Sermon for Pentecost 24 Pr. 27
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
November 12, 2023
Amos 5:18-24 Ps. 70 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25: 1-13
I like preaching from the lectionary, because if I didn’t I would be preaching on variations of about ten sermons all of the time. The lectionary also makes me delve into the richness of the Bible while keeping my attention centered on specific passages. It is like eating at a restaurant that serves you a small portion of something on the menu before going on to the next small-portion dish.
On the other hand, the “small portions” of Scripture served by the lectionary readings/lessons for each Sunday is still often far too much to try to “inwardly digest”, as the collect for next Sunday puts it.
The lectionary also forces me to preach on texts that I don’t want to even put in my mouth and give me indigestion just looking at them!
And then there are the Sundays which have more than one text that are unpleasant to look at and hard to digest—Today we have Three of them! An angry prophet tells those who can’t get out of ear shot of him that God “hate(s) (and) despises your festivals and take(s) no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Yeah, that is supposed to fly here at St. Mary’s!
Then St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Thessalonica lays down Scriptural warrant for the Rapture—the idea, in case you aren’t familiar with it, that the literalists have that when Jesus comes back, those who are faithful will be swept up into heaven in the blink of an eye, leaving the rest of us dodging driverless cars on I-70, as they hang out with Jesus.
Then Matthew recounts a parable of Jesus’ which says we had better have oil in our metaphorical lamps when Jesus shows up or we are going to be pounding on a closed door in the dark.
I love the lectionary!
Well. pause O.K. then!
If I try to deal with all three lessons today we’ll all have indigestion!
Let’s encounter the angry prophet, Amos, you are on your own for the others. Though I would be glad to talk to you about the others outside of the sermon.
Amos, like all the prophets before and after him, was called by God to speak what God wanted to say to the King, government, and people of the divided nation of Israel/Judea.
Like all the other prophets, he wasn’t a predictor of the future, except to tell people that if they didn’t stop ignoring God, or trying to be God, and failing to live by the principles set out in Torah, they were going to shoot themselves in both feet. Doom wasn’t inevitable, but actions have consequences!
This role, naturally, did not endear people to prophets who were faithful to God. Old Testament scholar, Harrel Beck, once said that “the prophets were twice-stoned men. First, they were stoned on God when they delivered God’s message to the people, and then the people stoned them because of what they said!
Unlike the other prophets, Amos was not a citizen of the country he was prophesying in. After the excesses of King Solomon, revolts against the crown erupted in Israel, splitting it into the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judea. Enmity existed between the citizens of the two kingdoms from thenceforth, despite common roots and common faith. Amos was a citizen of Judea, not Israel. He was a foreigner!
Furthermore, he was not a “professional prophet,” he was a layman, not clergy of any sort, and was not of the elite of any sort—he was a “herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees,” a common laborer.
Israel, at the time, had not suffered the kind of political reverses that comes from being geographically located on the pathway of armies of some major players among the nations of that part of the world as Judea was. They were not under threat of invasion, they probably had a stable, perhaps prosperous, economy. Into this self-assured culture, Amos steps out of his pick-up in jeans and work boots and proceeds to lay into its citizens, in the name of God! Actually, he starts by laying into every known nation of the region with how they have offended God, before he tells the people of Israel that they were living high on the hog, caring nothing for the poor and vulnerable in their midst, in fact taking advantage of them to live high on the hog! He even calls the women Israel “cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy.” He wasn’t invited back to coffee hour!
He actually didn’t have anything kind to say to anyone! In this morning’s lesson he confronts the “church members” in their self-assurance about Israel’s destiny. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord.” “The Day of the Lord” was understood by Amos’s audience to be a time when God would vindicate their nation, who would destroy other nations who were possible 1adversaries, and they, the chosen, would be dancing in the streets.
Amos gives an alternative view: The day of the Lord will be “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it.” He gives a darkly comical account of what will really happen. “It will be as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house (maybe to get out of the sun or rest from running from a lion?) and, resting their hand against the wall, were bitten by a snake!” If God shows up in their midst, He won’t be happy!
Since we are to read the Bible as a living document, not a relic from the past, we are always being invited into the world of the Bible to find that that world is really the one we are living in now. That being true, what are we to make of Amos addressing us as he addresses the citizens of ancient Israel,
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . take away from me the noise of your songs (“The word ‘song’ -shir- is nothing less than the title of the book of Psalms!)” – Maryann McKibben Dana Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4, p270) --I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
I rather like our solemn festival masses, and the beauty and majesty of our music. The sung Psalms—beautiful!! We don’t have a harp, but we do have an organ. Our worship space is a place of sacred beauty. What is Amos telling us?
Well let’s not turn off the lights and go home!
With a little background from the scholars who dig around in such things, we can infer that the people of the northern kingdom could have been celebrating their prosperity by confusing it with God’s providence, in essence saying, “Thank you, God, for making us exceptional.” Or maybe they were saying something like, “Look at how we adore you, God. Look at the lengths we go to worship you!” OR, “Look at the size of the gifts we bring you!” Things were going well for them, and they were resorting to flattery and bribery of God to keep things that way!
To look at the character of God through the whole sweep of the Bible—and that is something we have to remember to do, rather than judging God, and ourselves, by fragments of Scripture—it is sound to say that God isn’t interested in being impressed—He doesn’t need, or want, the flattery of mere mortals, and how can you bribe Someone who is the source of everything?
What God wants is to be in relationship with us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” this is the first and great commandment.” Love is a two-way street; we are to love God because God FIRST loves us—desiring the best for us (which isn’t necessarily always the easiest or the most comfortable). AND he desires that we take seriously our being in relationship with others. “And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In fact, the heart of the “Law” within the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, affirms that to love God is to love others, and that when we love others we are loving God. And when we grasp that God loves us in spite of who we are it is easier to love others. In fact, out of His love for us God will give us the wisdom and the energy to love others. Our love might be, probably will be, imperfect, flawed, and insufficient, but it will give us, and those whom we show love to, a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is, and will someday become.
A prophet like Amos reminds us, however, that God, even though steadfastly loving, can be angry and fed up with us and what we do to others. The people Amos addressed are self-satisfied with their worship rituals: both ceremonies and gift-giving. They are proud of their performance of impressing God even as they ignore the sick, the poor, the vulnerable, and the hungry. Amos tells us, “Don’t be those people!” But he goes on to say, but “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” Justice is more than random acts of kindness. To champion justice, which is basically see that others are treated as we would like to be treated requires more than one on one interaction. In involves such things as who we vote for and the causes we work for.
I like to think, and I’m willing to bet, that those who love to use their gifts of music and ceremony here at 13th and Holmes are not creating music and beauty to impress God, but to celebrate the relationship they have with God, acknowledging His love and presence in their lives. And those of us listening, watching, and participating within our own abilities, as we come together for worship each time we gather in this place, are doing the same.
And furthermore, the gifts we give of time and treasure to support this old church and its traditions, as well as the mission of this parish, diocese, and national church, are truly thank offerings instead of bribes.
That doesn’t mean God is always pleased with us, or sees us as doing all that we can, because most of us probably aren’t. I know I’m not. But, then again, “doing all we can do” is not necessarily what God desires from us. We don’t gather here to get a “to do list,” which would be a “one more thing to do of many” list. Another stone thrown to us when we are trying to swim in the challenges and stress of our lives. What God desires is to allow Him to love us and to love others through us. He will work out the details as we go along. We show up here, not to get a “to do” list, but to be empowered, through worship, prayer, and sacrament, to hear whatever God speaks to us in our hearts and minds about, and follow Him through any door He opens.
And any time we find ourselves patting ourselves on the back for doing that, let’ go back and read Amos!
Today we set aside the Scripture readings appointed for what would otherwise be the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, to remember, to celebrate, to give thanks to God for, the life of, St. Luke the Evangelist, and one of the patron saints of this church. According to Christian tradition, St. Luke was a physician. In those days, physicians were men or women who acquired knowledge of potions and practices that were supposed to cure illness or injury, either from those who practiced those arts, or from their own study of said potions and practices, and the observations they made as they experimented with such methods. Our reading from the Apocrypha today mentions favorably those persons.
However, Luke the Physician, is Saint Luke, not because he was a great physician (though he might have been so), but because he could write! We don’t interrupt our lectionary cycle to celebrate “St. Luke the Physician,” but rather to celebrate, declare a feast day in honor of, St. Luke the Author. More to the point we celebrate the life and influence in Christian tradition of St. Luke the Evangelist, i.e. the “writer of Good News,” the author of a Gospel, “The Good News of Jesus Christ, according to Luke”. He was not an author of fiction, but of history. Think Stephen Ambrose, not Stephen King. He didn’t make stuff up. He researched it and wrote down what he found. The Christian movement, the “Jesus Movement,” was sweeping the Mediterranean, and the leaders of it and those who were eyewitnesses to the life, death, and –amazingly, resurrection!—of the person who started it all, weren’t getting any younger. It was turning the world upside down and Dr. Luke wanted to make sure there was a record of why it was happening. When it was finally published, it was in two volumes. Vol 1, a Gospel, telling the story of one Jesus of Nazareth, and Vol II, a narrative of “The Acts of the Apostles” through the actions of those who birthed what became known as the Early Church.
This is not dry history. Luke could not only research stories, he could tell stories. He wrote in the colloquial Greek, the “universal language” of the time, so that it could be read by about anybody in that part of the world who could read. (Though scholars also note that he could, and did, write in classical Greek as well, as well as the Semitic Greek in which the Jewish Scriptures of the time were translated.) The preface to his Gospel in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, note that he “was a gifted literary artist” that “produced what has been justly described as ‘the most beautiful book in the world.” It is a tapestry of stories. Luke’s Gospel shares stories in common with the other Gospels: Matthew and Mark, and John whose writers also wanted to tell the stories and teachings of Jesus. However, it contains other stories that these Gospels, and The Gospel of John, do not:
For instance, the birth of John the Baptist, the annunciation to Mary, her song in response—the great Magnificat-- and her visit to Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother);
the angels and shepherds of the Nativity;
the story of the priest Simeon when he held the infant Jesus—his response is what we call the Nunc dimittis, “The Song of Simeon”, -“Lord, now letest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen thy salvation”-- found in our services of Evening Prayer and Compline.
In addition, Luke’s Gospel also contains the stories of six miracles and eighteen parables not recorded in the other Gospels, including the parables of “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan.”
He is the only writer to tell the story of the earliest Church, the conversions and missionary journeys of St. Paul, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and examples of the earliest Christian preaching, known as the Apostolic Preaching. Its format could be summarized as “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Sound familiar?
In other words, we would be poorer in our understanding of who we are, or are to be, as Christians and as the Church without these writings of Luke.
As I said, Luke didn’t make this stuff up! It boggles my mind to think of what he might have had to do to find and collect all of these stories, teachings, and parables, from those who were eye-witnesses, and ear-witnesses to Jesus and events within the early Church. He didn’t have the world wide web, he couldn’t Google the information he needed, he couldn’t interview people by Zoom, or even over a phone! There were some common written accounts of Jesus that the writers of Mark and Matthew had access to that were familiar to Luke, as well, though it is doubtful he ever saw either of those finished Gospels in writing. But he had to have done a lot or original research to come up with material unique to his Gospel. I can imagine him haunting local libraries, such as they were, for scrolls containing the DNA of this world-changing movement that he was a part of. Maybe he even had research assistants that went back to Palestine to dig up the information he needed! I can imagine him hanging out with his traveling companions as he followed Paul around the Mediterranean to Rome. Sitting with them at the end of the day, or walking on the road, or sailing on a ship, as they told stories about Jesus that had been passed down to them by an aunt or uncle, or grandfather, or by a friend, or a friend, of a friend. For stories and information were still largely passed on orally in those days. And please note, if you don’t know this already: it was a hallmark of the practice of the oral tradition that the stories and teachings passed on suffered very little from being passed from one person to another over a span of years.
These teachings and stories of Luke, like those of the other Gospel writers, aren’t just dry histories, unlinked to our own time and place. St. Luke knew that these words he had seen and heard and written down had transformed the lives of the people he kept company with, and had transformed his life as well. They had opened him up to “a God whose property is always to have mercy,” who loved His people and His creation so much that He had settled into our midst see us through the eyes of Jesus, a Jewish carpenter in the backwater of the Roman Empire. Luke must have been rendered both heartbroken by the excruciating story of this Jesus’ death and astonished by his mind-blowing resurrection. He had seen the lives of many others changed, given new hope, courage, and purpose by the words said by and about this man who claimed God as His Father. He had seen first-hand the truth of the words written about Jesus and the Holy Spirit confirmed in the self-less and self-giving acts of those who had been transformed by those words both written and spoken to them by others. His life was changed, and he wanted others to experience the same words that had transformed him and took it upon himself to collect all of these stories he could and write them down so that others might be transformed too.
All of the saints we honor as Episcopalian Christians—“The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement” as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it, bear witness to someone who has been changed by these words, whether by reading them, or having someone speak them, or someone who enacted them as someone who accepted them and included them when they were a shunned Prodigal Son or who ministered to them like a Good Samaritan when they lay wounded in one of life’s ditches. And they, in turn, represent countless others through the ages who have been so moved by the stories Luke (and others) told and re-told. For these words have a way of being re-enacted in the actions towards others of those who have heard and been changed by those words. Those persons who founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in 1854, here in Kansas City MO, the forerunner of our present St. Mary’s, were among them!
“Re-enactment” is word often used to refer to a situation in which a time or a situation from the past is acted out, by “re-enactors", as in those who populate a replica of a Colonial village, or an Old West town, or a Civil War army bivouac. It helps us see how “those folks lived.” As part of the modern day “Jesus Movement”, we don’t don bathrobes and sandals and build a first century village for the tourists. We take the Biblical stories and teachings spoken and written millennia ago, and by the timeless power of God, make them come alive in our time and place by our actions towards others in the here and now. That process of passing on to others the love of God that we know, believe, and experience, has a place in our baptismal vows, as the question is asked of us “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
The Good News of Jesus becomes the Mighty Acts of the Apostles because that is the way that God works, and the way that God works through us even today. Here is something for all of us to think about: Are we are here because we once upon a time we read these words of Luke, of Matthew, of John, of St. Paul? Or heard them read by someone. Or had the words unspoken, but rather put into an act of kindness or hope or rescue by someone whose life had been changed and/or molded by these words, then, in turn, passed them. by word or action, on to us, resulting in our own transformation in some degree or another?
This “passing of the Good News” is called “Evangelism,” because Evangel literally means Good News! Unfortunately, it is a word that might have negative associations for us because of certain traditions that self-identify as “evangelicals.”
It might help some of us, therefore, to “re-associate” the word with St. Luke, and his work of gathering stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the mighty acts of God in the early Church, so that they would be remembered, and re-enacted in time of those who heard and read them.
He even tells us a story about Jesus that illustrates this. You heard it this morning.
Jesus begins his formal ministry by showing up in his hometown synagogue, and reading a familiar piece of Scripture by Isaiah. He read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolled up the scroll. He looked at his listeners. They looked at him. Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was fulfilled because he was there to enact it. And, by the power of God, he did.
How might we, in turn, re-enact, this passage from Luke, again by the power of God, in our lives this week, or the next?
Be prepared to find out!
-The Rev. Larry Parrish
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.
Fr. Larry Parrish
Psalm 133 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
These words must have cut like a knife to the heart of the mother who was desperately seeking help for her mentally ill daughter. How her child suffered, tormented by a broken mind. Even worse, her precious child was ostracized by the people of their town. They said she was demon possessed! For a fleeting moment, she had hope. A travelling teacher with a growing reputation as a healer and exorcist had unexpectedly shown up in their village. Maybe he could do something to relieve her daughter’s suffering!
She waited by the roadside with scores of other people as he approached. Finally he was in front of her! She shouted out to him, “My daughter has a demon!” He looked at her, no he looked through her, as if he hadn’t even heard, hadn’t even noticed her. She kept calling out to him, trotting alongside him. She could tell his travelling companions were upset. She could hear them urging him to tell her to get lost.
He stopped, and looking at his companions, said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The frantic mother’s heart sunk a little. She knew he was a Jew. She even intuited that he was someone special within that faith and race. But his words reminded her that she was not of his faith and race. In fact, she was of Canaanite stock, and the Canaanites had been the traditional enemies of Israel—and vice versa—for centuries! Who was she to ask anything of him? But she was a Canaanite mother and her child needed help, and she was not going to be ignored! She forced herself in front of him and knelt down, “Sir. My daughter is mentally ill. Seriously ill. Please help me. Please help her!”
That’s when the traveling preacher said those awful words: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This was much more than a sensible proverb. The imagery was unmistakable. The “children” were the Jewish people. The “food” was whatever the teacher’s mission and gifts were. And she, a Canaanite was one of the “dogs.” It was a terrible, hurtful insult! And the person who hurled it was named Jesus.
You know that there is more to the story. But let’s pause the story right here and do a little soul searching.
Is there any person, or any group of people, any ethnic group, any race, any faith group that you consider lower than a snake’s belly and undeserving of the gifts you have to give or help you have tagged to go only to your “own kind.” That they are,
in your eyes, sub human? Maybe you don’t have such a group, and God bless you for that, but there are folks around who do.
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists erupted in violence, seem to be part of a growing trend whereby folks who have a hatred of Jews and anyone who is non-white are moving out of the shadows of our society where they have dwelt for decades and boldly announcing their hate of anyone who is not like them. They claim membership in the Ku Klux Klan and/or openly adore Nazi principles and history.
How can this be in this time and place? The KKK held sway in the south for a hundred years, killing, beating, torturing, lynching, and generally terrorizing black folks and anyone who would stand up for them. I thought that their excesses of the sixties, with their bombing of churches and the kidnap and murder of white people trying to encourage black people to vote had finally made them persona non grata in our society. Now they seem to be getting a louder voice in the public sphere.
And the neo-Nazis! Didn’t we fight a world war to defeat the Nazi’s and their fanatical efforts to declare a pure race, while murdering millions of Jews and anyone else that tried to stand in their way? How dare the grandchildren of men who fought, and sometimes died fighting, to eliminate Nazis from the earth, openly stand up in public in America today and spew the same rubbish and hate, and ape the same actions, as the Nazis of Adolph Hitler’s Germany?!
Neither of these groups or any of their ilk have any problems identifying who the “dogs” are in their world! Since it isn’t uncommon for white supremacy groups to identify with Christianity or use Christian symbols or language, it is important for us who claim the name of Jesus in our faith to remember, and to tell others, that Christianity does not underwrite, condone or advance the agenda of these groups.
So, back to our story.
The mother might have felt insulted, but she wasn’t deterred. She looked up in Jesus’ eyes and—and I like to imagine there was a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her lips when she replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” I would be willing to bet that Jesus threw back his head and roared with laughter when she said this! And then He said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. So what’s with Jesus’ harsh words to this mother seeking help for her child? Was he serious? Was he just messin’ with her? Was he trying to make a point?
We don’t know what the historical moment looked like. Jesus was God in our shape and form, but as fully human, He was a man of His times, so He could have been serious. What is important is to realize that whether He backed down from the quick witted Canaanite Woman, his mind changed, or set her up to make a point about the Kingdom of God, at that moment, His mission “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” now included the historic enemies of Israel also!
While God started out to bless the entire world through a particular people in a particular place (Abraham and Sarah and their descendants “the children of Israel” and “Israel”, His purpose was, and is, to draw all people into His Kingdom. This doesn’t mean we are all the same, it means that God is about drawing all people to Himself.
Of course, human nature being what it is, within a very short time after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, His followers started seeing themselves as the “children” and their spiritual ancestors, the Jews, the “dogs.” St. Paul had to remind the members of the early churches that just because God, through Jesus, had included them, He hadn’t excluded His “chosen people.” “God has not rejected His people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”
That’s why it absolutely bumfuzzles me why anti-semitism is so stubbornly persistent. God started His work in the world through those who became known as Israel, and while He has expanded that work into other faiths and ethnic groups, He has not condemned or disowned the Jews. They remain the foundation of His work. Judaism is the foundation of our faith and of God’s work among us, as well.
That doesn’t mean that our distinctions as ethnic or faith groups are erased. Those distinctions, those unique qualities of race or faith, are honored by God. In the sayings of Jesus that precede the story we have just walked through, he refers to the Pharisees, good intentioned keepers of the faith, and how they judge people based on certain ritual practices. Jesus said that what is more important than ritual actions are the actions which “come from the heart.” God looks at the heart and the actions that come out of the heart, rather than the distinctiveness of religion or the skin color. Evil actions come from evil hearts. Good actions come from good hearts.
We can’t personally control the actions of those who claim superiority over others because of race or ethnicity. We cannot personally control those who preach hate or sow seeds of discord among people whom God chooses to include in all their diversity as His children. We can resist such evil when we encounter it, however. In the meantime we can guard our hearts from being poisoned by the poison of hate and bigotry and stop the spread of hate and disunity within our own spheres of influence.
What we see in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite mother is the heart of God in Jesus. Through the story we can see the heart of God, the intentions and passion of God, applied to a situation of human disunity. As God was in Jesus, sharing His heart with all of humankind, so through Jesus. we have the heart of God made available to us. All of us.
Through prayer. Through worship. Through acquainting ourselves with Scripture and the vast story of God in relationship with His creation. Through the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Through our encouragement of one another. Let the heart of God beat as one with our hearts.
Lord, turn our hearts towards love and away from hate. Work through our hearts to change the hearts of others in the same way.
Sermon for 5 Easter B
May 1, 2021
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Fr. Larry Parrish
A very wise psychotherapist, that Mary and I had the pleasure of knowing, once said that “neurosis is wanting to be safer than we can possibly be.” I think of his words often, and I have especially thought of them during the past year with all of the environmental, political, and cultural upheaval in our own nation.
Note that he didn’t say that neurosis is wanting to “be safe”. We all want safety and security, even those of us who have our “here, hold my beer” moments. We, most of us anyway, want a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator, the prospect of a paycheck, and the ability to sleep without having to stay alert to danger. Granted, there are many who are denied some, or all, of these basic securities, but it is not unhealthy to want them or even expect them.
We are always going to be confronted by situations that could do everything from upsetting our happiness to killing us, and we do well to recognized real, not imagined, risk and do what we can to mitigate it, while recognizing that it will not be eliminated. It’s something we do every time we drive our cars. It is an inherently dangerous activity, but we mitigate the risks by wearing our seatbelts, practicing good driving habits, and staying alert to hazards, including our fellow drivers, whom we hope are staying alert to us instead of their smart phone screens. Neurosis, on the other hand, is being so afraid of being on the streets and highways that we quit driving.
There is a difference between acceptance of real risks and irrational fear, however. Fear comes from circumstances we cannot control, and, paradoxically, when we try to control those circumstances without clearly understanding them, we end up adding to our fears. Such is the circumstances in our country today. Everything from media ratings to gun sales have been ramped up by those who manipulate our fear(s). Truth is stretched to the breaking point, and often dispensed with all together. Real dangers have been added to, or supplanted, with made up dangers. Critical thinking is replaced by slander.
A good many of the fears stoked today have to do with change. The climate is changing and the demographics of our country are changing and there are those who see these changes as a threat. Persons who are “not like us” are feared, stereotyped to the point of caricature, and even demonized.
This is where our Christian faith comes in, though, it too is often twisted in the service of the fear of others. For as Christians, we are instructed by Scripture, to love one another, NOT fear one another.
John the Evangelist, in his letter to the early Christian communities, and to us, says, “Beloved, let us love one another.” i.e., “You who are loved, love one another.” It is not just an admonition to love others, it is an important action of our faith, and witness to the God we say we believe and trust in. He continues, because love is born of God and knows God.” God is the source of our love, and defines what this love is for those of us who claim to be His followers, and the followers of the One in whom He embodied Himself in the flesh, in our shape and form: Jesus. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Just as God bore witness to Himself to humankind in Jesus –“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world . . .” --so we bear witness to God’s love for everyone through our love for others as a hallmark of being followers of Christ.
This is a good place to think about what this love spoken of in our Epistle today means. I am sure that all of you here have wrestled with the meaning of love defined in and by God and have a perspective. I will share mine, just in case it might be helpful! Of course you know that the word used for love in the New Testament is the Greek Agape, which means something more, and sometimes different, than the kind of love we have for our mother, father, spouse, children, or even our dog or cat! It is a love that doesn’t always grow out of affection, and is often willed in spite of our emotional inclinations of the moment. The best working definition I have found comes from psychiatrist Scott Peck, which he illuminated in a book which was once popular among the much younger selves of us Boomers, The Road Less Traveled. He defines love as “Desiring the Best for Another.” To love someone is to seek the best for them. Not necessarily that which is most pleasing or most comfortable for them, but that which is best for them. That which will make them most whole and most human (my interpretation here). Though not writing as a Christian at the time (he became one later) he gives credit for this concept to the New Testament use of love.
“The Other” can be a “Them or Us”, “Not Like Us”, “Other” that is feared and that we defend ourselves against, even to the point of destruction of the other, or “The Other” can be the one for whom we desire the best for, whether it be physical, circumstantial, economic, emotional, or spiritual health, no matter how “unlike us” they are. We might differ on the definition of “best” in particular circumstances. How it will play out might remain to be seen. It is, however, our starting point and default position as Christians. “The Other” is never the enemy (even when he or she think they are!) they are the object of God’s love, and, therefore, of ours as well.
Or maybe it is better said, “our love is the love of God which comes through us.” For this love does not come naturally to human beings. That is an important point to remember because we can become frustrated and discouraged if we try to generate this love on our own. St. John continues, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
If I might dare critique one of the profound authors within the New Testament, I think he is putting the cart before the horse here. It is because we abide in God that we can love!
If St. John the Epistle author is also St. John the Gospel author, he knows the words of Jesus on the subject. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and us: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” These are words to be taken to heart as Jesus’ 21st century disciples not only as they pertain to our mission to love others, but to anything we undertake in which we seek to know, glorify, and serve God (and others). (To use an image borrowed from a recently read sermon)* The vine does not tell the branches to put grapes on its “to do” list, it just grow grapes! There are decisions we will have to make and commitments we must try to keep in our bearing the fruit that comes from loving others, but first we must remember that we are the branches of the True Vine. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. !!! We abide in Christ through our baptism, prayer, reading and meditating on the teachings and stories of the Bible, gathering together in worship, receiving the Sacrament, and risking love for others.
The story from the reading from Acts today is an example of all of that. Besides, it is too good of a story to not, at least briefly, revisit. Philip, one of the first disciples of Jesus (The story of his call is in the Gospel of John), was someone whom we assume “abided in Christ.” He was there at the table when Jesus gave his “vine and branches” teaching which we received again this afternoon. He was undoubtedly in fellowship with the other disciples and followers of Jesus at the time, meeting with them regularly and eating bread and drinking wine “in His name.” From the story we can see that he was steeped in the Scriptures read by the early church (note: all Old Testament!), and by the teachings of Jesus, interpreted by Peter and other disciples. There must have been some awesome after dinner conversations back then!
In doing all of this, Philip had made himself available to the Holy Spirit, the empowering and equipping Person of his—and our—Three Person God. The story tells of no particular intention of Philip. Just that as he was hanging out one day the Spirit tells him to “Get up and go” to a wilderness road. And as he was standing on that deserted stretch of 1st century highway, a chariot approached and Philip was told to stick out his thumb and get on board. There ensued a conversation with a Bible reading official of a foreign country. This Ethiopian Eunuch has been pictured as someone that good Jews of the time shouldn’t be associated with, his being eunuch and a “foreigner”, though contemporary scholarship disputes that. Whatever the case, he was either a high class outcast, or a person of power and privilege, and Philip was just a plowboy who had happened to hang out with, and continue to hang out with, Jesus. Philip tells him that the Scripture the Eunuch is reading says that God considers him loved and worthy of God’s sacrifice for. Joyfully, he seeks baptism, water is encountered, Philip baptizes him, and he goes “on his way rejoicing.” Next thing you know, Philip was walking through another strange neighborhood “proclaiming the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, commenting on this story, says, “No triumphal, crusading enthusiasm has motivated the church up to this point, no mushy all embracing desire to be inclusive of everyone and everything. Rather, in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people.”**
So shall we. And we will not be afraid.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
*The Rev. Melissa Earley, in Living by the Word for Easter 5B, The Christian Century, online.
**William H. Willimon, Interpretation Commentary on Acts, p.72
You can listen to Fr. Larry Parrish's sermon here!
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.