Thunder Twins

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

You’ve got to love James and John, these sons of Zebedee. They just keep coming after it. When the disciples talk about who the greatest one is, they start the conversation; when they get Jesus alone, they ask for the places of honor; in one of the gospels, even their mother gets in the act, trying to get the best places for her boys. They even had a great nickname: Boanerges, which means “Sons of Thunder.” Basically we’ve got the Thunder Twins here.

Jesus loved these guys. He put up with all their tricks, even though it was a bit puzzling at times. Why would they even WANT to be at his right and left hand in his glory, when we read in the Gospel of John that Jesus was glorified on the cross? A lot of people don’t realize this, but when Jesus chose his disciples, he didn’t choose them because they were the greatest geniuses. Not even because they had “potential.”  It appears that these guys thought a lot of themselves, and perhaps they thought that they were in a movement where it would mean a lot to be the chief lieutenants, maybe Jesus’ designated successors. They clearly didn’t get what Jesus was about.

I’ve sometimes noticed that when Jesus told his disciples that “the first shall be last,” we in the Episcopal Church decided that that meant that we should put the Bishop, or whoever was wearing the fanciest clothes at the back of the procession and make that the place of honor. Jesus just shakes his head. Jesus chose for his disciples pretty much a random sample of goofballs, illustrating that the Kingdom of God is made up of people who receive God’s mercy. They weren’t all the same, but none of them were grand or great. Each in his own way had failings and shortcomings, and Jesus loved each of them.

The Thunder Twins were a couple of guys pretty full of themselves. Insofar as I can tell, their resumes included being assistant fishermen on their father’s boat on an inland lake, until one day, in the middle of the day, they just left everything to go follow some guy. And they got a nickname that probably indicates they were loud talkers. They weren’t great strategists or rhetoricians, neither wealthy nor skilled at obtaining wealth. But they thought very highly of their own prospects. I’ve known a few such guys. Once or twice I met him in the mirror. But Jesus loved these guys, not because they were full of themselves, but because he loved them. They were human and he was their friend.

They may well have known that when Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” that he was referring to difficult times ahead. They loved him, they were with him, even when they didn’t get it … at least, not completely.

Of course, once the issue of preference and status was raised, the whole crew got into a row. It might not have occurred to some of the others to ask to be at Jesus’ right hand, but now that you mention it, it’s a good thing to be offended about. Jesus stops it. “It is not so among you.” The Kingdom of God is not one of preference and advantage. When God is in charge, each of us receives mercy and love enough, no matter how needy we are. If our need is to lord it over others, then Jesus brings us more mercy and a new way to be God’s children and servants.

Here at Calvary we are beloved by God, each in our own quirkiness, and our own neediness, and in our own goodness. We have the opportunity, in being ourselves, to grow into the generosity and the welcome of God. We have the privilege to give, to help, to serve others, not out a need to have status or rack up achievements, but from the overwhelming mercy and love of God. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but living humbly as one who is loved and who receives great mercy makes it possible to discover and share greater gifts than we would have in seeking to be first. There is no need to hold on to the things that will increase our own status or power—we have more to give. Here at Calvary there is an abundance of gifts, of people, intelligence, of good lives lived, of youth and possibilities ahead, of prosperity that can be shared. There is no need to be fearful or to seek further reassurance, Jesus is here, he serves us and invites us to serve his world. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This is said another way in our epistle reading from Hebrews:

He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;… Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”

He deals gently with all of us.  We see him dealing gently with the Thunder Twins, even when they mistake their faults to be leading virtues. He deals gently with us, even when we are afraid or mistaken. We live together in God’s mercy, and in that we can take joy.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Being Christian Today — Calvary Flemington Forum

Being Christian in the World We’re in: Session 6 Over the past five weeks we’ve discussed Christian faith in History, in the Hebrew and Jewish Scriptures, in the New Testament, in Theology, in the Church and Sacraments. Today let’s talk about being Christian in the World We’re in. The circumstances we’re in We are nearing […]

via Being Christian Today — Calvary Flemington Forum

You lack one thing

A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing…”

The Gospel today presents a fascinating story—a man runs up and kneels before Jesus. Jesus invites him to follow him. The man goes away crestfallen. The parts in between present a challenge to me as a preacher.

First off, there is quite a bit about money in here, and we know it’s always a losing proposition to talk about money, especially in church. But my real problem is that there are two usual approaches that are taken with Jesus’ challenge to this young man, and neither is satisfactory: one approach is to explain away the hardness of Jesus’ words “sell everything you own and give it to the poor” and make it into something more palatable and less like the Gospel and the other is to push a dramatic vision of discipleship that just is not relevant to how people live their lives. But the Gospel, particularly this Gospel is relevant to how we live our lives, as individuals and as a Christian congregation.

In this conversation, Jesus looked at this man and he loved him. The lesson we read makes a point of this. Frequently the Gospel does not attribute motives or feelings to Jesus or others. Here, it is quite clear, Jesus is not trying to catch this guy out, or reveal his hypocrisy or anything else—he loved him. What follows is an invitation: give up what you have and follow me. It is not that far off from what Jesus said to Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee when he saw them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “follow me.” Of course, what they left behind was their fishing nets and long hard days of physical labor, while this young man was told to leave behind a substantial fortune. But the invitation was the same. The man was shocked and crestfallen because he had asked a straightforward question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and he had in mind that he would get a straightforward answer. And he expected that that answer would be within parameters that he could expect and which he could adjust his life to fit.

Jesus’ answer was straightforward enough, but it was way outside the man’s expectations. The young man hadn’t asked how to be a hero, or an apostle or a martyr; he just wanted to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Until you think about it, that seems like a fairly small thing, like having good teeth and staying out of jail; just part of a properly run life.

But eternal life begins now, and with Jesus it requires things we don’t expect, and perhaps haven’t budgeted for. We certainly see it among Jesus’ disciples, like when Peter realizes that Jesus is expecting to suffer and be crucified as the result of his ministry. Peter is shocked and tries to talk Jesus out of it—“Get behind me Satan!” is Jesus’ response. Following Jesus has turns in the path that we don’t necessarily expect, and being faithful requires us to stay with him when those turns become difficult.

As an illustration let’s look into these questions of money and goods which come up in today’s Gospel. I’m not even going to try to explain about camels and needles. In our own lives we expect to get along and to prosper as long as we do our share. And in this way we have a lot in common with the man who approached Jesus. And Jesus, of course, may have something in store for us, that we are not expecting, just as happened with that man. Our expectations get wrapped up in what we expect money to do for us, or likewise how a particular shape of our material well-being is a necessity for life. That is the tragedy of this man, this prospective disciple. Jesus presents an opportunity to look at this differently.

Eternal life is on the one hand more secure than the prosperity of this world, but on the other hand it requires us to let loose of our expectations of security and prosperity.

The future of Christianity in the next hundred years will expand and open before us, and it is not likely to be the same as the last two hundred years. There is no longer a presumption in this country that people ought to attend church or that they ought to be Christians. As Christians, we can no longer rely on institutional inertia to keep church services going to have the faith passed down to the next generation. It is only in following Jesus on his road into the unknown future that we can inherit eternal life.

So what does he require? That we sell everything? Well, perhaps more…perhaps our expectations of what church means, and what we get from that may be turned upside down. We gather as a community of Thanksgiving—thanksgiving for this Jesus whose generosity in giving himself models for us how our life can be filled with generosity and thanksgiving. The question of money and possessions is not a question of anxiety or fear with Jesus, rather what we have is an opportunity to live lives of generosity and thanksgiving, both individually and corporately.

Finding what Jesus is calling us to is not a matter of reading a few verses of scripture or a 10-minute sermon. It is not a matter of literally copying what Peter, Andrew, James, or John or this rich young man was told to do. It is a matter of courageously accepting the call to eternal life and the real difficulties of discerning what of our expectations to sacrifice, so that we can confidently live that life of thanksgiving that Jesus has for all those who he loves.

“Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

Because of your Hardness of Heart

A sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

He took the children in his arms and held them. He kept them safe, so they knew they were loved, and he blessed them. And not because they were cute; or that he liked the way that they played.

In the last couple of weeks, the Gospel has been showing some of the bad sides of Jesus’ followers. And that can be uncomfortable because they resemble us, more in the ways that they are annoying and problematic than in any other way.  It continues today. We’re in a new scene in the Gospel, they had walked to a new region. There was this controversy, which I’ll get back to, and then the disciples decided to be Jesus’ “handlers.” They knew how annoying little kids can be, wanting attention, making noise, looking out for what they want first. So the disciples decided to clean things up and push away those kids and their parents. Jesus would have none of it. He knew how annoying adults could be, wanting his time and attention for themselves, talking over others to get their opinions in first, manipulating everything for their own self-interest.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

The only thing that really distinguishes us adult disciples from these children is that we think that we are different, grown-up, and in charge.  And Jesus holds us in his arms and blesses us. It is not our in-chargeness that he holds and blesses, it is that we are his children, whether well-behaved or not.

People like to always get an advantage, to show that they are just a little ahead of everyone else. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to outsmart God, or to at least trick themselves into believing that whatever scheme or privilege they want to hold onto is God’s eternal plan.  So these Pharisees come up and ask Jesus about marriage and divorce. Almost always, these confrontations have an agenda, the debates at this time were about when it was legitimate for a man to divorce his wife.  Sometimes it helps to translate the Greek words literally, it shows the frame of mind and assumptions that were going on: They asked Jesus when it was permitted for a man to dismiss a woman.  There was no question about how a woman could get rid of a man, just how the guy could be justified in getting rid of a woman. The implication is that the woman might become a burden to a man, so how could he get rid of her? The various rabbis had different positions on this, and your answer to this question defined where you stood as a teacher in Israel. So Jesus said, “What did Moses say?” The Pharisee’s answer was a man could write out a certificate and divorce the woman—they were waiting for Jesus to explain what exactly that meant, when and how, and for what reason. This is important, of course, because a guy has to figure out how to do what he wants and remained justified, and it’s important for lawyers and scholars and pastors to work it out so he does these things and still feels good.

Jesus surprises them. He doesn’t explain how to make the law of Moses work. Instead he says that it’s a colossal fail. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Divorce in this culture was a convenience for men. For the women it was a financial and social disaster. Their livelihood and prospects were pretty much completely cut off. The teachings of the rabbis and the certificate of divorce were intended to control this somewhat, to make the men more accountable, and to give the women who had been sent out at least the theoretical chance to re-marry and recover. But Jesus turns to the men and says: conforming with this regulation does not justify you, you don’t get your financial advantage, or comfort or your new young wife through appealing to Moses.  Jesus refers to the creation—that a man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. A family is formed and it is not up to the arbitrary choice of a person to break that up. You can’t just make your choices holy by appealing to some provision in the law—that woman is part of you, not a possession to be discarded. But things do happen in this real world, divorces occur, families are torn apart and people are hurt. Because of our hardness of heart, provisions have to be made. Provisions are made for people to live. He took them up in his arms, and embraced them, laid his hands on them and blessed them.

The love of God and the grace of God is not so that we can be grown-up, dominant, have the upper hand or be rewarded for being the cleverest. We enter the Kingdom of God as a little child: loved, forgiven, given another chance.  Loved; not encouraged in hurting other children, but in being cared for and learning to be a caring person. God gives his grace, and provisions for us to make it in this hard world filled with difficult choices, not to make it okay to harden our hearts, but to let us live, to experience becoming one flesh, one body in Christ. He embraces us and blesses us, not because we are the grown-ups, or the experts or the leaders, but because we are his children, partaking of his flesh, and being healed so that we can go out again into that world.

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever, and ever. Amen



Jesus & Theology — Calvary Flemington Forum

Being Christian in the World We’re In Session 4: Jesus & Theology “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5 This passage from the book of Deuteronomy is the […]

via Jesus & Theology — Calvary Flemington Forum

Casting out Demons

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s gospel. And it’s not just the next scene—it’s part of the same message. Last week we heard about how the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus teaches them that being the greatest doesn’t matter at all, and he shows them a powerless and neglected child who is the real example of how to welcome God. It’s not about winning, it’s about serving and welcoming.

I can sort of hear the disciples trying to defend themselves: “But Jesus, there was this guy …  he was casting out demons. We told him to stop, because … because he wasn’t with us!”  Basically, Jesus says, “No.” Not only is it NOT the most powerful and prestigious person who is first in the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not brought by some winning team. There was this man they didn’t know who was casting out demons. I have said at other times that I believe that there are indeed demonic forces abroad in this world—those forces of hurt and hate that nobody will take responsibility for. Everyone looks the other way and shakes their head and says, “That’s awful.”  But no one sees themselves in those awful things that happen, even though the suffering is human suffering caused by human society.  Casting out demons is essential work in healing this world. It is not easy work.

So this man in the Gospel reading was unknown to the disciples, a stranger, and they didn’t trust him—how could he be casting out demons in the name of Jesus? The disciples knew how special Jesus was, and they felt pretty special being his followers. John, one of the inner circle, says that he took it upon himself to put this guy in his place, after all, it was Peter and Andrew and James and John who were called by Jesus, not this exorcist.  John looked to his special relationship with Jesus and saw it as a reason to forbid the man from healing.

We live in a world much in need of healing. If God is to heal the conflict in our country and our world, it will take far more than our intelligence, or teaching, or effort or opinions. Salvation of this world will come from more than one team, or one set of interpretations. Prayer is powerful, it changes things and it heals.  But it is not just the prayers of one person that God uses, but of all of creation.

Let’s go back and remember the part of this reading that we heard last week—it’s right before this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” It is the care and healing of those who are powerless, neglected and ignored that Jesus cares about. He’s still holding the child when he says to the disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Gentle Jesus, talking to his friends and followers; not the Pharisees or his rivals. Being a Christian is not about being on the winning team, it is about being humble enough to serve. But when I say humble, I don’t mean looking down at your shoes and doing whatever those that are more confident, powerful or privileged say. Christian humility is having the confidence to stand for the gospel of service, of honest generosity in welcoming Him who came for us and gave his life for us on the cross.

There was a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The woman who testified, spoke clearly and courageously. She answered all questions forthrightly, even when her answers didn’t conveniently make her look to be the hero or to have all the information perfectly worked out and under her control. She described, and was questioned in great detail about the most traumatic event in her life. She was courageous and truthful. After her testimony, no one said that she was not credible or was not telling the truth. She opened her testimony by saying that she was terrified. She was terrified because she knew what would happen to a woman who spoke up about being sexually abused by a powerful and privileged man. She knew about the demons that would be unleashed … and they were. Christine Blasey Ford spoke up for the sake of casting out demons and the healing of herself and all of us. But those demons find a way to come out in full force—the rage, self-pity and turning blame back onto the victim or anyone who supported her are what she feared and what happened.  This sort of demon emerges when truth is told about a subject that power wants and expects to remain silent. I’ve experienced it in the church, and it’s not limited to any one political party. Indeed, it is not so much the individuals but the nexus of power itself—the demons if you will—that controls them. Sexual violence against women is an aspect of keeping some who are powerful empowered and disempowering those who are vulnerable. Dr. Ford was courageously vulnerable in her testimony, and by it many are freed and healed, the ranting of the demons notwithstanding. Casting out demons and being healed takes tremendous courage, and its cost is real. And like the disciples learned from Jesus, the power to cast out demons does not always come from the sources we expect, or those who support us.

We follow Christ. And Jesus is not interested in who is in control—he is interested in the healing of this world. “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.”

Being Christian in the World We’re In — Calvary Flemington Forum

Session 3: The Christian Scriptures of the New Testament What these sessions are about We are having a series of brief discussion sessions at Calvary this Fall that are meant to explore being Christian both throughout history and in the times we’re now living. Anybody can come—it doesn’t matter what age you are, or whether […]

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