This sermon is from the First Sunday of Advent (Year C), November 28, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. You can listen to the sermon here.

Christian worship is meant to be multi-generational. I love that I can look out at you on any given Sunday and see church members who are 5 years old and church members who are well into their 90’s…and everyone in between. We have members of each extant generation present in our worship: Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation. Members of each generation rubbing shoulders with and rubbing off on the next.

I think each and every generation asks itself two essential questions. First: “What kind of world have we inherited?” And second: will we be the last generation?

When reflecting upon his 1989 number one hit, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel recalled an encounter he had with a young Sean Lennon. Lennon and his friend were bemoaning the state of the world they were inheriting from the generation before them: foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz. Joel found himself reflecting on his own generational woes and worries with great ease and so he put pen to paper. In fact, it was the first time Joel had written full lyrics before the melody. 

Despite the fact that it is tied specifically to the late 1980’s, Joel provided a timeless classic by poignantly tracing the concerns of multiple generations. His verses capture the fears and insecurities of every decade from the 1940’s through the 1980’s. Here is a verse that will touch on things all of you remember: 

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

And the fun didn’t actually stop in 1989. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was even the inspiration for many pandemic memes last March. “Today was like if ‘we didn’t start the fire’ was a day,” the TV writer Matt Warburton tweeted on March 12, 2020, and shortly after a therapist named Brittany Barkholtz went viral when she took him up on this challenge: “Schools close, Tom Hanks, trouble in the big banks, no vaccine, quarantine, no more toilet paper seen.”

It’s all very funny, and yet as Lindsay Zoladz commented in the NYT back in August, there is something strangely comforting about the lyrics. She writes:

It can be easy to feel that we are currently living through the nadir of human history — and hey, maybe we are! But Joel also wrote this song to capture a certain kind of generational déjà vu that has existed since the dawn of civilization. As he [Joel] reflected to his biographer: “Oh man, we all thought that too, when we were young: My God, what kind of world have we inherited?”

Zoladz captures the deep truth underlying the two questions each generation asks itself. At the end of the day, each generation is caught between a sense of “generational deja vu” and a fear that they are on the precipice of the “nadir of human history.”

Part of the occupational hazard of being a human on this earth is the ability to ask the question, “Is this the end of the world as we know it?”…and are we feeling fine? We notice the fire blazing on around us and we don’t want the blame for its origins, but we also have a sense that we can’t extinguish it. So what do we do?

We enter Advent once again.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

Just a week after celebrating Christ the King Sunday, we find ourselves thrust into the middle of a lengthy section in Luke’s gospel about end times and last things. You may have been expecting a lesson from one of the Gospels with Jesus’ genealogy or even John the Baptizer’s birth narrative as we prepare to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, but instead we are thrown once more into that nebulous in between of Christ’s first Advent and his second, of the already but not yet…and we are invited to swim in a sea of hope. We are encouraged to see the fire of present day history burning around us and to remain steadfast in our faith, to employ constant vigilance, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves…we first need to set the scene in Luke’s Gospel as we start to wade through these cryptic, apocalyptic, and eschatological words from Jesus.

This passage about sun, moon, and stars from Luke 21 is actually the tail end of a much larger section spanning from the beginning of chapter 20 and running until the end of 21. Luke constructs his story in such a way that these two lengthy chapters cover just one day in Jerusalem, near the temple after the Triumphal Entry and before the Last Supper. If you read these two chapters with that in mind, you will see that Jesus makes a great number of comments which will get him into serious trouble with the powers-that-be. 

The interaction between Jesus, the crowd, and the Scribes moves from taxes and widows to foretelling about the destruction of the Temple. I cannot overstate how significant this would have been for Jews living in Palestine in the 1st century. Like I said last week, the Temple was the meeting place between heaven and earth; it was the center of Israel’s religious life, national identity, and political future. David wanted to build the Temple, Solomon did build the Temple, Zerubabbel came to repair the Temple after exile, and Herod the Great built the second over the span of 46 years. All would-be or want-to-be messiahs would have to cleanse the Temple…which Jesus does…but talk of the Temple being destroyed would have been anathema. 

The popular consensus was that the Temple needed to be cleansed of Roman influence and Gentile impurity, but it could certainly never be destroyed. Such language was not in the lexicon of 1st century Jews. Jesus, however, cleanses the Temple from religious practices instituted by the Jews and then he talks about how there will be a day when all of these stones are thrown down and not one is left standing on another. 

Quick side note: we know that the 2nd Temple was destroyed in two different ways. It was destroyed in a very physical sense when Jerusalem was sacked in 70AD. It was destroyed in a spiritual sense with the crucifixion of Jesus when the curtain hiding the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. In this passage, Jesus is referring to the physical destruction of the Temple and not the metaphoric destruction after his death.

Jesus describes the signs that will predate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the verses immediately preceding ours. There will be a siege, war, hunger, earthquakes and persecution. The language here sounds very scary and very it’s the end of the world as we know it–apocalypse now–sort of stuff. It would be all too natural to assume that Jesus is describing the end of the world. Only, when Jesus shifts to talking about the coming of the Son of Man in our passage, he is making it very clear that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple are not signs that the Last Day or the Day of Judgment has arrived. 

Jesus is verbally creating the tension between the already and the not yet, 
Between the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world, 
Between the resurrection of the Son of Man and the return of the Son of Man. 
Living on this side of the resurrection, we can now say that we are caught living betwixt and between the first Advent of Jesus and the second Advent of Jesus.

And this is why we read this Gospel passage on the first Sunday of Advent. The church has too easily and too regularly separated the birth of the King from the return of the King. We need to hold these two Advents together: as we re-tell the birth story of Jesus, we remember that he has come and we proclaim that he will come again.

Jesus’ comments about the sun, moon, stars, sea, and waves are very much a description of an end-time apocalypse. The focus here, however, ought not to be on the signs of cosmic or global distress. Jesus’ words are not intended to cause fear and trepidation in his followers but to incite a sense of hope. The focus needs to be on the coming Son of Man. The Son of Man is coming with “power and great glory.” For those who know Jesus to be the Son of Man, this is a moment of excitement and fulfillment, the return of the King means the world will finally be put to rights. It is as though Jesus is saying, “Even when the fire is burning while the world is turning, even when it appears that all hope is lost, I am still with you.” 

How many of you need to hear that message today? How many of you have grown weary of the news cycle? How many of you are suffering from another bout of Covid fatigue? I want you to think about what’s going on in the world right now: a riot in Portland, the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the Ahmaud Arbery verdict, the news that Covid is beginning to surge again up north, the threat of the Omicron variant, gas prices are soaring and inflation is on the rise, there is still incredible unrest in the Middle East, a car crashed into a holiday crowd at a Christmas parade, people were killed during a concert, do I need to go on? 

That doesn’t even begin to cover 2021; those are just the headlines of one week in November 2021!

In the midst of all of that, we have our Lord saying, “I will never leave you nor will I forsake you.” We have Jesus’ comforting words that he is putting the world to rights and one day he will make all things new. The news cycle, the tragedies of the world, and the Covid pandemic do not, cannot, and will not have the last word: the last word belongs to the Suffering Servant who has redeemed his people.

Jesus then makes a comment about “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” This is one of the sentences which biblical commentators and theologians love to squabble over: is Jesus referring to the generation who is alive at that present moment? Is he promising that all of this take place before his disciples die? If so, Jesus was pretty atrocious at making prophecies since we are sitting here 2000 years later and his return has not yet happened. Wink wink.

No! Luke uses the phrase “this generation” 11 times throughout his Gospel. Each time it is in a pejorative sense. Jesus is making comment about this “faithless and perverse” generation as a way to encapsulate all of the naysayers and skeptics, those who are actively revolting against God, those who are leading people away from God, and those who are committing the very sins against which Jesus is teaching and preaching. There were highly intelligent people who witnessed the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, the cataclysm of his crucifixion, the power of his passion, and even heard rumors of his resurrection, and who rejected him out of hand.

That generation will not pass away until all of this has come to pass. 

He concludes the paragraph with a message of steadfast hope: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

What words has God spoken that will not pass away? 

Now we can turn backward to the prophet Jeremiah. Known as the Weeping Prophet because he exhibited tenderhearted compassion toward the plight of his people, Jeremiah was born into a priestly family during the last days of the Southern Kingdom before it fell to the Babylonians.

Jeremiah’s prophetic words are full of tears, pain, sorrow, and pleading, but “one also finds startling promises of hope, hope found not merely in the possibility of human repentance, but grounded squarely in the amazing grace of God.” Our passage opens up with such a statement of profound hope: The days are surely coming

As with all prophetic voices, Jeremiah looks to the horizon of the future for his hope. Martin Luther King had a dream in which Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred” became the “dream fulfilled.” 6 times did he say, “I have a dream that one day…” The protagonists in Les Miserables fluctuate between “one day more” and “one more day,” as they await their own day of judgment. 

The days are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when God will fulfill the promise he made to the house of Israel. This is the basis for all of Advent: the proclamation that God will remember his promises to his chosen people.

Jeremiah has spent the majority of his opening 31 chapters announcing and pronouncing a doom and gloom reality for the Kingdom of Judah, the promise that their sins will be judged. Judgment and doom and gloom, do not have the last word, however. You have to imagine the phrase, “The days are surely coming” as the climax of the crescendo in a symphony. Jeremiah has been building up to this point and now his message explodes with hope: God will remember us! God will raise up a branch of David and his righteousness will save us!

The promise was iterated and reiterated throughout the Old Testament: first to Adam and Eve and then to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. God’s promised people would be given a promised land, and a promised future, to the end that the rest of the world might see, know, and believe…and God made a covenant with his people which he would never break. Jeremiah is foretelling of the fulfillment of this covenant. Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant and that is what he is talking about in our passage.

In Christ, all of God’s covenantal promises are coming true. Exile and captivity will not change that. The sacking of Jerusalem will not change that. The destruction of the Temple will not change that. Covid, political and racial unrest in America, turmoil in the Middle East, and elements of global distress will not change that.

Jesus is very clear with his followers: Be on guard. Be alert. Pray.

These are instructions, I believe, he is giving to us this morning as we start Advent, again. “Vigilant, expectant faith rules out a business-as-usual orientation toward life.” Because we remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his coming in glory, we are unable to live life according to the cultural milieu of the day or the societal status quo. 

We still stand between the two Advents: Christ has come and Christ will come again. We may even be situated between “generational deja vu” and the “nadir of human history.” Our charge, however, is to stand firm in our faith and not to wilt away because the proverbial fire is burning around us. 

Advent is an opportunity for us to embrace and grab hold of the fulfilled promises of God: the holy, promised, and anointed one has come to restore all things, to put all things to rights, and to reconcile God’s people to himself. A vigilant, expectant faith has eyes peeled at all times for the movement of God’s spirit. A vigilant, expectant faith is not satisfied with how things have always been. A vigilant, expectant faith does not shrink or melt when adversity comes. A vigilant, expectant faith says, “Surely the days are coming…” and it lives as though those days are nigh and that they are real.

This sermon is from Sunday, November 21, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. You can listen to the sermon here.

Let’s be honest: Christians have always found it hard to “fit in” in popular culture. Sure, we have had positive moments of creating beautiful art, music, and literature, particularly during the Renaissance, but “pop-culture” and Christianity are hardly synonymous.

There was Rollen Stewart who showed up at sporting events throughout the 80’s with his rainbow wig and “John 3:16” sign…only to have a 8-hour standoff with police.
We had the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets…only to discover that “what Jesus would do” looked exactly like what everyone else did.
Then Christians started putting the fish symbol on their cars…only to let everyone on the road know that Christians were bad, anger-prone drivers and then the Darwinians outwitted us with their evolved-animal-eating-fish decals.

About 10 years ago, t-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers emerged with the same letters plastered on them: “NOTW.” Standing for “Not of this World.”  It was a reference to Jesus’ remark to Pontinus Pilate about the origins of Jesus’ Kingdom. While I may have adopted the old mantra of “D’s get degrees” while taking Greek senior year of college, the slogan really irked me. I knew enough about Greek to know that Jesus’ statement about his kingdom in John 18 should not be translated as “of this world” but rather “from this world,” as the NRSV has translated.

This difference may seem inconsequential to you, but it matters because Jesus’ kingdom is coming from the Father and it is utterly for this world, in this world, and even of this world because Jesus is for, in, and of this world. The “NOTW” crew seem to believe that this earth is just our island home, a temporary holding tank until we ascend to the heavenlies from whence Jesus’ kingdom came…WRONG!

Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, is lovingly referred to as Christ the King Sunday. Before we turn the year over and begin Advent anew, we are reminded that Jesus is the King reigning and ruling over all things. The lectionary gives us three distinct lenses through which we view Christ’s kingship.

Year A depicts the King who has come to serve as the Shepherd of his people and who identifies with the “least of these”
Year C portrays the “King of the Jews” who forgives his murderers and promises paradise to a thief, all while nailed to a cross
In Year B, however, we are given this rather fascinating albeit brief and obscure interaction between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Despite the fact that we so regularly cast him as villain, we rarely discuss Pilate.

Born Marcus Pontius Pilate, he served as prefect (not like the prefects in Harry Potter) or governor of Judea from 26-36AD while Tiberias was Caesar. What we know about Pilate comes from descriptions by Josephus, Eusibius of Caesarea, and the New Testament.

Josephus describes “a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case.” Pilate had powerful friends in Rome, namely the Chief Administrator, but he did not ingratiate himself to his hosts in Judea. He sought to abolish Jewish laws and “incurred the enmity of Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine by insulting their religious sensibilities, as when he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted.” (Both quotes are from Brittanica…still working on adding footnotes)

Pilate doesn’t know what to do with Jesus. He vacillates between the whims and fancies of the religious crowd and his own fear of political insecurity. Pilate wanted power and he wanted to make sure he didn’t wasn’t the odd-man-without-a-chair when the music stopped.

By the time we get to our passage this morning, Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, prayed his high priestly prayer in the Garden, was arrested by the cohort, put on trial before the Sanheddrin, found guilty of blasphemy, and handed over to Pilate for sentencing.

The crowd takes Jesus from Caiaphas, the high priest, to the outside of Pilate’s headquarters. They do not enter because they don’t want to defile themselves before Passover. Pilate tries to push the matter back on the Jews, saying, “Use your own law to judge him” but the priests remind him that they cannot institute the death penalty.

In my sanctified imagination, I envision Pilate placing his head in his palms and sighing in exasperation. I imagine him being filled with a gut-level irritation directed at the Jews and a baseline anxiety over how he is going to handle this situation. I can hear him muttering to himself on his way back into the headquarters, “You had one job!”

The job in front of him is simple-but-not-easy: to ascertain whether or not this itinerant preacher has committed any crime worth dying over. Oh, and by the way, Passover is just a day or two away so the atmosphere is charged with an electric political-religious tension.

Pilate begins his interrogation by lobbing a softball: are you the King of the Jews?

Actually, we have to stop here. This is not an innocent question. It is loaded with meaning for both the Jews and the Gentiles. To trace the significance of this title for the Jews, we have to go back to that fateful moment in 1 Samuel when the people implore of Samuel, the priest, “We want a king like the rest of the nations!” 

Despite the fact that God had been their redeemer in Egypt
Despite the fact that he had gave them the law at Sinai and tabernacled with them
Despite the fact that he had delivered his people again and again with the judges
And despite the fact that he had made covenantal promises with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…

The people want to have their own king in order to be like everyone else. You could add “having a king” to that failed-attempts-at-pop-culture list…

God approves their request and the time of the kings starts. First there was Saul who was good until he really wasn’t; then we get David who is profoundly flawed but a man after God’s heart and the archetype of Israel’s king; then we get wise Solomon who starts off so strong but ends by worshipping false gods. 

The wheels are off the track at this point. 

The unified kingdom will split into North and South. The Northern Kingdom will hang on until they are conquered in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom would hold out for another 136 years until the Babylonians took over in 586 BC. By the time Jesus and Pilate are talking, there had not been an autonomous, authentic, independent King of Israel in over 750 years, since Hoshea. There had not been an autonomous, authentic, independent King of Judah in over 600 years, since Zedekiah. There had not been an autonomous authentic, independent King of the unified Israel in over 1000 years, since Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.

In 164 BC, the Hasmoneans (read: Maccabeans) revolted and attempted to reestablish the kingdom of Israel. They failed. 100 years later came Herod the Great. Herod was known as “King” and he would be the “King of Judea.” Though he was called “King,” Herod was still a puppet of Rome, answering to Caesar. Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch, is actually the leader over Judea during Jesus’ final days. As Kings of Judea, the Herodians were technically the Kings of the Jews….and the Herodians served at the pleasure of Caesar, the true king of everything, the emperor reigning over a vast and expansive empire.

So, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews…it is a loaded question. He is trying to ascertain if Jesus’ camp is staking a claim in Judea against Herod? Is Jesus claiming himself to be the King of Judah like the Southern Kingdom? Is Jesus claiming himself to be the King of a unified Israel (that’s what the people want)? Or, is Jesus making  claims over and against Caesar? 

That’s what is at stake for Jesus as Pilate asks the question. 

No matter how you cut it, anything short of “no” would result in some form of treason or some claim against another king, prefect, or emperor.

When Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question, a solid rabbinical practice which our Lord used throughout his ministry, Pilate responds by saying a) he is not a Jew and b) that Jesus has been handed over his own nation and priests. He then asks the question: what have you done?

As in, what-could-you-have-possibly-done-to-get-the-religious-leaders-of-your-nation-to-turn-against-you-and-attempt-to-get-me-to-sentence-you-to-death?

Before we look at what it means to be “Not From This World,” allow me to give you Jesus’ list of purported crimes, as alleged by the scribes and Pharisees. Please note that some of this is serious and some of it is satire-and-irony…

  • Jesus healed on the sabbath
  • His disciples do not wash their hands before eating
  • His disciples break off stalks of grain on the sabbath
  • Jesus cast out demons because he’s in cahoots with Satan
  • Jesus had dinner with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes
  • Jesus let a woman anoint his feet with expensive perfume
  • Jesus wasn’t excited about paying his taxes in a timely, joyful manner
  • Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed tombs,” “blind guides,” “a brood of vipers,” and “hypocrites”
  • He touched lepers and he raised the dead
  • He met with Gentiles and Samaritans
  • He valued and elevated the ministry of women
  • He forgave sins
  • He cleansed the Temple–and not from Gentile influence but Jewish corruption
  • He said he would destroy the Temple
  • He said he was the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God

That is quite the list of offenses! Each one of these offenses was added to an ever-growing list and the straw that broke the camel’s back was the cleansing of the Temple. The Temple was the meeting place of heaven and earth; it was the place where God’s presence formerly resided and it was the center of Israel’s religious and political life. The Temple needed cleansing after Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated it–in fact, any would-be king or messiah would need to cleanse the Temple as part of his campaign for power. Jesus cleanses the Temple but his ire is directed at the Jewish leadership who have corrupted the entire system…not at the Gentiles/Romans who are ruling over them. Make no mistake: THOSE ARE FIGHTING WORDS.

Back to John 18.

Jesus says his kingdom is not from this world. If it was from this world, his followers would be fighting to stop these judicial proceedings, fighting to stop the Jewish leaders from silencing Jesus. Jesus is letting Pilate know that his movement is not like the Hasmoneans/Maccabeans from two centuries ago. His people are not going to take up arms and swords to fight against mighty Rome…

…Jesus is actually making a far stronger statement. Jesus is letting Pilate know that his not-from-this-world-kingdom is about to be inaugurated, that the invasion is about to start, and that there is nothing the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, High Priest, King of Judea, prefect of Judea, or the Emperor Caesar can do to stop it.

Jesus’ Kingdom is coming to this world, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus said it from the beginning (Mark 1): his Kingdom is coming.
Jesus said it when he taught the disciples to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus said it at the end in front of Pilate: my kingdom is not from this world.

In John 18, we are presented with a poignant juxtaposition of power.  The representative of the Son of God, that is, the alleged divine Augustus, examines the true Son of God, the one who has come to usher in his kingdom. The power-and-position hungry prefect of Judea, the one who is backed by Rome but hated by his subjects, is thrust into an interview with the Son of Man, the Messiah, the holy-and-anointed-One come who has come to deliver people from sin and to fulfill the promises made to David and Israel.

Do you remember Jesus’ first words spoken in Mark’s gospel? It has been almost 10 months to the day since we first read these words: ​​“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

We started our trek through Mark’s Gospel with a proclamation of the kingdom and now we end the year with an announcement that the kingdom is coming. 

On this Christ the King Sunday, this last Sunday of Year B, we have come full-circle. 

If Christ is King, what does his Kingship and Kingdom look like?

I know I am asking you to think back to one paragraph of a sermon almost a year ago, but do you remember the meaning of the word “kingdom” in Mark 1:15? 

​​”The Greek lends itself more to the idea of God’s dominion and rulership, the fact that he rules, or the power by which he rules. God’s dominion has drawn near. The fact and form of God’s power on earth has been made fully and perfectly manifest in the person of Jesus Christ…Jesus, the new Adam, reestablishes the authority of God on earth and in so doing he ushers in the new age, the new aeon in which God will reign as king.” (PCT, Epiphany 3B Sermon)

When Christ is King, the lame walk, the mute talk, the deaf hear, the blind see, the sick are healed, the lepers are cleansed, the demons are cast out, the dead are raised, and broken lives are made new. Christ the King, the true ruler of the universe, the firstborn of all creation, the son of righteousness, and the inheritor of the covenantal promises walks willingly and knowingly to the cross to be enthroned. The title over his head might read, “King of the Jews,” much to the chagrin of religious leaders, but make no mistake: he is exalted as King of the Cosmos.

His kingdom has come and is coming–it is inaugurated but not yet fully realized–and he has equipped, anointed, and sent his followers out into the world to work for the propagation of his reign and rule. 

Surely you didn’t think you were off the hook with this one…

Friends, your participation in the Kingdom of God has been baked into the cake of the cosmos since before the foundations of the earth. God gave the stewardship of creation over to Adam and Eve–they were co-regents and co-priests in the world. God fashioned a covenantal people for himself in the dessert to be “a holy nation” and “a royal priesthood.” Jesus gathers disciples, teaching them to follow God, showing them what true ministry looks like, and then releasing them to go and do likewise. Jesus’ kingdom and kingship will be fully realized when he comes back, but until that time we have a job to do! 

If Christ is King then his royal subjects–us–need to promote and proclaim a kingdom built on his principles and attributes: working for justice, peace, righteousness, stewardship of the earth, healing of bodies, minds, and relationships, the dismantling of biased and prejudice-based systems, joining Christ in his work as he puts the world to rights.

As we prepare to tell the Jesus story once again this Advent, let me remind you that Christ’s Kingdom is not from this world because it is breaking in from the heavenly throne room where Almighty God rules the cosmos, but it is utterly for and in this world because it is about reestablishing God’s dominion on earth as it is in heaven. 

W7C7MT ‘It is Finished’: Christ’s last words from the Cross, c1890. Artist: James Tissot. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.

This sermon is from Sunday, October 3, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12. You can listen to the sermon here.

Within the wide world of sports, it has become common to debate who is the “Greatest Of All Time” to ever play the game. It is no longer sufficient to describe players as being the best active player, the best player in the league, or the best player of their generation. Constantly saying “the Greatest of All Time” can be exhausting, so a shorthand has been developed: GOAT. It is all too common these days to refer to these individuals as “the GOAT” or to go a step further and use 🐐emoji when typing.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me ignite some friendly debate. Who is the greatest quarterback of all time? Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady? Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, or Mike Trout who is currently playing today? 

These debates are raging today with some of the best athletes still playing their beloved sport. As fans, we are left to decide between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the best golfer; Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, or Lebron James as the best basketball player, Cristiano Ronaldo or Leonel Messi as the greatest soccer player, and so on and so forth.

Of course such irrelevant and time-consuming debates over meaningless topics is like asking the question of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Why would we waste our time debating over the greatness of a single athlete? These debates are not limited to sports, however. How many times have we argued about who was the greatest president in US History? The greatest monarch to rule England? The greatest impressionist painter, American novelist, or jazz musician?

(George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Thelonius Monk, obviously.)

There is something innate to our humanity that desires to create lists and structure hierarchies of greatness and excellence. There is something in us which yearns for and aspires to be “the best of the best,” “the crop of the crop,” or “the greatest of all time.” 

And this innate desire leads us into the heart of Hebrews.

This morning we begin our new 7-week sermon series on the book of Hebrews. The title for our series is Great High Priest and if you’ve ever read the Book of Hebrews you will know that it is full of rich imagery from the Old Testament and it proclaims Jesus’ superiority over all things. Because we are going to spend 7 weeks in Hebrews, I feel it necessary to get some of the obligatory ahem, “throat clearing” out of the way.

Scholars are actually certain of very few things about Hebrews. The author’s identity is unknown. Attributing Hebrews to Paul is no longer in vogue and has long since been debunked. Whereas the author discloses that they are not one of the apostles and that they received their instruction from the Apostles, Paul is bold to say that he received his instruction from the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus.  It is most likely that the author was a companion of Paul or familiar with the Pauline school of thought. More specifically, the author was well read in Greek philosophy and logic as is demonstrated throughout the book, and he/she is extremely familiar with Israel’s scriptures.

The most likely potential authors are Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla. I am most persuaded by the idea of Priscilla. Priscilla had experience leading  a house church in Rome, bringing Apollos to faith, and she was close to Paul in Corinth and Ephesus and her husband, Aquila, was a Jewish Christian (read: understanding of Old Testament). Because of this, I will be using the pronouns she/her when talking about the author of Hebrews. 

You do not have to share that conviction with me; there is plenty to be said in favor of Barnabas and Apollos. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter who the author is because Hebrews is still an authoritative piece of divinely inspired writing.

The audience, date, and origin of Hebrews are also all unknown. We have reason to believe that it was composed as a sermon to a house church in Rome between 45-90AD. We know that the Emperor Claudius kicked Jews out of Rome in 49AD (Acts 18:2) because of their belief in Christ–we also know that Priscilla and Aquila were among those who were exiled and that they would then show up in Corinth when Paul arrived in 51 AD. Suetonius’ records it this way, “He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”

The audience was clearly familiar with the Old Testament because the author quotes Israel’s scriptures at length. The ethnic background of the recipients of Hebrews is not actually important, what we should be focusing on is “the complex way in which they would have related to the dominant Greco-Roman culture, Jewish subculture, and Christian community” around them.

In short, Hebrews is a sermon written by someone with a pastor’s heart to a house church with special attention to Jesus’ superiority and what it meant to live as a Christian within the larger Greco-Roman world and Jewish subculture. The author’s primary tactic was to show various high points of the Old Testament and of Israel’s beliefs and to then demonstrate how Jesus suprasses them all. 

In Hebrews, we are told:

Jesus is greater than the sacrifices of Israel
Jesus is greater than the angels
Jesus is greater than Moses, Abraham, Aaron, and Melchizedek
Jesus is greater than Israel’s high priests

One could argue, in contemporary language, that Jesus is the Greatest of All Time. Our image, painted by James Tissot, shows Israel’s “all stars” welcoming Jesus into heaven after the crucifixion. Jesus is the GOAT.

This is where we are going over the next 7 Sundays. My throat has been sufficiently cleared–we may dig in!

In order to set the table this morning, I want us to work through the opening 4 verses of Hebrews 1 line by line because I think the author is doing so much incredible work in this section that we need to give it our utmost attention. 

We begin with verse 1: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. Let’s stop there. This is our first indication that the audience might be Jewish Christians and that the author is familiar with the Old Testament. The reference to “our ancestors” demonstrates a shared ancestry based on the teachings of Israel’s prophets.

The author invites us to think about Israel’s prophetic tradition. She will quote the prophets Moses, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai throughout the sermon. She will also quote David’s psalms, Abraham, Aaron, and Joshua, all of whom played a prophetic role in Israel. 

The author begins her sermon with God’s words spoken to Israel through the prophets because those words encapsulate the whole of the Old Testament. Even if each prophet only proclaimed a piece of the message, their collect witness presented the whole picture of God’s love.

She continues, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. The reference to “these last days” is made over and against her previous reference to “long ago.” Something has shifted human history separating then from now. This is an eschatological term, that is, it describes “the last days,” and it is used here to demonstrate that this new form of speaking is definitive and authoritative.

We are told that God is now speaking to us “by a Son.” Don’t be confused by the use of “a” instead of “the.” This is not suggesting that there are more than one son, but rather a way of highlighting the numerous prophets of old and the singular son of now. This Son is the final word from God.

Who is this son? First of all, she writes about him: whom he appointed heir of all things. The language of heirs, testaments, and testators was common in this culture, but this is unique because here we find a son who inherits without the death of the testator. That is, we know that we only receive an inheritance from parents and grandparents upon someone’s death, but this Son was able to inherit without his Father’s death. We will be told later that the Son’s inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death rather than the Father’s; indeed that our inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death.

through whom he also created the worlds. Lest we begin to think that the Son is mortal, fallible, and temporal, the author shows that He is eternal. This language is intentional and it should take our minds immediately to Genesis 1 and John 1 where we find the divine logos of God, the second person of the Trinity, present and active as the world is being created. This Son who is the spoken word of God and who is the heir of all things was also present for creation, thus being an eternal being. Can you begin to see what our author is setting up??

Our author isn’t done yet; she goes on to describe the Son as the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Glory, imprint, and being are terms that Jewish Christians would have understood. The Old Testament in general, and the Pentateuch specifically, are replete with references to God’s glory. Moses’ face shone and radiated God’s glory after meeting with YHWH atop Mt. Sinai; Moses says to YHWH, “Show me your glory” and YHWH passed by him. No mortal could see the full glory of God and live…and so God was imageless and invisible. Israel was commanded that she could not make graven images of God–this is why the imprint of the Golden Calf is such idolatrous sin…and here we are told that the Son is the reflection of God’s glory and the very imprint of God’s being. When one sees the Son one sees God.

and he sustains all things by his powerful word. Because this Son reflects the glory and is the imprint of God’s being, he has powerful words that sustain all things. That is, Jews believed that YHWH upheld the entire created world by his word, by his presence, by his very being, and our author now attributes that live-giving, and world-sustaining power to the Son as well. 

When he had made purification for sins. This is where things get interesting and we will be returning to these themes of purification, sins, and sitting down throughout our sermon series. The Son made the purification for sins because he was the purification for sins. Like I told you last week, Israel was used to making daily burnt offerings, weekly sabbath offerings, occasional sin offerings, and one annual offering for the atonement of sins. The Son makes the definitive, once-and-for-all purification for sins. 

What does he do afterward? he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. This is significant for two reasons. First, this is imperial power language. Emperors and supreme leaders would often sit while their subjects stood in their presence. The right hand was the seat of power and the fact that Jesus occupies that seat and is seated in it means that he has incredible power and authority. As we know from the Nicene Creed, it is the place from which he is presently reigning and ruling over all things. Second, and of equal import to Hebrews, and this is something we will talk about more in the coming weeks, but Israel’s high priests had to perform the rituals, sacrifices, and offerings day after day, week after week, year after year. There was no time for sitting down. The high priest was always standing up, always offering, always working because their offerings were insufficient. As the Great High Priest, Jesus is able to sit down because his offering is once and for all. Period. No additives, no extras, no fine print.

This son has been elevated to a high level, for4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. This verse is the crucial point that takes us into chapter 2. The author is comparing Jesus to the angels and showing that Jesus is superior. What did the angels do? It was believed in Israel that the angels gave the two tablets to Moses. The entire law, the entire writing that would encompass Israel’s spiritual, civic, religious, and moral life was handed over from God to people by angels. There are angels seated on the top of the ark of the covenant, on the mercy seat where YHWH would reside…and Jesus is greater than the angels. Can you believe that? This is our first taste of the author taking something from Israel’s past and making the argument that Jesus is superior.

This is quite the opening 4 verses to this sermon. I have just spent more than 10 minutes walking through verses which would have taken 30 seconds to read. They are that rich and robust.

When we move into our verses from chapter 2, we are again met with this idea of Jesus being superior to the angels. The author begins with a quotation from Psalm 8, “What are humans that you are mindful of them? You made him a little lower than the angels,” something highly familiar to the Hebrews. Even though humanity is lower than the angels, and remember that Jesus assumed our humanity and is therefore “for a little while lower” than the angels, God entrusted the world to humans.

I’m not even going to let you ask the question, why does any of this matter? because our author answers it for us: Jesus is elevated higher than the angels through his suffering, crucifixion, and saving work.

Jesus is “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” God is glorified in Christ crucified as Christ was enthroned upon the cross. The crown of thorns and the robes given in mocking jest by the soldiers betrayed a deeper truth: the king of glory was hanged upon the tree and there we see God’s glory truly reflected. Remember that from the first few verses. The impress and imprint of God is made manifest most fully through the suffering servant who “tasted death for everyone.” 

Jesus suffers and dies so that he may bring many sons and daughters to glory. This is the Good News, my friends. This is why we are the church. This is why we are here this morning. Jesus’ death was intended as once-and-for-all in order to bring men, women, and children into God’s glory. Jesus is the pioneer of salvation and he has paid the price so that we don’t have to. Jesus has died the sinner’s death that we might enjoy eternal life in the presence of the Trinity. 

So why does it matter that Jesus is greater than the angels? It matters because he is elevated through his sufferings, he is made perfect through his sufferings, we are made perfect and saved through his suffering and death…and because of this we are able to call him brother, we are able to refer to God as abba, father. We are the sons and daughters brought into glory. Your job, beloved, is to bring more sons and daughters into glory by introducing them to our Great High Priest, the one who holds all things together, the one who has been elevated to be higher than the angels, the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father, the one who has offered himself as the sacrifice for sins once-and-for-all, that we may not die but live forever. Amen.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 26, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Mark 9:49-50. You can listen to the sermon here.

Rebecca and I started dating while we were freshmen in college. When it came time for us to celebrate our first dating anniversary, we wanted to do something special. We took a day trip to Macon, Georgia where we walked around historic downtown, we saw Three Blind Mice on stage at the theatre, and because we have always been lovers of great food, we went out to a fancy restaurant. 

These two 19 year olds, one far more mature than the other, went to Marco’s Ristorante Italiano for a romantic dinner. It was at Marco’s that I had a life-changing culinary experience. 

And you thought I was setting up a story about all the mushy, gushy stuff!

I ordered one of the house specials: the Baked Mediterranean Branzino. This wasn’t your normal dish: it was baked in a very thick layer of rock salt. For those not-in-the-know, crusting fish or meat in rock salt allows for a slower, more even cooking process. The meat is protected from the flames and so cannot be charred, burned, or scorched. 

My branzino was wheeled over the table on a cart. Then the production began. The waiter cracked through the thick layer of salt and revealed the fish contained within. The waiter then carefully filleted the fish, peeling back the skin and removing the bones, all done tableside. He then transferred the fish to my plate and then covered it in a sauce of white wine, capers, and shrimp. 

My mouth is salivating just talking about it. 

The drama of presenting and filleting the fish tableside, and then eating it has been lodged in my memory ever since. The key to the whole process was one of the most basic elements on earth: salt.

In her cookbook-turned-Netflix-documentary series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef Samin Nosrat talks about the efficacy and essentiality of salt. She quotes the famous chef, James Beard–yes, of the James Beard Awards–with regard to salt. Beard once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” Nosrat answers the question: adrift in a sea of blandness.

Nosrat suggests that instead of using more, we need to use it better. Salt adds flavor to food, and it is better to add a little bit of salt at a time while cooking instead of adding a bunch at the table. Salt is a team player because in addition to having its own unique flavor, it also enhances the flavors of other ingredients.  

Salt can be used as a protective layer in baking temperamental meat because the salt creates a barrier which keeps flames out and allows meat to cook evenly and more slowly with the natural flavoring of its own juices. We only have to go back to the pre-refrigeration era when salt was used primarily as a preservative when salt was used to keep meats and foods longer, through either curing or pickling. It preserved the food because salt does not lose its saltiness or salinity. 

Even our bodies contain more salt than you may realize. Salt regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of our bodies, and it affects taste, smell, tactile functions, and our nervous systems. Our tears are salty. Basal tears and reflex tears have a higher salt content because they help keep our eyes healthy and free from debris, infection, and germs. 

You can use salt to draw out a stain from a carpet or shirt, you can place salt in your shoes to remove an odor (or so I’ve read online), and salt is used when creating bleach. Salt is used in fireworks because the energy which is created during burning emits different color lights. Salt is used by the Vatican in their chemical formula when smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel to announce the results of a papal election. 

Finally, salt doesn’t burn. At least not in ordinary circumstances. You have to reach such extreme temperatures of 1470 degrees fahrenheit in order to melt table salt, or 2575 degrees fahrenheit for it to boil. Salt might change the color of a flame–a chemical reaction having to do with energy–but once the fire is extinguished you will find the salt buried beneath the ashes. 

Salt flavors, enhances, purifies, and preserves.

Our gospel passage ended today with Jesus making some comments about salt in verses 49-50. Jesus concludes our pericope by saying: 

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

These verses are going to take us on a saltiness journey today, a trek of salinity, and I hope by the end of it that you will all embrace living as a salty people…and no, I don’t mean salty in the insulting sense.

As one does, we need to move backward from Mark into the book of Leviticus. I promise I’m not trying to continually plug our new Bible Study series, but trust me when I tell you that Leviticus has everything to do with the Gospels. In Leviticus 1 and 2 where we find descriptions of the offerings that Israel is supposed to offer to YHWH. 

The Israelites are supposed to make a burnt offering to YHWH on the altar. The burnt offering was made daily during morning and evening prayer, while the Sabbath offering was once a week, the sin offering was presented as needed based on the sin, and the offering for the atonement of sins was made annually. Israelites could offer an animal from the herd, flock, or air and there were various provisions made for preparing the offering. 

Salt plays an essential role in the process of koshering meat. You’ll hear more about this in October during our Bible study, “Leviticus: The Hidden Gospel,” but here are the high points. Based on the Levitical code, Jews were prohibited from eating blood. The process for draining blood from animals was intense: “The meat or poultry is soaked in clean water for thirty minutes, then removed to drip dry. After a few minutes of dripping, the meat is salted and left to hang for sixty minutes to further draw out any remaining blood. After sixty minutes of salting, the meat is washed three times in cold, clean water to remove any remaining salt.” Salt helped to draw out the remaining blood from the animal to make it pure enough for eating or sacrificing. 

When describing the logistics of making the burnt offering from herd, flock, or air, YHWH repeats this phrase three times: 

An offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

Salt was part of the purification process, but it was also part of the offering itself. If we skip to chapter 2 and read about grain offerings, we are told that, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

YHWH commands Israel to always include salt with all of the offerings presented on the altar. Salt is placed on the meat as it is being placed on the altar for burning, that it might be an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. The belief being that as the smoke and aroma rose to YHWH from the altar, he would be pleased with the offering. The quality of the offering was a mirror into the heart of the worshipper. 

The practical side of this is fairly easy to understand: salt brings out flavor and so adding salt to the burnt offering would produce a more pleasing aroma. The confusing part is the reference to the “salt of the covenant with your God.”

Don’t worry! I started you on this wild goose chase and I’m going to see you through it. Salt was used as part of covenants in the ANE because it represented perdurability and permanence, it had an eternal quality. Salt does not lose its saltiness because it is not adversely affected by time, water, or fire. It can neither be burned nor can it be drowned, and it does not weaken with the passage of time. This is why our ancestors started using salt as a preservative. 

The “salt covenant” in Leviticus 2:13 is mentioned two other times in Scripture: once in Numbers 18 and once in 2 Chronicles 13. In Numbers, YHWH references his salt covenant with Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood. In 2 Chronicles, YHWH references his salt covenant with David and the Davidic line. In both instances, the salt covenant is eternal. It is forever. 

Israel was not the only nation to include salt in their covenants. “Covenantal allies all ‘tasted the salt…’” “Loyalty to the Persian monarch is described as having tasted ‘the salt of the palace.’” “Greeks and Arabs are known to have eaten salt together when they concluded covenants.” In short, “To add salt to the offering was a reminder that the worshipper was in an eternal covenant relationship with God.”

Salt, the great purifier and preserver, the element which cleans, endures, and flavors, also represents the eternal nature of a covenant. No wonder Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek forever and that he will reign on David’s throne, forever. 

Salt was a sign of promise, not judgment.
Salt was a sign of perdurability, perseverance, and endurance.
Salt was a sign of loyalty and fidelity.
Salt was a culinary depiction of Good News.

So as we come back to Jesus’ comments in Mark 9 we have to keep this in mind. Jesus has been issuing a warning to those who would cause little ones to stumble. He warns the disciples of being thrown into the fires of Gehenna where the flames are never quenched, but now he is bringing salt into the equation. It feels random and yet…

Our minds should immediately go back to the Levitical code where salt was required on all burnt offerings. 
We should remember the eternal salt covenants made with Israel, with Aaron, and with Moses.
We should remember that the salted burnt offerings offered an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Jesus’ comments aren’t all that confusing, then. When we read them in their levitical context we see that Jesus is reminding his listeners of YHWH’s eternal covenant with and his steadfast love for his people. The focus here ought not to be on the fire but on the salt. Going with fire first places the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. 

In the first instance, the reference to everyone being salted with fire, the salt means that the aroma will be pleasing to God and that the offering will endure. Paul will later play with this language in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Our bodies are supposed to be living sacrifices, proverbially placed on the altar before God, metaphorically covered with salt, that is the enduring covenant because YHWH’s steadfast, covenantal love lasts forever.

The second comment from Jesus is an example of obvious hyperbole. He says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” This doesn’t make any sense because we know that salt does not lose its salinity…and I think that’s the point. Jesus is making such an outlandish statement to demonstrate just how useless salt would be if it lost its salinity. Salt is good but salt which is no longer salty is worthless…but the salt of God’s covenant is everlasting. 

The last phrase about peace is something also straight out of the Levitical Code and from the  cultures of the ANE. Peace offerings were made between individuals when one had slighted or offended another or when one needed an ally. A key component of such an agreement was either an offering with salt because the salt represented the enduring nature of the peace being made, or a meal included salt. As I mentioned earlier with the Persian monarch and acts of fealty, loyalty, or fidelity, salt was an outward expression of an inner truth: when salt was present it meant that the bond would endure. This is why Jesus can say, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Salt is the manifestation of the covenant and peace is the natural state of relationships for those who are in covenant with God.

This goes back to what I was talking about last week with perichoresis and being in communion. Our very existence is derived from our relationship with God. Our other relationships, therefore, must also be understood within the context of our relationship with God. Covenant and salt go hand in hand.

Jesus makes similar statements during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when he tells the disciples and listening crowd that they are the “salt of the earth.” If salt was intended to flavor and enhance the burnt offering; if it was used as part of the purification process and as a preservative representing the eternal covenant, then Jesus’ suggestion that the people be salty is of the utmost importance.

You, my friends, are to be salty people.   

Let’s play this all the way out with the same characteristics of salt:

Enhance – Our pericope started because the disciples had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him. They acted territorial about mission in the Kingdom of God as though they had the corner on the ministry market. Sounds familiar to a lot of churches. 

If the disciples had been salty, they would have enhanced the ministry of others rather than trying to stop them. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” is all we need to know: this individual was doing Kingdom work. We need to be happy about the fact that other churches in Cocoa Beach are doing legitimate Gospel ministry and support them; we need to support people at St. David’s who are doing ministry even if it’s in “our” field. Salt enhances!

Flavor – Our call as Christians and as the church is to add flavor to all that we do and to everything around us. It is good that we gather together faithfully on Sunday mornings for worship and prayer, but our mission field is where we need to be salty. Getting involved with the arts, with hands-on-outreach,

Purity and Purify – Salt was part of the koshering process as Israel sought to keep clean and pure while living in the world with others. Our call is the same. We are in the world but not of the world, set up as an alternative community, a community of the resurrection, over and against the consumerism and narcissism of the world. To be pure is to allow the Holy Spirit to form and transform our hearts and minds into Christlikeness. To purify is to set on a mission of blessing the world, setting apart people, places, and things for God’s glory, helping the to flourish. We accomplish this as being agents of reconciliation, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and inviting others into the fellowship of the redeemed.

Preserve – This is the big one. Salt is the sign of the covenant because it endures forever. God has promised us his never-ending, never-dying, stronger than death, steadfast love, and therefore we have been invited to endure, to persevere, and to be preserved. We must continue on in the faith, preserving the faith as handed down to us by the saints.

Stay salty, my friends.

Etching by Pietro del PoThe Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cure, ca. 1650.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 5, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

From the ages of 9-17, I attended a Christian summer camp called “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” in Boswell, Pennsylvania. Like most Christian summer camps, the focus of the experience was on following Jesus couched in a plethora of outdoor activities, team events, sporting contests, and bonfires. 

It was at SB2W that I learned the “I’m Third Rule,”: God first, others second, and self third. It’s where I learned that we play for an audience of One. It’s where I learned this phrase: Attitude Check: Jesus is the Lord; Gratitude Check: Glory goes to God. 

It’s also where I repelled down a rock wall.

There was a small rocking climbing wall at a 45-degree incline for the littler kids. There was a much larger, flat-faced wall for the older kids, but the purest form of heroism was reserved for those who would ascend the stairs to the top of the climbing wall and repel down the other side. This wall was 50 feet tall, but it felt like Everest.

Imagine me, a scrawny and short 10-year old climbing to the top of this rock climbing tower. The camp counselor is telling me how to repel down the wall while tying my harness to the rope which will hopefully hold me steady. My knees are shaking, my palms are sweating, I am utterly terrified as he marches me, backward toward the edge of the precipice and begins to slowly tilt me back over the edge. 

Seeing that I’m nervous, the counselor asks: do you trust me?

Now, I know this was supposed to instill confidence in me, but I didn’t know this counselor. I didn’t know his track record of successfully belaying adolescents and pre-adolescents down the wall without dropping them to their bone-crushing doom. I believed that the harness was properly attached, I hoped that the rope would hold, and I wanted-to-believe that the counselor would do everything in his power to keep me safe.

I didn’t trust, though. 

The trip down, once I stepped off the edge, was one of my favorite memories that summer. All fear forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Trust is an interesting concept, isn’t it. It’s something that is hard to gain and easy to lose. Our money says, “In God We Trust”; some of us remember the slogan used for Jimmy Carter’s and Walter Mondale’s failed re-election bid: “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” 

But do we truly understand what trust is?

Our Collect this morning takes this abstract question and makes it an essential grappling point for us. The Collect begins: O God, to trust in you with all our hearts.  I would like to offer you a new working definition of trust as it pertains to God. Trust is firmly believing that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Noah trusted YHWH and he built an ark; Abram trusted YHWH and he left the land of his father and made a covenant with this monotheistic God; Moses trusted YHWH and he delivered God’s people from Egypt; David trusted YHWH and he was a man after God’s own heart; Mary trusted YHWH and said, “May it be unto me.” Time and time again, YHWH reveals himself to his people by telling them who he is: I am who I am, I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will be your God and you will be my people. Then he tells them what he will do: I will redeem you; I will rescue you; I will make a covenant with you; I will establish your throne forever; I will write my covenant on your hearts; I will be your God.

The Old Testament has been marching slowly and intentionally toward the day when God’s chosen one, his anointed Messiah, the faithful Israelite would come to redeem God’s people once and for all. For generations and centuries Israel walked by faith, not by sight because she trusted that God was who he said he was and that he would do all that he said he would do. The obvious caveat here is that Israel’s covenant fidelity waxed and waned like the moon, but she did still trust in YHWH even amid her sins.

So we enter the fray of Mark’s Gospel once more, this time beginning with Mark 7:24. Last Sunday we read about Jesus taking the religious leaders of Israel to task for their codes and laws of purity, and we now find ourselves immersed in a story that has long been a stumbling block for preachers. At first glance, the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman about dogs and scraps feels discordant with the gospel, and yet, once you understand it, it is the absolute most logical follow up to last week’s lesson. 

Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who have attempted to ambush him and he ends up in the region of Tyre. Here’s what you need to know about Tyre: Tyreans were not Jewish, they were Gentiles. Worse than that, Josephus describes the Tyreans as some of the Jews “bitterest enemies.” Jesus is once again behind enemy lines.

Jesus is trying to fly under the radar because the more publicity he gets the more the “powers that be” want to get rid of him. Quick recap: who are the powers that be who are upset with Jesus’ ministry?

Evil spirits, demons, and the satan
Pharisees, Scribes, Chief Priests
Rome

Jesus enters a Gentile house which would have made him unclean. A woman approaches him; she is a Gentile and therefore ritually unclean. Lastly, her daughter has an unclean spirit. 

Just so we’re clear: an unclean Gentile with an unclean daughter comes to Jesus in an unclean Gentile house. Triple whammy (that’s a theological term).

There is absolutely no reason that Jesus should be talking to this Gentile…if you’re a Pharisee.

Remember, we have just heard about all of the codes, rules, commandments, and ordinances pertaining to ritual purity and Jesus has just broken a bunch of those rules by even being in a Tyrean house with a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit.

Spoiler alert: that’s part of the beauty of this story!

The Syrophoenecian woman comes and bows down at his feet. Mark doesn’t give us her name but that’s not to make her less important to the story, it is done in order to highlight how much of an outsider she is presumably to the family of God. She prostrates herself before Jesus and while we could interpret this as an act of desperation, it is strikingly similar to the woman with bleeding whom Jesus healed earlier: this woman trusts who Jesus is based on the miracles he has already performed among the Jews and the Gentiles. And she trusts that he can do it again for her daughter.

Why else would she bow down at his feet? 

Jesus’ reaction, however, is surprising. Instead of saying yes immediately, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is an odd response, right? We need to substitute some words then it will make more sense. “Children” refers to Israel; “food” or “bread” refers to the gospel; “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. Jesus is saying, “Israel needs to be fed first, it isn’t fair to take Israel’s gospel and give it to the Gentiles.” This seems harsh. It seems out of character. It even feels a little bit racist to think of these words in Jesus’ mouth. 

There are a wide variety of interpretations to the meaning of this passage: some say that Jesus was being sarcastic, that he is giving her the old “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” routine as he says this. But nothing in the text references such body language. Others say that Jesus was in fact intending to NOT heal her daughter based on her lack of being Jewish but that she convinced him. This doesn’t sit well because Jesus has already been performing miracles in Gentile territory in Mark’s gospel. The most obvious answer, according to a theologian with whom I agree, Rebecca Taylor, is that Jesus isn’t being sarcastic or racist, he’s acting like a good rabbi, inviting the woman to participate in a dialogue. It’s as though Jesus is egging her on, encouraging her toward the right answer, the one he knows she already has. Further up and further in, as Lewis would say.

Think about it: Jesus shouldn’t even be talking to her let alone being in the same space as her and yet he responds to her request and to her rebuttal. Jesus is treating this Gentile woman the same way that he has treated his male disciples, the woman at the well, and the woman who was bleeding.

His opening remark isn’t a barrier but an invitation. It is an invitation to explore faith and God.

This is one of those times the NRSV gets it wrong–can’t win them all–they start her response with “Sir,” but it is actually, “Lord.” This Gentile woman knows who Jesus is and she has the faith and trust to persist until he heals her daughter. The woman retorts that even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. As in, the food may have been intended for the Jews but the Gentiles are still eating it. This is consistent with salvation history–YHWH told Abram the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel; the Gentiles are always intended recipients of the Gospel.

You know how Jesus is constantly telling people, “Your faith has made you well”? The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith made her daughter well. It is the intersection of her faith and God’s mercy. Jesus is merciful to this unclean foreigner by engaging her, by elevating her, by treating her as an equal, and by responding to her faith with healing. This healing story of the Syrophoenecian’s daughter expands the reach of the Gospel very clearly into the Gentile world. All of our passages today expand the reach of the gospel because they expand the definition of neighbor

James addresses this question in his epistle when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently they were elevating the rich and further marginalizing the poor. They were judging people based on their wallets. Surely that doesn’t happen any more? Proverbs talks about the poor and how the LORD pleads their case

James goes further: when we break one part of the law we break the whole law. And this is the hard saying for us this morning: do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And I don’t mean the ones who vote the same way, who spend money the same way, who read the same books, who take the same paper, who support the same teams…I mean the ones who are entirely different from us: the ones who voted for our candidate’s opponent, the ones who aren’t from America, the ones who have no money, the ones who have different skin color, the ones who don’t wear masks, the ones who do wear masks, the ones who believe there is no God. Do we love them? Because if we don’t then we are guilty of breaking one of the two great commandments.

Let’s hop back to Mark with the second part of the Collect in mind: so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy. Jesus moves on from Tyre into the region of the Decapolis. This is not the first time we have heard of this place. Meaning “ten cities,” it was mentioned earlier in Mark 5 when Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac. The man, now healed, wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him instead to go. Jesus says, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Where does this man go? To the Decapolis, Gentile territory, proclaiming the good news, boasting of God’s mercy.

We should not be surprised that Jesus heals a deaf man. Everyone knows of this Jesus by this point! Despite Jesus’ attempts to stay secret, his miracles and mighty acts cannot be silenced, hidden, or ignored. Of course the actual healing is important, but it is the man’s response that is truly significant for us…

Jesus tells the observers to be quiet “but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” They are boasting of God’s mercy.

Do you know what I did every day at camp after I successfully repelled down the wall with life and limb intact? I told every camper who would listen about the counselor who kept me safe. I was boasting about his talent.

Let me ask you some simple questions: 

How has God been present and merciful in your life?
When have you experienced God’s love? His protection? His provision?
When have you seen God act?
How has God revealed himself to you in  your life?

I know you are sifting through your life as you sit here and you are beginning to formulate thoughts about events and experiences of your life that cannot be described apart from God’s presence. Perhaps it was healing, perhaps it was comfort in the face of grief, perhaps it was provision and protection. Whatever it was…you know what I’m talking about.

Our invitation from Jesus this morning is the same one he issued to the Gerasene after healing him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Those who have experienced God’s mercy are encouraged to tell others about it. It’s one thing to say, “The Bible says,” but it’s entirely different to say, “This is how God has shown up in my life.” In AA we would call that sharing our experience, strength, and hope.

Think of the chain of events: Jesus heals the demoniac in Mark 5. He sends him on his way to the Decapolis to boast of God’s mercy. In Mark 7 we come back to the Decapolis where Jesus is now known, he heals again, and again they go out boasting of God’s mercy. This is how the Kingdom of God grows: God uses ordinary men and women, like you and me, who experience God’s mercy, to then enact God’s mercy and announce God’s mercy.

Friends, if we are going to get serious about sharing our faith, about inviting others to join us on God’s mission, then we need to enact and announce God’s mercy in action and in proclamation.

My prayer for St. David’s is this: That we would become a place where people meet Jesus. That St. David’s would be known as a holy ground where men and women encounter the Living God in the midst of their lives. That we would become a holy people who boast in God’s mercy by telling others what God has done for us. That we would be anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to show others who Jesus is.

This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.

Words have power.

For better or for worse, our words have the ability to build up tear down, make whole or divide, give life or destroy, celebrate or denigrate. With just a few words we can let someone know that we love and value them, or we can communicate our hatred and animosity.

In communications theory, there exists the concept of power-words. A power-word is “a word that often evokes an emotional response, positive or negative, in the target audience, leading to a desired outcome.”[1] That is, leaders or communicators will use certain words in their speeches to incite hope or hatred, excitement or aversion, repentance or riot.

We must agree that after the last four years in this country, and the last four days specifically that words have power. Political slogans and campaigns, rhetoric on Twitter, Facebook, and social media, uncivil discourse and dialogue. As a nation, our words have become too loaded, too volatile, too charged. On Wednesday, we witnessed the unprecedented and evil actions which were the natural and obvious manifestation of words from the last 4 years.

Friends, we need to examine our own words and actions to see if they are in alignment with the God and his kingdom.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.[2]

The Episcopal Church devotes the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Years A, B, and C all include a variation of Jesus’ baptism, borrowing from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The church has decided together that God’s words spoken to, about, and over Jesus are significant.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[3]

These words are full of power. They were not just important for Jesus nor for the first century Christians: they carry significant weight and power for us.

We begin our Gospel lesson four verses into Mark’s opening chapter. If you think that this looks familiar…it does! This is our 4th time looking at this passage in the last 6 weeks!

The lesson opens with John the baptizer. John has come proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A better translation of this verse would be “proclaiming a baptism of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.”

Why baptism? Prior to New Testament, Israel had no functional equivalent for our Christian understanding of baptism. John’s baptism was an altogether new phenomenon; many believe that the closest Jewish precedent for this was “the ritual cleansing by immersion of a Gentile on becoming a proselyte.” That is, if someone who wasn’t Jewish wanted to convert to Judaism, they would have to undergo a ritual cleansing. “But John’s baptism was for Jews; to ask them to undergo the same initiatory ritual as was required of a Gentile convert was a powerful statement of John’s theology of the people of God…to be born a Jew was not enough.”[4]

John’s baptism is all about repentance. The Greek word here is metanoia, and it means to turn around, an about face. It would be as though you were walking south down A1A and then you had a moment of metanoia in which you turned 180* and went north. It is more than a feeling or an expression, it is always accompanied by action.

Repentance is always turning away from something and turning toward something else. This is why repentance is a verb and not a theory. Saying sorry is one thing, but an amendment of life is the fullness of an apology. Here is what repentance actually looks like…

As part of the turning away it is…

Renouncing Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
Renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
Renouncing all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.[5]

This means decrying the acts of hatred and violence this past Wednesday as evil and wicked.
This means confessing all acts of violence as evil.
We must also announce corruption, systemic injustice, racism, agism, sexism, classism, and poverty as evil.
This means putting to death all forms of idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, prejudice, judgmentalism, hatred, lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, slandering, and other forms of sinful behavior.

This is both corporate and individual.

If we renounce these things, if we actively turn away from them, then toward what or whom do we turn instead?

We need to read further before we answer that question.

People from the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem come and join John in the wilderness. They are baptized by him in the Jordan as they confess their sins. One commentator suggests that John’s voice crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” is the most significant event in Israel’s history for 300 years.[6] The people come to him from all over because he was preaching something different than the rest of the religious leaders of the day. Whether it was categorically different or simply on account of his zeal, the people recognize in him the prophetic tradition.

This is why we are told that John “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” These depictions should bring to mind images of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah who came preaching repentance to all of Israel. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as “the hairy man with the leather belt.” There is even thought that John was baptizing at the precise location where Elijah was taken up into heaven…

John isn’t here to simply immerse people in water…he’s here as a herald of the eschaton; he baptizes in the Jordan as a proclamation that YHWH is on the move once more.

In verse 7, John makes his pronouncement about the superiority of the one who is coming after him. For week, I have used the analogy of the sports fan who would wear a large “foam finger” to games when talking about John. John was wearing a figurative foam finger at all times, constantly pointing up to the Father and then directly to Jesus.[7] We have already discussed this verse at length, but I’d like to recall two main points. First, John differentiates his baptism with Jesus on account of the Holy Spirit. Second, John places himself below the role of a servant in relationship to Jesus. It was a servant’s job to untie the thongs of a sandal and John says he isn’t even fit for that role…the suspense is building toward the emergence of this “Greater One.”

A quick note on water. John is not denigrating the role of water in baptism but is rather elevating the presence and immersion of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry. You may have noticed that water was present in all of our lessons this morning. The Spirit hovered over the deep waters in creation, God’s voice was spoken over the waters in the Psalm, and the waters of baptism wash over those who receive this sacrament. Water has always been a symbol of life and birth. We are born in water, our bodies are made up of 60% water, the earth is 71% water, and we are re-born in the waters of baptism.

The baptismal liturgy includes this prayer over water:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[8]

Water was a core symbol and image for Israel. John is not doing away with the water, but is rather pointing to the Spirit who was hovering over the waters because it is the Spirit who will cause rebirth, not the water itself.

We finally arrive at the scene with Jesus. Verse 9 is nonchalant and casual, almost dull. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” This is significant because we were previously told that those from Judea and Jerusalem were coming to John for baptism, that is, the remnant of Israel, but now we have “a stranger from the North.” Remember, Jesus’ birth pedigree is royal but now he lives in backwater Nazareth…

John is expertly setting up this dynamic encounter, though. Verse 10 is teeming with activity compared to the limited mobility of the previous verse.

“And just as he was coming up out of the waters.” This is the first time in Greek that Mark uses his favorite phrase, “immediately.” He will use this 41 times in his Gospel…it is only used 51 in the whole of the New Testament. Mark is trying to grab our attention with this.

It says that the heavens were “torn apart.” The Greek word here is the counterpart to the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 63 when it says, “Lord rend the heavens and come down.” This is also the verb used to describe the veil of the temple being torn in two. This is no accident or coincidence; Mark is saying something significant! Jesus’ baptism is essential because

This is what it looks like when God rends open the heavens.
God rending the heavens and coming down looks like the Son of God receiving the baptism of repentance in the Jordan

Or, to borrow from Mary Healy, “The whole cosmos is impacted by Jesus’ act of humility. The heavens are not gently opened but torn asunder—a sign that the barrier between God and man is being removed.”[9]

If we turn away from Satan, sin, and evil in our repentance, to whom do we turn toward?

You turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior.
You put your whole trust in his grace and love.
You promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.[10]

Jesus did not need this baptism. Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. Jesus has nothing of which he needed to repent…and yet, he receives this baptism all the same. Why? It was an act of body language; it was God’s self-identifying with the suffering of his people under the weight of sin; it was Jesus standing in solidarity with humanity; the King of the Jews was in essence saying that it was not enough to be born a Jew.

Jesus turns toward the Father in his baptism and he invites us to turn toward the Father with him. We must follow Jesus as Lord as he follows the Father. In Jesus we are given the image of the invisible God; Jesus is the light to lighten our path. Jesus is the light of the world and his light shines forth in creation three days before the sun, moon, and stars are created. The light of Jesus reveals the glory of the Father!

The Spirit descends on Jesus. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation. Just as John promised that the Powerful One would baptize with the Spirit. The holy trinity is present in this baptism; the Father speaks his loving words to the Son, the Son of God and the Son of David, the one who is fully God and fully man, stands in the Jordan fully identifying with Israel and all of humanity, and the Spirit descends.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?[11]

The statement from the Father here is definitive. He does not call Jesus a son of God but rather the Son, the beloved.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t quite answer why the baptism of the Spirit is greater than John’s baptism of water, but our lesson from Acts does. Paul goes to Ephesus as asks if the believers have heard of the Spirit and sadly they have not. Mary Healy says it this way: baptism in the Holy Spirit is “a coming alive of the graces received in sacramental baptism.”[12]

Friends, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You have been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. What does it look like to live as a baptized disciple of Jesus? It means that you…

Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to God.
Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.[13]

To close this sermon, I will pray over each and every one of you. This prayer is a compilation of prayers and statements from the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the prayer book. The intention here is for you to reaffirm your baptismal covenant. (If you have not yet been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, please write me an email so we can talk about baptism. If you have not yet been confirmed in the faith by an Episcopal bishop or received from another diocese or body, please write me so we can talk about fixing this.)

May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Deliver them, O Lord, from the way of sin and death. Open their hearts to your grace and truth. Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit. Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church. Teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit. Send them into the world in witness to your love. Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.[14]


[1] https://www.yourdictionary.com/power-word
[2] Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 308.
[3] Mark 1:11.
[4] R. T. France, NIGTC Commentary on Mark, 66.
[5] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302.
[6] R.T. France in his NIGTC commentary on Mark.
[7] I had a foam finger hidden in the pulpit which I placed on my hand for this portion of the sermon.
[8] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 306.
[9] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[10] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302-3.
[11] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304.
[12] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[13] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304-5.
[14] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 305-6, 310.

You will find both the transcript for my recent sermon and the link for the audio version in this post. I tend to mirror/follow my writing version with some degree of intentionality, but often it serves as the foundation from which I then branch out as the morning develops and the Spirit moves.

As always, a special thanks to the Rev. Cynthia Brust and the Rev. Canon Ellis Brust of Church of the Apostles and all the fabulous people at COTA for allowing me the space and opportunity to preach and work on my craft. I am truly blessed with such a fabulous, kind, and welcoming community!

LINK FOR AUDIO

Ought to. Want to. Have to. Need to. 

Would. Could. Should. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Shouldn’t.

It all gets extremely overwhelming, doesn’t it? I really want to eat this third serving of King Ranch Casserole but should I? I know I ought to call so-and-so on their birthday, but I don’t want to. It is highly advisable to exercise regularly and get your oil changed every 3,000 miles, but this book is too good and I’m too comfortable gearing up for some late night TV watching…

You’re laughing now, but let’s make this less fun:

I see that person stranded with a flat tire. I ought to stop, but…

I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows, visit the sick, the dying and the shut in, and be an expression of Christ to Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, black, white, brown, yellow, even the Presbyterians…but they are just so different from me; they just make it so hard; I really ought to but they just…

And we give our excuses time and time again.

We tend to associate with only those who look like us, talk like us, spend money like us, or vote like us. Is that not the heart of the matter in our Gospel passage this morning? We’ve become so desensitized to the radical nature of the Good Samaritan that we risk missing the point completely. Let’s enter into the story once again and see what’s going on.

So, we enter Luke’s Gospel this morning and the passage beings, “Just then.” Ok, we need to stop 😉 “Just then” tells us that we are in the middle of a specific scene in the story. Ellis preached on Luke 10 last week and the story concluded with verse 20. 

Jesus has just sent the 70 out on their mission with the knowledge that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” They are given instructions as to what to pack, how to go, and what to do when they encounter hostile/unrepentant cities. They go out and they return exuberant. They were able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name–I don’t know about you but I think the ability to cast out demons during your mission is something to rejoice about! Jesus rejoices with the disciples but then we enter into this interesting set of verses when Jesus blesses the disciples for being able to see what God has revealed, especially when there are kings and rulers who would love this type of information.

It is in the midst of this gathering–of the disciples’ return from mission and Jesus’ praise of their work and his comments about seeing and hearing–that a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

It is so easy for us to miss this and move straight to the second question: who is my neighbor? We cannot afford to move too quickly here.

Remember the scene with me one. Last. time: they are corporately rejoicing in the successful mission of being sent-out-ones in Jesus’ name and talking about casting out demons and the relationship between the Father and the Son and a lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Talk about non-sequitor. Talk about a buzz kill.

Jesus’ answer isn’t surprising: what do you read in the law? A lawyer asks the question and Jesus tells him to read the law…it might be like us having a conversation right now and me turing to you and asking, “what must I do to celebrate the Eucharist properly?” and someone replying, “What do you find in the Priest’s Handbook? Or what does it say in the Book of Common Prayer?” Are you with me here?

The lawyer responds with the shema–Israel’s ancient prayer which she was to recite multiple times throughout the day, the prayer that was supposed to be written on her heart, her forehead, the doorposts to the house, talked about as you she was walking with her children–that is, this is the very fabric of Israel’s life with YHWH. This is his response, with the addition of loving your neighbor, and Jesus says, “Yes, you are right. Do this and you shall live.”

Wait…what? That’s a weird response! We miss the verses preceeding the Shema in Deutoronomy 6…but they have been printed in your bulletin!

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Do you see it? The Great Commandment given in Deuteronomy, the very foundation and backbone of the Shema, is preceded by an important promise: do this and you will live. Follow YHWH and you will enter the land flowing with milk and honey. This YHWH, the one who redeemed and rescued his people out of Egypt that they might worship him in the desert, the one who gave the law to a people already redeemed, the one who promised Abram long ago of a people and a land…this YHWH already told them what it would look like to follow him and live in the promised land…

So of course Jesus would tell the lawyer to look at the law and then tell him that the foundational premise of the law found in Deuteronomy 6 would be the key to eternal life…of course he does. It makes complete sense now that we see it this way…right?!

BUT…

There is a but here and it is simple: the lawyer wants to justify himself and so he asks who his neighbor is.

Now don’t go giving the lawyer a hard time, friends. Sadly, if we are going to identify as anyone in this passage it ought to be the lawyer who asks the question. Why? Because how often do you ask God questions like this one? How often do you say, “But surely you can’t mean that folk in Wyandotte County are my neighbors? Surely, you don’t mean that Republicans or Democrats or immigrants are my neighbors, Lord?” The answer is simple, “Yes, and don’t call me surely.” 😉

The question instantly creates an us versus them, and we love that, don’t we? If everyone isn’t your neighbor then it means that some people aren’t your neighbors and if some people aren’t your neighbors then it means that you are off the hook for helping them, caring for them, loving them, treating them with dignity and respect…you see? 

The lawyer is hoping for an out, a get-out-of-jail-free card, and he doesn’t get one. Instead, he gets a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is no easy walk. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was about 18 miles long and you would have started at the high elevation of Jerusalem where the warm air and moisture coming from the Mediterranean was still present and then you would have descended into the Dead Sea Valley to reach Jericho, the oasis city in the desert. The road would have been arid and dry barren wasteland. This is NOT an easy journey and people hearing the story would have known that. The journey would have been lonely because while it was a primary thoroughfare between these two cities, it was so dry and arid hot with so many twists and turns that it was easy for travelers to be robbed and mugged. Bandits would hide out along the road, mug their victims and then travel into the desert and know they were safe, because who wants to chase someone in the desert?! 

So the man traveling this treacherous road, both because of climate and because of the potential for criminal activity, encounters a group of robbers who strip him, beat him, and leave him half dead…really, they leave him to die.

We read that a priest was traveling down that road. Whether the down here means down from Jerusalem toward or Jericho or along the road and on his way up to Jerusalem is irrelevant. This priest was either on his way to Jerusalem to worship or he was on his way back from worship in Jerusalem and he sees a man half dead. Given the way that Jesus tells the story it is safe to assume that this man who was beaten is an Israelite and therefore there is no reason for the priest to ignore him. However, the priest ignores him, likely because he did not want to put his purity at risk by touching blood, and he passes him by. 

A Levite is the next person to encounter the man and he too passes by him without stopping to help him. Levites were from the tribe of Levi which was the priestly tribe of Israel during the Exodus. While their rules and regulations were not as strict as the high(er) priests in Second Temple Judaism, they were still a priestly people which means that this Levite was yet another religious authority who passed by/over the dying man and did nothing…quite the commentary Jesus is providing!

Side note: the passage along which they were traveling is so narrow at some points that you would have needed to literally walk/step over the man in order to keep moving. Jesus’ point is clear here: the priest and the levite didn’t just turn a blind eye to the man…they stepped over him and kept moving without giving him a second thought.

And if you thought that was bad then hear the rest of the story: it was a Samaritan who stopped and took care of the man. It was actually rumored and forewarned to travelers from Jericho to Jerusalem to watch out for the Samaritans who might stop and rob you as you went on your way…do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is turning the entire structure on its head and making some pretty outrageous claims here, claims that would have gotten the attention of his listeners.

The Samaritan doesn’t just take the man into his care. He places him on his animal, pays for his expenses with the equivalent of 2 days wages and then says give me the bill if more is needed, and makes sure that he receives the medical attention he needs to make a full recovery.

“Who was the neighbor?” Jesus asks. The Samaritan, of course. “Go and do likewise.”

Instead of letting you sit with that story, I want to meddle again. Think about it like this. There once was a man traveling along the road between two countries. He encountered a group of robbers who beat and left him for dead. A politician walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he isn’t part of my political party” and he walked on. Then a pastor walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he doesn’t belong to my faith community” and he walked by. But then an immigrant, a foreigner, someone who did not belong to the country, someone about whom vicious lies had been spread, someone who had received the brutal end of diplomacy and democracy, and she was moved to pity. She took care of that man. She used her money, took him to a shelter…

Go. And do. Likewise.

There is no escaping the call of Jesus this morning. The lawyer asked two questions: what must I do to inherit eternal life? and who is my neighbor? The answers left no wiggle room: love the Lord your God and your neighbor and if a Samaritan taking care of a Jewish man after he was beaten by robbers is applauded for acting as a neighbor then that means everyone. And I don’t mean the neighbor next to you with the well manicured lawn who never leaves trash at the curb or throws raucous parties or who never comes asking for anything but when she borrows your allen wrench she returns it within 24 hours and the man who borrows some sugar comes back with cookies for you…not just them…I’m talking the immigrant, the migrant, the poor, the destitute, the DIFFERENT FROM YOU AND ME. We will be overwhelmed, I suspect, by the vast diversity of the Kingdom of God supping together at the eschatological banquet table. 

The lessons and the collect are rather clear this morning: you know what you ought to do and you need to pray that God would change your oughta’s into wanta’s so you can go about doing it…and we will be able to see the results based on the fruit of your labors…the proof is in the pudding my friends. When you live a life based on principles, 99% of your decisions are already made…when you live in the Kingdom of God, 100% of your decisions are already made…but will you follow through? Will you accept the call of God today, here, now, and begin reordering and reorganizing your live so that it aligns most fully with God and his kingdom? Will you commit to not only knowing what you ought to or should do in a moment but to actually doing it? 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your body, and your mind, and your strength, and your soul, and your wallets, and you resources…and love your neighbor as yourself…Go and do likewise, friends.