Sermon – September 3, 2017

Homily: Matthew 16:22-28, Exodus 3:1-5, Romans 12:9-21

Thursday afternoons I’m on grandpa duty with Fiona and Maja.

Hanging out with four and six year olds can really open these old jaded eyes to see things as they see them. They ask lots of questions about the things they see. Difficult questions!

We were down in Mt Vernon with some time to kill before their dad would fetch them. This crusty old homeless man who hit me up for some money would be a rare sight out in leafy Ellicott City. “Why did you give him money? Why don’t they have a house? How come somebody doesn’t bring him home with them?”

Hard questions I did my best to answer, but really I would rather to dodge this invitation to initiate my granddaughters to the cruelty of the world. And seeing the nearby Walters Gallery’s open doors, I thought maybe I’ll distract them with a little cultural exposure.

Out of the summer glare into the cool marble vestibule, we are first greeted by two large naked and amply endowed Greek gods. Fiona and Maja thought this was uproarious good fun and it took some work to settle them down. I herded them down the nearest passage into what turned out to be section of medieval art.

“What’s that? Why is he nailed up like that? Why would they do that to him?” Here was a 18’ painting of Jesus crucified writhing in agony and gore. So much for my attempt to distract and amuse and dodge difficult questions!

The dark side of humanity is so numbingly pervasive we stop really seeing it. We become cynical and hardened, accepting the injustice and cruelties of the status quo as “reality”.

We have heard this passage from Matthew’s gospel so many times we scarcely take in just how jarringly shocking are Jesus’ words: “deny self and take up a cross”, “lose your life to save it”. Imagine how shocking is a young child’s glance at a picture of a crucifixion. How can they bear the excruciating pain and cruelty of it all? Jesus’ listeners knew well what crucifixion entailed and it was no tame metaphor for accepting life’s troubles patiently; Rome made sure that subject peoples had frequent reminders of what was in store for those who challenge their brutal power.

So Jesus intimates to his disciples that he knows well his fate. Jesus stares without blinking into the heart of human darkness. Peter protests.

Can we blame him? We don’t want to know and see that maelstrom of human cruelty that will condemn the innocent Jesus, not just then and there, but again and again and again down through the centuries. With tediously predictable cruelty the wheels of history grind down and grind up the powerless, the scapegoat, the outcast – in every age, in every place.

Little Fiona and Maja can’t understand that we are content to let some people sleep on the streets. Their innocence challenges are unthinking disavowal or habitual looking the other way. How would we explain to them the terrifying ugliness of recent events in Charlottesville?

Peter wants Jesus to avoid the fate he predicts. He wants Jesus to want what Peter wants and what we all want: power, recognition, prestige and the security that he imagines comes with it. Who wants to be powerless and vulnerable? But scripture tells us over and over that God is with the vulnerable and powerless. Jesus tells us that our only hope is to desire God alone and God’s purposes for humanity.

We all shrink from knowing and seeing clearly this very evident human reality. We are all like Peter, and Jesus’s rebuke is sharp and clear. “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block! You are setting your mind not on the things of God, but the things of humans.” We don’t’ get it, and everything depends on our getting it. We sorely need an upgrade on our consciousness. We need to see things as God sees them. Indeed as Jesus reminds us – we would do well to see things as young children do.

Today we hear of Moses tending his sheep in Midian – Moses doing his own thing, far away from all that unpleasantness in Egypt, far away from his own people, forgetting their enslavement and their oppression, not knowing, not seeing their terrible suffering.

Almost a distraction in his peripheral vision he sees a strange sight, a bush burning and not burning. That’s curious?!?

Moses hardly expects to encounter the living God in that bush.

But God is there and God makes it clear that he is God and a God who is very much aligned with humanity and history. This is not a metaphysical god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the God who hears the cries of powerless enslaved people being ground down. The flaming heart of God is joined to his suffering people.

And God has a big job for our reluctant recalcitrant friend Moses, work Moses would rather not do, a job he would much prefer to pass up. Like most of us most of the time, Moses would prefer to stay with his sheep, and stay fat, dumb and happy in our illusory routines. That’s not God’s way. God wants our eyes, minds and hearts open, alive and responsive to the painful realities of this broken world. Human suffering is God’s suffering and must truly be our own.

There are times when we gets a glimpse of what humanity can be, what human beings were meant to be, and in God’s good time will be.

All week TV’s glared with images of terrible flooding in Texas, thousands of poor people stranded in attics and rooftops seeking refuge from rising waters. But also witness the other side of our flawed humanity. Contrasted with the ugly tribalism of Charlottesville, there is the unselfconscious generosity, the self-emptying heroism of ordinary decent people coming to help their fellow humans in terrible circumstances. Thousands of people arriving with boats and trucks to help rescue stranded folks, ordinary people of modest means taking time off, and sacrificing freely their resources to help other humans in trouble, and making no distinction of race or ethnicity or creed or class. That is taking up the cross –loving as God loves, embracing the poor and dispossessed because ultimately we are all in the same boat, and we are all brothers and sisters and children of the same God.

Echoing the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, St. Paul says, “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Bless those who persecute you… rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

The great paradox is that the more human we become the more like God we become.

Theologian Walter Wink wrote: “And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN… It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness – which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, My Struggle to be Human, p.102)

May it be so. Amen.

Sermon – Jan 22, 2017

January 22, 2017
Jeremy Funk

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” This confession of faith falls near the end of today’s psalm, Psalm 27. This morning I want to reflect with you about seeing the goodness of the Lord here and now. I want to suggest that seeing the Lord’s goodness first has to do with trusting that God’s gifts to us are good, and second with seeking them out; then again trusting, then yet again seeking, then trusting again and seeking again—over and over.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” our psalm begins, “whom shall I fear?” God’s light recalls the first act of creation and reminds us that all life comes from the divine. God’s salvation recalls the Israelite liberation from Egypt and the journey to the promised land. Ongoing creative power and saving help are God’s fundamental, good gifts. They are life and freedom. They come to us because of who God is. When we trust God, we trust in one who by nature is life and liberation. So we do not need to be afraid. Across the Psalms we hear calls like this: You have saved my soul from death; and questions like this: Will the dust praise you? Of course the Christian claim is that God’s saving help has come to us in Jesus, who has died and risen to everlasting life. We too trust the God of the Psalms.

What are some ways that you pause to notice God’s fundamental, good gifts of life and saving help? Just this year Helen and I began writing down, on a new colored slip of paper for each day, something we are grateful for, or our happiest moment, that day. We’re collecting the paper in a jar and plan to read through our gratitude slips on New Year’s Eve. This practice helps me to stop and think about what I’m choosing to write down not only as a happy moment but also as part of the good gift of life God has given me.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” After we have acknowledged the fundamental, good gifts of God’s creation and liberation, we live in God’s presence seeking out more of God’s good gifts. Verse 4 of Psalm 27 says, “One thing I asked of the Lord,” says the psalmist, “that will I seek after: / to live in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life, / to behold the beauty of the Lord, / and to inquire in his temple.”

So the presence of the Lord is a place to live in, a space to inhabit.

Helen and I meet monthly with a small group from Stony Run Friends Meeting. When we gather, we sit in silence, and out of the silence eventually each of us will share, in a way of speaking, how God is at work in our lives. One member of our group has said that her spiritual practice is to remember as often as she can that she is always in meeting for worship. That is, she is always in church, always ready to notice how God is at work within and through her.

According to our psalm, one quality of life in the Lord’s goodness is beauty, “the beauty of the Lord.” Certainly in the Old Testament a defining trait of Israel’s God is that the Lord is invisible. So for this psalmist, where does God’s beauty come from? One commentator suggests, “It is possible that the psalmist perceived and experienced God’s appearance and presence (God’s face) via the sunlight that shone in the temple and reflected off gold decorations.”

Given that the Lord is the Creator, it may be helpful to take “the beauty of the Lord” more broadly. Wherever beauty is, through that beauty we also see something of God’s beauty. So when we worship upstairs in our sanctuary, through the beauty that there surrounds us, we glimpse God’s beauty. And whether we’re upstairs or down here, when we exchange the peace of Christ with smiles, hugs, and greetings we experience through them something of God’s beauty. In the children and babies among us too we see something of God’s beauty: in Mackenzie, in Amiyah, in Hunter, and in Austin—and in the new babies that will arrive. I experience something of God’s beauty when I listen to music that stirs me. Certainly all of us could tell of times when we have known something of God’s beauty through the beauty in this world.

Another feature of life in God’s goodness, our psalm tells us, is knowledge or wisdom. The psalmist says that besides gazing on the Lord’s beauty, he also wishes to “inquire at [God’s] temple.” Later the poet prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord.” This psalmist may have inquired of God through a prophet or a priest at the temple. This psalmist wants to hear God’s word. In Jesus Christ we hear God’s living Word, and through the Spirit this word lives in our hearts. If we listen with ready ears, we may hear God’s Word preached or God’s word spoken in truth and love between members of our community. If we listen with ready ears or read with ready eyes, we can hear God’s word in Scripture. I have spent time listening to the Psalms in an audio Bible so far this year, mostly at lunch. I find that listening to the words of Scripture helps me to remember God’s goodness.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” We see God’s goodness in the here and now by trusting God’s fundamental, good gifts of life and liberation, and then by seeking out or noticing others—signs of beauty, words of wisdom. Then we trust those and notice others, and then we trust and notice again and again and again.

In Psalm 27 the poet sings to a God whose nature and gifts enliven. But the psalmist faces enemies who want to do nothing but thwart God’s life-giving purposes: they want destroy him. That’s why he seeks protection in the temple. The psalmist is hounded by folks who want to put an end to him or at least to his good name—and those were pretty much the same thing in biblical times.

And despite all this trusting and seeking after God, even this psalmist wonders whether God will stick with him. He wouldn’t be human if it didn’t: “Do not hide your face from me,” our poet begs. “Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.” And finally, “Do not forsake me; even if my father and mother forsake me, you will not.”

Given our very human struggles to trust and seek after God, we need God’s own grace to imitate God with each other as best we can. We will do well to trust the Spirit of God in one another and to seek out God’s gifts in each other. I’ve learned a new angle on this practice from the improv introduction class Helen and I are taking. In just two weeks I’ve come to realize in a new way the importance of stepping forward in faith toward a partner in a scene and trusting in the goodness of whatever gift—in words, pantomime, or what have you—that the partner gives.

So let’s trust and seek out God’s goodness in one another. We already see goodness flourishing here, whether through Eva’s relationship with Franklin Square parents and children, or through Bertina’s nurture of this community. We notice God’s goodness in Andre’s leadership and in the music John and Anna provide to enrich our worship.

Our psalm winds to a close with the confession we’ve heard already today: “I believe that I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living.” Our psalm’s final lines call us to wait for the Lord. This is an active waiting, a courageous waiting. It’s the constant back-and-forth of seeking and trusting we’ve been talking about; it’s looking out for the goodness of the Lord. And I do see this goodness here, at Saint Luke’s. I’m grateful for the chance to keep trusting, looking, and waiting for it with you.