Archives: Ordinary Time

What I Have in Common with Herod and What Herod Has in Common with Jesus

I want you all to just gather yourselves for a minute.

Settle down comfortably in your pew, and then put on your seatbelt. Because today I’m going to do something I don’t often do.

Today’s sermon is a pulpit-thumper.

I am going to pound my fist and rant and rail about sin and depravity and moral rectitude.

Who’s that sneaking out the back already? I haven’t even started yet!

It’s funny because Episcopal priests are not traditionally fire and brimstone preachers, but the reality is we do have to take time to talk about sin, because it is a destructive force in our lives.

It is profoundly destructive to us, and as we see in our gospel lesson today, profoundly destructive to others.

I don’t think you need me to spend a lot of time outlining Herod’s sins and weaknesses, they are all too obviously on display.

In this one short episode, we get to know a man who is ruled by his love of power, his lust, his lack of respect for God’s law (having married his brother’s wife), his fear of what others think of him, and his rash and impulsive decision making.

But what interests me most about Herod in this story is his relationship with John the Baptist.

It can be interpreted in a number of ways, but where I want us to take it this morning is through the lens of John the Baptist as Herod’s conscience.

This is often the role of the prophet for an entire society, reminding us of uncomfortable truths and how far we have strayed from what God asks of us, but I want us to take it to a very personal and individual level with Herod and John.

The reason I want to do that is that we get a surprising amount of detail about their relationship.

And it is a relationship. Theirs is not an impersonal governmental encounter in which they never meet face to face, all actions coming through paperwork and rubber stamps.

John and Herod know each other. Continue reading

Charleston: Do You Not Care That We Are Perishing?

I have felt physically weak ever since I heard the news out of Charleston.

Nine shot down and killed at Bible study by a white man because they were black.

It is as though another gun violence massacre has drained me of all hope.  I don’t know how to say, “We cannot let this happen again,” without it sounding like a cruel joke.

And then I read our gospel again for today and felt like I’d seen a ghost.

The words, the story, already powerful in their own right, struck me to the heart when I thought of them in conjunction with this tragedy.

Scripture can sometimes be our only solace in times like this.

I believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, but I’m not sure I know how to find it today after what has happened this week.

But just like the victims at Emmanuel AME church, we are people of faith, and just like they were doing moments before they died, together we will go to the Word of God in search of truth and hope. Continue reading

Striving for Sheephood, Stuck in Goatdom

I am always incredibly convicted by this story from Matthew 25 encouragingly called “The Judgment of the Nations.”

Any time I read the words “eternal punishment” attributed to Jesus, I get a little antsy.

It is probably not a coincidence that usually take my last vacation week of the year beginning on Christ the King Sunday every year.

What makes it so hard to hear is that Jesus is being really clear in this text.

He expects us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.

That is a very concrete set of tasks that do not need a whole lot of interpretation.

And I know I’m not living up to those tasks.

I feel rather goatish. Continue reading

The Kingdom of God is Not a Talent Show

Mark, a friend of mine who is a priest in Denver, wrote on Facebook this week, “When writing a sermon, it’s not that helpful or productive to keep saying to yourself, “This really isn’t my favorite gospel passage…”.”

And then Bill, a priest in Alabama, wrote back, “I often say exactly that in a sermon. Chances are it’s not the congregation’s favorite either.”

So I don’t know how you feel about the Parable of the Talents, but it pretty much left me cold this week aside from the usual interpretations about how fear limits our potential for ministry.

The traditional interpretation is to see God or Jesus in the role of the Master.

The idea is that the slaves with the two and five talents are good and faithful and did fruitful ministry because they were brave and took risks.

And the last slave who buries his talent is weak and foolish, and has wasted his ministry opportunity because he was afraid.

But we need to call this into question by taking a closer look at the Master on whom we have projected the person of God.

The Master is actually not a very good person. Continue reading

As For Me and My Household, We Have Decision Fatigue

Today is a day of choice in our lesson from the Book of Joshua.  And it’s also time to talk about choice for ourselves.

In the Book of Joshua, the people of Israel have a very a simple choice: worship the gods their ancestors worshipped in their former lands, or worship the one true Living God who had called them by name.

Our choices are a lot more complicated than that, but they come down to the same issue in the end.

We as modern Americans are bombarded by choice not just every day, but multiple times an hour.

The combination of our many resources, our fast-paced lifestyle, and our plugged-in technological interfaces subjects us to information overload.

We experience what psychological experts call “decision fatigue.”

Decision fatigue describes the phenomenon in which our capacity to make good decisions wears out if we have to make too many decisions, too often and too quickly in a row.

The more decisions we have to make, the poorer the quality of our decision making.

We begin by being very rational and careful about our decision-making, but by the end we’re choosing based on our desires rather than our values. Continue reading

The Law and the Prophets Depend on Us

At first it seems as though there are very few surprises for us in our gospel today.

The scene is familiar to us: the Pharisees and Sadducees are stirring up trouble with Jesus, as usual, and Jesus masterfully handles them with a mixture of kindness, authority, and flawless command of the scriptures.

And, of course, Jesus’ answer to their question, what is the greatest commandment, is very familiar to us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It’s hard to preach on this passage, because essentially, Jesus has wrapped up the substance and goals of our entire Christian life in a few short sentences.

Love God and love your neighbor. That pretty much covers it.

Simple, straightforward, easy to remember, and the work of a lifetime.

But the wonderful thing about Jesus is that every word he speaks is so rich with multilayered meaning that we can mine it for years and be struck by new revelation every time we open the gospel.

What intrigues me, as I study these familiar words this time around, is his final sentence: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Continue reading

The Pharisees’ Dwight Freeney Complex

Jesus is just in no mood to be trifled with in this Gospel.

He is a busy man and he does not have time to fool with a bunch of sneaky Pharisees who have a bad attitude.

You can just feel his frustration when he says, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

The Pharisees are a bunch of grown men, and more than that, they are religious professionals who presumably have duties to which they are supposed to be attending.

And yet they find time in their busy schedule to waylay Jesus in the street, an upstart rabble rouser who they’re really not supposed to be acknowledging, and try to trip him up verbally into either alienating his supporters or being arrested by the Romans.

It would be like if Dwight Freeney, all-star defensive end formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, saw a high school freshman quarterback at the mall and tried to sack him.

It’s overkill, it’s inappropriate and it’s just tacky. Continue reading

The Dog Ate God’s Homework

“The dog ate my homework.”

This familiar phrase is one of the most classic examples of avoiding responsibility for a stupid action. But it points to a very human trait that gets the better of all of us at one point or another.

There are various ways of describing it. There is a phrase that originated in Chinese culture that we now take for granted in English: saving face.

There are actions that are taken in order to save face, sometimes called cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face or shooting oneself in the foot.

The basic idea is that we, as human beings, will do almost anything to avoid admitting that we were wrong.

One of the greatest examples of this happening in my own family is a story my father tells of being taken along on a vacation with his aunt, uncle and cousins. They all grew up in Atlanta, and the big trip to Florida was planned amid much excitement.

It’s a fairly straight shoot from Atlanta to Florida, pretty much due East.

Uncle Frank would not admit he was going the wrong way until they crossed the Alabama border. Continue reading

Leaving Middle Management: Choosing Downward Mobility

Jesus’ parables have layer upon layer of meaning within them, and today’s story about the vineyard owner has quite the cast of characters.

Let’s search for where we are in this parable, and where we’d like to be.

So the basic plot elements are as follows:  the vineyard owner plants a vineyard and works quite hard at making it state of the art.  There is a fence, a winepress, and a watchtower.

Then he entrusts it to this group of tenants and leaves the country.

These tenants appear to have been a very bad investment, however.  They are angry, violent, greedy people.

Each time the landowner sends his slaves to bring in the harvest, they are beaten and killed by the tenants.

Not even the vineyard owner’s son escapes the same fate.

Jesus ends the story asking what will happen to the wicked tenants when the vineyard owner confronts them, and the chief priests and Pharisees predict a sticky end for them.

As we begin to mine the text for meaning and guidance, we are of course to begin by placing ourselves in the role of the tenants.

It’s not a very flattering picture of ourselves, but let’s explore it.

Of course we do not go around beating and murdering people.

But do we always welcome with open arms the people and situations God sends into our lives? Continue reading

The Adventure of the Undergrad Weekend Monastics

Changing our minds.  That’s not something we look on favorably.

In politics, if someone changes his or her mind on an issue, that person is labeled with the unflattering term “flip-flopper.”

We equate changing our minds with being indecisive, weak, unable to plant ourselves on firm ground and stand up for what’s right.

I think all the bluster around changing our minds is probably covering up a deeper simple fear of change.

The chief priests and elders are certainly stuck there in our gospel story this morning.

They feel like they have to defend the integrity of their tradition and hierarchy against Jesus, a stranger who is coming in and offering the word of God  and healing people without permission from anyone.

They can’t change their minds in front of the crowd.

They can’t look weak and indecisive by admitting they were wrong about John the Baptist.

But they do end up looking weak as they fall neatly into their own trap that they had set for Jesus.

Jesus is recommending that we change our minds, and he tells us a parable about it.  We have the one son who says he’ll help but doesn’t, and the son who says he won’t help in the vineyard but changes his mind and goes and does it.

Everyone immediately understands which son did the will of his father.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’”

“You did not change your minds,” Jesus says.

You saw something great, but you did not allow it to act upon you and change your mind. Continue reading

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