Tension in the Gospel

Matthew 20:1-16 (Jonah 3:10–4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30)
This is such an easy text to explain: it is such low-hanging fruit. Yet, the best fruit is sometimes higher up the tree, and requires a wee bit of effort to reach.

Daily workers are hired at an agreed upon rate of pay. And, given that this daily wage is subsistence-level pay, they are compensated at the end of each day, in accordance with Jewish law. (This truly is living hand-to-mouth.) Common at that time was for farmworkers to own their own small fields, which they would tend at the start of the day, and then look for additional work on other folks’ land later in the day. Other workers were overlooked entirely throughout the day for various reasons (age, infirmity, ethnicity, etc.) and might only be hired at the very end of the day, as darkness fell and as a final couple of hours of intense work were needed before the light was lost. One thing that seemed only right, proper and just, was that those who worked longest were paid more than the others; and that the others were compensated with diminishing amounts. When this proved not to be the case, the workers complained in a manner that one scholar describes simply as “fair and well-articulated.”
Now at this point we can simply reach for the low hanging fruit. Grace, we may state, is more important than justice. And, that our Jewish cousins are being joined in God’s vineyard (see Isaiah 5:1-7) by new workers (Christians) and are jealous of our relationship with God and the reward God gives us (a saving relationship) that they believe is rightly theirs. In other words, “who do these newcomers think they are?”
Yet, as the landowner seems to argue, it is his money, and he can do what he wants with it. How dare someone criticize someone in his position, when he seeks to be generous and benevolent. (Such were the prerogatives of someone of his standing within social order of the day.) And, the landowner adds, did he not pay that which was agreed upon? He is acting justly. Yet there is grace in this story right enough. For the other cohorts of workers struck no agreement with the landowner at all. The second round of workers were only promised “whatever is right [literally, just]” (vs. 4) and the third were given no promise at all. These two groups were extremely vulnerable, given the lateness of their hire, and had simply to rely on the beneficence of the landowner. (They were as surprised and delighted at the outcome, as the initial group was angry and bitter.)
So, on reflection, this text appears to argue that grace and justice stand in tension with each other. This tension is what is so “very displeasing to Jonah;” (Jonah 4:1). God’s justice demands that Nineveh be destroyed, yet it is a sign of grace that God “changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them” (Jonah 3:10). These two aspects of the character of God (justice and mercy) are in tension in a manner similar to the “now-not yet” of Paul’s writings; and the “both-and” of Luther’s writings (especially his slogan simul justus et peccator – saint and sinner at one and the same time).
Tension is uncomfortable – as all grey areas are. Black and white, with starkly delineated lines, is comfortingly familiar. Yet here, as so often in Scripture, we find a God who, unlike us, is “gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8).
Pr. Ken Blyth


Matthew 18:21-35 (Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13, Romans 14:1-12)

The story is told of a Bishop on an old-style train, who sat facing a stranger. The man challenged the faith of the Bishop upon the absurdity of several Christian doctrines. Finally, having discussed prayer, they turned to forgiveness. The stranger challenged the bishop, “Go pray to your God and ask him how I have sinned. If you can describe to me the sins of my past, I’ll know that God has spoken to you!” The Bishop entered into a time of prayer, after which the man demanded, “Well, what did he say?” The Bishop replied, “God says he cannot remember what you did.” Such is godly forgiveness: not just that the debt has a line drawn through it in the divine ledger, still showing that the debt was due and was satisfied, but that it was expunged such that it never existed.

Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). Peter is being clever – seven is the number of perfection. Jesus tells Peter that forgiveness should extend beyond perfection, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (vs. 22). However, this is not a discussion about the quantity of mercy but the quality of it. What follows is a story full of excess:
A relationship between a Lord and a slave.
An absurd amount of money owed (think “billions of dollars”).
The most severe of Lords who thinks nothing about enslaving a wife and child in order to reclaim a debt.
Then the Lord excessively forgives the entire debt out of mere pity.
Perversely, the forgiven slave cannot forgive a small debt owed to him (about 100 days wages).
In retribution he is tortured by the Lord until his original debt is paid in full.
In short, this passage teaches that we are to forgive each other, because God forgives us. If we do not forgive others, punishment awaits (“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” vs. 35). This may sound a wee bit shocking, and yet vaguely familiar. That’s because we pray this sentiment in each and every worship service, church committee meeting, and in the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors/trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Now, to be sure, there are times when we most certainly ought not to forget the sins perpetrated against us. If we forgive an abuser, we would still do well to take care that he/she does not begin to manipulate us or others towards future or ongoing abuse. “Forgetting” is not the same as “doormat”! Yet, to forget to the point where wounds heal; grudges are laid aside, and our past no longer lays claim to our present and future, is a profound form of forgiveness. To forgive in such a way that passive-aggressive comments are a thing of the past; and phrases such as “But I don’t talk about it anymore” no longer follow yet another retelling. To forgive and forget, is to forgive “from the heart” (vs. 35). Such is the manner in which God forgives.
Now, pray the Lord’s Prayer, and pray slowly and profoundly as you reach “forgive us…”

Sept 6, 2020

About Sunday’s Music
Our “Music of the Month” for September will feature the work of Florence Beatrice Price (1899-1952). This coming Sunday, our prelude will be one of her organ works, “Adoration”. You’ll notice the beautiful French Horn stop on the organ bringing out a lyrical melody.
Price became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a Major American orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, her early career was an uphill battle involving segregation, Jim Crow laws, entrenched racism and sexism. After moving to Chicago in 1927, her career flourished through a variety of educational opportunities and exposure within many music organizations. In 1928, G. Schirmer and Mckinley publishing companies began to issue her songs, piano pieces, and especially her instructional pieces for piano. Later, Price became friends with the great contralto, Marian Anderson, who began to champion her songs by including them in her public concerts. As she was planning a European tour, Price passed away 1953.
Also on Sunday, our SAKLC Choral Scholars will sing a beautiful offertory, “O nata lux” (tran. O radiant light) by the contemporary British composer, Edmund Jolliffe. This text is prescribed for use during morning prayer and has been set by many composers over the centuries.
Joilliffe’s music embraces all styles from contemporary classical to songs for shows. He writes music for film and television, and is also an award winning concert composer. His choral music has been performed by many prestigious choirs, including the ORA Singers, Magdalen College Choir Oxford, The Choir of Brick Church New York, The Nonsuch Singers, The Choir of the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace and the Amadeus Choir Toronto.

“You’re so vain”

Matthew 18:15-20 (Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14)

[Jesus said to the disciples:] “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:15-20.

“You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you,” sang Carly Simon.  Well, we’re so accustomed to the authorities (civil and religious) adjudicating disputes, we assume that Matthew 18:15-20 is just that.  It is not.  It is a pastoral appeal, to the benefit of all parties: the wronged, the offender, and the family of faith (the Church, the ekklēsia).

The wronged: Leviticus 19:17 warns us, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.”  Here is a warning that one who is wronged can allow hate to fester in their heart, ultimately destroying them.  This is so easily overlooked when all the focus is on the offender; on their actions; and their guilt.  

The offender: In 1 Corinthians 9:19-20, Paul writes: “… to all men I made myself servant, that the more I might gain; and I became to the Jews as a Jew, that Jews I might gain; to those under law as under law, that those under law I might gain.”  The word translated as “gain” appears also in Matthew 18:15: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

The community/the Church: Matthew revisits the responsibility of interpretation first given to Peter (Matthew 16:19), which is now given to the community as a whole (18:18). What is juridically asked for by the community (vs. 18b) even where only two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name (vs. 20) will be done for the Church by the Father; for there on earth is the body of Jesus.  As one scholar puts it: “When the Church acts responsibly to bring about reconciliation and restoration, it is acting on God’s behalf.”  As if to stress the familial nature of this reconciliation and restoration, Matthew uses the phrase, “If your brother sins…” (vs. 15).  Our translation, while attempting to be gender neutral, unintentionally makes the familial sound institutional.

In short, Matthew 18:15-20 describes a course of action, a process, a focus, that is pastoral not judicial.  It is love not punishment.  It is for the spiritual benefit of all, and not simply the punishment of the sinner.  Even when all seems lost, there is hope.  After all, we know how Jesus related to “Gentiles and tax collectors” (vs. 17b) – he loved them into community despite their brokenness.  So, this is a model that is redemptive not punitive – very Christ-like, is it not?

August 30, 2020

The prelude for Sunday is a work by the English composer Stanley Vann, “Domine, exaudi” (tran. Hear, O Lord). Vann (1910-2010) was the Organist and Master of the Music at Peterborough Cathedral for many years. Previously he served as organist at Chelmsford Cathedral. He assisted Sir Henry Wood as Chorus Master of the Philharmonic Choir in Leicester. In addition to his large body of organ compositions, Vann wrote more than 200 works for voice or choir. He was awarded a Lambeth doctorate in 1971 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury in recognition of his “eminent services to church music”.
Sunday’s anthem is a lovely setting of text from Psalm 26 and 89, “O Lord, I Love the Habitation of Your House”. It was composed by Mark Bender and used for the installment of the Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, Indiana on August 30, 2987.
Our postlude this Sunday may sound familiar to many of you. It is an arrangement of the tune, “THAXTED”, by Gustav Holst. It is based on the stately theme from the middle section of the Jupiter movement of his orchestral suite The Planets and named after Thaxted, the English village where Holst lived much of his life. He adapted the theme in 1921 to fit the patriotic poem “I Vow to Thee, My Country” by Cecil Spring Rice but that was as a unison song with orchestra. It did not appear as a hymn-tune called “Thaxted” until his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams included it in Songs of Praise in 1926. Since then, the tune has been used for several texts. In our own hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, it appears twice – “Let Streams of Living Justice” (ELW 710) and “O God Beyond All Praising” (ELW 880).

Hokey Pokey & Christianity

Matthew 16:21-28 (Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21 

What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?

What if Bingo was the name of the farmer, not the dog? 

(“There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o.”)

Sometimes, we are forced to simply sit and reassess our thoughts, action, and attitudes.  Peter and the disciples are doing just that in this week’s biblical text.  Matthew’s Gospel is at a pivot point.  At 16:21 Jesus’ message turns, for the first time, to his Passion (arrest, torture, and death).  It is at this point that Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord” (vs. 22) – or literally, “God be gracious to you” (in other words, “spare you this fate).  One commentator calls this Peter’s great gaffe, in contrast with his great confession (16:16).  Yet is a gaffe that reveals several powerful truths to us:

We can be a rock of faith, or a rock over which others stumble (in the Greek, skandelon).  We can even be both!

We can forget just how radical Jesus’ messiahship is compared with that which was expected.  Jesus is no mere King of Israel, but the savior of the world.  He is not a new Moses, he is God.

The reason that God cannot “forbid” Jesus’ passion, is that God wills his passion.  This is not senseless tragedy, but divine necessity: part of the Divine plan, which includes suffering and death, but also resurrection.  Hence Jesus “must go to Jerusalem” (literally “it is necessary” dei – vs. 21).

As Jesus forfeited his life for God’s sake (Father), so we too forfeit ours for God’s sake (Son). (See verses 25-26.)

The self-denial that constitutes taking up the cross (vs. 24) is at the very heart of discipleship.  This discipleship is expensive: it comes at the cost of ego, pride, status, etc.  It costs us much of what we hold most dear.  So, this is not a model of easy compliance (as one writer puts it) but rather a “deliberate, irrevocable decision.”    

Everything we humans hold dear is as nothing to who we are.  Even the “whole world” (the richness and abundance of Creation) is nothing compared with the life (psychē, meaning “soul”) given to us by God.  Riches versus our authentic selves, is the meaning here (vs. 26).

In John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, he refers to the felix culpa; the Fortunate Fall.  The Fall was a negative event (sin and death entered Creation) that would ultimately  lead to a positive event (the redemption of the world through Jesus).  In this respect, Peter’s gaffe – his felix culpa, his fall, is fortunate because it reveals in stark terms just how radical Christianity is.  We have made faith comfortable and easy.  We have made discipleship something in which – at best – we barely break a sweat, and at worst something we leave to others (discipleship by proxy).  We conveniently overlook the stumbling blocks we place in the path of others, either by our benign neglect, or by deliberate act.   And, we have sanitized Jesus’ passion to the extent that it barely causes us to wince, let alone cry out loud.

Peter’s gaffe reveals the radical love God has for us; the lengths to which God will go to save us; and the costliness of Christian discipleship.
Pr. Ken Blyth

Aug 23, 2020

For me, this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew is one of the most powerful passages from scripture. After Peter’s declaration of faith, Jesus tells him,
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-20)
In this passage, Jesus gives Simon the name of “Peter” (translated “rock”) as a symbol of his strength and firmness in the profession of faith. Jesus then declares that the church will be built on this confession. James Boyce, Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota writes, “Discipleship is named, founded, and commissioned in this confession.”
This passage has inspired composers through the ages – from Renaissance composers like Palestrina, to contemporary composers. There is a gravity and grandeur to this text that makes it well-suited to musical settings.
Below are a few musical samples of various settings of this text through the ages. The latin text and translation is included below. Enjoy this beautiful music based on our scripture this coming weekend.
Michael J. Bodnyk
Minister of Music
Giovannia Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Sung by the New York Polyphony

Robert Pearsall (1795-1856)
Sun by East Carolina University Chamber Singers

Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937)
Sung by the National Lutheran Choir

James Macmillan (b. 1959)
Sung by the Westminster Cathedral Choir
(Composed for the visitation of Pope Benedict XVI to Westminster Cathedral in 2010)
Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram | You are Peter, and on this Rock
Aedificabo Ecclesiam meam | I will built My church
Et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam: | And the gates of hell will not prevail against it:
Et tibi dabo claves | And I will give you the keys
Regni coelorum. | To the kingdom of heaven.
Quodcumque ligaveris super terram, | Whatever you bind on earth
Erit ligatum et in coelis; | Will be bound also in heaven;
Et quodcumque solveris super terram | And whatever you release on earth
Erit solutum et in coelis. | Will be released also in heaven.

You are Peter

Matthew 16:13-20 (Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8)

Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16).  In Mark’s Gospel he immediately demonstrates that he hasn’t a clue what those words mean, whereas in Matthew’s Gospel he does.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus immediately rebukes Peter, describing him as satanic (Mark 8:33); while in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus blesses Peter for his faith – something Jesus does for no other disciple! (16;17).  Both compilers agree that Jesus describes Peter as a rock.  (Petros in Greek, or Cephas which is a transliteration of the Aramaic word for rock, “kefa.”)

It is upon the rock of people like Peter, who recognize and confess Jesus as Messiah, that the community of the people of God (the Church, the ekklēsi) will prevail against the oldest enemy of humankind: death.  Sheol our Jewish cousins call the place.  Hades, the Greeks call it, after the god of the Underworld.  That enemy which, since the Fall, seemed powerfully and fundamentally to have the final world in the affairs of humans, no longer holds us captive.  

And it is the Church, through Peter and the disciples, which holds the keys of heaven, not because its component parts (us!) are perfect.  As Lutheran scholar Mark Allan Powell puts it:

The church has the authority to declare God’s will not because it exhibits more insight or greater faithfulness to God than others, but because Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has chosen to be present in the church and to exercise his authority on earth through this community.

This is not a description of hierarch, or bureaucracy.  This is a community of faith active in love.  A community of self-sacrifice.  A community which is aware of grace received; and intent upon sharing that grace with the world.  It is a community which interprets the life-giving message of Jesus anew in each generation – which is why the ministry of “binding and loosing” (16:19) is given to Jesus followers and is not reserved to God alone.  For, the task is ongoing and concrete: it has a physical presence in the world.  This is the most wonderful and perplexing, the most awesome and yet most misunderstood example of stewardship.  This is the Office of the Keys (as Luther’s Small Catechism describes it), “… that authority which Christ gave to his church.”  The keys given to the disciples remind us of the keys taken from the unfaithful steward (Shebna) and which were given to the more faithful steward (Eliakim):

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David… (Isaiah 22:21-22).

Forgiveness and mercy, care and instruction, are shared with the world through a community grounded in the One who redeemed the world.  

Life is a wilderness

Matthew 14:13-21 (Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5) 

I came across a story told about Fr. Michael Renninger, a Catholic priest.  Back in his days as a college student, he came home to visit his grandparents.  His grandfather had suffered a series of strokes, was bedridden, and was under the care of Michael’s grandmother.  I am sure you can imagine the scene into which the young man walked: the sounds, sights and smells of such an all-too-human predicament.  Michel turned to leave; discretion being the better part of valor, and wishing to spare his grandparents any embarrassment.  As he walked towards the door, his grandmother’s voice bellowed out: “Don’t you dare.  Don’t you dare leave.  Sometimes this is what love looks like.” (Baptist News Global, July 23, 2020.)

Sometimes, life is a wilderness.  It can take the form of a barren dessert, such as that through which the Hebrews walked on their journey from slavery into freedom.  At such times, scraps of nourishment such as manna and quail, keep folks nourished enough to complete a journey from death to life.

Sometimes the wilderness is simply a place apart from the busyness of life, as is the case with Jesus and the feeding of the multitude.  Here it was a portion of countryside that was neither his hometown, which had rejected him (Matthew 13:54-58) nor the land of Herod, who had John the Baptist executed (Mathew 14:1-12).  This wilderness hints at the alternate world, or way of being, that Jesus was instituting.  The food promised to Moses (Exodus 16) and the food provided by Elisha (2 Kings 4) served the people for a day or a season, but Jesus’ banquet points to the Last Supper; the “medicine of immortality” as Ignatius of Antioch describes it.  Here, on a grassy slope the multitude is invited to not just sit, but to recline (anaklinomai) – for this is a banquet, not a snack!  Herod’s banquet lead to death; but Jesus’ banquet will lead to abundant life.  

The wilderness is backdrop to an incredible feeding.  A one-sided affair in which the Ancient-Near Eastern model of patron-client and its quid pro quo, is set aside as Jesus provides without strings attached: No reciprocity is expected nor possible.  In this wilderness, the people are not sent away (vs. 16).  Instead, they are to be a new community together in sight and touch of  Jesus’ teaching and feeding.  They are the Church; the assembly of the faithful gathered around Word and Sacrament.  

The feeding of the five thousand is merely a beginning – and a rather small beginning at that, despite the numbers involved.  5000, out of all Creation?  Out of all that was, and is and ever shall be?  Truly, this meal seems to have more in common with the mustard seed and the yeast (Matthew 13:31-33) than it does with the heavenly banquet.  Yet, notice what led to this banquet: “[Jesus] saw a great crowd; and he has compassion for them…” (vs. 14).  Love does that, you see.  It looks like a meal shared; a glass of water given. It looks like tears shed during a wedding dance, and in grief at the end.  It looks like sleepless nights waiting to hear a key in a front door and the refusal to give money to the same child for fear of what it will buy.  Love looks like a bloodied corpse nailed to rough wood. And, love looks like a spouse washing clean the love of their life, who cannot even remember their name.  Sometimes, this is what love looks like.


Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25)

“Some of the members of our Church are as useless as weeds: How and when are we to rid ourselves of them?”  That is the implicit question that this week’s Gospel text explicitly answers.  Scholars argue that Matthew’s Gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  So, Matthew’s Church (the community of the faithful) had experienced considerable growth as the Jewish diaspora spread throughout the Mediterranean. Soon thereafter, the Church noticed that these Christians were not – as at first glance – identical in beliefs and practice to the existing community.  This is one explanation of the “field” in today’s parable:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well (Matthew 13:24b-26).

In truth, not much has changed in 2000 years.  The Church continues to be populated by a diverse group of sinners.  (Paul describes us more lyrically, as earthen vessels containing a rich treasure, in 2 Corinthians 4:7).  Certainly, we often fail to live up to our high calling.  (Or, as one scholar dryly puts it: “We wrestle with the paradoxical nature of the Church and the contradictory forces at work within it.”).  At the very least, we can agree that each of us are shaped by the changes and chances of our lives; that we are no blank slate, but rather wounded people seeking healing; and that our scar tissue often influences the way in which live in community, one with another.  (The following cartoon describes this reality a wee bit more bluntly!): 

Certainly, this leads to tensions.  But no more than those displayed in this week’s parable:

Waiting & Judgement

Gathering & Separation

Preservation & Destruction

The weeds which we are so intent upon uprooting are described as zizanlon, a weed now known as Darnal, which looks identical to wheat in its early growth period.  A few such weeds in a field are no problem.  Sure, you may lose some wheat while tearing them up (mistakes happen!) but no big deal.  However, a field full of wheat and weeds is another matter: The crop may be destroyed in the process.  In fact, such was the potential devastation of such a scenario that Roman law punished offenders severely for deliberately contaminating a field with such weeds.

Given the potential for the inadvertent destruction of the good along with the bad, Jesus’ advice is clear: Allow the Lord of the Harvest to take care of the weeds at the time of the harvest (the close of the age).  This eschatological approach has several advantages:

● Given our track record, leave it to the experts.  After all, look at what we did to Jesus! We can be pretty reckless when it comes to destroying those who are not like us.

● As the Rolling Stones might put it: Time is on my (our) side, yes it is! The old liturgy addresses this in the words of absolution: “May the Almighty and merciful Lord grant unto you pardon, remission of all your sins, time for true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit” (my emphasis).  In other words, given that we are, each of us, a “work in progress,” we should be appreciative of additional time in which to make such progress.  

● The sin and brokenness of the other ought to remind us of our shared brokenness.  (A mirror, not an occasion for schadenfreude.)

● As much as we would like to pretend that church is a social or country club, this shared brokenness reminds us – as Pope Francis would put it – that the Church is in fact a field hospital.  If we do not recognize this reality our wounds will go untreated; and our anger and frustration at the imbalance of the membership dues and membership benefits will rise.

● How else will Jesus recognize us, other than as broken human beings, struggling to live in community with other broken human beings, for the sake of the world?  I am reminded (thanks to Wikipedia) of the entombment of Otto Von Hapsburg, Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He died in 2011 after a long period of public service following the fall of the empire at the conclusion of World War One.  The procession of mourners arrived at the gates of the Capuchin Church, under which lies the Imperial Crypt, and the Herald knocked on the door. A Capuchin asked, “Who demands entry?”  The Herald responded, “Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius von Habsburg, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria; Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Lodomeria; King of Jerusalem etc.; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Silesia, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, Auschwitz and Zator, Teschen, Friuli, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and the Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc.”  The Capuchin responded, “We don’t know him.” The same procedure was repeated. On the third attempt, when the Herald responded with, “A sinful, mortal human being,” the gates were opened, and Otto was admitted into the Crypt.

Parable of the Sower

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13, Romans 8:1-11)

This week, we encounter the Parable of the Sower.  The issue at hand is this: How to account for the fact that while the Kingdom of God has broken into time and space (or “the present age” as Matthew would put it), some folks do not seem to acknowledge that fact (they do not “hear.”).

There are two ironies in this text that ought to be acknowledged right away.  The first is that the despite its title, the parable does not tell us as much about the sower as it does about the soil.  The second is that the crowds around Jesus are so great that he must board a boat and teach from just offshore: So, the crowd is representative of the very soil that he describes.  (Some will hear, and others will not.)  

The scholar C. H. Dodd once described a parable as, “intended to tease the mind into active thought.”  And so, in a mixture of story and riddle, Jesus describes a powerful reality.  While the seed is good, and the sower is well-intentioned, results may vary.  The great variable is the “soil.”  As Jesus explains, the evil one, shallow faith, and the cares of the world can destroy or inhibit the crop.  On the other hand, some soil can produce an unexpected – indeed, a superabundant – yield.

There are at least two distinct interpretations of this parable.  The first was described above – the kingdom faces real obstacles which inhibit people from hearing/believing the proclamation.    However, there is another meaning – one that ought to give us great hope.  The parable teaches us not to focus solely on defeat – those instances where our faithful efforts fail.  Instead, we are to celebrate instances of success.  Rather than dwelling on defeat, we can instead rejoice at the harvest. We are thus called to be a people of abundance not shortage. 

The promise inherent in Mathew’s Gospel (as one scholar points out) is that the kingdom of God has broken into the present age and will continue to grow towards consummation in God’s own time.  Such growth and consummation will come – come hell or high water – never fear.  Resting on this promise of God in Christ Jesus, we can be people whose lives are the embodiment of abundance.  Abundant love, mercy, humility, kindness, gentleness, service, grace, and faith.

I will give you rest

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a)

My childhood was pretty low tech.  I remember playing outside a lot (Scottish weather permitting!).  I remember playing “connect the dots,” and being amazed at the hidden object thus revealed.  I find my self connecting the dots once again with this week’s Gospel text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.  The words are so familiar:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vs. 28-30).

After listening to Jesus talk about the cost of discipleship – the price to be paid for picking up one’s cross and following him – one can reasonably ask, “What’s so light about that burden? what’s so easy about that yoke?”  Well, Scripture interprets Scripture, so let’s look at Matthew 23:2-4:

 [Jesus said] The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Things are becoming a wee bit clearer now.  The Scribes and Pharisees are the educated, religious leaders.  They are the sophoi and the synetoi referred to by Jesus in verse 25: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  These are the same leaders who find it impossible to respond faithfully to the call of John the Baptist or of Jesus.  John came with great sobriety and a life typified by abstinence; and the authorities said he was demonic.  Jesus came with a message of joy, and broke bread with all; and the authorities said he was a glutton and drunkard.  Jesus compares these responses with two children’s games: the wedding game and the funeral game: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (vs. 17).  Instead, Jesus lifts up the nēpioi – the infants, the lowly: they know how to dance and to mourn.  They respond to the call of the Baptizer and the Messiah.  They have ears to listen.

It is then that Matthew – uniquely amongst the Gospel writers – shares Jesus words, shifting now to the positive (vs. 28-30) from the preceding negative.  I will refresh you, Jesus says (an alternate translation of “give you rest”).  My burden is easy and light compared with that of the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, because they do not practice what they preach.    Jesus however is what he preaches: he is servanthood and love (those are his commandments); he is gentleness and humility (as his passion and death illustrates).  Jesus is the embodiment of his teaching, his torah.  

In Hebrew, the Torah are the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture: Genesis through Deuteronomy.  However, the word literally means teaching, direction, and guidance; not just “law” (which is how most Christians translate the word).  The lightness of Jesus’ burden is that it is love.  And then Jesus shows what love without limit, and life without end, looks like.  

What’s the reward?

Matthew 10:40-42 (Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23)

This week’s Gospel text is so short, it can be shared here in its entirety.  

[Jesus said to the twelve:] 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked, “What’s the reward of a prophet?”  A reasonable question.  Having been promised a gift, one does not have to be a wee kid to become excitedly curious as to what that gift might be.  But still, I chuckle a little at the mental image that question conjures up.  I imagine a prophet standing on a doorstep proclaiming that he had a gift to give. The householder looks excitedly behind the prophet, and down the lane.  Where is it, the person inquires?  Here I am, the prophet replies: I am the gift.  The homeowner deflates in stunning disappointment.  Oh, whoop-de-doo.  Our ability, as human beings, to overlook a blessing that is before our very eyes is substantial.  This is but one example.  

The Biblical references to “one who is sent,” are considerable.  The Hebrew word shaliah and the Greek apostle, describe that person.  And, behind the words lie a powerful image, which comes from a time and place in which telephones and Zoom videoconferencing did not exist.  An envoy, steward, or plenipotentiary was used instead.  The one who was sent as a representative was no mere underling.  Instead – to use a phrase in popular use at the time of Jesus – the envoy sent by a man is like the man himself. When the envoy was welcomed, one was welcoming the one who sent him.  

Now we are getting to the heart of the meaning of “reward” (misthos).  Notice the words “Whoever welcomes…” (vs. 40, 41).  This phrase literally means “receives into one’s house.”  It is not simply a friendly hello, it is a welcoming in.  So, whosever allows into one’s home (think also, heart, life, etc.) a prophet/disciple, is welcoming Jesus, just as surely as if Jesus himself were there.  There is the reward: One is rewarded by the prophet/disciple with the presence of the Savior.

And so, this text poses a question – a test, if you will – of the person’s attitude to God.  Will you leave the visitor on your doorstep, unwelcomed, unreceived, rejected?  To do so is to turn away Godself.  It is to return the misthos unopened and unwanted.  

Remember Constantine?

Sunday, June 21, 2020
Our opening hymn this Sunday is “Lift high the cross”, one of the most well known processional hymns coming to us from the Anglican tradition. Originally written with 11 stanzas, the hymn was written in 1887 for a festival liturgy in Winchester Cathedral by the cathedral’s Dean, George William Kitchen. The texts were altered by Michael Robert Newbolt for inclusion in the Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1916. This is the version that has gained prominence in the English-speaking world.
“Lift high the cross” incorporates an important feature of processionals: the crucifer (cross-bearer) leads the stately procession down the long nave, lifting the cross high. This ritual use of the cross is a sign of the victory of the resurrection and finds a biblical basis in John 12:32, “And I, when I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (RSV). 
Another influence comes from the fourth century, based on a story of the Emperor Constantine’s vision as told in Eusebius’s Life of Constantine, in which he saw a cross inscribed with the words, “In hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign [of the cross] you will conquer”). Constantine recognized Christianity officially as a religion of the state, providing a basis for further spread of Christianity. Raymond Glover calls the hymn text “a possible twentieth-century replacement for ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers'” and says that “the thrust of the text recalls the words of the Emperor Constantine’s vision”.
The hymn did not find voice in the United States until it was published in Hymns for the Living Church (1974), edited by hymnologist and professor Donald P. Hustad. Since that time, “Lift high the cross” has become a staple of many hymnals.
Michael Bodnyk
Minister of Music

What would you do …?

Matthew 10:24-39 (Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-10 [11-15] 16-18, Romans 6:1b-1) 

“What would you do for a Klondike Bar?”  Remember those iconic commercials, starting in 1982? They are on a par with, “Hey, Mickey likes it!” and “Where’s the beef?”  

Matthew 10:24-39 asks the same question: What would you do…?  

It begins with an ethical exhortation: The disciple or slave is not above the teacher or master (vs. 24).  The followers must be prepared to suffer as much, and possibly more than Jesus.  What would you do for a savior?  

The Way (Jesus, and his commandments) are not a secret, kept for the benefit of the few; they are public property (to be proclaimed from the rooftops [vs. 26-27]). What would you do for a savior?

Keep in mind that which is ultimate (the soul – psychē) which cannot be destroyed; compared with the body (sōma) which can easily be destroyed, but which is a distant second to the soul.  Understand that, and you will have no fear.  This concept is so important to Matthew that he quotes this exhortation three times in five verses (vs. 26, 28, 31).  What would you do for a savior?

And then Jesus delivers a powerful illustration of the cost of discipleship: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (vs. 34-39).  Matthew’s Gospel reveals that the peacemakers are blessed (5:9) and that we are to love our enemies (6:44). Clearly, Jesus speaks of the persecution that his disciples will have to endure when, in a society in which kin and community define the person, they are instead called to find a new family and new kin, in the community of The Way.  What would you do for a savior?

What would you do for a savior?  Would you follow his call for a radical abdication of possessions and family ties?  Would you endure persecution, and embrace costly discipleship?  Would you do so without fear, knowing that your soul in kept secure in God’s hands?