity of every human being, and to work tirelessly for that peace which begins in justice.
We are rediscovering the splendor of the whole creation, the beauty of this world, the wonder of life, and the mystery of love.
Eric Law and Stephanie Spellers, in their book The Episcopal Way, wrote in the final chapter entitled “Falling in Love with God Again”:
There is plenty to love, celebrate, and share about this generous, beautiful, incarnational, ancient and future way. But remember: it is a way. It is a path for walking, an approach for following Jesus… Change is necessary, to meet new cultural contexts. Change is good, when it translates the gospel for new communities to hear… And change is holy, when we engage it faithfully and without losing our essence. (p102)
So, friends and neighbors, today is a particularly happy day of change for the Episcopal Church. In this sacred place and with the people of The Dalles and Hood River; with the parishioners of St Mark’s and St Paul’s and the clergy of the diocese, we honor, endorse and welcome Marilyn Roth to new leadership. It is a day of hope, of expectation and is one more affirmation of what’s good about The Episcopal Church. Marilyn has grafted her Baptist roots and Quaker theological education into her Episcopal practice – good change. She has served notably outside Church as Chaplain with Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue and she brings practical communication experience from the publishing community – special gifts. And Marilyn has that mystical quality of presence, doesn’t she, which may be best described as “She gets it!” So with confidence in her and confidence in our future as people of faith, we celebrate her ordination as Priest among us and as Priest outside the walls.
Now it is traditional in Episcopal ordinations at this point for the preacher to deliver a “Charge” to the ordinand. The Charge presumes the preacher knows something the ordinand doesn’t. A Charge may be helpful. It may be challenging. It may be inspirational or it can add a burden. I confess I remember little of the Charge from my ordinations. However, as Marilyn knows, “charge” is not my style. I am more authentic when I bless, and blessing is also her style. So Marilyn, in affirmation of your new role as Priest, a benediction just for you:
May you hold in your heart that you are chosen, and that through your “Yes”, your congregations and the larger communities are blessed, and the Holy One is honored.
As you walk as Priest with your people, may they draw confidence from your presence and wisdom from your teaching.
As you encounter others’ expectations, and your own, may you never forget to play. And remember that often, one good laugh is worth a thousand right answers.
May you recall, when the light grows scarce and your energy is depleted, that even those created a little lower than the angels require rest and recreation.
May your study of Scripture be a lamp unto your feet, and challenge your closely-held notions of God.
May you not fear prophetic words when the Gospel calls for resistance.
May the sufferings of your call bring new integrity and confirm your reliance on the Spirit who is as close as your breath.
May you approach the dying with respect and warmth, always learning, and in light of your own mortality.
May your time at the Table, as host and guest at Eucharist, be sustaining and comforting, and may you never lose your sense of awe as Celebrant of Holy Mystery.
Come now, friend, and embrace your new calling. You are welcome among us, and we seek your blessing. Amen.
Sermon for St Mark’s, 3 September, ‘17
Transfiguration of Peter
“What was a bandit but an emperor on the make; what was an emperor but a bandit on the throne?”
Those are words of John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus scholar, observing the social and political climate in the hundred years or so around the resurrection of Jesus. Specifically, Dr Crossan wishes us to understand the turbulence into which Jesus was born, and to get us thinking about why Jesus might have forbidden the disciples from broadcasting him as Messiah, and this morning, why his stunning rebuke of Peter for wanting to protect Jesus from arrest and death.
Let’s look at three cases where an unusual character rose to great power in the Roman Empire. First, in Spain there was a man Viriathus, an unknown, who by organizing a campaign moved from shepherd to hunter to bandit to general (140-130 BCE). Then in North Africa, Tacfarinas, (20s C.E.) rose from shepherd to soldier to bandit to general. Some political career, yes? Third, there is Maximinus, in the 230s CE, shepherd to bandit to soldier to emperor. Perhaps you can better appreciate Crossan’s quip: “What was a bandit but an emperor on the make; what was an emperor but a bandit on the throne?” (The Historical Jesus, p172)
But the turbulence was more malignant than these stories tell. Local heroes, early “Robin Hoods”, advocated the violent overthrow of Rome, all having some measure of success before they were quashed. In 47 BCE there was a man named Ezekias who revolted, and ten years later, there was a guerilla group in Galilee known as the “Cave Bandits” who caused trouble for the authorities. After Jesus’ resurrection, there was a revolt led by a man named Tholomaeus, which lasted two years, and later there was even a bandit named Jesus who raised havoc for about a year around the time of the Gospel of Mark. These were revolts consisting “largely of peasants and landless laborers ruled, oppressed and exploited by someone else” (Crossan, p169). These were unsuccessful, in that Rome always put them down, but turbulence spread among the people. And then there were the religious reformers, the messiahs.
Yes, Jesus was proclaimed messiah but as one in a long line of messiahs, all advocating a violent solution. Heralded in memory as truly heroic and godly was a man named Judas, nicknamed “the hammer” because of his remarkable guerilla tactics. Judas Maccabeus threw out the ruling Syrian dynasty, purged corruption from the religion of Israel and restored the Temple in Jerusalem. The feast of Hanukkah commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship in 164 BCE, when eight days of oil for the Temple Menorah was provided from one day’s supply. For the messiahs to follow, there was always hope that a new Maccabeus, a new hammer, would initiate the final victory over Rome.
Here are three such messiahs, violent rebellions based in religion, from a few years before Jesus was born. One was in Galilee, a messiah named Judas, son of Ezekias who led the political uprising I mentioned in 47 BCE. Judas’ motivation was religious, but his tactics were no less violent than his father’s. In the same year another messiah, Simon, a slave in the service of Herod the Great, attracted a following because of his size, his handsome figure, and his bodily strength. With a band of men Simon attacked the palace at Jericho, and the result of his rebellion: “a great madness settled upon the nation.” (Crossan, p201, quoting Josephus). Third, an illiterate shepherd named Anthronges kept power with his four brothers for a long time, partly because, no doubt, the people remembered a certain predecessor, another shepherd who was Yahweh’s favorite and king in Israel, the awesome David of Jerusalem.
This is a short list. There were other messiahs, common among oppressed societies. There was Menachem, grandson of Judas the Galilean, also Simon, son of Gioras, both of whom stirred the people long after Jesus’ resurrection. You will remember that John Baptist was asked if he was the messiah. Would he take the sword and bring down the Roman idolaters?
My apologies if this sounds more like lecture than preaching, but it was this wildfire of violence that Jesus wanted desperately to avoid. There was always the danger in his day that a gathering of seekers could become a mob, and not only did Jesus resist the destruction that came with revolt. His whole message was non-violent, and driven by an intimidating, sacrificial love which the world has rarely seen.
It is that singular, holy love which makes Jesus’ place in the world unique. It is that love which inspired his ministry for three years, and because he would not back down or backtrack, it drove him to the cross. It is that love which made the cross more a symbol of victory than defeat, and his final words, “It is accomplished”, is a song of faith.
It is that love which inspired Paul to write, to you and to me this morning:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers”. (Romans 12.9f)
“Get behind me, Satan.” It must have been startling for Peter to be so named by a man he loved. Stumbling block? Easier to swallow, and we can see how Peter was potentially a stumbling block, but the result is the same. Peter’s protectionism was diverting Jesus’ purpose, and it was courting disaster if the crowds became mobs, even for Jesus’ cause. Peter was a man of boats and nets, a commercial fisherman who fed the people, but when pressed, he knew how to use the sword (John 18.10-11).
The substance of Jesus’ criticism, though, is that Peter (and you and I) think like humans. Of course, we do. But the challenge is for Peter, and us, to come to think as God thinks. To see as God sees. To love as God loves. What is going on is not Peter’s condemnation, but Peter’s transfiguration. For Peter it took time, but he was transfigured into a godly man Jesus would have respected.
For you and me, what is at stake is our transfiguration. Though it takes time, may we become transfigured into godly disciples, men and women Jesus will respect. Amen.
N.B. Dr Crossan’s primary sources are Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War, by the first century Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE).
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.