That is how this morning’s reading from Mathew ends in the version of the Bible we normally read from. And Leviticus, our first reading, was no better, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Same story in Matthew’s Gospel, when we are instructed to be perfect, we are told to do so because God is. The version we heard this morning from the Message soft peddles the perfection part. Eugene Peterson, the author of the Message, gives us; “This is what God does. God gives his best.” Peterson understands our modern day infatuation with being perfect…so he saved us from ourselves a bit. After all, let’s be honest, which one of us hasn’t fallen into the trap of looking in the mirror, the fashion magazine, the sports illustrated and lamented the fact that I’ll never be that perfect. The easy thing to do is just give up – who could blame you – I’m never going to look like Matthew McConaughey – I could maybe buy a Lincoln – but I’ll never look as good driving it!
Thankfully God has another kind of perfection in mind for you and me. So the question this morning becomes how do we reveal our god given perfection?
When we think of perfection in today’s world, we get all caught up in tangible stuff: The perfect job with the perfect colleagues, the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood, the perfect church, with the perfect priest (who likely looks more like Matthew McConaughey than me), the perfect hair that perfectly frames your face, the perfect swoosh on your new shoes that have just the perfect shade of blue…Toronto Maple Leaf Blue or maybe Toronto Blue Jays Blue .
Stanley Hauerwas, as you may remember is my favourite theologian, he grew up in small town Texas. Now life was pretty good and it was the kind of town where everybody knew everybody else’s business – and if you didn’t you just made something up! Old Billy was the craziest character in town – his lack of sobriety was legendary – as was his love of being baptized. You see every summer the tent meetings would be held. Some fancy city evangelist would roll into town, set up tents just like the circus, and for the better part of a week there would be something to do in the evenings for a change. Most of the town would roll out to see the show. And usually by Thursday night Old Billy would be whipped up into such a state of remorse for the way he’d been living that he’d ask, no he’d demand to be baptized. And the preacher would always comply. Folks had long ago lost count of how many times Old Billy has been baptized.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s worth stopping for just one second and note – all four of our Gospels begin with the story of John the Baptist – only two say anything about Jesus’ birth.
John is important – his message more so – because his sermon –“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” was picked up by Jesus and he made it his own.
We preachers love John – the honest amongst us all have that little voice in our heads that says go ahead do it – “”You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Trouble is we preachers came from “you brood of vipers.” We’re not better and likely we’re worse! And what if that brood of vipers were really no worse than old Billy from Texas; folks who know what they’re supposed to be about, who try hard to be about God’s work in the world, and just find themselves failing at it all too often. Are they – is Billy – really all that different than you and I?
We hear John the Baptist’s charge. And maybe it’s you and me and our way of being about the religious life that has to change. We are the ones who must look at the fruit of our faith and what it is or is not bringing about in our community. John’s questions aren’t for anybody else, but for you and me. Have we for too long stood on the shoulders of our ancient traditions and ancestry as Anglicans? Are we bearing anything that looks like good fruit for the commonwealth of God? If Advent is about preparation – maybe the preparation we need is some self –reflection on our faith and on our lives.
Christ the King is not a popular festival. We even changed the name to the reign of Christ, I suspect in part because we don’t get the concept of King’s anymore. A whole bunch of churches don’t even observe this day. We don’t give Christ the King presents or treat it as a holiday. Kings have become irrelevant to the affairs of nations, and the so-called Second Coming grows more remote with every passing miscalculation. One Christian group calculated the precise day of his return, October 22, 1844. They quit their jobs and took to the high ground. The day has gone down in religious history as “the Great Disappointment.” Already in the New Testament the complaint is raised in the letter of Second Peter, “Where is the promise of his coming?” We have waited patiently for Christ our King. Our heads are up. Where is he?
Today’s Gospel reading, which recreates a small segment of a conversation between Jesus and the men he was crucified with. It’s a little disorienting to walk into church—maybe you were a few minutes late—just in time to hear a Holy Week reading in late November! Have we slept through Christmas? It’s not a misprint. Andrea did not
read the wrong passage. The fact is, the majority of references in the Gospels to Jesus as king do not refer to his celestial power but to his trial and crucifixion.
This morning’s gospel reading is one of those occasions when what we think, what we want to being going on and being said – bears little or no resemblance to what Jesus was trying to get at. Our trouble is we don’t speak the language of the New Testament – our dilemma lies in that we’re dependent upon an English translation that sometimes leads us astray. I don’t want to disappoint but sadly this morning is one of those times.
We want to use this passage to justify ourselves – we do the very things Jesus is on about around here. But this passage isn’t about us. One of this worlds’ better biblical scholars put it this way concerning who Jesus was talking to: If “all the gentiles” excludes Jews, it must also exclude Jewish Christians and therefore Christians in general, who will be judged according to the criteria established by the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus. “ All the Gentiles” refers to pagans who are neither Jewish nor converts to Christianity. Jesus audience this morning is therefore not you and me – not the Church – but the world around us, our secular nonreligious, spiritual but not religious neighbours.
Trinity Sunday – a preacher’s nightmare really. Preaching on the Trinity can be about as exciting as have your teeth fixed which I did this week so I speak as one having some authority! At least the readings are good ones this morning. Good old Nicodemus greets us like an old friend.
His encounter with Jesus, however, can be as perplexing as the doctrine of the Trinity. “You must be born from above,” “ Born Again” and right from there we all know where the sermon might go. But lets just hang on for a second. Jesus’ is saying to Nicodemus that there is something missing or something not yet in his relationship with God. And here is a place from which we can start – after all who among us hasn’t felt that before – that something was missing in our lives ?
The Lion King was a pretty big deal in Toronto and I’m sure most of you saw the movie. Towards the end there is a scene where the spirit of the dead King says to his prodigal son, “ You have become less than you are.” And that’s us. Those words, and the tension they express between the “already” and the “not yet,” are as clear an indication of the Christian life as there is to be had.
You and I live mostly on the plain, the horizontal experience of human life, our lives are largely predictable and marked by routine. We leave little room in our schedules for the unexpected. Yet, every once in a while we get a hint of transcendence of something beyond the everyday and routine. Here is a tale recounted by the writer Frederick Buechner;
A year or so ago, a friend of his died….One morning in his sixty-eighth year he simply didn’t wake up. It was about as easy a way as he could possibly have done it, but it wasn’t easy for the people he left behind because it gave them no chance to get used to the idea…or even to say goodbye….He died in March, and in May Buechner and his wife stayed with the widow of his dead friend.
That night he dreamed about his friend. He was standing there in the dark guest room looking very much himself in the navy blue jersey and white pants he often wore. He told him that he was glad to see him, how much that he was missed.
Somehow he acknowledged that. Then Buechner said, “Are you really there, Tom.” He answered that yes he was really there. “Can you prove it?” “Of Course”, was the reply. Then he plucked a strand of wool out of his jersey and tossed it to Buechner.
He caught it between his thumb and forefinger and the feel of it was so palpably real that it woke him up. And that’s all there was to it…….
Next morning he told the story over the breakfast table, he’d hardly finished when his wife spoke. She’d seen the strand of fibre on the carpet as she was getting dressed. Buechner rushed upstairs to see for himself, and there it was – a little tangle of navy blue wool.
Why are we here? Why are we gathered in this beautiful space to remember a man who died a criminal’s death 2000 years ago on the other side of the world? What on earth has that got to do with you and me?
I had a teacher in seminary who had an unfortunate habit of starting each class by asking, “Why are we here?” It would always lead to an awkward, shuffling silence, in which no one had the courage or the bluntness to say, “I really have no idea, but you’re the teacher and we were all too polite to think of a good reason not to come.” This is a man who’d failed to learn the saying, “Never ask a question to which you might get an answer you don’t want to hear.” So it takes courage to ask the question, “Why are we here?”
Well, we’re gathered to recall one of the most awful events in human history. Let’s survey the scene. Here is a naked man. He’s been beaten to pulp. He’s bleeding hand and foot. His arms are spread–‐eagled so he can’t fight off the flies or wipe away the sweat and the blood.
He’s practically alone. He’s more or less isolated. He’s totally humiliated. It’s almost impossible to look, but we can’t take our eyes off of it. And at the climax of this ghastly scene, John’s gospel tells us, this man says one single word. “Finished.”
Finished. Think for a moment about the host of meanings of that word. Finished.
The project is finally edited and handed in. Finished. The marathon is run and I’m totally done in. Finished. The relationship is over and she’s told me she doesn’t love me. Finished. The work of art is completed and ready for display. Finished. The counselling has run its course and I can face the world without fear or bitterness or anger. Finished I’ve been told I’ve no longer got a job. Fnished.
What Jesus wants us to know about his death on the cross is nothing else than what has to happen when you are human. The cross is about us because it is what it means to be us. Lest we think that the cross is some sort of ultimate moment of divine atonement, Jesus sets us straight. What becomes human must die. What becomes incarnate, must realize its end. If in the two weeks ahead we think that there is some sort of miracle in Jesus being crucified, well, that’s not what Jesus says here. Do we want some sort of miraculous exchange to occur because Jesus died? Do we need reconciliation so bad that we think it can be that easy? Do we hope that Jesus on the cross will fix everything for us, between us and God, between us and Jesus, between us and every relationship that needs fixing? Think again.
Jesus reminds us here, before Holy Week, before even his parting words to the disciples, that his death is not the end at all. It is no accident that Jesus helps us make sense of the resurrection before he helps us make sense of the cross. The whole order of things is mixed up, turned on its head. Life is death and death is life. The cross is not the answer. It’s the question. It’s not the singularly grand moment that some want to make it into but a moment in the entire Jesus event, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, that is God so desperately wanting to be in relationship with us. Whatever fixation we have had on the cross, well, here Jesus blows it out of the proverbial water.
Because the cross is not the end. Not a very popular statement two weeks before Good Friday, is it? We need to milk the suffering and death of Jesus for all it’s worth, right? Because somehow that would justify our own suffering and pain and explain every relationship that ended in despair and disappointment. But Jesus won’t let us go there. And this is no fast track to the resurrection either. Not at all. Just the opposite. The cross is not the end; it’s the beginning and was from the beginning. It is about recognizing, accepting, seeing, that God knows a relationship with God is complicated. And that Jesus is no easy answer.
According to the Gospels the fundamental point in the preaching of Jesus was identical with the message of John the Baptist. It was and is a simple point; turn and trust. Turn your life around to God whose compassionate reign has come near and trust the message of the Gospels. It is the same appeal of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians; “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” in other words trust the message and turn your life around. Trust and turn.
Martin Buber a philosopher and theologian of some note expressed the initial appeal of the Gospels in these words; “The hour that has been predetermined for aeons has arrived, the rule of God which existed from the beginning, but which was hidden until now, has drawn near to the world, in order to realize itself when apprehended: that you might be able to apprehend it, turn, you who hear, from your erring ways to the way of God, come into fellowship with God, with Whom all things are possible, and surrender to God’s power.” Buber wants us to notice what he terms three principals of this message; realization of the kingship of God, a relationship of faith towards God, and that the reality of the relationship has its exclusive abode in the personal life of individuals. Continue reading
By the choice of readings this morning, the church is pulling out it’s big guns in an attempt to get our attention. There is something important to be heard this morning.
The first big gun is Isaiah, well second Isaiah to be specific. Did you know that there are three different authors of the book we call Isaiah? We didn’t used to teach stuff like that, too complicated for Sunday School. We’re not in Sunday School anymore! Remember this line from St. Paul
“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”
I was flipping channels the other night at about 1 a.m. and I have to confess I stopped to listen to Joyce Meyer preach, she’s a hoot! Theologically frightening, but fun to listen to. As best I can this is what I heard her preach; “ People keep asking me has God given you a word to preach to the Church – Sure God’s given me a word to preach to the church, (now at this point you have to know she stepped back from the pulpit, sat down on her bar stool for a good 30 seconds, gave a big sigh, and then got back up and shouted into the microphone ) “Grow Up!” She went on from there….but needless to say she made her point …. She wasn’t very original – or maybe God’s still trying to get our attention! Continue reading