Grace Presbyterian Church
February 16, 2020, Epiphany 6A
I Belong To…
If, back in the 1980s or 90s, I had mentioned to you Thomas Road Baptist Church, you might have looked at me blankly. If I had then added that the church in question was in Lynchburg, Virginia, you might have wondered why I was bringing it up. But if I had mentioned the name of its pastor, you’d likely have experienced a jolt of recognition. Of course, the pastor of that church back then was Jerry Falwell.
This is actually not that uncommon a thing. There are some churches which, whether unintentionally or by their own doing, become so heavily and pervasively identified with their pastor that they almost lose any sense of their own identity. At best such an identity obscures the work that the people of the congregation actually do for themselves; at worst the church becomes little more than a personality cult, all power and decision-making centered solely in the man in charge (and it almost always is a man in such cases) and with the congregation devolved into nothing but devoted, passionate, and maybe sometimes obnoxious followers.
Needless to say, that’s not a good situation. Nor, apparently, is it a new one, if we might guess from the reading this morning from Paul’s first letter to Corinth. While the setting of the Corinthian church is rather different from its modern counterparts, Paul’s lessons to them are still applicable as the church collectively or individually seeks to follow Christ’s teaching and example more closely and bear truthful witness to the good news. So what exactly is going on in Corinth that gets Paul so agitated, and who is this Apollos fellow anyway?
This chapter three opening is actually the culmination of an argument that Paul has been developing for the whole letter so far, going all the way back to 1:10 and its instruction to the Corinthians “that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” It turns out that Paul’s been hearing from some of his contacts that the Corinthians have been “taking sides” and showing favoritism for one or another of the particular leaders that have been involved in some way with the founding and nurturing of the church there.
Paul had, in his many travels, played a large role in the establishing of the church in Corinth. Apollos, on the other hand, had come through Corinth later, and been an important figure in the growth of that church from those initial roots. Apollos first appears in Acts 18, showing up in Ephesus as a Jewish-born believer who had been instructed well in the Way of the Lord, if not quite completely. The evangelists Priscilla and Aquila took him under their collective wing for some continuing education, and thereafter he continued his travels with the endorsement of the believers in Ephesus, traveling to Corinth to pick up after Paul when Paul moved on to Ephesus.
So Paul and Apollos both had clear connections to the church in Corinth, but their names weren’t the only ones being tossed around in the division of that church. Back in 1:12, while some were saying “I belong to Paul” and others “I belong to Apollos,” there was also a faction making the claim “I belong to Cephas.” It’s not necessarily clear why Cephas (the fellow we know as Simon Peter, or “Rocky”) would come up here, but he apparently (and quite unwittingly) has his own faction in the Corinthian congregation attaching themselves to him above others.
To be clear, there is absolutely no indication that any of these individuals have done anything to cultivate these cult followings, aside from, well, doing their jobs. The taking-sides game is strictly an invention of the Corinthians themselves. Certainly leaders have been guilty of fomenting division and cultivating particular followings at various times in the church’s history, but there’s no indication at all that anything like that is going on here.
On a human level, one could point to reasons for different members to admire each of these individuals. Paul was the founder. His preaching and instruction was a key factor in the church finding its footing in Corinth, a challenging city in its cosmopolitan and somewhat elitist way for a fledgling group of believers in a foreign deity to get its act together. If Paul planted the church, as he describes in 3:6, then Apollos was the one who watered the newly-planted church, following Paul’s work with the ongoing work of teaching and encouraging. Also, pretty much all the descriptions of Apollos make much of his rhetorical eloquence and prowess at debating. He was probably a handsome fellow too, in contrast to the likely short, unimpressive, and maybe even funny-looking Paul.
To be clear, neither Paul nor Apollos was a “pastor” to the congregation in the modern sense of the word; both were itinerant preacher-evangelists, traveling from city to city, sometimes to plant new churches and sometimes to encourage or support existing ones. It’s not clear that Peter even visited Corinth (though it is possible), but in contrast to Paul and Apollos he was one of the Twelve, one of the original followers of and eyewitnesses to Jesus, which would carry its own particular appeal. He had also been first among those twelve to recognize and speak up for God’s obvious welcome to Gentile believers after his encounter with the Gentile military man Cornelius and his family (Acts 10). Again, on a human basis, there were reasons to prefer each one.
But there was one more factional claim. Beyond “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” Paul’s sources were also hearing “I belong to Christ.” But really, what’s the problem with that? Isn’t that, you know, the right answer?
Well, it depends on how you say it. You know how some people can say things that are absolutely true and correct and right, but say them in a way that makes you seriously consider a life of evil just because of how they say it? There’s a big difference between “I belong to Christ” and “I belong to Christ,” and the Corinthians were all about the smug self-righteousness of the latter.
Having thus laid out his complaint against the Corinthians, Paul seems to go off on a different subject in the rest of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2. In one of the most striking passages in all of Paul’s writing, he draws in sharp relief a contrast between worldly wisdom and the foolishness-but-really-wisdom of God exemplified in the crucified Christ – “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23). Paul continues to explore this contrast between worldly wisdom and divine wisdom, wisdom that the world simply cannot understand or comprehend. Only those who are themselves tied to Christ, whose wisdom is subsumed to the wisdom of God, can begin to understand.
Now when chapter 3 opens with our reading today, Paul’s listeners and readers were probably caught off guard when he started talking about them as not spiritual people, but “infants in Christ,” having to be fed with milk instead of solid food. But the hammer drops in verses 3-4:
…for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?
Remember how I kept saying that one could understand how the Corinthians might be inclined to be a Paul fan or an Apollos follower “on a human level” or “on a human basis”? It turns out that this is exactly the problem. Preferring Paul or Apollos or Peter on any of these bases – Paul’s primacy as founder, Apollos’s charisma and eloquence, Peter’s high status – is no more spiritual or Christlike than the average debate y’all Gator fan types might have over whether Steve Spurrier or Danny Wuerfel or Tim Tebow is the best quarterback in UF history (and if your mind immediately went off debating that question, it’s kinda proving Paul’s point about how ‘human’ such thoughts are).
But this cheerleading and side-taking is off the mark not necessarily for the reason you might think. It’s less about Paul or Apollos being equally important so much as their being equally unimportant, in a way; as Paul puts it, he planted the plant and Apollos watered it, but only God caused the plant to grow.
The leaders of churches – whether the itinerant evangelist/teacher types of Paul’s and Apollos’s time or the more settled pastors of today – are nothing but servants, laborers in God’s field, the church, this church. As Paul puts it, “you are God’s field, God’s building.” Rick Palmer and other pastors who came before me here had their tasks in this field or on this building as given by God; I have mine; and whoever comes after me will have hers or his. None of us can claim to be more or less important in God’s eyes than any of the others. If anything, we are all flawed and fallible human beings – goodness, I know I am. Anyone who gets to cheerleading for Charles Freeman is inevitably – and probably quickly – going to be deeply disappointed.
No, I’m not significant, and neither is Rick Palmer [note: immediate predecessor] or Henry Reaves [note: first pastor] or any of the other distinguished pastors who have occupied this pulpit. The only one worthy of your allegiance is God and God alone. We are all laborers on this task, nothing more. God is the one to whom your allegiance is owed, not any one of us nor any to come.
You’ll find that not all branches of the church are terribly good at remembering this. Thomas Road Baptist Church – you remember, Jerry Falwell’s church – is far from the only one to get utterly subsumed under its pastor’s identity. You may not know the name Marble Collegiate Church, for example, but you probably have at least heard the name Norman Vincent Peale. No matter how good (or otherwise) the work of the super-famous pastor may be, such an identity isn’t really helpful in that it obscures both the congregation that is God’s field or God’s building, and the God who (if the church is doing it right) is the one giving whatever spiritual growth may happen there (and remember never to assume that numerical growth and spiritual growth are the same thing).
In short, a pastor like me, like Paul and Apollos before, is only the hired hand, the field laborer, the construction guy working to shore up the foundation of the building. No more than that. You are God’s field, you are God’s building. But it is God and only God who gives any growth to the church. Never let any personality distract you from that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #61, Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect; #63, The Lord Is God; #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 9, 2020, Epiphany 5A
One of the things that has changed about my life in the months since my surgery back in May is that I frequently react to the taste of food differently than before. Don’t get me wrong; if something I really enjoy ends up going from my fork or spoon to my mouth – a really good piece of fried chicken, say, or some lima beans cooked juuuust right – then I’m still going to react with a great deal of pleasure. (On the other hand, if, say, some kind of spinach and kale soufflé ends up in my mouth I’m going to react … differently.)
Now, however, there’s often if not always a parallel reaction. While I’m mostly recovering from that surgery, my internal systems are still a bit extra-sensitive about foods at times, whether the particular kind of food or how much is coming at once. It takes less than it used to to set off a severe upset reaction in my digestive system, the kind of thing that can be dealt with only by going home (if I’m not already there) and waiting it out. It happens less often than it used to, but it does happen.
This ongoing struggle of discernment, I kid you not, got mixed up with today’s scripture from Matthew in my mind this week, one in which I had the opportunity to try some foods I don’t normally get to try. With Jesus’s words in verse 13 rattling around in my brain and a lot of different tastes rolling around on my tongue, I became almost hyper-aware about the presence of salt in my food.
This isn’t to say that everything tasted salty; on the contrary, both the presence and absence of salt became things I noticed to an extra degree. Early in the week it became painfully obvious that a casserole I had tried to make while Julia was away last weekend was simply inedible without committing what to me seems like a horrific culinary crime: picking up a shaker and adding salt to it <shudder>. That’s just not something I do if I can possibly avoid it. On the other hand later in the week I got to enjoy a wonderful roasted chicken dish, but the accompaniments to the chicken almost make my mouth pucker with saltiness – again, not a reaction I normally have. If you’re like me, salt is one of those things you just don’t notice or think about much until it becomes, by excess or lack, impossible not to notice.
Salt hasn’t always been that way – easily forgotten or overlooked. Indeed, salt has an extensive history of being valued and sought out (so much so that it has been used as currency at times); it has been treasured and even fought over. The pursuit of salt drove the development of trade routes in the ancient world, and cities developed due to proximity to the precious mineral. All of this over a rock that we eat.
Part of this storied history is bound up in the fact that salt was for many peoples over many centuries far more than the white processed stuff we keep in a shaker on the table. Even more than a flavorer of food, salt was a preserver of food – food was impossible to keep or store without the use of salt. Salt was, in some cases, regarded as a means of treating the soil, as Jesus seems to suggest in Luke’s version of this teaching in 14:34-35. (This one seems odd, as for us moderns salt is mostly toxic to our carefully manicured lawns, but maybe that’s less of a problem in a more arid region.)
In short, for Jesus to bring up salt, and to do so this early – in what might be thought of as part two of the Teacher’s first public lecture – is to tap into a familiar and highly valued substance with which pretty much everybody among the disciples and in the crowd was most likely to be familiar, and to do so directly: “You are the salt of the earth.”
Given how many different uses salt had in that world, it’s possible that listeners attached a variety of different meanings to Jesus’s statement. Whatever those meanings might have been, though, they likely had in common the idea that salt somehow improved the thing to which it was added. Food that was salted tasted better, and quite possibly was even edible because of the preservative properties of salt. Salt was a good thing to be, and Jesus is making a direct statement – not a command or an exhortation, just a statement; “You are the salt of the earth.” Not “you will be” or “go be,” “you are.” Declarative statement, simple as that.
But then Jesus continues, “but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Um, maybe I’m just naïve, but can salt really lose its saltiness? I’ve never experienced un-salty salt.
A few possibilities come up here. In the ancient world, the purity of salt couldn’t be guaranteed the way we can expect the salt we get at the supermarket to be, well, salt. A salt tinged with impurities might well be able to lose its flavor, as well as its preservative ability. The only thing to do with it is to toss it out.
The biblical scholar and author of the Cotton Patch Gospel versions of scripture Clarence Jordan took a different spin on the text, offering in his Cotton Patch version of Matthew this rendering: “You all are the world’s salt. But now if you just sit there and don’t salt, how will the world ever get salted?” There’s something to that. No matter how salty your salt is, it can’t “be salt” until it comes out of its container and is put to use. The salt truly is useless as long as it isn’t used.
It’s also noting that the Greek word involved here doesn’t normally refer to salt losing its saltiness – that meaning is far down the list of the word’s meanings. The Greek word moranthe (μορανθε) has as its principal meaning “to be foolish” or “to make foolish.” Now this feels like something, maybe the thing Clarence Jordan was tapping into. Foolishness isn’t a good witness. It is a witness, just not a good one (remember, Jesus said “you are the salt of the earth,” but he didn’t necessarily say we were good salt).
Let’s put this bluntly; over the centuries the witness of the church, ancient and modern, local or grand and worldwide, has been tinged with more than its share of foolishness, or worse. The church has engaged in crusades and inquisitions and witch hunts; it has thrown its weight behind merciless tyrants and corrupt dictators, sometimes even enabling the ascent of such tyrants and dictators; it has practiced ruthless intimidation and harassment against its own, and radical exclusion of the world around us – all of whom God claims as God’s own; it has interpreted scripture foolishly and wielded the gospel of peace as a weapon of hatred. At such times one is almost tempted to say that the church has been something much more harmful and corrosive than “salt of the earth,” maybe something more like arsenic – at minimum the worthless salt that gets tossed out.
We, the church, are bearing witness – sometimes awful, sometimes wonderful, and often somewhere in between. One of the most disappointing witnesses the church sometimes gives is the witness of its absence. When we fail to reach out to minister to “the least of these,” when we fail to call out injustice and wrongdoing in the world (or worse, endorse it for our own gain), when we get all withdrawn inside our own four walls and fail to be in the world even though not of it, we are bearing witness. Again, it’s not necessarily a good witness, but a witness nonetheless. Being stuck in the shaker is a bad way to be salt.
There is something else about salt, too. As noted before, it serves a lot of different purposes. Sometimes it’s obvious – it looks like the behavior described in Isaiah 58, or to some degree in Psalm 112, the kind of witness to which the prophets repeatedly call God’s people, the call Jesus takes up as his own. Much as salt flavors food, this kind of witness flavors the world. But there are also other uses of salt, much as there are many kinds of service to which we are called. As we said before, salt preserves food. What kind of witness in the world might be thought of as “preserving”? In climes further north, there’s this stuff called “snow” that falls from the sky and accumulates on the ground, and makes it really hard and even dangerous to walk or drive around (I know this is a foreign concept to y’all Floridians, but trust me on this one). A particular kind of salt helps melt and dissolve away the snow and ice and make sidewalks and roads passable again. What kind of Christian service might this suggest? When people used to have ice cream churns to make homemade ice cream, a kind of rock salt was a necessary ingredient in that process. Where is the Christian witness that looks like this?
If we truly to be the “salt of the earth,” much less the light of the world, a city set on a hill, a lamp set up on a stand for all to see, that means we have to get out of the shaker and shine out to the world, to be seen and known by the witness we bear. That may take on many different forms, much as salt may serve many different purposes in the world. We won’t all be salt the same way. But we really are all salt. The only question is, what kind of salt are we? And are we in danger of being tossed out?
For being salt, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #667, When Morning Gilds the Skies; #755, Alleluia! Laud and Blessing; #694, Great God of Every Blessing; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 2, 2020, Epiphany 4A
The Teacher’s First Class
I think most everybody in this church is at least vaguely aware that I was a professor, specifically a music history professor, before changing vocations and heading off to seminary. That is in some ways a particularly challenging subject for teaching on the college or university level. Early in your career, as I was, the core class you’ll end up teaching the most is the full music history sequence for majors, the one that over some number of semesters covers the full sweep of the development of music in the European classical tradition from the Middle Ages up to the current day.
The reason that the courses in this sequence can be the most challenging of all to teach is that inevitably, you’re going to have some substantial chunk of the population of that class coming to it pre-prejudiced with a particular bias, one that is summarized “why do I have to take this?” You see, a great many music students come to higher education with the assumption that the only thing that matters is their applied study – the lessons they take on their instrument – and any other ensemble playing or singing that they do. As a result, they have a habit of viewing anything that “distracts” them from those studies as a “waste of time.” Whatever core classes the school requires fall into the same category too.
You can spot these performers out in their careers. They are often technically brilliant performers, befitting the time and energy they have spent in that practice room. They are also, very often, bereft of anything beyond that technical brilliance. It might be described as having “no feel” for the music, or being aesthetically dull or lacking in interpretive nuance or skill, the kind of ability that is formed not only by knowing the notes but knowing the music, the in and out and how and why of how Bach or Beethoven or Brahms came to write the way they wrote, the kind of learning formed by classes such as music theory and, yes, music history.
I am convinced that something like this applies in the life of the Christian faith as well. For an awful lot of Christians, what matters is the death and resurrection of Jesus. There might also be space for the Incarnation – the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, God-with-us, God in the flesh. But beyond that, these Christians (some so-called Christian “leaders” even) seem strangely disinterested in all the things that come in between those two events in the life of Jesus.
Matthew would be aghast at that.
After the baptism of Jesus, the temptation in the wilderness, and the initiation of his public ministry and calling of his first disciples, we read in 4:23-25 that Jesus began to minister to great crowds of people, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven come near and healing all manner of diseases. His fame spread as a result, to the point that people were coming from far and wide to hear him and be healed.
And we then read in 5:1 that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…” Specifically he began by teaching them these thoroughly upside-down lessons known as the Beatitudes, continuing with what we call the Sermon on the Mount.
Notice about these Beatitudes: on some level all of them are formatted “Blessed are … for they will …”. Good thing, because we can easily look at all of these and, without that “will” qualification, think the poor in spirit, blessed? the ones who mourn, blessed? the meek, blessed? None of those things look at all “blessed” to us. Yet in sitting down to hear what Jesus teaches we learn what it is, as in last week’s reading, to repent – to “turn around” and see not from the world’s perspective, but from Christ’s own view.
And yet so many self-proclaimed Christians proceed as if Jesus never said such things. Going on according to the world’s idea of what “blessed” means, what the world says is important – gaining and wielding power, getting ahead no matter who gets hurt. Self-proclaimed Christians – even pastors with all the fancy titles and great big pulpits in great big churches – treating with utter contempt those with whom they come into conflict, as if Jesus never said a word about hungering for righteousness or being peacemakers.
Or there is the tendency observed by the late Rachel Held Evans in many Christians, described as follows:
“Jesus came to die,” they often say, referring to a view of Christianity that reduces the gospel to a transaction, whereby God needed a sinless sacrifice to atone for the world’s sins and thus sacrificed Jesus on the cross so believers could go to heaven. In this view, Jesus basically shows up to post our bail. His life and teachings make for an interesting backstory but prove largely irrelevant to the work of salvation.
That is, suffice to say, a woefully incomplete theology. What Jesus said and taught matters. No less a figure than Pope Benedict XVI, of all people, summed up the alternative thus: “Jesus himself, the entirety of his acting, teaching, living, raising and remaining with us is the ‘gospel’.” All of it, beginning right here with these backwards “blessed”s, is our good news. The Christian faith is not a get-out-of-Hell-free card; it is no less than a call to repent and see the world from a turned-around perspective, and these Beatitudes are a beginning – but only a beginning – to understanding what that means.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #419, Lord, Who May Dwell Within Your House; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #700, I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me
[Image: Hendrick Goltzius, The Eight Beatitudes]
[Quote: Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, 154.]
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 26, 2020, Epiphany 3A
Repentance Comes First
“Repent” is one of those “churchy” words. Within the sphere of the church it is a fairly commonplace word, but outside of the church context it is heard only sparingly at most, if at all.
Funny thing, though; as much as it is tossed around in the church, much of the time it is used without a whole lot of clarity about what exactly it means to tell someone to “repent.” If anything, in certain church contexts, the word “repent” can be as much an accusation as it is a verb, intended to provoke fear more than to produce any tangible result. It ends up being defined either not at all or in the shallowest and most incomplete way possible.
That’s too bad, as it turns out that repentance is an extremely important idea in the Christian life, so much so that in Matthew’s gospel, “repent” is the first word from Jesus’s mouth as he launches his public ministry. And it’s not even a new word at that.
Our reading from Matthew today picks up after his baptism by John, which we heard a couple of weeks ago, and his period of temptation in the wilderness, which due to the quirks of the lectionary we won’t hear until March, on the first Sunday of Lent. Upon departing from the wilderness, Jesus somehow learns (we aren’t told how) that John has been arrested. The details on that story don’t get revealed for quite a while in Matthew’s gospel, not until chapter 14, but the news itself seems to be enough to spur Jesus to action, and quickly. He doesn’t stay put in Judea, nor does he return to his hometown of Nazareth; instead he sets up a headquarters, so to speak, in a place called Capernaum.
This gives the gospel writer another opportunity to pluck up an old prophetic oracle and tie it into Jesus’s life. Capernaum was in a region known by the tribal names Zebulun and Naphtali, evoking two of the original twelve tribes of Israel and the sons of Jacob from whom their names and original occupiers descended. These regions were on what might be regarded as the borderlands of Israel; far to the north and east across the Jordan. This was problematic, as it turned out; being set so far on the fringe of Israel’s territory meant that historically, Zebulun and Naphtali were usually the first regions of Israel to get overrun by those invading armies coming from the north and east. This had happened enough times that the regions had been run down and ruined more than once, as invoked in the oracle of Isaiah (heard in our first reading) that Matthew so closely quotes in his gospel.
Because of this location and history, the region also had come to have a Gentile (or non-Jewish) population about as plentiful as its Jewish population. By setting up shop in this region, Jesus is just about guaranteeing that his ministry and his works will come into contact with both Jewish and Gentile peoples.
Once he is in place, Jesus begins to preach, and his message is familiar to Matthew’s readers who have been paying attention. John the baptizer’s public witness had been introduced in 3:1-2 with the exact same phrase: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
There’s that word – “repent.” It comes up frequently in the prophetic literature, and will be quite prolific in the gospels as well.
From here Jesus will go on and start calling disciples – Peter and Andrew and James and John just on one stroll along the Sea of Galilee. This is the popular part of this lectionary passage – how they all immediately follow Jesus, James and John even ditching their father.
As challenging as it might be to imagine dropping everything in an instant and following this wandering teacher, this is still the part of this reading that we typically tend to skip to immediately. We gloss over Jesus’s relocation and such and don’t necessarily pay attention to his picking up the same theme that John had been preaching. And even when we do, we are still operating under the rather incomplete concept of “repentance” noted earlier.
For the most part even serious Christians have little concept of repentance as involving anything beyond “being sorry for your sins.” On a good day we can go so far as to speak of seeking forgiveness for those sins, which mostly get defined as bad things we did. And let’s be clear, being sorry for, and seeking forgiveness for, the wrongs we have done are indeed a part of repentance. A part. Frankly, a very small part.
But by no means can “being sorry for your sins” or even asking forgiveness for them be equated to the full and complete experience of repentance. Such steps, necessary as they are, bear about as much relationship to full repentance as a quick spin on a space-travel simulator (say, something like the Mission: Space attraction at Epcot) does to an actual trip into space. It’s likely a necessary step (you shouldn’t just hop on a rocket ship with no preparation), but it’s not the same thing, not even close.
After all, when you exit from Mission: Space for example, you are still right here on earth, still stuck in Epcot, with Test Track off in that direction and, right now at least, a lot of construction nearby. You’ve had a nice exhilarating experience, but your situation has not changed. Likewise, a prayer of confession is a good and necessary thing – we do it every week, after all – and it is a needful first step on the road to full repentance, but it isn’t repentance. The road is still quite long from there.
The Greek verb from which we get this whole idea of repentance is metanoeo. Its root meaning is “to turn around.” (Those mentions of repentance in the prophetic literature use a Hebrew word, shub, with the same meaning.) Repentance is not merely about saying apologetic words over your wrongs, but actually turning away from them. And “to turn around” from sinfulness is a dramatic thing indeed.
Notice that turning around changes what one sees. If I turn around here in the pulpit [turn around, carefully], I don’t see you out there in the congregation anymore. I see…well, a wall, and the choir off to the side. My perspective is completely altered. So it is with repentance. To turn away from sins, wrongdoing, etc. is far removed from merely apologizing; it is a complete change of perspective. It is to no longer see not only the sins but the sinfulness. It is to turn away from not only wrong deeds but to turn away from the whole perspective on the world and how it works that led us into those sins and that sinfulness. It is to turn away from the basic mindset of how the world works – the accumulation of power, the drive to get ahead at the expense of those around us, the factional strife that sets peoples against one another (that Paul was warning about in the Corinthians reading), the very Roman-Empire way of doing things that loomed over the world in which Jesus taught and which has any number of modern equivalents, similarly “imperial” mindsets that rule over our minds and hearts without our even being aware of them.
Going back to that original topic sentence of first John’s preaching and now Jesus’s, the importance of repentance becomes clear. John didn’t preach “repent or you’re gonna get it,” or “repent or you’re going to Hell,” and that wasn’t Jesus’s message here either. No evocation of hellfire and damnation or anything like that is found in this statement. The message here is not about that kind of warning, but a different kind of warning altogether.
It doesn’t matter how spectacular the sunrise is; you’ll never see it in the morning if you keep looking to the west. Similarly, when Jesus says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” it’s as if he’s saying turn around or you’ll miss it. You will never see the kingdom of heaven if you keep looking at the ways of the empire, no matter now near it comes.
As Jesus begins to teach in earnest, we will get a glimpse of what this turning around truly entails. Next come what we commonly call the Beatitudes, in which the ones Jesus calls “blessed” really don’t sound like the folks we tend to think of as blessed. As Jesus continues to teach in chapters 5-7, the people’s understanding of what it is to be righteous gets exposed as so far short of that standard. In short, to see the kingdom of heaven is to change basically everything about the way you see the world. It is to be so turned around that, to borrow from that final verse in the reading from 1 Corinthians, the cross that looks so foolish and weak to the world is no less than the power of God to us.
Being sorry for your sins matters – you won’t turn away from sinfulness as long as you continue to love your sins and the fruits thereof. But it really is only a step on the road of forgiveness, a road that runs in completely the opposite direction that the empires of the world would direct us to go. And if we don’t turn away from that, we ultimately drown in it.
Repentance – fully turning around and away from the way of sin – is the first step to this whole business of following Jesus. Turning away from the world’s ways of assigning value and accumulating power, and turning towards the kingdom of heaven, is Jesus’s first call, and all else will follow from this.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here In This Place (Gather Us In); #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #170, You Walk Along Our Shoreline; #720, Jesus Calls Us
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 19, 2020, Epiphany 2A
You Shall Be Called “Rocky”
“Dumb as a bag of rocks.”
I’m guessing you don’t need to be told that this is an insult. It’s a phrase that was popularized on the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, but is only one variant of a general theme that might also be expressed simply “dumb as a rock” or “dumb as a box of rocks.” And it’s probably some kind of rhetorical cousin to one I grew up with, “dumb as a sack of hammers” (and no, hammers and rocks aren’t the same thing, but they do share a certain quality of what we might call denseness).
Mind you, it’s also true that rock can be thought of as solid (that’s the basis of an old favorite hymn, after all – the “solid rock”) the way a rock appears in the psalm of our responsive reading today, as the basis for a firm foundation. In another pop culture reference, there was an insurance and financial services company that boasted of its solidity and security with the advertising slogan “get a piece of the rock,” paired with a logo depicting no less than the Rock of Gibraltar.
To be sure, rocks (great or small) have their uses – great foundation material, nice decorations in a garden, skipping them across a river – but you can still see how they might fit into the insults noted above. You’re not going to look to a rock to solve complex mathematical equations or deep philosophical conundrums.
Yet our reading today ends with Jesus, no less, greeting Andrew’s brother Simon, not with “hello” or anything like that, but with the announcement “You are to be called Cephas” (which John the gospel author helpfully translates for us as Peter). The name “Cephas” comes from the Aramaic word for “rock”; “Peter” is the Greek equivalent.
So in other words, the first thing Jesus says to Simon, before Simon even has a chance to speak, is “I’m gonna call you Rock.” Or maybe even better, “Rocky.”
We come to this place as John, the witness in the wilderness, is directing his disciples towards Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Jesus passes by as John is with two of his own disciples and John repeats this proclamation, with the unspoken subtext being “follow him! Go, already!” It’s not impossible to imagine John practically shoving the two disciples off in the direction Jesus was walking. Finally they do follow Jesus, and his first words to them – the first words Jesus speaks in this gospel at all – are “what are you looking for?” The two disciples ask where Jesus is staying, he invites them to “come and see,” and it seems they end up spending the day with Jesus.
We are given no clue what they talked about or did, but it was apparently quite convincing for one of the two, named Andrew. Not only did he immediately go and find his brother Simon, but see what he says to him: “We have found the Messiah.” Something between John the witness’s own testimony to Jesus and what Andrew heard from Jesus himself brought Andrew to this startling conclusion, a claim not to be taken lightly in that day and age.
Now Andrew is mostly known otherwise for being the one to help set the feeding of the five thousand in motion in John 6, by bringing to Jesus’s attention the boy with the five loaves and two fish. In none of the gospels does he come off as one of the “big names”; normally you hear most of Peter, James, and John, and this fourth gospel sometimes makes a big deal of Thomas. But bringing people to meet Jesus, whether it’s the boy with the loaves and fish or it’s his own brother, that’s a pretty good legacy to leave behind in scripture.
But Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus and the first thing Jesus does is…change his name?
In John’s gospel, one of the most consistent characteristics of Jesus is that he sees, particularly that Jesus sees people at their deepest level. Just a few verses later in this chapter, Jesus will greet Nathanael, another disciple-to-be, with the proclamation “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (insterestingly, this comes just a few beats after Nathanael has made a derogatory remark about Jesus’s hometown). Think also of the clandestine nighttime visit Nicodemus made to Jesus in chapter 3, in which Jesus is answering Nicodemus’s questions before Nicodemus even has a chance to ask them. Or think of the midday encounter with a woman at a well in chapter 4, while Jesus and his disciples were in Samaria, in which Jesus seemed to know all about her, right down to her marital history. John is keenly interested in presenting Jesus as one who sees into the human condition, indeed into the human heart, from the very beginning.
So what is it that Jesus sees in Simon that prompts him to bestow the somewhat two-sided name “Rock”? (Or maybe “Rocky”?)
After all, this isn’t exactly a common name for us. Oh, the name “Peter” is now, once it showed up all over the gospels and the book of Acts and a couple of small epistles towards the end of the New Testament. I doubt, though, that most parents who name their child “Peter” are really thinking about this Greek word’s original meaning.
Parents don’t name their child “Rock,” at least not very often. The famous actor was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., long before any Hollywood mogul slapped the name “Rock Hudson” on him. And the former University of Miami football player turned pro wrestler (and now turned actor) Dwayne Johnson made sure to avoid any confusion about its meaning by choosing the stage name “The Rock” for his professional career – no confusion about not being so bright there. For that matter, to be fair, our perception might also be shaded by the movie character Rocky Balboa, as played by Sylvester Stallone in all those movies, who for all his boxing triumph doesn’t really come off as the sharpest knife in the drawer.
So what is Jesus getting at with this new name for Simon? Is it all about firmness and stability? But unlike in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus doesn’t add on the bit about “upon this rock I will build my church,” so can we be absolutely sure that’s what’s up here? Is there something about, maybe, being just a bit of a bonehead at times?
Why not both?
In this season of Epiphany, the Sundays after the revealing of the Christ first to those eastern Magi, one of the ongoing characteristics of the gospel readings is that in some way each of those scriptures point to something about Jesus being revealed. In last week’s reading the baptism of Jesus was the occasion for that opening up of heaven and the Spirit descending like a dove, pointing to Jesus as God’s beloved son.
In John’s gospel, especially in the earliest chapters, Jesus is presented, as noted before, as one who sees. What is revealed here is a Jesus who knows us before we know him. Again, later in the chapter when Nathanael is caught off guard by Jesus’s unexpected greeting to him, Jesus responds that he “saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nor is this particularly new to John’s gospel. One can go as far back as Genesis and its account of Hagar, the slave girl of Sarai who had been given to Abram in an ill-considered attempt to hasten the birth of the son God had promised them. When Hagar fled into the wilderness from her mistress’s mistreatment, the angel of the Lord found her and spoke to her, leading Hagar to name God as “the God who sees,” even someone as lowly as her.
So Jesus sees Simon. The tricky part is, though, that Jesus really sees Simon. He sees in Simon both the good and the…less good.
He sees in Simon the rock. He sees the faithfulness that will endure. He sees in Simon the dogged determination to remain with Jesus that will provoke him to say, later in this gospel when many followers have deserted Jesus, “to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He sees the disciple who will be determined to follow him to the very last, no matter the threat.
But Jesus also sees in Simon the rock-headed one. He sees the one who, in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, will be the one who catches on to the “Who do you say that I am?” question with the right answer – “You are the Messiah” – only to turn around and blow it by reprimanding Jesus for talking about his upcoming suffering and death, the act that gets him blasted with “Get behind me, Satan!” And Jesus sees the one who, in all his determination to follow Jesus all the way through, still ends up denying Jesus three times.
And, seeing in Simon both “the Rock” and, well, the bag of rocks, Jesus calls him anyway. There’s no thought of casting Simon aside because he was going to be such a pain to deal with sometimes. Simon is called, flaws and all.
And of course, flaws and all, Simon, or Peter, does hold on for dear life, even despite his own failing and fumbling. Jesus pulls him back from his awful betrayal, and by the time we get into the history of the early church in the book of Acts who is out there in front, speaking boldly for the fledgling clutch of believers in the face of an indifferent world? It is none other than this same Simon. Or Peter, or Rock, or Rocky.
Same thing happens with us, you know. Jesus sees us, all the way through, flaws and all, and still calls us. Not necessarily to anything quite so lofty as ol’ Rocky’s calling, but we are still called to follow. Maybe Jesus doesn’t hang a new name on us, except for his own – our mark of being his. But still, in all our weakness and stumbling and flat-out getting it plain wrong and even sometimes being as dumb as a bag of rocks or a sack of hammers, Jesus sees the good parts too, and calls us, and guides us and pushes us and sometimes cajoles us into serving with our whole selves, never leaving us without what we need to serve in the way we are called.
Your good news for today: Jesus sees us, knows us, and calls us anyway, even when we’re more rock-headed than rock.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name; #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me; #417, Lord Jesus, Think On Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 12, 2020, Baptism of the Lord A
It is indispensible to our lives. Aside from air, it is the one most basic element that we cannot survive long without. Even food is not quite as utterly necessary; one could live without food for possibly as much as three admittedly horrible weeks, but without water one can only hope for about three days. Our bodies consist of about sixty percent water.
Water also covers about two-thirds of the planet and is life-giving not only for humans. Animals need it as well. Vegetation, for the most part, cannot live without it. Those fruits and vegetables we take in for nourishment will never come to fruition without the right amount of water at the right time; as the epistle of James reminds us in chapter 5, the farmer waits for the early and the late rains to come so that the crops may flourish. And yet too much water, or too much at the wrong time, can destroy those very fruits and vegetables, as well as the animal population of an area. On the other hand, too little water, or water too late, leaves a land prone to drought or fire, as the people of New South Wales in Australia can verify right now. Again, vegetation and animal populations are also threatened or ruined; some native species in Australia have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the wildfires raging there.
In short, it is virtually impossible to exaggerate how important water is to the health and well-being of this planet and all that lives in it.
Water, though, is not only subject to nature; human interactions can diminish its life-giving power. The city of Flint, Michigan, has not had a trustworthy source of drinkable water for approaching six years now due to gross human mismanagement; chemical spills have turned rivers in West Virginia hazardous several times in the past five years; and in our own state mismanagement and abuse of the Everglades system has brought natural decline to surrounding areas that have relied on those waters for their sustenance. For something so important to life on the most basic level, water can end up awfully mistreated and misused in human hands.
Of course, water has a pretty prominent role in scripture as well. Even at the very beginning, water shows up; the second verse of Genesis speaks of how “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The second and third acts of creation, in the verses that follow, involve separating the waters above from the waters below (that is, creating the Sky) and separating the waters below from the land (1:6-10). But later in Genesis, those waters overwhelm the world in a massive and earth-destroying flood, an element of the story we somehow downplay when telling about Noah and the ark.
By Exodus water becomes both a barrier and a medium in which God performs great miracles. Most famously in Exodus, we read of God parting the watersof the sea to allow the Hebrew people to cross over, while the pursuing Egyptian army is washed away when they try to cross. A smaller-scale version of this deliverance through water occurs when the next generation of these Hebrew people, now led by Joshua, are able to cross over into the Promised Land as the Jordan River parts before them.
Water also shows up in much of the poetry and imagery of scripture. Think of the most famous of psalms, in which the Lord “my shepherd” leads the psalmist beside still waters. But the images don’t stop there; think of the shepherd-turned-prophet Amos and his thundering oracle “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” or Isaiah’s declaration that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
Indeed, by the time this fellow John shows up along the Jordan, calling all to be baptized for the repentance of sins [Mt 3:11], water has acquired a pretty prolific stature in the history and story of Israel.
The meaning and significance of baptism changes between this time, when John baptizes Jesus, and the end of this gospel, when the risen Jesus charges his followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To be sure, repentance is still a part of baptism, as we will be reminded in the Reaffirmation of Faith to follow this sermon, in which we are called upon to “renounce” evil and sin. But baptism takes on more in Jesus’s commission; it carries not only repentance but also belonging; it marks being in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; it marks discipleship. It marks what comes to be known, over the course of the book of Acts, as the church.
In our reading from Acts 10, Peter has, with some agitation, obeyed a divine imperative to go to visit a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius, with his family. Cornelius was evidently what was known in the language of the time as a God-fearer, a Gentile who nonetheless feared and prayed to the God of the people among whom he had been dispatched to serve. Finding Cornelius and his family ready and waiting to hear, Peter begins what might be called his go-to sermon, somewhat adapted for the situation. The Holy Spirit, however, had other ideas, and before Peter even got warmed up the Spirit visited a visible and clear manifestation of God’s favor upon Cornelius and his family.
First of all Peter and the (Jewish by birth) entourage that had accompanied him to Cornelius’s house were floored. This was clearly a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but…these people were…were…were [shudder] Gentiles! It was inconceivable to Peter and all of the rest, in Jerusalem or any other place, that Gentiles – outsiders – could possibly be so favored. And yet clearly God had visited Cornelius and his people. What could Peter do?
Ultimately Peter realized that, if he were to be true to his Savior, he had no choice. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asks.
Can anyone withhold the water?
There is nothing magic about the water of baptism itself. The Jordan River water in which John baptized was the same muddy stuff in which others fished or swam or washed clothes or any number of other very mundane life tasks. It’s the same stuff as the water that got parted before Moses’s staff, the same stuff that overwashed the earth in Noah’s day, the stuff that falls from the sky or comes out of your tap. And yet in this very basic element, by Jesus’s example and by Jesus’s instruction, is the sign and symbol of belonging to God. Because of Jesus’s submission to the sign of baptism in water, and because of Jesus’s commission to baptize with that same water, it does mean more than something to drink when thirsty.
Again, the water is not magic. The water does not save you. And yet in the water of baptism we are shown as God’s own. Whether we are baptized ourselves or bringing our youngest for baptism, we are pledging repentance and even renunciation of sin and evil; we are being claimed as disciples of Jesus, living in obedience to what Jesus has taught and commanded; we are showing the mark of the Holy Spirit, no matter where we come from.
That’s a lot of meaning for this most basic element of human existence.
And maybe the neatest part of all of this is that, while doing a whole reaffirmation of baptism in worship is kinda cool and fun (yes, I’m serious), we don’t need it to remember our baptism. I know, for those who were baptized as infants it isn’t really literally possible to remember your baptism. Even if somebody shows you a picture of the occasion it’s not going to trigger any real actual memories for you. (As I grew up in a different tradition I wasn’t baptized as an infant; I was baptized when I was nine, and even remembering that is pretty foggy at this point in my life.) So no, we are not literally talking about remembering the actual act and occasion.
We remember whose we are. We remember the God who claims us despite our best efforts and who calls us children no matter what kind of rebellion we try, and does the same for a whole bunch of children we would not claim as our siblings except that God does it for us. We remember the water that could not be denied to us, no matter how far outside the pale it might have seemed. We remember repentance and belonging and being marked by the Holy Spirit. And the neat part is, if we’re open and listening and ready to look at the world – the whole creation – through the eyes of the Creator, then all we need to help us remember all of this is…water.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #375, Shall We Gather At the River; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #688, Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart; #480; Take Me to the Water
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2020, Epiphany A
It is a story that clanks noisily against the story we tend to think of as the “Christmas story.” We are accustomed to think of what Luke’s gospel teaches us, of all the angelic annunciations, especially Gabriel to Mary; the whole business about everybody having to return to their hometowns to be registered, therefore Joseph and Mary having to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the birth in a manger, because there was no room in the inn; the angels singing out to the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks, and their surprise journey to Bethlehem. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, we have to wedge in the wise men somehow. Of course they’re not part of Luke’s story; this evening’s reading from Matthew is our only source for this event.
Perhaps that is why making the time to observe this event, under the name Epiphany and on its own date, is a particularly needful thing for the church to do in this time. While we have become accustomed over the decades to having the wise men crammed into the Nativity scene with all the shepherds and angels, the story of their coming to pay homage to the child Jesus has a different lesson to teach us, one that is all too easily and all too often drowned out in the madness of the holidays. It’s a lesson about who God is and who God calls, a lesson we forget at our peril.
In her last book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the late Christian author Rachel Held Evans writes of how the God revealed in Ascripture is often misunderstood by those who claim to be followers:
There’s a curious but popular notion circulating around the church these days that says God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. In addition to once again prioritizing modern, Western (and often uniquely American) concerns, this notion overlooks one of the most central themes of scripture itself: God stoops.
From walking with Adam and Eve through the Garden of Eden, to traveling with the liberated Hebrew slaves in a pillar of cloud and fire, to slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping, and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of scripture stoops and stoops and stoops and stoops. At the heart of the gospel message is a God who stoops to the point of death on a cross.
Held Evans goes on to make the point that when it comes to reaching out to us sometimes dumb and witless humans, nothing is beneath God, no matter how primitive or unseemly it might be to us. And what happens in Matthew’s distinctive contribution to the Nativity story might be the most striking example of that we have.
Matthew only identifies our visitors as “wise men from the East.” They show up in Jerusalem looking for the one born “King of the Jews,” and there’s some logic to showing up at a royal palace to look for a future king, I suppose. The ever-paranoid King Herod learns from his scribes what these foreigners could possibly be talking about, gives them directions along with a request to drop back by and talk about the whereabouts of this child, and the wise men are on their way. Should you choose to keep reading the rest of this chapter, you’ll see how that goes.
But about these wise men, or Magi: “from the East” is a pretty vague description. Given the geographical state of the region at this time, far and away the most likely origin for these Magi was the Persian Empire, an extensive region centered primarily on the land occupied by present-day Iran (an extreme irony, given the historical moment we are currently experiencing).
As such, these Magi were probably scholar-priests of the dominant religion of that region, Zoroastrianism. While perhaps not as distant as the panoply of gods worshiped in the Greco-Roman culture that occupied Judea at the time, it was definitely different and “foreign” to the Jewish people and culture into which Jesus was born. The Magi tell us up front that they made this trip because they saw a star, and that would fit in well with the pursuits of a Zoroastrian Magi. All in all, not a set that would seem to fit in well with the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph.
But here’s the thing: God. Did. Not. Care.
To return to Rachel Held Evans’s phrase, God stooped. To catch the attention of a bunch of Eastern stargazers, God made that Star happen. God did not care how “foreign,” how “different,” or how outside of every norm these Magi might seem to the people of Israel. God wanted them to see and to behold the child Jesus, and so God made that Star happen. And Matthew wrote it down. God stooped, and not even to the people who long understood themselves as God’s own children.
We have no idea what happened to these wise men after they dodged Herod on their way home. Matthew does not follow their story, and it is not recorded anywhere else as far as we know. Yet their very existence throws an absolutely necessary wrench into our easily sentimentalized “Christmas story,” so often stripped bare of all that challenges and disturbs. They challenge us to look again at the God who tracked them down through the stars and gave them the jolt they required to make a long and difficult journey to see a child like no other. They show us that the God we worship is not satisfied with the way things are, not content to keep the circle of God’s calling to those who are familiar to us or around whom we are comfortable and at ease. God stoops, not just to us, but to the outsider.
This is perhaps why Epiphany matters in a way we don’t often remember. These Magi come bursting into our cozy and comfortable scene with their strange language and strange religion and strange gifts (the gold is cool, but the frankincense and myrrh are odd at best), reminding us at even this most cozy-fied time of year that there’s a whole world out there beyond our comfort zones and happy places that God is just itching for us to reach out to and welcome and bear light, be a shining star even.
God stooped. Will we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #673, Jesus, Light of Joy; #149, All Hail to God’s Anointed; #152, What Star is This, With Beams So Bright; #150, As With Gladness Men of Old
(Of course, sometimes we even make the Magi as familiar and “comfortable” as possible…)