Monday, June 19, 2023

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Laughing at God," Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Proper 6, Ordinary 11)

 Sermon 6/18/23

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Laughing at God

I had the opportunity to see again recently a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of my favorites of his works. Some of you might remember that my brother Todd specializes in classical acting (although he now is a professor of acting and teaches and directs more than he acts) - his focus and love is the work of Shakespeare, and so I’ve seen him in a number of productions over the years, including more than one production of Macbeth. I’ve always loved it. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the plot, but the gist is this (and sorry for the spoiler alert if you haven’t seen or read it yet, but it’s been out for a while now!): Macbeth is a leader who is given more power and authority by his king. His wife, creatively named Lady Macbeth, is eager for him to get even more power and position. Macbeth happens upon some witches who give him a prophecy that Macbeth will in fact become king, though his friend Banquo will be the father of kings. And on receiving this prophecy, rather than waiting to see how things will unfold, Macbeth and his wife scheme to make the part of the prophecy they want to come true come true faster - like right now - and scheme to avoid the parts of the prophecy they don’t like - even if they must murder friends and allies to make it so. They manipulate, they scheme, they plan, in order to claim what was told to them. Of course, Macbeth is a tragedy, so suffice it to say it doesn’t end well for the Macbeths. 

Maybe the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible isn’t quite the tragedy of Macbeth, but I couldn’t help but have Macbeth on my mind this week as I was reading our text from Genesis. Our reading this week begins with God appearing to Abraham in the form of three visitors who come to the tents of Abraham and his family. In Abraham’s culture, hospitality and God’s presence are closely tied together, and so we see Abraham going out of his way to welcome these unexpected guests. They are given water, bread made with choice flour, a meal of meat and curds and milk, food washing, rest. 

After a bit, the visitors ask after Sarah, and one of them says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Now, Sarah and Abraham are advanced in years by this time, and Sarah being pregnant seems impossible - she’s reached menopause already. Sarah, who is just outside the tent listening when the visitors make their pronouncement, laughs at the ridiculousness of such a claim. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” God - in the form of one of these visitors - the details get a little blurry here - seems a bit taken aback that Sarah would laugh. “Why would she laugh?” God wonders. “Is anything too wonderful for God? I’ll return at the right time, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah, now anxious and afraid  that she’s offended God, denies laughing, but in a strange back and forth, God insists that she did. The end of our reading skips forward in time. We read that God dealt with Sarah just as God had said. Sarah has a child, named Isaac - meaning, “one of laughs.” And Sarah reflects, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 

Ok, maybe this doesn’t sound a lot like Macbeth. But there’s a connection, I promise. In our passage today, we get plopped into the middle of a larger story. Way back in Chapter 12 of Genesis, God first calls Abraham, then known as Abram. We actually looked at this passage together back in early spring. God says, “Go to this new place I’m leading you to, and I will make you a great nation. I will bless you, and make your name great.” Abraham goes, but the journey is meandering, with years long detours. Along the way, though, God repeats the promise: I will give you this land, you and your offspring, and your offspring will be as numerous as the specks of dust that make up the earth. 

Eventually, though, Abraham gets impatient. God says Abraham will have a great reward, but Abraham is skeptical: “God, what will you give me? For I continue childless. I have no heir, no offspring. One of my slaves will inherit all I have.” But God repeats the promises already made: “Look at the stars - your descendents will be just as numerous.” And still more time passes. 

Finally, Sarah is out of patience. God’s made a promise, and Sarah is ready to make the promise happen. She does not seem to be getting pregnant, so she will find another way to make sure Abraham has an heir. She gives Abraham her slave, Hagar, an Egyptian woman, and says he should have a child by her. (Hagar, enslaved, has no say here.) Sarah’s plan works, and Hagar becomes pregnant. But Sarah seems to immediately regret her decision, because Hagar is now looking at Sarah with contempt. Sarah complains to Abraham, she treats Hagar badly, Hagar runs away, and in the wilderness Hagar encounters God and is folded into God’s promises. Hagar’s child Ishmael is born. 

Again though, God reminds Abraham of God’s promises to him and his family, this time specifically naming Sarah: “Sarah will give rise to nations” God says. Abraham is skeptical, but God says that within a year, Sarah will deliver a son named Issac. It is after all of this that we finally get to chapter 18, where our text from today begins. 

So, maybe now you see a bit of the Macbeth connection. No, Sarah and Abraham don’t set out on a murderous rampage to receive what they’ve been promised. But they do engage in attempts to bring about God’s plans and promises in a way and on a schedule that works better for them than it seems to for God. And whenever they try to control the path of God’s promises, things do not go as they’ve anticipated, causing sometimes more harm than good. 

It could be easy for us to blame Sarah and Abraham for their lack of trust in God’s promises, for their constant need for reassurance and reiteration, for Sarah’s plans to get Abraham the heirs he needs. But I can’t help but especially feel some pity for Sarah, and the ways in which she’s been kind of a pawn in all the events that unfold. For example, along the way to receiving God’s promises, Abraham twice denies that Sarah is his wife when they’re visiting other communities. Abraham is worried that because of Sarah’s beauty, he’ll be killed by the leaders of the foreign lands he visits, so that they can take his wife. So instead, he just kinds of hands her over, calling her his sister. (She is, in fact, his half sister - an allowable relationship for marriage at the time.) So Sarah has to endure being given over to strange men in strange places, separated from her husband, without any voice in the matter. She also has to bear the burden of her seeming infertility, something that was considered entirely the woman’s fault in ancient culture. She treats Hagar with cruelty - but Sarah has learned that women have few or no choices about their own lives, and so it is perhaps not surprising that she treats Hagar this way - the only person over whom Sarah has any power. No wonder Sarah tries to shape God’s promises into her own timeline, by her own methods! And no wonder she laughs at God’s outrageous plans. Wouldn’t you laugh at the sheer impossibility? 

Here’s the thing though - even though God seems confused by Sarah’s laughter, God isn’t angry. Instead, God is just faithful. God deals with Sarah just as God said, just as God promised. That’s what God does. And Sarah is still laughing - but the laughter of skepticism, discomfort, and doubt has turned into the laughter of joy. 

Friends, I think we are all like Sarah sometimes. Hopefully not like the Macbeths, but definitely a little like Sarah. Skeptical that the joy God promises could be for us. Impatient with God’s timing. Trying so hard to force outcomes that we’re sure will bring us happiness. Frustrated when things don’t unfold according to our plans yet again. Laughing that God has the audacity to promise us such impossible things. 

But here’s the good news. When we doubt, God reminds. From God’s initial call to Abraham, to the time Isaac is born, God repeatedly demonstrates to Abraham and Sarah that the promise still stands, that God remembers, that they are still God’s people, that God still has blessings in store. God is so patient with them. God is so patient with us. And maybe we can learn to be patient with God, letting ourselves laugh in wonder at the amazing ideas God comes up with, and laughing some more when God’s dreams bear fruit. 

“God has brought laughter for me,” Sarah says, “and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” May God bring laughter to us, too, as God’s faithfulness fills our hearts with joy. Amen. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Mercy and Sacrifice," Psalm 50:7-15, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 (Proper 5/Ordinary 10)

Sermon 6/11/23

Psalm 50:7-15, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Mercy and Sacrifice

A few weeks ago, just before I came to Central New York for the summer, I packed up my apartment in New Jersey and moved from one town to another. Not a huge move - just about 15 minutes away. And not a huge amount of things - I moved in with other PhD students, so other than my bedroom furniture, I didn’t have much I needed to bring. As far as moves go, since I have moved so many times as an itinerant pastor and often moved from one five bedroom parsonage to another, this one was pretty simple. Except… as a PhD student, I have to move “student-style,” finding a truck and getting some friends who are willing to help for the reward of my thanks and some pizza for lunch. And, except - I was moving from a second floor apartment, requiring a lot of up and down stairs. And, except this: both of my knees need replacing. They’ve been deteriorating for years, and now they’re down to bone on bone, and walking is painful enough but stairs are even harder, and stairs while carrying heavy things are near impossible. Thankfully, I have good friends. But on moving day, I had to basically sit and watch while they did all of the work of loading and unloading my things, taking trip after trip up and down the stairs at my old place, on what was of course the hottest day of that week. And while that might sound great - sitting back and watching others do the hard work - I suspect for most of us, actually, being helped, while we can’t contribute anything, is more stressful than not. I spent a lot of the day feeling guilty, frustrated, and helpless, wishing I could help, wishing things were different. My helpers? They weren’t doing anything to make me feel guilty. They were thoughtful, appreciative of the lunch I bought, efficient, and done and moved on, while I was still wrestling with how much I hated having to rely on them to get the job done. 

You’ve probably heard the expression: it’s more blessed to give than receive. And I think most of us find that to be the case. We love giving to others. It brings us a lot of joy, doesn’t it, giving? Being able to lift others up through our actions? But being able to receive, graciously, thankfully, when we’re in a place of need and someone else can meet our need that we can’t do ourselves? I think receiving is actually harder than it looks. Maybe it’s fine on Christmas, on birthdays, on occasions where being the recipient of gifts is expected. But outside of that? Where we are receiving not even gifts but “help”? Mostly, I think we really chafe against needing help. I think many of us would do just about anything to avoid appearing helpless, being helpless. 

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week as I read our gospel lesson. Our gospel lesson from Mathew is really three stories in one. In the first part, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him. Matthew does, immediately. Jesus is then eating dinner - perhaps at Matthew’s house? - and there are many other “tax-collectors and sinners” joining in the meal. Then the Pharisees - the religious leaders of the community - discover who has been at this gathering, they criticize Jesus to his disciples, that he eats with what they consider unfit company. Jesus overhears and says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,”” paraphrasing from the prophet Hosea. He continues, “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Then we skip ahead a bit into what might seem to be two unrelated healing stories, both of which you might be familiar with. First, Jesus gets a message from a leader of the community that his daughter has died, but asking Jesus to come and lay hands on her, trusting that the girl will live. On the way to the leader’s house, Jesus is approached by a woman who has been suffering with hemorrhages for over a decade. And she’s confident that if she can just touch Jesus, even his cloak, she will be healed. Jesus takes notice of her right away, saying to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,” and indeed, she has been made well. Finally, Jesus gets to the leader’s house and finds everyone in the household already in mourning over the daughter who has died. Jesus sends them all away, insisting the girl is only sleeping. Everyone laughs - the girl is clearly dead! But when the crowd of mourners leave, Jesus takes the girl by the hand, and she gets up, alive and well. Our text closes with Matthew reporting that news of these events spread quickly throughout the region. 

I desire mercy, not sacrifice, Jesus says. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners. What does Jesus mean? Righteousness, after all, means something like being in “right relationship” with God and one another. And it seems, throughout the scriptures, that God very much does long for us to be in right relationships, just relationships. Isn’t that what God wants? isn’t our journey of discipleship about just that - learning how to set right our relationships with God and one another? And, what does it mean that God desires mercy? I understand that God is merciful - compassionate and forgiving. But how do mercy, sacrifice, righteousness, and sinfulness relate? I can’t think Jesus means that we have to relish our sinfulness so that God has more opportunity to show us mercy. I don’t think that Jesus wants us to pretend to be in need of help so that God can get the joy of rescuing us. So what does Jesus mean? 

I think first - and this is a hard one - first, God’s primary audience is not always us. Sometimes we’re like the lost sheep - but sometimes, especially if we’ve been on the path of discipleship for a long time, seeking to grow deeper and deeper in our faith - we’re just one of the sheep who is safe in the pasture. God’s priority is the sheep who is lost. And we can be jealous that God is tending to the lost sheep, or we can be thankful that we’re already safe and sound. 

As for righteousness? Well: like everything else we might come to have, it is a gift of God. If we learn to grow in discipleship, and set right all our relationships, it is through drawing on God’s strength, embracing God’s grace, and imitating God’s love. When we start believing righteousness is something we’ve achieved by our own efforts, that’s self-righteousness, and self-righteousness is pretty far from God’s intent for us. Being in right relationship with God and others isn’t a destination we can reach and just settle at. It’s a practice, a discipline, something that we grow in with God’s help. 

And there it is: God’s help. Friends - we need God’s help, always. We stand in need of God’s mercy, always. Rather than this gospel being some strange suggestion that we have make ourselves appear to be in a position of needing mercy in order for us to get God’s attention, we need to recognize that we’re already there. We are in need of God’s help. We need God’s mercy. We do sin. We are broken. We do turn away from God. We do fail to live in right relationships. We can’t do it by ourselves. We need God’s help. Unfortunately, our culture is full of really destructive messages about being in need of mercy, about needing help. Our society implies that if you need help, especially too much help, or for too often, or for too long, you are weak, you’re wrong, you’re less than. Instead, we cultivate this myth of self-made people who’ve pulled themselves up by their own power and strength, no help needed. 

When I look at the vignettes in our scripture today, I see stories of people who knew that they needed help/ Matthew, the unnamed sinners and tax collectors, the leader seeking help for his daughter, the woman Jesus healed - they needed help, and they knew it, and they weren’t afraid to accept the help Jesus offered them. Can we be vulnerable enough to know that we need help, and to accept the help that Jesus offers? Can we recognize our own failings, and receive mercy from God who is ever-ready to offer it to us? It’s not that God isn’t interested in righteousness. I think, rather, it’s that our ability to claim the label “righteous” isn’t the standard for entry into God’s reign that we think it is. Rather, God wonders, how receptive are we to receiving God’s grace and mercy? How ready are we to receive all that God wants to give us? I think, friends, that part of our readiness to receive from God includes letting others receive mercy and grace without judgment from us. Those who received healing, welcome, and a calling from Jesus in our text from today: they demonstrate to us the incredible vulnerability of being able accept God’s mercy. God wants to be merciful to us too. God wants to help us, because we need it. May we open our hands and our hearts, ready to receive what we need. Amen. 

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year A, "God in Community, Holy in One," 2 Corinthians 13:1-13, Matthew 28:16-20

 Sermon 6/4/23

2 Corinthians 13:1-3, Matthew 28:16-20

God in Community, Holy in One

I was torn between directions for my sermon when I picked our hymns for today. They mostly focus on our text from Matthew and the Great Commission and what it means, but I’ll have to save those thoughts for another sermon, because I just couldn’t stop thinking about the Trinity on this Trinity Sunday, and what I might say about this most unique aspect of Christianity. Our scripture texts are chosen in the lectionary because they both use a Trinitarian formula - “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” naming the three persons of the Trinity. Last week, as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, I mentioned that I find the Holy Spirit to be a little weird. Well: the Trinity? Definitely also weird. And it’s not just me who thinks so. Our conception of God as a Trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Parent/Child/Spirit, however we phrase it, our Christian understanding of God as Three Persons/One God: Well, of all of the many things that set religious traditions apart from each other, we can find common ground in so many ways. But the Trinity? It’s rather unique. Most Christians understand ourselves to be monotheistic - in other words, believing in one and only one God. But from the outside, people from other religious traditions hear this idea of the Trinity - that Jesus is also Divine, God in the flesh, that the Holy Spirit is also God - and declare that you can’t be Trinitarian - believing in a three-in-one kind of God, and still be monotheists, believing in one God without quite so many layers, or personalities, or complications. 

And indeed - there are lots of reasons for those who are not Christian to be confused by the Trinity, because, honestly, we Christians are confused by the Trinity, sometimes without even realizing it. First: The word Trinity? It never appears anywhere in the Bible. The Bible says a lot of things about the nature of God, about who God is and gives us ideas about how to describe God from titles to descriptions of God’s character. And we learn a lot from the scriptures about Jesus and his relationship to God, and as we discussed last week, we get a lot of descriptions of the Spirit and what the Spirit does, and the sense that the Spirit is of God, is in Christ, is sent by God, by Jesus, to be with us. And yet, despite all this, nowhere does the Bible say: Hey, God is a Trinity, a Three-in-One deal.   

So where do we get the notion of Trinity from? It’s an extrapolation. In other words, it’s a conclusion we reach by taking all the witness of the scriptures and trying to figure out what they’re telling us about God. Even though the word “Trinity” isn’t there, the early church leaders came to understand “Trinity” as the best way to describe God and the relationship between God who creates, who is the divine parent of Jesus and humanity, and Jesus who is the Christ, God-with-us, God in the flesh, and God’s Holy Spirit, sent through the ages to fill the hearts of God’s servants. It wasn’t exactly a simple and smooth process, though, coming to understand God as Trinity through the witness of the scriptures …

I remember that during my church history class in seminary we spent a lot of time talking about what can loosely be called the Trinitarian controversies - a variety of arguments about exactly what the Trinity is. Church leaders debated these fiercely contested questions at church councils, and there were strong “parties” that supported certain views. One party, for example, thought that any concept of Trinity would need to show that Jesus, the Son, was not comparable to God the father. But another group wanted to insist, with a very specific Greek word configuration, that God the father and God the son were “like according to substance,” even though this is never clearly stated in the scriptures anywhere. Even still, this same group who wanted to emphasize the divinity of Jesus also wanted to make it clear that only the Christ person of the Trinity was incarnate, enfleshed. God the Father does not suffer death on the cross, only Jesus the Christ, even though the Christ is one person of the Trinity. Another debate was over whether Christ was “begotten” or “made” – created by God, or existing with God in the beginning in a way different from the creation of human beings. Another debate questioned whether or not the fully human person of Jesus Christ was part of the Trinity, or just the divine Son. And they questioned what to do with that strange Holy Spirit thing, perhaps like we do today. They wanted to know if the Holy Spirit came from God the Father directly, or from the Father and the Son together. 

All these details they eventually hammered out, though not always - not usually actually - in a friendly way, not always without labeling each other as heretics and running anyone who disagreed out of the church. Today, though, most of us, if trying to describe the Trinity? We’re (unintentionally) heretics too. All of the metaphors we have for describing the Trinity? For example, any Children’s Sermons you might have seen trying to teach kids about the Trinity that talk about the petals of a clover, or about how steam and water and ice are all forms of the same thing, or about how a person can be a parent and child and an aunt and a sister all at the same time while still being the same person - basically every one of those explanations is a form of modalism - our one God shows up in three different modes - a heresy rejected by the early church. I think fondly of one woman from my last appointment in Gouverneur - I shared with a Bible study group our tendency towards being heretics about the Trinity - and she was always trying to come up with an example that would be theologically correct according to our ancient predecessors. And every time, I’d have to tell her: Nope, that’s still modalism!  We worship one God, three person. God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But the Father is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Spirit. But The Father is God. The Son is God, the Spirit is God. And they are three-in-one, One God. Simple? Not exactly. So, most of us are unintentional heretics. The Trinity is a central doctrine of Christianity, but most of us can only explain what it means in ways that have been, technically, deemed theologically incorrect. And if, then, most of us can’t even rightly say what the Trinity is, does the Trinity matter

Of course, I think it does. Here’s why. I think the Trinity - and the history of debates, sometimes painful debates about the Trinity - help us wrestle with whether our notion of God is limited or expansive. We may not be participants in the church councils of the early church.  But I think we do often engage in the same behavior as those folks did – we’d really like to get a fix on God if we can. We’re always trying to define God, define our faith, define a set of rules for our life with God. It’s a reasonable urge – we want to know our Creator better, we want to know who this Being is who gives us life and who we gather to worship. We want to know who this God is that makes us and shapes us and calls us to do all of these things that are so difficult and challenging and frustrating. We want to know better who it is who gives us love and grace and calls us children, as we call this Being a divine parent. It’s good and natural to want to know this God with whom we’re in relationship. But sometimes we cross a line, where we go from wanting to know God better out of a desire for relationship, to wanting to know God so that we can contain and control God. After all, if we can control God, perhaps we can limit God’s control on us, and not feel so obligated to follow all of those pesky commands about loving our neighbors and enemies, about giving away all of our stuff, about following wherever we’re led.

But instead of seeing the Trinity as a way to contain God, I think the Trinity is meant to help us understand how expansive our God is, how beyond the scope of our human limitations. I remember when I was a young child, my dearest friend, Krissy, who of course also went to church with me, was working on a project. She was searching through the Bible, looking for all of the different names of God, making a list. Of course, these days, we could quickly grab that information online. But she was doing it by hand, marveling at so many different ways God is named, described, so many ways God is revealed to us. The Trinity helps us understand a God who is expansive and dynamic, who contains relationship right within God’s own self, even as God calls us towards deeper relationships with God and with one another and with all of creation. God models in God’s very own being how God wants us to live with one another. I especially love the description used by Rev. Thom Shuman, whose liturgies I have often used. He calls the Trinity “God in Community, Holy in One.” I really love that. 

Our God is not only our Creator, but also one who is willing to come and be with us in human form, to take on all that it means to be a human on earth. And God is not only one who does those things, but also one who is willing to dwell within us, to live in our hearts, and so guide our lives right from within the very core of our beings. This is a God who will seek us out for relationships in any way possible, so desirous is God of being a part of who we are, and having us be part of who God is. Our God is persistent, asking again and again, to be let into our lives. Our God is creative, meeting us where we’re least expecting to find God. And our God is pervasive, permeating every part of our existence. That’s the Trinity, even if it’s not a very defined definition. Indeed, it seems some of the very best things in the world are the ones we are least able to put into clear words, concise definitions. For all of the writings we have, movies and poems and books and classes that talk about love, for example, it’s very hard to “define” love. But that doesn’t reduce love’s power or potency, or our desire to give and receive love in our lives. Love seems to be something you have to simply experience to know. Perhaps it is the same with this God who is God in Community and Holy in One. Hard to define, but worth all the conversation. Easier to experience God – the best way we can go about knowing God. 

I’ll probably never be able to describe the Trinity perfectly without being a little bit of a heretic modalist. But what’s better is that I can be in relationship with the Trinity, and learn to be in relationship with others because of this expansive God who knows me and seeks relationship with me and with you. God who creates us and parents us so well. God who lives among us and walks beside us. God who dwells within us, as close as our breath. God in Community, and Holy in One. Let’s give thanks for this mysterious God who defies our definitions, who exceeds our expectations, and who loves us without limits. Amen. 

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...