Christ, the king we need

At the end, as at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was subjected to the taunts and contempt of the tempter. The voices that surrounded him invited him to abdicate his position as one of us, Emmanuel, God with us; to become, instead, God without us, without humanity, without vulnerability, without compassion.

At the end, as at the beginning, Jesus resisted the temptation to abdicate his place as the Son of Man, the Messiah, the hope of the nations and the glory of his kingdom. He chose the cross, not, let us be quick to qualify, not to sanctify it, nor the powers of death, but to defeat them; not by taking on the instruments of death, nor even deploying armies of angels, but by denying them.

Even at the end, he refused to collaborate with the ways that punish and oppress instead of working to repent and repair and to reconcile: he forgave them, despite their spite and malice, their perverted power. He wouldn’t even give them credence: “They know nothing,” he said, “of your ways, of what is, of what will be. They know only their own sin and death.”

One of the other prisoners, condemned like Christ, for who knows what, nor whether he was guilty of it all; one of them was angry, contemptuous, understandably bitter. He wanted better from God, from God’s Messiah, from the man hanging next to him, suspended between life and death, heaven and earth, kingdom and empire. He wanted a rescue and a rout, and if not, he could see no point to the man hanging next to him, humanity incarnate, mortal, and vulnerable.

The other saw something else. Astonished out of his sourness, he heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness, and as incredulous as the other, but otherwise, he wondered, “Is that for me, too?”

Jesus said, “Yes. For you, too.”

The first one, he was included in the prayer that Jesus uttered for forbearance, but in his bitterness he failed to grasp it, missed that last taste of grace that might have made death less unbearable. He was still forgiven, by the Saviour’s prayer, but he took no comfort from it, because he could not see the way of the cross, only the way of the crucifiers.

The other saw and understood the lengths that God would go to to confront our violent ways, and to subvert them, to invert them, to defeat them with love and with life.

We make our choices every day, at every crossroads we come to. The way of the cross is not a formula: always go straight, always turn right, or left. It is a series of small decisions. Have you noticed how often, in his ministry, Jesus was distracted and diverted from his intended route by the needs of others, by the demands of grace, and the deliverance of mercy? Whether it was stopping to tell a parable to a questioner, friendly or hostile; or the provision of a miraculous meal when the desert seemed empty of bread (he resisted that temptation on his own account, but he would not leave his people hungry); or the turning in the crowd to find the one who had needed healing, to assure her that he was with her, that his love and his power could not be stolen, freely offered as it was.

We are faced with choices every day, whether to notice the needs around us or to ignore them; whether to assert our privilege, our rights; or the needs and dignity of another; whether to be human, and vulnerable, or to act like little gods.

At every crossroads, the question confronts us: which way lies love?

Take a simple trip to the grocery store. We know the way.

But (if we are able-bodied) do we take the first legal parking spot nearest the door, or leave it for someone for whom the extra steps are more of a slog than a health benefit?

If the cashiers are stretched and stressed, do we huff and puff our impatience, or offer a word of kindness and empathy, a break from the negativity that goes with long lines?

If there’s a two-for-one sale, and we have the means, do our eyes light up with the chance for a bargain, or the chance to relieve the hunger of another, through the food pantry?

Do we bring our reusable bags, for the sake of the planet and our local environment, littered as it is with plastic debris, or complain at the inconvenience of being appointed the stewards of creation by our Creator?

Do we stare at the stranger or step between them and the hostile glare of the other: today, you are with me?

Do we pause in the parking lot for the gaggle of underdressed teenagers running through the rain, or drive past in a swoosh, intent on our own concerns and generational disapproval?

Such small things may not seem to add up to a discipleship, or a way of love, but if we are not faithful in the small things, how will we ever learn how to find the way of love, the way of the cross, when we find ourselves lost at a crossroads, without signpost or a map, wondering which way to turn?

The two criminals on the crosses next to Jesus may not have been paragons of virtue; still, one had enough practice in humanity to recognize, in the pain of his neighbour, a solidarity of suffering that allowed him to hear the words of forgiveness, the words of grace, which were the power of life in the midst of death.

Christ, the king, practised his power through mercy, wielded his authority through healing, effected justice through forgiveness. Is this the kind of king we want for ourselves? Or do we, with the first man, demand rather than God incarnate, the incarnation of our all-too-human pride?

As I wrote elsewhere earlier this week, the crown that Jesus wore beneath that mocking sign was woven out of thorns; but the thorn bushes themselves recognized their creator and their king. Had they not yielded their green suppleness to the hands of the soldiers, they could have made nothing. Creation knows its king, and bows to his reign. May we have the pliancy, the constancy, the love to do the same; to crown him with our very lives, who has loved us into life itself.

 

 

 

Posted in Holy Days, lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A crown of thorns

They twisted together a crown 
with which to anoint his brow.  
They thought to make a mockery,
but had the pliant green twigs 
not yielded of their own accord, 
their obeisance and homage 
to their king, then their hands 
would have held only dust 
rubbed into the stained creases 
of the palms where their blood, 
drawn by the thorns, 
mingled with his.


This Sunday’s Gospel reading does not mention the crown of thorns – in fact, Luke is the only evangelist not to include that particular detail of the soldiers’ mockery of Christ – but it is inescapable, because of the other three; firmly woven into the background of our shared image of the crucifixion of Christ the King.

Posted in Holy Days, lectionary reflection, poetry, prayer, sermon preparation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Remembrance

It was a Sunday  

morning, full of cake and coffee

hour, children silenced

for a moment by sugar,

if not by the lingering

spirit of prayer;

I remembered there was something

I needed to ask.

 

He was standing

halfway back down the nave,

alone in the pew,

straight and still.

 

After a minute,

or two –

I had forgotten the time –

he turned; I had already

retreated. Slowly,

because of his heart,

he rejoined the congregation

of the living, having,

I imagined,

negotiated his annual armistice

with the rest.

Posted in poetry, story | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

All Saints 2022

All Saints’ Sunday 2022; Luke 6:20-31

_____________

According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Laurentius (St Lawrence) was the “principal of the deacons” serving in Rome in the middle years of the third century, when yet another round of persecutions of the church arose. Believing himself to be in imminent danger of martyrdom, Laurentius decided to complete his diaconal duty by distributing all of his goods and even the treasures of the church among the poor and neglected of its congregations. The legend related by Foxe tells that the persecutors demanded of Laurentius an accounting of the church treasures, and that Laurentius promised to offer one in three days’ time. Then, “with great diligence he collected together a number of aged, helpless, and impotent poor, and repaired to the magistrate, presenting them to him saying, ‘These are the true treasures of the Church.’”[i]

Blessed are the poor, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, the commemoration of All Souls, the communion of the living with those who have led the way for us in faith. Of course, it is always Jesus who leads the way for us, and every Sunday is a festival of his resurrection; he tells his disciples the way of life in this sermon from the early days of his roving ministry. But we tell the stories of the saints to remind us of the various ways in which Christ’s example can be lived out, even by the likes of people like us.

Saint Sebastian, a Christian serving in the Imperial Guard at Rome, was betrayed to the emperor who was no friend of those who placed their faith in a higher power. The emperor summoned Sebastian and accused him of ingratitude and disloyalty for turning against the gods of Rome. Sebastian replied that he could show the emperor his fealty no more clearly than to pray to the one true God for the emperor’s health and prosperity, not to some false imperial and nationalistic gods. Enraged, the emperor sent him to be executed by a firing squad of archers, but when the Christians gathered to retrieve his body, they found him alive, and nursed him back to health. True, once the emperor discovered, to his shock, that Sebastian had survived, he had him killed again, but not before Sebastian clearly instructed him once more in the error of his ways, and the true way of Christ.[ii]

Bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you.

This week, God willing, we complete the first major election cycle since the attempted insurrection of Epiphany 2020. It would be foolhardy, perhaps, to downplay what is at stake. Too many lives, too many people’s safety and wellbeing hang in the balance between security and destitution, enfranchisement and violence, recognition and ruination. These elections matter to those voting on all sides of them; they matter to those who believe in a peaceful transfer of power between representatives of the people, and those who care enough to make it happen. I won’t try to shrug off the concerns many of us have about the state of our discourse, the dangers of hateful rhetoric, the angry violence that has erupted all too often of late, and the fear that it has engendered.

At the same time, it would perhaps be well to recognize that we, the people, never have had the ultimate authority here. God has. God, who loves each and every one of God’s children, regardless of gender, race, status, or state of grace. God, who is unelect and who elects to administer justice with mercy, judgement with compassion, who is love incarnate and ineffable. That is our ultimate authority, allegiance, and our hope in good times and in trouble.

In The Sayings of the Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell, “The abbot Agatho said, ‘If an angry man were to raise the dead, because of his anger he would not please God.”[iii]

When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it wasn’t with the magnanimity of the conqueror. When he said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” he prefigured his own prayer from the cross, not for violence or vengeance, but, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus did not pray forgiveness for his torturers so as to legitimize the Roman practice of crucifixion, but so as to confront it with the terrible and awful truth of God’s judgement, justice, and mercy.

Instead, if someone strikes you across the cheek, Jesus says, offer them the other. A contemporary saint observed that we are often so struck by hateful or hurtful thoughts, words, and actions that we don’t even know what to say, how to react or respond. When the slur or the stereotype spill from the mouth of the person opposite, whether aimed at us or at some other innocent: the member of another race, sex, gender expression, religion, that one advises, ask them to repeat it. “Excuse me? What did you just say? Would you care to say that again?” Offer your other ear, and see if the bully has the courage to continue to assault it.

It is a risky strategy – Jesus was not renowned for playing it safe – but it comes with his recommendation, and therefore with power. It makes the person responsible for their own words and behaviour; it invites them to take accountability for them without condoning them. And if it doesn’t work to reframe the moment, we can shake the dust off our feet and pray for their souls.

The abbot Macarius is reported to have said, “If we dwell upon the harms that have been wrought upon us by men, we amputate from our mind the power of dwelling upon God.”[iv]

A modern saint, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who lived through the most harrowing circumstances and had much to dwell upon, wrote,

“One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, an oasis of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. …

If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies, and the violence. This is a way that we can take on … suffering and transform it.”[v]

I notice that in Archbishop Tutu’s model, centering ourselves in love does not depend upon others loving us, but in knowing that we who are made in the image of God are made in the image of love.

The communion of saints, ancient and recent, surrounds us, their examples rippling around us. Not all of them are martyrs, thank God; those who tended to Sebastian were also counted among the saints of his church. Regardless of their call, they point to Jesus, the author of love and the Word of God. We are not small, or helpless, though we may be meek. For we are made in the image of God, and God is with us.

Love one another, then, as Christ has loved each and all of us, no exceptions.


[i] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, edited by Marie Gentert King (Spire Books, 1976), 23

[ii] Foxe, 26-27

[iii] The Sayings of the Fathers, Book X.xiii, in The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell (Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1998), 103

[iv] Sayings, X.xxiv, Waddell, 107

[v] Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (Doubleday, 2004), 78-80

Featured image: Jan de Beer, Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, via wikimediacommons

Posted in current events, Holy Days, sermon, story | Leave a comment

Come, let us argue it out

A sermon for October 30, nine days before the US midterm elections. The readings are for Year C Proper 26, Track 2, and include Isaiah 1:10-18 and Luke 19:1-10, the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus.

______________________________

What does repentance look like? “’Come now, let us argue it out,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

Let’s be honest, it’s been a wearying week. We have heard more of wars and rumours of wars. We have heard of the callous attack upon an octogenarian man by another man who apparently prefers violence to the vote. We have too often turned our faces away from the antisemitism spouted by the influential. We have witnessed gun violence again and again across our own country: in a labour and delivery ward, in another school, at another family home. More loved ones whose lives have been lost or irrevocably altered, from a newborn baby whose very first hours witnessed such things to a grandmother of seven who died defending the children of others under her care; can you imagine the number of lives affected by the stench of violence?.

“Such incense is an abomination to me,” says the Lord. “I am weary of it,” says the Lord. “Your hands are full of blood,” says the Lord (Isaiah 1:13,14,15).

What does, what could repentance look like, under such circumstances?

Well, when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming through Jericho, he wanted to see him for himself. The text is ambiguous: either Zacchaeus or Jesus was short in stature; either way, the crowd came between Zacchaeus’ field of vision and the sight of Jesus (Luke 19:1-3).

Another time we might talk about the ableism, assumptions of masculinity, and more that have led centuries of commentators and songwriters to assume that Zacchaeus is the short one, and not Jesus, the Messiah; but that’s for another time.

In the meantime, Zacchaeus climbed a tree for a better look at Jesus, and Jesus saw him up there, and called him down, called him out, called him in (Luke 18:4-5).

We might, another day, contrast Zacchaeus to the man with the friends who tore apart a roof to lower him into Jesus’ presence; the woman who crept through the crowd to touch his cloak; the centurion for whom even the Jewish elders pleaded (see .Luke 5:17-20; Luke 8:43-38; Luke 7:2-5). Zacchaeus had made no such friends to speak up for him, let him through the press of bodies to the closer presence of Jesus, or carry him overhead to lower him into view (although I would quite like to see an icon of Zacchaeus crowd-surfing).

In the meantime, here is the man: a chief of tax collectors, chief executive of corruption and assimilation to the empire, with few friends except for those who could be bought for cool cash. And he wanted to see Jesus; but now Jesus had seen him.

The people who knew Zacchaeus thought that they knew him better than Jesus. They thought that they were better than Zacchaeus, that Jesus should have asked to come to one of their houses instead of Zacchaeus’. But Jesus saw him as clearly as they did. “I must stay at your house today,” he told Zacchaeus, “for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:7,9-10).

It’s kind of a backhanded compliment, when you think about it; but Jesus was not in the business of flattery, but of salvation. Zacchaeus went out to see Jesus, but now Jesus has seen Zacchaeus.

So here’s a question, when the townspeople grumble about Zacchaeus’ corrupt lifestyle, and he counters by promising, pledging to give away half of his wealth, and if – if, mind you – he has defrauded anyone, to pay them back with compensation (Luke 19:8). Here’s the question (three, actually): who assesses Zacchaeus’ worth; who assesses the potential fraud and damages owed; most importantly, will Zacchaeus actually follow through on what he has promised in a desperate moment, afraid that Jesus might, after all, decide to go elsewhere?

You remember the old riddle: five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many frogs are left on the log?

Or, to return to our opening question, what does repentance look like?

I’d like to think that Zacchaeus followed through on the promises he made; that the curiosity he had about Jesus that led him up the tree was sparked by a real connection with the God of his ancestors, the God about whom his mother told him growing up, and his father and the rabbis. I’d like to think that Zacchaeus was transfixed and transformed by the way that Jesus saw him, and knew him, and said to him, “Come, let us argue it out. For I am coming home with you today.” I’d like to think that Zacchaeus could not walk away from that encounter unchanged.

But we see daily how easy it is for each of us to rationalize, to forget, to break our promises, however heartfelt in the moment, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), in a moment of pride, or anger, or fear.

If it were not so, to take just one example, we would already have taken action to reduce the access that children and people who are unsafe to themselves and others have to guns, to ammunition, and to mass murder. The young man who committed murder and life-altering injury and trauma at that school in St Louis this week was refused the sale of a firearm by a licensed dealer. He went instead to a private citizen who was not required to run a background check in order legally to sell him a gun. It is in our power, as the people, to change that law, to close that loophole, if we choose. The young man’s mother had asked law enforcement to remove the gun from her son’s possession, knowing him to be in danger of using them. The police declined to keep the weapon, although they helped transfer it to a friend. We can strengthen our communal ability to restrict access to deadly weapons away from those in danger of committing deadly force against themselves or others if we choose.

A one-time thought, or prayer, or promise, does not do the deed of repentance, though. If it did, we would already have made reparations for the harm that we have done, in so many ways, to so many people, in the interest of preserving our own privilege and income. We are the tax collectors. We all take our toll.

Like Zacchaeus, we make our confession, we promise better, and we delight in the absolution that Jesus visits upon us: Today, salvation has come to this house, because Jesus has come to this house, whose name is saviour.

And do we follow through? When the visit is over, the meal is finished, the table cleared and the doors closed behind us, will we make good on the promises that our hearts make when they are full of grace, to cease from evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphaned children? (see Isaiah 1:16-17)

In order to become transformative, for us as well as for Zacchaeus, our spiritual and sinful ancestor, repentance requires follow-through. It requires persistence in prayer and confession and the willingness again and again to sit down and argue it out with the Lord, who sees us, who knows us, who loves us and wants better for us.

For salvation has come today to this house. Jesus shows up, whether we are scarlet or snow. We have come looking for him, for whatever reason, but he has already seen us. And the life that he calls us into?

Well, “’Come, let us argue it out,’ says the Lord.”

Posted in current events, lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The cost of mercy

Raw thoughts on the parable of the good Samaritan, heard at Morning Prayer


Mercy does not come cheap
at two denarii,
a night’s unpaid delay,
the physical labour of lifting
a grown man onto a donkey,
walking with bags of
who-knows-what?,
sharing the burden with the beast;
the stress to the gut
of tending a stranger’s blood,
swallowing revulsion
that tastes like bile;
the promise to return
by a perilous road
which has already cost
a barrel of mercy,
which is worth its weight
in grace

Posted in lectionary reflection, poetry, prayer | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Morning prayer

A rainbow in my rearview mirror; 
ahead, the bridge is stalled to let 
an ambulance fly over, chasing life. 
A rainbow in my rearview mirror; 
the electronic highway sign describes 
an untold story in make, model, missing, 
before reverting to travel time 
for the morning commute. 
A rainbow in my rearview, 
podcast playing Morning Prayer, 
a disembodied voice refracts the words 
of the Incarnate One. 
                                    Jesus says, 
“No one 
who puts a hand to the plough 
and looks back is fit 
for the kingdom of God.” 
Bright clouds are conspiring 
over the river; the rainbow 
in the rearview 
fades


Daily Office, 17 October 2022, Monday after the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24) Luke 9:51-62

Posted in poetry, prayer | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nevertheless, God persisted

A sermon for 16 October 2022, Year C Proper 24


In the Geneva Bible Notes, late in the sixteenth century, someone commented upon this parable, “God will have us to continue in prayer, not to weary us, but to exercise us; therefore we must fight against impatience so that a long delay does not cause us to quit our praying.”[i]

Some of the people involved in creating this Bible translation and its annotations had fled their home country for fear of persecution. They were living in exile, refugees among like-minded neighbours in the heart of Europe, while in England Bloody Mary wielded her faith like a flaming sword, putting heretics, as she saw them, to the pyre. They had plenty need of patience, of the endurance of faith, and see how their words of encouragement have endured, and continue to challenge us today.[ii]

Paul, urging persistence in proclaiming the gospel, whether the time be favourable or not, told Timothy not to be stubborn and self-righteous, nor to be discouraged by the discouraging ears of the world (or its heretics), but to be persistent in patience, knowing that God’s compassion endures forever. (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)

God wrestled with Jacob in the Jabbok, not to wear him down, but to build him up, to ready his conscience and his heart to meet his brother, whom he had wronged long before. God held Jacob in the water long enough to remind him to ask for a blessing, to remember God, to realize that God was with him as he journeyed home by the long road. (Genesis 32:22-31)

But the widow – what if the widow in the parable were not the innocent victim but the instigator of a lawsuit of vengeance? What if the judge knew it, and only acquiesced to shut her up, because his own conscience was not strong enough to resist her? What if he needed to pray persistently to train up his conscience and his courage? (Luke 18:1-8)

Amy-Jill Levine, Jewish New Testament scholar and author of Short Stories by Jesus, suggests that the judge, “may be prompted not by greed or even a preferential option for one class or another, but by irascibility, self-protection, or simply not wanting to be inconvenienced.”[iii] Perhaps he simply could not be bothered to do the work commended by the prophet Micah of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God – even though it was literally his job. (Micah 6:8)

God held onto Jacob, Timothy was enfolded in faith, Jesus, the Son of God, walked among us and remains with us, faithful to us; yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth, or will we have put our trust elsewhere: in vengeance, in the punishment of those who think otherwise than us, in the expulsion into exile of those fleeing persecution, in the false administration of justice, in powers and principalities?

What if this parable is about where we put our trust, how we exercise compassion, to whom it is that we pray?

Returning for a moment to Levine’s commentary, she writes, “The parable disturbs again because the only form of closure it creates is that in which widow and judge – and so readers – become complicit in a plan possibly to take vengeance and certainly not to find reconciliation. We may resist that complicity and so opt out of the system that promotes it. We may decide that court cases are not worth our time, that compassion is less time consuming and less corrupting than vengeance.”[iv]

What if our role in the parable is not that of the widow, but of the judge who really needs a change of heart, a conversion experience, to grow a spine and to do the work set before him: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly alongside God?

What if our role in the parable is not to persist in unjust systems, but to turn instead to God, whose justice is absolute, whose mercy is everlasting, whose compassion endures forever, and for all?

Persistence, in and of itself, is of morally neutral value. The persistence of climate activists in pressing their cause is matched by the persistence of the world insisting it must continue as it always, or most recently has. 

Endurance can be for good or for ill. The endurance of racism that persists in our culture; the persistence of violence and vengeance that manifests in gun violence and the death penalty; the suffering that we demand must be endured before asylum is granted, or a safety order handed down, or truth be told; some things endure that should not.

But then, there is the persistence of the passionate who clamour for their freedom, for the freedom of others, for the good of the world. The doggedness of the parent who spent days and nights camped outside of the school district buildings in Uvalde demanding justice, the determination of dandelion roots to hang onto the ground. The sheer stamina of those who work nights and days to care for the sick. Then, there is the endurance of a solid marriage; like fine wine that deepens and broadens its flavours with age, it is a joy to all whom it touches. We find strength, we find hope in some forms of persistence.

The persistence of God, the compassionate endurance that became incarnate in Jesus, that persisted through death and hell and refuses to let us go, refuses to leave us without a mark, without a blessing: that is something worth placing our faith in.

To persist in prayer, at its foundation, is to persist in our relationship with that God. It is not to lose hope that God’s will will be done, not to turn away to other, more immediate but more corruptible resolutions. This call to persistence is the call of the prophets, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly beside God, deep in conversation, or indeed in a conversational silence, knowing that our faith is not misplaced.

The rhythms of our seasons, our weeks, our days are marked by prayer: the Sunday Eucharist, the Daily Office, the sentence of thanksgiving upon awakening; the moment of reflection before we fall asleep. I invite you as you go about your week to pray persistently: to choose a word or phrase that will remind you, when you most need it, that God is holding on to you, in the midst of rushing waters and strong currents, and beside still waters alike. Write it down and put it in your pocket, or set it to a tune and let it take hold of that place in your head that will not let it go.

Because when all else fails, when we fail, when all else seems false, nevertheless, God persists.

Amen


[i] https://www.ccel.org/g/geneva/notes/Luke/18.html

[ii] http://www.reformedreader.org/gbn/igb.htm

[iii] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, 2014), 241

[iv] Levine, op cit, 242

The featured image is from the Jabbok River in Jordan, taken by the author in 2016

Posted in lectionary reflection, prayer, sermon | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who am I to judge?

I have heard her as a warrior, cudgeling her way toward the judge’s seat; as a hag, as a nag, that tag attached to women who dare to ask for anything, let alone justice; I have heard her described as persistent, precocious, privileged, pernicious, pesky, and prevailing.

She has been used as a picture of prayer, and yet the unjust judge, who turns away with indifference and disgust, who dismisses and dispatches her as though she were a bluebottle or a horsefly about to bite, is not one I recognize as the God to whom I pray. 

He is a broken clock, occasionally accurate in his pronouncements, not because of rightness, mercy, or justice, but despite his own, profound and tragic, alienation.

Can I affirm the widow’s faithfulness to her own cause, and to the cause of justice, without falling prey to the unjust assertion that God responds to the squeaky wheel, and not to the meek? 

Can I maintain hope for her (and not only for the resolution of her current crisis or dispute, but for true and lasting restitution, reconciliation) without succumbing to the hopelessness that attends the daily grind of indifference? 

Can I maintain hope even for the unjust judge, that while his heart was not moved this time, but only his self-interest, that a crease or a crack might have been opened as he turned, enough for a little salve to spill in? 

First of all, can I free Jesus from my old and calcified, allegorically literal, algebraic interpretation of his parable about prayer and remember that God is not worn down by my cries, nor eroded by my need, nor numb to my grief, nor impassive to my witting and unwitting, egregious, and unnecessary participation in injustice?

The judge of the parable had no regard for anyone, but the God who will pass judgement upon me so loved the world as to become Emmanuel, God with us, to suffer under our unjust judgement, and to die. The God who will, I pray, have mercy upon me hears the cries of the widows to whom I turn a cloth ear, and continues to importune me with opportunities for penitence. 

I will pray, then, and not give up hope that the hardness of my heart will one day become flesh; that I may fear God enough to look up, and to see her face to face.


This lectionary reflection first appeared in the Episcopal Cafe, part of the Episcopal Journal. The featured image is The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), Brothers Dalziel, CC0, via wikimedia commons

Posted in lectionary reflection, poetry, prayer, sermon preparation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unashamed

A sermon for 9 October 2022, Year C Proper 23


Every Sunday we say together the Nicene Creed. Morning and night, in the daily office, we recite the Apostles’ Creed. We proclaim, unashamed and aloud, the faith that we have inherited: that, however we think it was managed, God is the author and originator of all that we know and all that remains a mystery to us. That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became one flesh with us, because God so loved the world. That there is forgiveness for sins and hope in this life and beyond. That God remains with us, in Spirit and in truth. 

Some several years ago, when I was beginning the final stages of my journey toward ordination, I had a conversation with a colleague who was on the same track. I remember them saying that one of the benefits they had accrued from the process of conversation, discernment, and successive interviews with various church bodies was that they found it much easier to say the name of Jesus aloud than they had before.

I remember this because at the time it was arresting. Here was someone whom I knew through the church, through our shared faith, and whom I knew well only because we were both on the same path towards priesthood; and here she was confessing that up until quite recently, it had been a bit awkward talking with people about Jesus. It’s alright in church, couched in the Creeds, but still, in the world, the name of Jesus is one that can evoke caution. It has too often been used as a cudgel rather than a comfort; hence, I think, the embarrassment of those of us who long to shout from the rooftops, “Jesus loves you!”, in case we are misunderstood.

But if this is what we believe: God loves you, no exceptions, and Jesus is the living proof of that, well, then, isn’t that something to sing about?

The middle lines of the piece that we read from Paul’s letter to Timothy today are thought by many scholars to be from a hymn, which must make it one of the oldest in the Christian canon. The poetry of the paired propositions: 

If we have died with him,                   we will also live with him;

if we endure,                                       we will also reign with him;

if we deny him,                                   he will also deny us;

if we are faithless,                              he remains faithful

point to that musicality, that repetition, the refrain that tends to form us in faith.

The commentaries that I had to hand to consult this week debated whether the first line, dying and living with Jesus Christ, point to baptism or to physical death and its counterpoint, resurrection. The final line, telling of the incorruptible faithfulness of God in Christ Jesus is our blessed assurance. God is with us, God does love us, without regard to how lovable or otherwise we are.

The commentaries were less inclined to scrutinize that third line: “If we deny him, he will also deny us.” I can understand why. It is a hard word in the midst of such a glorious and warm song.

It seems important, though: both Mark and Matthew record Jesus saying something similar to his followers during his earthly ministry. Mark helpfully renders the saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father in the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)

That makes sense to me. I am not ashamed of the love of Jesus; but I can sometimes feel a little abashed, almost embarrassed, by some of his commands: to give away everything, to love even enemies, to eat with tax collectors and sinners, the greedy and the grasping. But worse, I confess sometimes to having my own purity code against which Jesus Christ himself might, at moments, be judged. That, as cringy as it is, might be my moment of denial.

And here’s the thing that I think might be most dangerous and insidious about it: when we are embarrassed by the largesse of God’s mercy towards those of whom we do not approve, we are tempted to deny Jesus’ love for them, Christ’s love to them. Personally, I find it easy and obvious to proclaim God’s love for the straight, gay, trans, questioning, single, married, black, white, Asian, uncertain, stranger; but I can’t kid myself that there are not lines that I draw, ironically enough, mostly between those who agree with me and those whom I think are just plain wrong. And when I find my limits, when I close the door on understanding and the possibility of reconciliation, when I deny Jesus to them, that’s when I pass judgement upon myself. 

And let’s be clear: I am not ashamed of the gospel that I have received. I won’t wrangle over the words “black lives matter”, nor the good news that trans children are God’s beloved children. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to proclaim the love of Jesus, except when it comes to the people whom I find it hardest to love. But I know that “If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

If I deny the love that Christ has even for my enemies, I become like the people at the dinner table where Jesus sat, who prided themselves on being in his presence, while he only had eyes for the weeping woman at his feet. I become like the nine who were healed, who received mercy, who went on their way happy, no doubt, and whole, but who missed out on the profound and deep joy of the Samaritan who saw more clearly than any of them the depth and breadth of God’s grace, and fell on his face before Jesus in gratitude for the limitless love that he embodied.

Still, I am comforted by the last line of the hymn; perhaps that’s why its composers put it there, to remind us that even though we fall down in faith, Jesus remains faithful to us.

After the cock crowed the morning after Jesus’ violent arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter broke down weeping, knowing that he had just done precisely what he had vowed he never would: denied Jesus before the onlookers around the fire, afraid of what they might say to him, do to him, tell others about him. Peter wept; but after the resurrection, when Jesus found him, he greeted him with peace, with the peace that passes understanding. Even Peter fell, but Christ was faithful, because that is his nature, and his being.

And that’s a love worth shouting from the rooftops.

Amen.

Posted in lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , | Leave a comment