Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we start a new year in the liturgical calendar. This season is named for the Coming of the Lord. Or to be more precise, this season is named for the two Comings of the Lord. The first coming was about 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born. The Second Coming, when Jesus will return in glory to judge the world, is yet to take place. Liturgists debate about whether this season is a season of penitence or a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both. For spiritual preparation often includes penitence.
The world outside the church has already turned its eyes to Christmas. Trees have already been decorated. Strings of colored lights are going up on houses even as I speak. And Macy’s is already playing Christmas carols over its loudspeakers. But those of us inside the church are asked to slow down a bit, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the coming feast of Christmas, and more importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that, in the time of Noah, the people who were destined for destruction went about their daily lives oblivious to their situation until it was too late to act. Jesus goes on to say that the great Day of Judgment will come at an unexpected time. Even he does not know the day and hour. And so he counsels his followers to be ready at all times. We are expected to be alert to our spiritual situation—to be aware of the consequences of both our actions and our inactions.
Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we move on from the Day of Resurrection—only to transition to the topic of shepherds and sheep! In fact, today is commonly referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” For me, this day brings to mind the many paintings and stained-glass windows that we have all seen of Jesus’ cradling a snow-white lamb in his arms or of his carrying a poor little stray on his shoulders. When I was a child, this Gospel story reminded me of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb. It’s fleece was white as snow.” Not living in the country, these images were all I knew about sheep until I was well into my 20s. Imagine my shock when I first saw real sheep up close and in person. They weren’t as white as snow at all! In fact, they were filthy and smelly beasts. And I am told that they aren’t terribly bright! So, why on earth does Jesus compare his followers to sheep and himself to a shepherd?
Well, Jesus doesn’t tell us in so many words, but I have some educated guesses. I suspect that Jesus compares his followers to sheep, not because of our stupidity or our lack of hygiene, but because, like sheep, we have a tendency to stray. Recall Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.” Jesus, as our shepherd, is there to gather us back into the fold when we stray. And he will go before us to lead us to the green pastures and still waters mentioned in Psalm 23. Note that I said “he will go before us.” In the Middle East, the shepherd goes ahead of the flock, and the sheep are trained to recognize the shepherd’s voice and to follow his lead. Likewise, Jesus, as our shepherd, is one who has gone ahead of us, and we are expected to follow in his footsteps.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, we hear an odd parable about a steward, or estate manager, followed by three challenging sayings about mammon, or wealth. All relate to the topic of money, either directly or indirectly. Now, chances are that Jesus did not deliver all these teachings at the same time. Scholars think it more likely that Luke did a little editing and lumped them all together, since they shared a common thread. But the resulting juxtaposition can be a bit confusing.
Let’s look at the parable first. I have always heard this parable called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. But the title doesn’t really suit the story, since the dishonesty of the steward isn’t really the point at all. Perhaps a better title would be the Parable of the Daring and Decisive Steward.
The story starts out with a rich absentee landowner acting on a malicious accusation against his estate manager. The English translation doesn’t bring out this nuance of the Greek— that the accusation is, in fact, a slander. The rich man doesn’t wait to investigate the truth of the matter. Instead, he presumptuously fires his manager and demands that the account books be handed over. The estate manager realizes that he is ill-suited for hard labor and that he would be too ashamed to beg in the streets for a living. So he cooks up a little scheme! And ironically, the idea for his little scheme comes right from the malicious accusation that got him fired in the first place. So what does the manager decide to do? He calls in his boss’s debtors and asks them to falsify their bills by lowering the amounts that they owe. In other words, he decides to actually do what he had been falsely accused of—dispersing his boss’s property. The purpose of his scheme was to make friends fast, so that he would have some place to go after he was kicked out onto the streets by his boss. Now, somehow the boss finds out what’s going on. And we might well expect him to be furious and have his manager sent to the pokey. Instead, the rich landowner actually praises his scheming manager for his prudent and sensible action. The parable then finishes with Jesus’ comment that “the children of this age are more clever with regard to their own generation than are the children of light.”
A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on September 11, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.
On a crystal clear September morning fifteen years ago today, two airplanes full of people like you and me plunged into the Trade Towers in lower Manhattan where nearly 20,000 people were at work. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane plunged into a field in Pennsylvania. When the day was over some 3,000 people were dead.
So 9-11 has become a date to remember and this year it falls on a Sunday when the Gospel reading talks about the value of a single life. Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? … Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor, wrote these words in 1937; a few years later, he was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer knew the cost of discipleship, and he was willing to pay the price.
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus speaks of this cost in words that are both startling and intimidating. He enumerates three demands of those who would be his disciples: 1) hate your family, 2) carry the cross and follow him, and 3) give up all your possessions. Jesus goes on to tell two parables, one about a builder and one about a king, the point of which is “Don’t even start what you can’t finish.”
If we wish to call ourselves Jesus’ disciples, it behooves each of us to consider these three demands and to ask ourselves, “Can I finish what I have started?”
There is a common thread tying together the first reading from the book of Sirach and the Gospel reading from Luke, and that commonality is human pride, one of the so-called seven deadly sins.
Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha, was written by a wisdom teacher, someone we would probably call a “life coach.” His purpose was to teach young men how to get along in life without forsaking God. He teaches that human pride is a sinful forsaking of God our Maker and results in ruin.
Jesus, speaking at a dinner party, comments on the guests’ scramble for the best seats at the dinner table by telling a parable. The moral of that parable is “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Pride is clearly considered problematic. For English-speakers, the very word is problematic. Pride can mean “a reasonable or justifiable self-respect.” When we see parents displaying bumper stickers about their kids’ being on the honor roll, it doesn’t seem particularly sinful. When San Francisco hosts a Pride Day Parade, it is not meant to promote a deadly sin (though some might disagree with me there!). The kind of pride that is condemned as sinful is the state of mind in which a person lives as if they are the very center of Creation, that their accomplishments are unique, and that everything in this world matters only in so far as it affects them. Such a person forgets that everyone, and I mean everyone, is a beloved creature of God, and that every gift and every accomplishment ultimately derives from the Creator. But there is another way of looking at pride. One writer on patristic spirituality says, “[Pride’s] essential quality is not found in having too high an opinion of oneself so much as too low an opinion of everyone else” (Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves). I kind of like that!
Years ago, when my cousin Leah was three or four years old, my mother was babysitting her. And Leah noticed a Snickers bar on the counter. She asked if she could have it. My mother explained that it was the last candy bar and that she would split the bar 50/50 with her, each getting exactly half. Now, my mother wasn’t about to hand a paring knife to a child. Instead, she took the knife and asked Leah to point to the exact middle of the candy bar. She said she would cut where Leah pointed. Now, the bar was about five inches long, but Leah pointed about half an inch from one end. My mother asked her, “Leah, are you sure that is the middle, that both halves are exactly the same size?” Leah nodded. Then my mother cut the bar at that point and quickly snatched the larger piece. Leah cried, but she learned a lesson about greed. Now, this story of my cousin is charming, but it is also instructive: we learn that greed infects us early on!
This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. We have the great Old Testament story of Abraham’s hospitality to the Lord in the form of three travelers, a famous proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. We have the reading from Colossians, which begins with an awe-inspiring hymn about the Cosmic Christ. And we have the familiar, but disturbing, story of Martha and Mary, found in Luke’s Gospel. Well, taking into account the overwork that I regularly witness in this parish, I have decided to focus on those five verses from Luke.
The story is short. The details are sparse. And most annoyingly, the point of the story is not readily apparent. The result is that biblical exegetes throughout the last two millennia have offered a wide variety of interpretations.
Our early Christian ancestors were fond of so-called “spiritual” interpretations. One Church Father by the name of Origen explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). While not excluding some value to a more literal interpretation, he thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians who wanted to advance in spiritual attainment to abandon the world for either life in a monastery or life in a cave. St. Augustine, another advocate of allegorical interpretation, taught that Martha represented our current life in this world, where we suffer worry and distraction, and that Mary represented life in the Kingdom of God, where our carefree life will be focused solely on God.
My sense is that we here today might benefit more from a literal interpretation of this story. So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.
I don’t know about you, but my heart is still broken by the massacre in Orlando. I hear stories about a man who sang in a Gospel choir, another man who worked in a local blood bank, two men who faithfully served their country in the Army Reserves, an 18-year-old woman who graduated high school just the week before her murder…. The list goes on. Good people died, and the nations mourns. But the nation does not unite. Yes, after September 11 some 15 years ago, the nation did unite for a time. But not now.
Recently, a county commissioner in Alabama defied the proclamation of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to lower the flag in mourning. Why? Because he thinks that to mourn is to be weak. On an Episcopal Church blog, a man refuses to pray for the President of the United States by name, because he just can’t stand Barack Obama. Another person on that same religious blog criticizes a litany against gun violence (not against gun ownership, mind you, but against gun violence!), because if God fulfilled the prayer he might have to give up his guns. Democrats look at the massacre in Orlando and see a case of domestic gun violence by a mentally unstable man. Republicans look at that same massacre and see foreign terrorism at work. And so they defy each other and block any real change. The truth, of course, as it often is, is lost somewhere in the middle.
Why, you may well ask, do I bring up all this mess at church? What on earth does it have to do with the lectionary readings? Well, let’s look at those readings.
In the early church, sermons given during Eastertide were mystagogical. That is to say, they were designed to lead the newly baptized deeper into the mystery of our faith. Typically, they dealt with the two great sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Well, this sermon won’t be a lesson primarily about the sacraments, but I hope that it does lead you further into the mystery of our faith.
In todays’ readings, we hear about two spiritual giants: St. Paul and St. Peter. First, we hear the story of the conversion of St. Paul, when he encounters the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It is one of three accounts of Paul’s conversion found in the Acts of the Apostles, an indication of the story’s importance to the early church. In the Gospel reading from John, we get a strange story about Peter and his companions breakfasting with the Risen Christ on a beach, followed by an equally strange conversation between Jesus and Peter.
St. Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, started out his career as a righteous (one might even say self-righteous) Pharisee and a self-appointed vigilante. He took it upon himself to go from town to town and root out Christians from the local synagogues. And to his great shame later in life, Paul participated, albeit peripherally, in the lynching of St. Stephen the Protomartyr.