The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2023
Fr. Larry Parrish
I keep calling attention to my age, but do any of you remember the old tv series, “Mission Impossible”? That was loooong before Tom Cruise and the current movie franchise! Remember that it always started with one of the characters receiving a tape—as in reel to reel audio tape (are you still with me?) When played the tape would voice, “Your Mission, should you desire to accept it, is . . .” Then the message, “This tape will self destruct in 10 seconds . . .” and “Poof!”
Jonah received such a message. There was no “if you accept it”—God was the voice on the tape. “Your mission is to get on a boat, land on the beach of a country that hates your country, walk inland to its major city, and tell people that they are evil and that if they don’t repent they are toast.” And when the tape ended, Jonah almost self-destructed! He immediately bought passage on a boat—going the opposite direction! For the country was Assyria and the city was “that wicked city” Nineveh. Let’s not be too hard on Jonah. If God appeared to us in some unmistakable way and said, “I want you to go to Moscow, and when you get there, walk into the city until you get to the Kremlin, then stand at its entrance and say, All of you people are doomed! God said so!” We would be buying a plane ticket to Sydney!
Well, you probably know the rest of the story. Jonah fled, was thrown overboard by the ship’s crew, was swallowed by a large fish, was thrown up by the fish after three days onto the shore of Assyria and walked to and into Nineveh.
When he got not the middle of the city, he pronounced his message—perhaps as quietly as he could, to avoid being noticed: (whispered) “Repent or you are doomed.” And to his surprise—and chagrin—the whole city repented, its King repented, and even all of the animals repented! Jonah should have been elated. Instead he became angry with God, and went into a major sulk. “I knew it!” he says to God, I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. I’m so angry at you that I could just die!” I endure an ocean storm, almost drown, spend three days in the belly of a stinkin’ fish, and risk my life in a hostile country, and you FORGIVE these people without making them pay for what their foreign policy has done to MY country! I KNEW you were going to be merciful!”
I can easily get why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. I have faced situations where there was such hostility that I would eagerly have taken ship in the opposite direction if I were able. What I have trouble fathoming is why Jonah is angry that God made his mission successful. The people of Nineveh did not jail him or stone him to death. They heard the call to repent and did. They and all their animals! Most people would have been ecstatic that things worked out as they did. But Jonah wasn’t. He was angry. He had stepped up—probably forgetting he had been thrown up—by a fish—onto an Assyrian beach after reluctantly agreeing to act like a prophet—and said what God told him to say, though probably not very loudly and not very long, and he had 100% results. And he was angry at God for not destroying every last person in Nineveh!
Well, maybe I do understand. It sometimes makes me cranky to hear of someone on the lecture or TV interview circuit that has done illegal, maybe even awful, things and then repented of it and amended their life, and are now getting appearance fees and book royalties—and worse yet, public acclaim!—for their turned-around new lives! I have been reasonably moral, and faithful, and reliable, all my life, and I never received a book deal! Or someone I know who I expect the worst from, surprises me with a great act of kindness, or an apology. Instead of being delighted, I want to go on disliking them, and I find myself justifying why I can do so!
But the Jonah story is about more than just human behavior, it is about who God is and how He works. It is an Old Testament mirror image of Jesus’ parable in our Gospel reading for today.
Jesus tells the story of a landowner who needed grape harvestors and went to the unemployment office in the town and hired some guys at the beginning of the day to work in his vineyard. He made an offer of fair wages for the day, saying that he “would pay them whatever is right.” By 9:00, he needed more workers, so he went back downtown and signed up more. At Noon, same thing. He needed still more at 3:00, so he hired them. Finally, with the sun getting low in the sky, and the job still not finished, he went back at 5:00 that afternoon and employed another group. Those who came to work closest to sunset were paid first: a full day’s wages. All of the other shifts got the same amount. Including the guys that had been working hard in the hot sun all day! And they were livid about it! The landowner shrugged his shoulders. “I paid you going daily wage. That’s what you agreed to. I chose to give everyone who came to work today the same amount. Can I not choose what to do with what belongs to me? Are you envious because I am generous?”
“Are you envious because I am generous?” Exactly. Jonah was. He wanted to be on a different standing with God than those folks from “the Wicked City.” In a world filled with pagan gods, he had worshipped the True God. The God of Abraham and Isaac, etc. He had even endured hardships to do his will (forgetting that he would have avoided those hardships if he hadn’t been running in the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go!) But these people who had scoffed at God and even did bad things to Jonah’s people now had the same standing just because they turned their hearts to God—and in response to the threat of extinction even! It just wasn’t FAIR!
So while he was outside of Nineveh sulking in the hot sun, God gave caused a bush to grow up over him to give him precious shade. Jonah was thankful. Then the next day, God caused the plant to die. Jonah was angry again! Angry enough to die! So God said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Any question about who the landowner in the parable represents?
The parables of Jesus—and many of the Old Testament stories-- can’t be made to represent humanity’s “business as usual.” We can’t box them in, anymore than we can box Jesus in, or God, WHO Jesus is the human face of. We can’t build a tidy ethical system from them in the complications of our world. We can’t build an economic system from them, or a system of government from them. We can only stand before God without status, without standing, without merit, and let Him/Her love us as we are, and usually in spite of who we are—and to admit that He loves all people (and all of his creatures?) just as much as he loves us.
The parables not only unravel our preconceptions about God and ourselves, they leave us with questions we can spend the rest of our lives struggling to answer. This parable does not say that good works are fruitless, that we cannot disappoint God, that there is not evil in the world and in others. It does not say that because we are equally loved by God we can do whatever we feel like doing, or that we can suck our thumbs and do nothing. We have a mission from God and St. Paul hints at the shape of it.
St. Paul, speaks of “fruitful labor,” but the work he speaks of Christians doing is not keeping busy, but living “in Christ” and striving “for the faith of the gospel,” which is the recognition by us and telling others that God loves us dearly and steadfastly, and loves everybody else in the same way. Loves us so much that He was willing to come in our shape and form and die on a cross to prove it. It is our mission, it is the Church’s mission, it is St. Mary’s mission. It might seem to be our “mission impossible.” However, is work that God will do in us and through us: through His Holy Spirit; through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood in which “we dwell in Him, and He in us.”; and through the company of the saints, and the company of each other. It won’t be through our power alone. It won’t be without struggle. Life will continue to happen. We will encounter people who don’t want to be loved by God, or by anyone else. We will get in our own way, and in God’s way.
I can only promise you that you won’t be swallowed by a big fish and that God won’t abandon you. And while I can’t promise it 100%, I believe that you will find joy.
Matthew 18: 21-35
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Sean C. Kim
17, September 2023
The Gospels are filled with difficult passages. And today’s reading from Matthew is one of them. Sometimes, the difficulty lies in trying to understand what Jesus meant. We’re separated from Jesus by more than 2,000 years and vast cultural and social differences, never mind the challenges of translation. But the problem with today’s text isn’t about understanding what Jesus meant; rather, the difficulty lies in following what Jesus tells us to do. And what is that message? Forgive.
Peter comes to Jesus with the question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). He follows this up with a parable. A king forgives a servant who owes him a huge sum of money, but then that same servant fails to forgive a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller sum of money. The point of the parable is clear and simple: forgive as you have been forgiven. But this is so much easier said than done.
Practicing forgiveness is hard, and, at least for me, preaching on forgiveness is also hard. But, fortunately for today, I had some great outside help. The last time I preached on forgiveness, one of our parishioners sent me a kind email that provided a wonderful summary and commentary on my sermon. And, quite frankly, her feedback was more lucid and eloquent than my sermon. So, in preparing today’s sermon, I dug up that email and used it to help organize my thoughts. I don’t want to put that person on the spot, so I won’t mention her name, but thank you for the help!
Forgiveness is hard because it runs counter to our nature. When we are wronged, we want to seek revenge and restitution. Think of when we watch a movie or read a novel. There is something deeply satisfying about the villain getting his just desserts at the end of the story. Forgiveness, on the other hand, requires us to abandon the idea of getting even. It requires us to rise above our self-interest and even risk vulnerability and rejection.
But, no matter how difficult it is, Jesus commands us to forgive. Moreover, he has personally set the supreme example of forgiveness. As he hung on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And throughout Christian history, the faithful have turned to Jesus as the example and inspiration for forgiveness.
As many of you know, I was born and raised in the Korean Christian tradition. Our family used to attend a small Korean Presbyterian church on the corner of 81st and Holmes in south Kansas City. The Presbyterians don’t commemorate the saints in the same way that Anglo-Catholics do, but they do have their own unofficial saints whom they remember and honor.
One of the Korean saints that has left a deep impression on me is Pastor Son Yang-won. Almost every Korean Protestant has probably heard of Pastor Son, and he is remembered by the Church for an act of radical forgiveness. Pastor Son was a Presbyterian minister who lived through the turbulent history of Korea under Japanese colonial rule and then the painful division of the country into North and South Korea. In 1948, a couple of years before the Korean War, a communist insurgency took over his town. The rebels descended on his family, attacking them for their Christian faith. During the persecution, one of the insurgents, a young man named Chae-son, shot and killed two of his sons. When the government restored order in the town a week later, Chae-son was apprehended and found guilty of murder. But before the sentence of execution could be carried out, Pastor Son intervened and pleaded for Chae-son’s life. And he also made a surprising and unusual request. He asked the court for the prisoner’s release so that he could be adopted as his son. The court granted the request. Chae-son was released and adopted by Pastor Son, who cared for him as his own son and taught him the Christian faith. Later in life, Chae-son himself became a Christian minister. Tragically for Pastor Son, he was killed by the communists during the Korean War, becoming one of countless martyrs who died for the faith.
Not many of us can practice the kind of radical forgiveness that Pastor Son exemplified. He is remembered precisely because what he did lies beyond the reach of most people. But, even if we don’t attain to the spiritual heights of Pastor Son and other saints, we are still under the same command to forgive.
To return to today’s reading from Matthew, at the end of the passage, Jesus tells his disciples to “forgive your brother or sister from your heart (Matthew 18:35). To forgive with our heart is the start of the process of forgiving. When we forgive with our heart, we make the choice to set aside the desire for getting even and commit to restoring the relationship. It involves the intention to follow Christ’s command and example to forgive. What comes next, however, may often be beyond our control.
At one of the churches where I’ve previously served, I knew a saintly woman who embodied Christ’s love and was a faithful member of the parish. Kind and compassionate, she gave generously of her time and money to the church and the community. Everyone respected and admired her. I was surprised one day during a small group meeting when she shared that she had been estranged from her son for several years. In spite of her attempts to reconcile, they had not talked for a very long time. And soon others shared their stories of unresolved conflicts in their lives.
An idea that we encounter in our culture as well as in church is that once you forgive, everyone lives happily ever after. It’s seen as a kind of on-off switch. Just do it, and everything will be fine. But, of course, life is not that simple. Forgiveness is not that simple. Yes, it involves making the choice to forgive, but in following through, we may encounter struggles and challenges. In fact, there may be situations in which the only thing left to do is to leave it to God and pray for reconciliation. Forgiveness can be a long, messy process. Forgiveness is hard work.
But, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgiveness is not optional for us. It’s an integral part of our faith commitment. Soon, as we gather at the altar, we will join together in the Lord’s Prayer, in which we pray that God “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, at the Eucharist, or in our private devotions, we are not only reminding ourselves but making the resolve, the intention, to forgive.
But, of course, it does not stop there. The hard work of forgiveness takes place in the messiness of our daily lives. Who among us is immune from slights, grudges, and grievances? And confronted with difficult situations, we may not always succeed in our efforts to forgive. But Christ calls us to try over and over again – even if it means seventy-seven times.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Sean C. Kim
10, September 2023
As many of you know, the head of our national church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, is ill. Hospitalized twice this year for internal bleeding, he was scheduled to have surgery this past Friday, September 8, but that has been postponed to September 20. Please keep him in your prayers.
Bishop Curry was elected Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in 2015, the first African American to hold the position. The Presiding Bishop serves as the Chief Pastor, President, and Chief Executive Officer of our denomination for a term of nine years.
Since his election, Bishop Curry’s tenure has been marked by one simple message: love. Wherever he has gone, he has preached the Christian faith as the “Way of Love.” He points out that before Christians came to be called “Christians,” the movement that Jesus began was called “the Way,” and that it was “a community of people whose lives were centered on Jesus Christ and committed to living the way of God’s unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial, and redemptive love.”
Some of you may have seen Bishop Curry on TV, preaching at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018. I had the privilege of seeing him preach in person right in the middle of the Power and Light District on his Visitation to Kansas City in May of 2017. He is a powerful and inspiring preacher. If you haven’t seen him preach, I would recommend looking him up on YouTube. In addition to his preaching, Bishop Curry has also written books on the subject of love and developed a rule of life centered on the practice of love. Bishop Curry is, in short, a modern apostle of love.
In today’s Epistle, we find the Apostle Paul preaching love. We read in Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10). There are many passages on love in the Gospels and other parts of Scripture, but what I find striking about today’s text is the word “owe”: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love is, in other words, an obligation, something we owe others.
Paul’s injunction to owe no one anything is, of course, impossible to follow, except perhaps for monastics. For the rest of us, I don’t think it’s meant to be taken literally. Our lives are filled with various forms of obligations. We have financial obligations to pay our mortgage on our homes or cars. We have professional obligations at our jobs, tasked with specific responsibilities and duties. We have social obligations. If someone does a favor for us, then the proper thing to do is reciprocate or at least send a thank you note.
So, to owe no one anything is unreasonable. And I think Paul here intends it as hyperbole to make the point that love is the ultimate obligation. All other obligations are secondary and unimportant in the light of the supreme obligation to love.
Paul’s view of love as an obligation is rooted in Jesus’ command to love. In the Gospel of John, at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). This verse is the origin of our commemoration of Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. The term “maundy” is Middle English for the Latin word, mandatum, commandment.
You may be asking at this point: why do we have to be commanded to love? Why is love an obligation? Shouldn’t love come naturally? Well, love does, of course, come naturally to us for some people, such as family and friends. But Christ commands us to love not just those close to us and those whom we like but everyone, including the stranger and the enemy. Now, that doesn’t come naturally.
Throughout the pages of Christian history, Jesus’ command to love everyone has inspired the faithful to extraordinary acts of courage and compassion. On the Episcopal Calendar of Saints, yesterday was the feast day of Constance and Her Companions. Constance was an Episcopal nun, belonging to the Sisterhood of St. Mary. In 1873, she and other sisters in the order went to Memphis, Tennessee to establish a school for girls. The city was soon struck by a yellow fever epidemic. While others fled the city, the sisters remained to care for the sick, and Constance and several of the sisters died from the disease. What motivated them to minister to sick strangers even at the cost of their lives? Jesus’ command to love. On the Roman Catholic calendar, yesterday was the feast of St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit missionary to Latin America in the seventeenth century. Peter ministered in the slave ships that arrived in Colombia. Under the horrific conditions in the slaves ships, he spent most of his waking hours burying the dead, transporting the sick to hospitals, and preaching the Gospel to all who would hear him. When he wasn’t ministering to the slaves, he labored in a nearby leper colony. Why did he do the work that no one else wanted to do? Jesus’ command to love.
We may not be called to the same kinds of heroic self-sacrifice that we read about in the annals of the saints. But we are all called to obey the same command to love everyone. So, the next time you see the homeless on the street corner, you might remember Jesus’ command to love. The next time you are cut off on the road by a reckless driver, you might remember Jesus’ command to love. The next time you have to deal with the annoying colleague at work, you might remember Jesus’ command to love.
This past week, I came across a shocking statistic. During one of the meetings at church, I learned that sixty percent of nursing home residents do not have outside visitors. And many die alone. A few of us have begun to discuss how we as a church might address this crisis and develop a ministry. We owe the aged and the lonely our love. Jesus commands us.
But, the fact is, it’s one thing to have good intentions. To actually carry out Jesus’ command to love all, is no easy task. Our egos and self-interest get in the way. In fact, we cannot fulfill our obligation to love on our own. We need God’s help. At the end of our passage from Romans, Paul addresses this need for outside, divine help. After listing the various ways in which our egos and selfish desires lead us astray, he proposes a solution: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14).
In a moment, we will approach the altar for Holy Communion. And it is there that we will not only be reminded but empowered to fulfill our obligation to love. For it is in the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament that we are united with Christ. We die to ourselves and rise to new life in Christ. Or to put it another way, we take off our old clothes, stained by selfish desires, and we put on new clothes, the armor of light that is Christ. When we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we will find the courage and strength that we need to love. So, dear sisters and brothers, come. Come to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, our holy food. And, when the service is ended, let us go forth into the world to be Christ to one another and to the world, proclaiming the Way of Love.
Matthew 16: 21-28
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Sean C. Kim
3, September 2023
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, we found the Apostle Peter in an exalted state. He had been blessed by Jesus for his bold confession of faith. While the other disciples were silent, Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the resounding proclamation: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-16). Jesus praised Peter, saying: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). But in today’s Gospel reading, we find a dramatic turn of events. Ironically for Peter, following the praise comes condemnation. When Jesus foretells of his impending suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus turns to Peter and tells him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:21-23).
Peter must have been stunned by this sudden reversal of fortune. One moment he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. The next moment he is a big obstacle to Jesus, compared with none other than Satan himself.
What just happened? Well, it looks like Peter didn’t quite get Jesus’ true identity after all. He seems to be still clinging on to traditional Jewish expectations of the Messiah. Grounded in the historical experience of the Israelites, the Messiah was believed to be the deliverer to come. As Moses led his people out of their bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land and as King David drove out the Philistines and established his kingdom, the Messiah was supposed to deliver the Jews from Roman occupation and oppression, and usher in a new and glorious age for God’s people. But, far from such hope of deliverance and restoration, power and glory, here we have Jesus talking doom and gloom. He informs his followers that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Although Jesus here mentions the resurrection, Peter and the disciples don’t seem to even notice. What has caught their attention is the part about suffering and death.
If we might read a bit into Peter’s psychology, it’s not just concern for Jesus’ well-being that leads to his vehement protest. Peter loves and cares for his Lord, but he must also have been wondering what’s going to happen to him now. Yes, this movement that Jesus started is not about Peter; it’s about Jesus. But Peter didn’t leave everything behind to join Jesus so that the movement would end with the leader’s death and execution. And what would then happen to him and the other disciples? Peter had been hoping to share in the power and glory that would come with being part of Messiah’s inner circle. Imagine becoming Jesus’ lieutenant. Moses’ right-hand man, his lieutenant, was Joshua. And look what happened to him. Joshua succeeded Moses and took charge of the Israelites to carry out the conquest of the Promised Land. He brought himself and the Israelites wealth and power. When Jesus promised Peter that he would be rock on which he would build his church, Peter must have been heady with visions of grandeur of being the Messiah’s right-hand man.
But before Peter has had time to fully enjoy his fantasies, Jesus utters something strange and disturbing. He is going to suffer and die soon. We can understand why Peter reacts the way he does: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). What kind of Messiah suffers and dies at the hands of his enemies?
Jesus presents a radically different vision of the Messiah than what the Jews had believed. As he explains to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:23). What are these human things with which Peter is preoccupied? Simply put, power and glory. Jesus’ chastisement of Peter finds a parallel with his rebuke of Satan earlier in the Gospel of Matthew during his temptation in the wilderness. Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world in all their power and glory, and he makes an offer: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus responds: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Matthew 4:8-10). Jesus’ rebuke of Peter “Get behind me, Satan!” is a direct allusion to “Away with you, Satan!” It isn’t that Peter has actually become Satan; Peter is expressing Satan’s opposition to God’s will. Or to put it another way, Peter would have been happy with Jesus the Messiah taking possession of all the kingdoms in the world.
The kingdoms of the world stand on the foundations of power and glory. They rely on mechanisms of domination and coercion, and make war on each other. But the reign of the Messiah, as preached by Jesus, rests on a different foundation. The great theologian Saint Augustine, whose feast day we just commemorated this past Monday, wrote a book in the fifth century titled The City of God. He composed it soon after the city of Rome was overrun and sacked by Germanic tribes in the year 410. In the book Augustine juxtaposes two different visions, an earthly city and the City of God. Here is a brief excerpt: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord. . . . In the one, the princes, and the nations it subdues, are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love.”
The City of God, for Augustine, is the city based on the love of God and love of one another, in opposition to the earthly city, based on love of self and power and glory. And it is to that City of God that we aspire.
To go back to the parallel between Jesus’ rebuke of Satan and his rebuke of Peter, there is one crucial difference. To Satan Jesus says “Away from me!” but to Peter, Jesus says “Get behind me!” In spite of his rebuke, Jesus still wants Peter to follow him. The Greek word here is, in fact, the same one that Jesus used when he first called Peter to be his disciple” – get behind me (Matthew 4:19).
Just as Jesus invited Peter to “get behind him,” to follow him, he extends that same invitation of a life of faithful discipleship to us. He calls us away from setting our minds on the human things – power and glory – and to focus on the divine things – self-denying love and service. He invites us to become citizens of the City of God, where love reigns supreme.
Audrey West,“Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4565.
 Augustine, On the City of God Against the Pagans, Book XIV, Chapter 28.
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