Sermon: Epiphany 5 RCL B – “Fulfill”

Photo by Travis Grossen on Unsplash

Several years ago, at a passion play, an incident occurred during Jesus carrying the cross. A man in the audience was heckling the character playing Jesus, throwing out jeers, taunts, and dares. Finally, the character could no longer tolerate the heckler; he dropped the cross, went over, and punched out the man. The director was aghast and, after the play, pulled the actor aside and told him in no uncertain terms that he was never to do that again. But the next night, the same heckler was back, and the same thing happened again. Jesus, this time, had to be restrained. The director called the actor in and gave him an ultimatum of quitting or keeping his composure. The young actor assured the director he would keep himself under control. On the third night, the heckler was present again and taunted even stronger than the two previous nights. The man playing Jesus rose to his full stature, gritted his teeth, and told the heckler, “I’ll see you right after the resurrection.”

Today our Gospel reading was from Matthew 5:13-20, and they are a part of the Sermon on the Mount, following immediately after the Beatitudes. Verses 13 through 15 of our reading, which speak of salt and light, make for good sermon material. Verse 20—“For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”—also makes for a good sermon, but verses 16 through 19… those are best left alone. What did they say? 

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

You wouldn’t be the first if you were confused by the meaning of that statement. In fact, it is still up for debate, but perhaps we can come close, and it primarily hinges on our understanding of the word fulfill

When we consider the word fulfill, we might think of fulfilling an order or fulfilling the requirements for something, but to fulfill can also mean “to bring to an end” (Merriam-Webster) or to bring “to its intended meaning.” (Word Biblical Commentary, p.106) When Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, he was saying that he came to bring the Law to its end by fulfilling it as it was intended. When Jesus spoke these words, the fulfillment was a work in process. It would not be completed until the Cross.

It was there, on the Cross, that every letter—every jot and tittle of the Law was fulfilled and completed in the life and teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10) Love fulfills the Law, and there is no greater act of love than Christ giving Himself on the Cross that we might have life in him. It was then and there that the Law was brought to its intended end, but it was also there that you and I were called to a much higher standard because before he departed, Jesus gave us a new commandment so that we might be His true disciples. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Jesus brought the Mosaic Law to its intended meaning, so he did not abolish it; he lived it—every jot and tittle—and He asks us to do the same. Jesus said, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said, “The Pharisees lived the Law externally—they ‘clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.’ (Matthew 23:25b) The Pharisees were all show, but on the inside, not so good. So if like them, you only give lip service to this new commandment, then you are no better than they are.” 

“No,” says Jesus. “You must fulfill the Law by loving one another as I have loved you. And ‘greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’” (John 15:13) That is the new standard. So… how ya doin’? Is that how you are living your life? Is that the Law you are fulfilling in your life? In answering this, most of us could probably agree with Ernestine, the telephone operator, Lili Tomlin, “If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?” Yet, would Jesus have given us this mandate to love as he loves if it were impossible? And if it is, then why don’t we?

I won’t speak for you, but I will speak for myself. I don’t know how to love like that. I don’t even know if I have it within me, but I also know that’s the devil within giving me an excuse. A way out of applying my body and soul to live in such a way. If I can set aside those excuses, then why? Well, I can give you some philosophical explanation or discuss the heresy of Pelagianism or something along those lines. Still, if I am honest with myself, the answer to why I can’t love as Jesus loves is—deep down inside—I don’t want to. I want to want to, but I also want to live my life according to my rules. There is this war inside of me, and the good guys don’t always win. But… that does not give me permission to stop wanting it. To stop trying. As a disciple of Jesus, I have a standard set for my life, and that standard is Jesus, so He must always be my aim. Regardless of my successes and failures, I must never stop trying.

George Herbert wrote The Country Parson. Included at the beginning was a “Note to the Reader.” Here, Herbert writes, “I have resolved to set down the Form and Character of a true Pastor, that I may have a Mark to aim at: which also I will set as high as I can, since he shoots higher that threatens the Moon, than he that aims at a Tree. Not that I think, if a man do not all which is here expressed, he presently sins, and displeases God, but that it is a good strife to go as far as we can in pleasing of him, who hath done so much for us.” (The Classics of Western Spirituality edition, p.54) We aim for the stars. We aim for Jesus. There will be days when we come close to hitting the stars, and there will be days when—regardless of how hard we try, how many times we’ve been corrected with threats of losing everything,  we will raise our fists and shout, “I’ll see you right after the resurrection.” On those days, the One who fulfilled and completed the Law will fulfill and complete our weak efforts through his grace and mercy. Those are the days when we get back on our feet, confess our sins, and try once more to fulfill the New Commandment to love as Jesus loves.

Let us pray:
God, our Father,
You redeemed us
and made us Your children in Christ.
Through Him, You have saved us from death
and given us Your Divine life of grace.
By becoming more like Jesus on earth,
may we come to share His glory in Heaven.
Give us the peace of Your kingdom,
which this world does not give.
By Your loving care, protect the good You have given us.
Open our eyes to the wonders of Your Love
that we may serve You with a willing heart.

Sermon: Epiphany 4 RCL C – “Speaking in Love”

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

Triboulet was the court jester for King Louis the XII and Francis I. One day, as the king passed, Triboulet smacked him on the backside, which enraged the King. The King said that he would forgive him if he gave an even more clever response for his actions. Without missing a beat, Triboulet said, “I’m so sorry… I mistook you for the Queen!” When he was sentenced to death, the king allowed him to decide how he would die. Triboulet chose old age. Astonished, the king set him free.

An old proverb, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke” even if the King does look like his Queen. That said, no matter how the truth is spoken—jokingly or sincerely or in anger—it is not always appreciated, but that does not mean we stop speaking it. In writing to a friend, Flannery O’Connor (she was a devout Catholic) wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” (Source) But it is still the truth, therefore it should be spoken. This is what was happening in our Gospel reading today.

Jesus is speaking to the people of his hometown, Nazareth, but the people respond by essentially saying, “Who do you think you are? We’ve known you all our lives and you’re just a carpenter.” In response, Jesus does not perform any miracles for them, instead he speaks the truth to them by reminding them of two separate incidents in their history.

The first incident deals with the prophet Elijah. There had been a famine in the land and all the Israelites were suffering, but when Elijah demonstrated the love of God through a miracle, it was not an Israelite who profited. It was the “widow at Zarephath in Sidon” who was a gentile.

In the second incident, Jesus reminds them about the Hebrew prophet Elisha. An army commander was suffering from leprosy in the land, so he came to Elisha seeking to be healed. Elisha had pity on him and told him to bathe in the Jordan River seven times. The commander did and was healed. Who was this commander? Naaman the Syrian, another gentile.

In reminding the Israelites of Nazareth of these two events, Jesus is speaking the truth. He is saying that God the Father has many times sent to them those who could bring them into the saving knowledge of God, but that they did not listen or return to God, so instead of blessing the Israelites, God chose to bless the gentiles. Jesus is saying that God is about to do the same thing. “If all you want are miracles, then God will give the knowledge of salvation to the others—to the gentiles.” Did he tell them this just to make them mad? No. That was the outcome—they tried to throw him off a cliff—but Jesus was trying to force them into seeing the error of their ways and to repent. I don’t know of many who like to be corrected for the errors, but when Jesus revealed the truth to them, they found it repulsive.

This incident shows us that we must be prepared to speak the truth, but to also hear it for ourselves when we need to be corrected. How do we go about this?

Within the Christian faith and civilized society, there are rules of engagement. There are things such as Robert’s Rules of Order, but there are even greater underlying rules. St. Paul speaks of these greater rules in his letter to the Ephesians: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

“Speaking the truth in love.” It means being sincere and honest with one another, but before we can speak to one another in such a way, we must first mature as Christians and become a community that is founded in forgiveness and mercy. We must be those who see the love and image of God in the other. Why? I’ve seen way too many people who claim to be speaking the truth in love but use their opinion or version of the truth to browbeat those who disagree with them. The truth we are to speak has nothing to do with personal revelation or preferences. The truth is founded in Holy Scripture and revealed in love. If we are mature in our faith and are certain of our love and motives, then we should go to one another and speak openly and honestly; keeping in mind that, before we go off and speak to someone, we must also be prepared for someone to come and speak to us in the same manner, because it is certainly not about being the one who is always and insufferably right.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another. It is inconceivable that things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another… The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not given help… This recognition [as sinners and God’s child] gives to our brotherly speech the freedom and candor that it needs. We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.” (Life Together, p.105-6)

Will these kind of tough conversations always go the way you plan them and will they always have the results you were hoping for? Absolutely not, but as Bonhoeffer said, we have a Christian responsibility to one another. Will everyone walk away feeling happy and delighted with the conversation? Not a chance and even if both are firm in their Christian faith, there’s still the chance of someone being hurt. As I said earlier, no one enjoys being corrected. You might even find that the one you’re speaking to becomes angry, but if you have their trust, built up over time, and were truly speaking the truth in love, the other will likely come to understand that you were not accusing them, but were in fact… loving them.

What underpins both the giving and receiving of speaking to one another in such a way is humility. My friend, Thomas a Kempis writes, “Do not think yourself better than others. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. Turn your attention upon yourself and beware of judging the deeds of other men, for in judging others a man labors vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins; whereas, in judging and taking stock of himself he does something that is always profitable.” In other words, speak the truth in love to yourself before you decide to do the same to another.

St. Peter in his first epistle tells us, “Love each other deeply from the heart.” It is in loving each other in this way that we are able to come alongside one another and speak those things that are sometimes difficult to hear. If done in faith and charity and humility, the result will not be a pushing apart, but a much deeper binding of us one to another and to Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray: 

Lord, make us an instruments of your peace:
where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Sermon: Proper 21 RCL B – “Cup of Water”

Photo by Joseph Greve on Unsplash

There was once a king who was very sick and whose wise men told him that if he covered himself with the shirt of a contented man, he would be healed. He sent his emissaries throughout the length and breadth of the country looking for a contented man. At last, several months later, they returned empty-handed. “Was there no-one in my realm who is contented?” asked the king. “Yes, Your Majesty,” they replied. “Then where is the shirt?” asked the king. “Your Majesty, he had no shirt.”

The human body is about 60% water, which is why we often hear the importance of drinking enough water.  We must stay hydrated, because dehydration can cause all sorts of problems within our physical systems.  But our bodies are smart and most of the time, when our bodies need more water, we will become thirsty; however, by the time this sensation kicks in, we are already entering the stages of dehydration.  You see, there are sensors within our body that tell our brains when the salt level in our blood is too high, which is an indicator of dehydration, so it sends a signal to the brain that the water levels have dropped and the brain initiates the sensation of thirst that we experience.  What’s even more amazing is that the brain can detect and determine how much fluid we’ve consumed so that the thirst sensation can be turned off almost immediately.  The brain is literally regulating the level of water in our system to keep the body physically satisfied or contented.  Not too much and not too little.  Amazing.  If only the brain could work that way in other areas of our lives.

Last week I read South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.  It is an interesting little story, but toward the end, one of the characters describes the west of the sun part of the title and it has to do with farmers in the Siberian tundra.  She tells about how the farmer gets up everyday and goes out into the fields and plows the gardens.  As the farmer plows, he can see nothing in either direction as far as the horizon.  Just the fields.  His day consists of getting up each morning, having his breakfast, plows until noon, has lunch, then back to plowing until the sun sets in the west.  It happens day after day except in the winter when he works on indoor jobs.  However, one day as he is plowing, something breaks and dies inside the farmer’s spirit.  At that point, the farmer tosses the plow to the side and starts walking toward the west.  Headed to the land west of the sun, thinking there must be something more out thee.  Like someone possessed, the farmer walks day after day, not eating or drinking until he collapses on the ground and dies.

We can lead such lives as this.  Lives that are never contented, causing us to always be searching for something west of the sun.  Never satisfied.  Always thirsty.  It can occur in so many areas of our life.  Relationships: having a solid and loving relationship, but always looking for something that might be better.  Being invited to the prom by someone known to be good and kind, but waiting to give them an answer to see if someone better might ask. Having a job that provides for every need, but thinking there are others that provide more prestige.  This is a terrible state to be in, but it is not limited to our worldly pursuits.  It occurs in our faith as well.  We experience a dryness in our faith.  We don’t believe that God hears our prayers.  We become discontent in our relationship with Him.  Like the Psalmist, we call out:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

But instead of realizing that he is the source of all our souls desires, we stop what we’ve been doing and we start searching for what is west of the sun.  Something we believe will be more fulfilling or entertaining or less challenging.  We go in search of something that does not involve the cross that we are called to carry or the sacrifices that must be made.  In that search for more, our souls become dehydrated and we become disoriented and confused, we lose our strength and our vision becomes cloudy, we can no longer walk or even stand.  Left in such a state, we will die, but in such a state, we can no longer care for ourselves.  We are in desperate need of someone giving us a cup of water for our souls.

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

What does that cup of water look like?  Is it an attempt to solve the issue for them, by telling them what to do?  “You need to drink more water.  You need to do this or that.”  No.  That’s not what they need.  Do they need a piece of your mind?  “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times… etc.”  That’s not what they need either.  If their soul is thirsty, do they need you to quote scripture to them?  “You know, Jesus says, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’  So, what you need is Jesus.  That’ll solve your issue.”  Truth is, that’s not it either.  What they need, in most cases, is for someone to simply bring them a glass of cool water; and what we are saying is… they need—more than anything else—is to be loved and to know they are loved and to be shown they are loved.

I believe that people go searching west of the sun in search of fulfillment because they are dying of a spiritual thirst.  They are dying because they do not feel loved and we can be the ones who give that love to them.  

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, help us to spread the fragrance of your love everywhere we go. Flood our souls with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly that all our life may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through us and be so in us that every soul we come in contact with may feel Your presence in our souls. Let them look up and see no longer us but only You!  Amen.

Article: 365 Days of Easter

treeBorn a Jew, Billy Crystal may not have the best insights into the Christian faith, then again, he may have it pretty well worked out. With regards to Easter, in his book Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys, he writes, “Two thousand years ago Jesus is crucified, three days later he walks out of a cave and they celebrate with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps and beautifully decorated eggs. I guess these were things Jesus loved as a child.” Leading up to Easter, a quick glance around the stores will only confirm his conclusion, but perhaps there is a bit more to it.

When we think of Easter, we often consider it to be that one glorious Sunday of celebrating the Lord’s resurrection. Yet for many, Easter is a season – Eastertide – lasting 50 days. If they had been around, Jesus very well may have enjoyed a chocolate bunny and Peeps, but what he “loved” as a child and as an adult, were the people of God. What did he hope to accomplish through this love? Redemption and adoption. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5). No. Easter is not simply about sugary confections. Easter is the time we celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord, the conquering of death, and the receiving of our full inheritance as sons and daughters of God. So is this great gift something we should only celebrate for day? For only the fifty days of Easter? What would our lives look like, what would the church be like, how would our world change if we lived into the resurrection not just for one day or 50 days, but 51 days? 150 days? 250? What would happen if we lived into the resurrection of Our Lord 365 days a year?

Jesus declares, “I am resurrection” (John 11:25). This is not an event held in suspension to be celebrated for a few hours on a specified day. Instead, it is an event that should permeate everyday and every aspect of our lives. Yet, like so many opportunities in our lives, daily living the resurrected life requires choice and intentionality. Daily living the resurrected life requires us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus without hesitating or questioning where He might be leading. It requires us to boldly say with Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Finally, daily living the resurrected life requires us to love. In Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, Brennan Manning states, “For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” What is the “radical demand of the Christian faith”: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). That command is not for the faint of heart! It takes great courage to truly love, because to truly love means to risk everything.

Make the decision. Be bold. Say, “Yes,” to the risenness of Jesus. Not just for a few hours or a day, a week or even a year, but every day. Every day, live the resurrected life God has blessed you with.

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