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Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-27-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the pandemic, six months ago now, we had a reading from the prophet Ezekiel. I remember ruminating on it because it is such a sad, heartbreaking book. It’s a book, of faith and hope though, nevertheless. It is a book for 2020. It rarely appears in our readings so I was surprised this week to see it again. It must be worth paying attention to.

Ezekiel lived in very tense times. God’s chosen people for a century stood between three world powers: Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. In order to survive, the political leaders constantly made treaties and compromises with their more powerful neighbors. They sought above all to protect that beautiful temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Deep inside the temple, was a room called the “Holy of Holies.” It housed the ark of the covenant containing the 10 commandments given to Moses and his brother Aaron’s rod. To come to the temple courtyard was to come to sacred ground because it was close to the Holy of Holies.

The political leaders, nonetheless, would eventually make a mistake and cut the wrong deal with the wrong people. When they did, the Babylonian army came and burned down the temple and took the Jews they did not kill to Babylon in exile. Families were driven from their homes. The marble walls surrounding the “Holy of Holies” were broken down. There was no longer a temple, the ark of the covenant would never be seen again, and the religion of God’s chosen people was being mocked. After all, the “Holy of Holies” was crushed, and holiness spilled out on the profane ground as the flames burned ever higher. Ezekiel was there as a priest and dragged in exile.

No one even knew if God speaks without a temple in the foreign land of Babylon. In exile, Ezekiel looked up at a foreign sky with different stars; the stench of the burning temple was still in his nose. The opening words of the book of Ezekiel are momentous, they are, “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). Nothing was the same in Babylon, except one thing: the voice of God. Even there God spoke and says, “you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair?” I can hear the Israelites saying, Hey, we are God’s chosen people, how can this happen to us? Do God’s people live in exile? That’s just not right.

God says to them, “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ (That is, the children keep paying for the sins of their parents. The Israelite children were taken captive as well at no fault of their own). “As I live,” says the Lord God, “this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” “It is only the person who sins that shall die…. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn to me, then, and live” (Ezekiel 18:3-4, 30-32).

Isn’t it true that when bad things happen, like what happened in Ezekiel’s day, we can say something like “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” 2020 continues to be an epic year of upheaval and disasters. It’s easiest to be absorbed by the despair and cynicism of it all. Someone is the blame for the temple burning down, who is it? God says to Ezekiel, “enough of that!” “Why do you have to die, O house of Israel?” There is, instead, new life even in exile for God’s people. God tells Ezekiel, “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

A profound lesson of Ezekiel is that while good people worked to make everything appear so outwardly perfect and beautiful, God was just fine with a far messier chain of events to get to that “new heart and new spirit” he spoke about. We can spend our lives building a beautiful marble temple with our own hands on the highest hill of Jerusalem, and do it all for God, and God may just let it burn down. God is not nearly as afraid of brokenness as we are. Broken things are in fact something God can work with, sometimes more effectively than when all our efforts are solely focussed on preventing anything from falling apart. There is just a lot more flexibility and resilience to how God works in the world than we believe.

Jesus speaks a message very much like Ezekiel’s in the Gospel reading today. He says to a group of devout observant Jewish leaders, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same thing, and that son answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Those listening said, “The first,” because he eventually went. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:28-32). What a shocking statement! What could it mean?

Be certain Jesus is not saying that living a life as a prostitute or a dishonest tax collector that extorts money from needy people is something to imitate. Elsewhere he has plenty to say about why sin is bad for us. So what is he saying? It seems to me that he is likening that group of devote Jews to their ancestors who built this beautiful temple for God to live in among them. They could not imagine that God could speak in other circumstances. Could God speak to a conquered, broken, people in exile?

Jesus says to them, “You have never been broken, how can you enter the kingdom of God? Your religion is so much about your success in holding your life together. You have never been undone by God’s holiness. At least when a prostitute really repents, she knows what it is like to be broken. She knows the God that still speaks in Babylon, the God who promises new life to those who watched the temple burn down. She knows there is no use pretending it never happened.

She knows how hard it is to reject the proverb that God says should never be spoken: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Her parents likely did eat sour grapes, and her teeth were set on edge, but she does not keep saying, “The Lord’s ways are unfair.” Instead, she finds God in her brokenness, and it is there that she gains “a new heart and a new spirit.” Although committing her life to God may not have repaired everything, or given her continual happiness, or taken away every regret, in repenting and turning to God she gained that worthy quality of really knowing the truth about herself, a new heart and a new spirit.

So when Jesus compares her to the people who thought they knew what holiness was, but had never been broken, had never been undone, he says, “See, that prostitute, she will enter the kingdom of God before you do.” Jesus questions us, and says, “What is better? Is it that son, that keeps saying yes to his Father, but never goes. Or is it the son, that said no, but went anyway and did his father’s will?”

It can’t be a coincidence that the one speaking this parable would eventually be that Son, in the garden of Gethsemane, facing the cross, praying in the garden to his Father, saying I don’t want to do it, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Yet the next day he put his body on that cross to be broken, and it was in this brokenness that new life came to us all. It is his broken body on the cross that is the holiest symbol of our Christianity and the source of life-giving power. As St. Paul reminds us today, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:7-11). 

If you feel your life beginning to crack in this really hard year that is not done with us yet–and I know a lot you are facing really hard things right now–if, like Ezekiel you see the fires burning what matters to you, let Ezekiel remind you that ashes and broken things are exactly what God can work with. If like Ezekiel, you have doubted that God can speak by the waters of Babylon, repent of that lack of faith, and get yourself a new heart and new spirit.

Holy God, whose presence is never confined to even our best projects, help us to hear your voice even in Babylon, forgive us when we have responded to things breaking with despair, and help us to repent of that if need be, and through your Holy Spirit give us “a new heart and a new spirit” to believe in the new life that awaits those who place their hope in you. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-20-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We meet up with Jonah at the end of the book this morning and not at the more famous beginning where–running from God–he hurls himself off a boat at sea and is swallowed by a sea monster. After all that, God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah replied, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Jonah was angry at the bush, really angry. To be fair, Jonah had had a really long week. The bush withering and letting him down was just one things too many. He had hit his limit. It is tempting to judge Jonah here and laugh at this comic scene of the man coming completely undone by a bush. Isn’t it? But in 2020 a lot of us have had days that are just one thing too many. There has just been too much disappointment and loss, already. The story of Jonah has had something to say generation after generation and 2020 is no different. From the earliest Christian centuries, we find ancient pictures of Jonah, see here is Jonah on the boat, Jonah being eaten by the sea monster (always drawn more like a dragon than a whale because their knowledge of whales wasn’t great), and Jonah sheltering under his bush.

Jonah was really upset because he had in his mind a pretty clear idea about the way things ought to happen. Ninevah was the capital city of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Ninevah was one of the first cities that realized it had the power of enslaving all of its neighbors simply by having the most powerful army. Jonah happened to be one of those neighboring peoples forcibly subjugated to this empire. Out of his deep faith in God, Jonah believed Justice would prevail and really wanted to live long enough to see Ninevah finally get what it deserved. He was waiting for the reckoning. Jonah is one of the good guys and a much-heralded prophet according to the Bible.

Jonah’s real problem was that God didn’t agree with Jonah’s plan, no matter how good it was. As the Bible tells its readers all the time, in the words of the Jonah’s fellow prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8). Jonah was angry at the bush, but he was really disappointed and sad that God had failed to punish the Ninevites according to Jonah’s notion of what is right and wrong. As Jonah complained to God, Jonah explained how much he did not want to give the citizens of Ninevah even the opportunity to change their ways. He said, “I fled [because] … I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” It’s a hard story for any of us that happen to be too attached to what we think should happen in the world.

For those of us who really want our ways to be God’s ways and our thoughts to be God’s thoughts. Anger–like Jonah felt –is such a powerful emotion, that much of the time we don’t realize that it is really a kind of substitute emotion, or a kind of stand-in for something else that is underneath it that we don’t have to feel if we are angry enough. Usually, anger, in its own destructive and primitive way, is doing its best to protect us from disappointment, powerlessness, or sadness. Anger may protect us temporarily, but it doesn’t heal us.

Jesus may well have been thinking of Jonah when he tells the story of the landowner who early in the morning agrees to pay a group of workers a certain amount to work in his vineyard all day. A few hours later, he hires more workers to work the remainder of the day. He does the same again a few hours later and finally, with just about an hour left in the workday, he hires yet another group to work the final hour. At the end of the day, the landowner pays every worker the same amount, the amount that those who started earliest in the morning had agreed to. Of course, those who worked the longest cried unfair and were no longer happy with the amount they had earlier thought was just about right. Jesus’ landowner responds saying, “I chose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” “Are you envious because I am generous?” Like Jonah, I’m sure they answered, “Yes.” And they had good reason to be angry. They worked from sun up to sun down and didn’t get any more than the ones that just worked the last hour.

Jesus’ landowner doesn’t feel obligated to explain anything. It could be that like most small business owners, he didn’t want to spend more than he had to, but needed to hire workers because the fruit needed to be harvested before it went bad. And as the day went on, it wasn’t clear that the job was going to get done, so it became worth it to pay whatever it took to get the fruit harvested, especially when they were still working that last hour. I can see the landowner– as that last hour approached–deciding to overpay because that was the only way to get the job done. But that explanation wouldn’t have helped those who labored all day.

“Unfair” is so powerful and feels so bad. It feels bad when we’re children on the playground, or when we’re adults in the workplace, or sitting next to Jonah, doing all the right things, while watching evil doers seemingly go unpunished, or not be able to hold our annual September “welcome back” picnic last Sunday at the church in the sunshine with the children running around giggling for no fault of our own. And God says, “Paul, you’re not angry about all that, are you?” It feels not fair.

There is the “unfair” we feel from other people’s action or inaction, but Jonah and Jesus’ parable are not really talking about that. The “unfair” they are talking about is–like nearly all the stories in the Bible–about God. They are talking about when you get past everything else that might be bothering you, and you get to the very Source of the universe, you get to the heart of the matter, and Jesus says there, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It is good Jonah at the end of the book, really angry staring down his God, knowing that God was going to do whatever God was going to do. After three days in the belly of the sea monster, and more time in Ninevah with people he hated, and finally, alone hiding under a bush that feels like his only shelter from the bad mean world, the bush withers suddenly, and he is completely exposed and left with nothing but God. As readers, we travel so far with him and then we’re never told what he decides to do. Who does he decide to be? In the same way, Jesus doesn’t tell us what the disgruntled workers do when it’s time to show up for work again the next day? Of course, we’re not told, because both the stories are not about them. They are about us and the fundamental decision we make, over and over again, about who we are, in the world we have, in relationship to the Source of all of it, the God that is ultimately bigger than every one of our understandings (the understandings that we are so attached to, but are no more permanent than Jonah’s bush).

Jesus and Jonah offer us a connection to life that isn’t constrained by our constant need to explain everything and put everything in boxes labeled “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” At the end of his unhappy week, Jonah may well have laughed not knowing why, and put one foot in front of the other, not alone, but in the company of a God he didn’t understand at all. Because he finally saw that God was God and he was not, and that that is a perfectly fine way to make one’s way in a world where most things are beyond our control. He may well have felt a bit lighter, unburdened by the weight of his own convictions about the way things ought to be.

So may the God who always surpasses all our efforts to understand, who alone laid the foundation of the earth, whose wisdom far exceeds even our most thoughtful notions of justice and fairness, liberate us from the burden of our own thoughts, free us from all anger, and make us inwardly strong and able to face the challenges yet to come. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-13-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The pandemic has not only threatened our physical health. It has taken away from us things that were essential to maintaining our mental and spiritual health. One of those things is what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “the principal act of Christian worship” (BCP p. 13), that is, Holy Communion. We have so far faced the pandemic without it. We have been fasting from Holy Communion because the very communion we experience risks spreading the virus. This fast has been a testimony of the love we have for one another. Jesus has been present with us these months in new and interesting ways.

That being said, there has been no more dramatic change in our worship life than displacing the central act of Christian worship. I know many of you miss it like you miss life sustaining food. We have been weaker without it. We have been weaker when we need to be strong. It has bothered me a lot.

Like many things though, we have discovered we can accomplish most of what we need to during this pandemic if we pull together, use our collective intelligence, skills, and imagination, to find a new way forward. Today, therefore, is our first Holy Communion service in six months. We’ve done it without changing any of our cherished norms governing the sacred. Many of you know that under normal circumstances, Holy Communion is brought from the church with great care and reverence to those who–due to illness, age, or circumstances–could not be present to receive it. It’s an ancient practice that goes back to the earliest centuries. Christians in prison awaiting martyrdom would receive Holy Communion from visitors. Churches would send the consecrated elements to others churches affirming the communion they had with each other. What we have done today is send communion out to the whole congregation because we are all in need and can’t participate in the ordinary gathering. If you have one of these bags it itself is a sign of your communion with us and God. If you don’t have one and are within driving distance of Chelmsford, look for the next sign-up and sign-up!

It is my hope that the restoration of Holy Communion to our shared life will be a source of strength and spiritual power. It always has been and will again be as we, starting today, chart a new path. Since it has been absent for half a year, it is worth spending a few minutes reminding ourselves what it is. It is the central act of Christian worship because it is charged with meaning. It has layers of meaning that are all true at the same time. We don’t always talk about all the layers. There is no way we could, but it is a profound sacred act instituted by Jesus himself to be frequently repeated by his followers to nourish their souls and guide their growth.

We talk most about the most obvious, outward, and elementary aspect of Holy Communion (as we should). That is, that it is shared around a table. Of course, outside the church we are all very different people. We disagree about many things as people do. But when we gather here at this table, those differences are overcome, as we eat the same food together. As Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). In 2020, where American divisions are so deep that we as a country are having great difficulty pulling together to defeat this virus, it is so hard for us to set aside our differences even in the face of death, the most obvious and outward meaning of Holy Communion could not be more relevant. Listen to a sentence from the earliest Eucharistic Prayer that we have that is not in the New Testament. It is likely more than 1,900 years old now and it instructs the priest to say, “As this fragment of bread was scattered upon the mountains [as grain] and was gathered to become one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (Didache 8:4). If a message of gathering and uniting what is otherwise scattered and divided is appealing to you, this is an act of worship for you. We need it and we need it badly.

The spiritual resources of Holy Communion, though, are way more than that. You likely have noticed that the table we gather around is also called an altar (that is the place of ritual sacrifice, eek!). And here’s where it gets really serious, but at this point in 2020 it is time to be serious. Is it a table or an altar that we gather around? It’s both at the same time. Who made the friendly meal table into an altar of sacrifice you ask? Jesus himself did. He did when he gathered with his closest disciples and took the bread in hand and said “This is my body given and offered up for you.” He took the wine and said, “This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Tables don’t have bodies and bloodshed. Altars do. Why would Jesus transform the table into an altar?

He was thinking of a very identifiable Old Testament story. There we are told about a lamb without spot or blemish whose blood is shed so that everyone else may live (Exodus 12:1-14). Its blood was to be spread on the doorposts and then it was to be eaten by those safe inside the house. When Jesus read that story, he said, “That is me. I am the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The night before he was crucified Jesus told his followers to commemorate him with a meal with bread and wine that they understood to be his body given for them and his blood shed for them. Like that ancient Passover lamb, Jesus became the sacrificial offering. He voluntary took upon himself the guilt, pain, or suffering of all. In this way, his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.

You might ask of both stories, of Exodus and Jesus, why does there need to be any sacrifice at all? Couldn’t God just forgive everybody? After all, if you are really omnipotent and good, it should be within your power to forgive without the shedding of blood (I told you we were getting serious!). Of course, God could just forgive everybody, give out grace on the cheap like Mardi Gras beads. If that were the case, what about the victims? What about any sense of justice? Would there be any meaningful moral order in the universe if God shredded it with pardons?

God honored and upheld the moral fabric of the universe by becoming the sacrifice himself. Without ceasing to be who he is eternally, he suffered what justice demanded for wrongs past, present, and future. The ark of the universe bends toward justice only because the Creator chose to uphold the demands of justice at unfathomable personal cost.

We return again and again to that table that becomes an altar. Any and all of us who have ever been victims, any of us who have suffered at the hands of another, see none of that as overlooked, undervalued, or set aside. The blood sacrifice is to be offered. Any and all of us who have victimized, who have wronged another, identify with those who crucified our Lord, and voluntarily relive the guilt and the crime and hear then Jesus say what he said on his own cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Grace is offered there, but requires a lifelong returning and returning again and again to the altar confessing and being forgiven. This grace is not cheap. Its precious. It is nothing less than the renewal of a moral order that loses all credibility apart from our devotion to it. I kneel before this altar seeing my incapacity (and our social incapacity), but also get to see that incapacity overcome by God for me and for us. Forgiveness is not the elimination of our responsibility for our own choices but is its elevation and healing. Thanks be to God. Those wronged and those who have wronged gather before the same altar forgiving and being forgiven, again and again. The central act of Christian worship is powerful stuff.

Peter asks Jesus in today’s Gospel, “Lord if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Once, twice, or “as many as seven times?” Oh Peter, Peter, it is time to lift your heart, and understand mysteries exceeding your elementary counting. There is a forgiveness more powerful than you know to be offered wherever 2 or 3 will gather in the name of the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

We welcome Holy Communion back with joy and awe! It is also called “The Great Thanksgiving” (or Eucharist in Greek) for a reason. We are thankful. There are furthers layers of its power and mystery that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, may the God whose goodness upholds the moral fabric of the universe yet wonderfully is also the source of both justice and mercy, give us the power to forgive ourselves and other people of the wrongs we have done and the sins we have unjustly suffered, so that we might be worthy followers of Christ, who on his own cross prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him, and now lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 9-6-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus gets really personal today. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…. if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” The Epistle of James echoes Jesus’ admonition from the other side of the relationship, from the perspective of the one confronted. James says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (5:16).” Jesus talks about this sort of relationship conflict because well … it isn’t something any of us wants to talk about. People, including me, don’t tend to look forward to conversations about how their behavior may have harmed another person. Few of us ever want to say, “Yes, let’s talk about how I’ve hurt you.”

In fact, many of us have developed elaborate techniques to avoid having that conversation. James says simply, “Confess your sins to one another.” He doesn’t suggest that if you explain in great detail how you only had the best of intentions, and didn’t mean to hurt anyone, maybe you’re not to blame. Or, there is a much more difficult maneuver. It is expert level, but quite possible to achieve. You can withdraw and act so hurt that the accusation was ever brought up in the first place, that the whole situation gets turned around so that the person who initiated the conversation is the one who ends up apologizing. I’m not going to continue down that road, but I don’t think I am wrong that human beings tend to rely on some serious defenses to avoid having the very conversation that Jesus commends to us this morning when he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault…” One of the effects of the pandemic is that it has put extra pressure on the people we live with as we have been forced to do more and more from our homes. That’s likely what any of us are thinking about when Jesus discusses the periodic need to have sometime yet truthful conversations with those we depend upon.

Part of the reason why so many of us avoid these conversations is that we’ve learned somewhere along the way in our lives that conflict in relationships is bad and always destructive. And if that is what we think, and that is what our experience is, then we would have good reason to go to great lengths to avoid conflict and just not talk about what needs to be talked about. But, I really don’t think Jesus would encourage us to do anything that is bad for us. I personally have had plenty of arguments with him, where I was pretty sure that his advice was wrongheaded, but, every-time he has turned out to be right about what is good for me.

It may be that we think that these confrontational conversations that Jesus talks to us about this morning are bad and too hard, because we just haven’t learned how to have them. Frankly, anything seems impossible when you don’t know how to do it. Even a new remote control for my television, can push me to the breaking point of frustration, because I don’t know how to use it. But once I figure out that the more important the button is, the smaller they make it, then I’m eventually ok and I wonder what was so impossible about it in the first place. There is a lot more at stake in a conversation with a loved one, friend, or church member that begins, “You hurt me.” If our experience of those conversations is bad, it may just be that some of the people in that conversation were just lacking skills needed for the conversation to be healing, and even life-giving.

How to have that conversation is so important that it is part of the Christian faith and something to learn, and practice in church, so that we can have those conversations in a truthful healing way outside of the church. Critics of Christianity often put our emphasis upon sin and confession of sin in a negative light. They say that what we teach people is that they are bad and that is why they need to confess, over and over again, that they are bad and guilty. I’d like to suggest to you that these critics don’t understand the purpose of our language of sin and confession at all. Its purpose is exactly what Jesus says it is: it is to transform conflict into creative, positive energy in all of our most important relationships. In other words, confession leads to communion in our church services, but also in our personal lives.

If, as these critics suggest, we teach that the proper response to “You hurt me,” is to say, “you got me, I’m a sinner, you’re right about me, I’m guilty, I’m a bad egg,” then we’re not helping anyone. No one saying, “You hurt me” needs to hear that. That is not the healing they are seeking. And if we hear it that way, if we hear it only as blame and not as a desire for connection, then, no wonder, we feel compelled to muster all of our defenses. But that is not what Jesus’ language of sin and confession is about.

To confess, is most fundamentally, about understanding how one’s actions, or inaction, have affected other people. Or, more specifically, about showing another person that you understand what it is like to be them in relationship to you. “What it is like to be them in relationship to you.” It is that act of deep understanding that is healing, it is that that is called for by Jesus, not dramatic declarations of how terribly wrong or bad one is. It is out of that experience of feeling understood that forgiveness comes and relationships repair and deepen.

And it’s a conversation, to be truly had, that happens more than once. Notice that Jesus anticipates, on the one hand, that you may not be heard the first time, or, on the other hand, you may not be able to listen at first. No one is going to get this right the first time. Anything worthwhile takes time. It is not, “I said ‘I am sorry’ so I shouldn’t ever have to talk about this again. It looks more like, “yes, we are continuing to talk about this because this is a healing conversation. It’s a conversation that brings us closer together. It is not one that pushes us farther apart.”

When my daughter was quite young, after one of her early birthdays, I ate the rest of her birthday cake, the leftovers as it were. The next day, apparently, following the words of Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” She informed me about how wronged she felt by that. I confessed to her that it was me, “yes, I ate your birthday cake.” (That still sounds bad after all these years). What she wanted wasn’t for me to confess to her what a bad dad I was. She didn’t want to have a bad dad! What she wanted to know was that I understood what it was like for her to live in the world of birthday cakes that would disappear anytime she fell asleep. And insofar as I was able to show her that I understood what it was like to be her, and not defend my right as Dad to eat all leftover birthday cake, that this conflict was transformed into an opportunity for greater love, trust, and finally, forgiveness.

In the push and pull of human life, with all the demands placed on us, and our all-too-human limits, needs, and desires, we’re bound to hurt one another. That is why it is so valuable to develop the skill of how to offer the experience of understanding of the other rather than defending oneself. But in concrete situations, when our very selves feel accused and in jeopardy, it is surprisingly difficult to get out of one’s own way. We need help and we have it ready at hand. Notice how Jesus concludes his teaching saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” It is his presence, if we can be open to it, that can give us the strength and assurance to set aside the current version of ourselves, and its justifications, and instead be open to the presence and experience of others even when it leads to confession and change.

When we are children, we learn right and wrong as a set of rules and believe in a world where it is those standards that are the source of the bond between human beings. As adults, rather than that sort of justice, we come to see that the real world is about the messy business of loving, understanding, and changing, about forgiving and being forgiven, and that forgiveness is a stronger bond than fragile notions of justice. As St. Paul says in the passage from his letter the Romans that we just read, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

It is about forgiving the world for not being all that we wanted it to be; it is about forgiving ourselves for falling short of those standards of right and wrong; it is about forgiving those who have wronged us; and its about accepting the forgiveness of God and others when it is offered. Forgiveness is never deserved; it can never be demanded. It arises out of shared understanding and is always experienced as a gift.

All Saints’ is a safe community in which to learn skills that are utterly necessary everywhere else. Oh there are occasional conflicts, misunderstanding, and hurt from time to time, but this is a place where through Christ confession leads to communion and where we discover that it is Christ’s presence with us that gives us the strength to be open to a love and a connection with other people bigger than any of our own defenses. May we all experience Christ’s love for us as one that enables us to lower our defenses, confess our sins to one another in such a way that it leads to an experience of greater understanding, so we are free to love others as they are, and accept ourselves as forgiven and loved all the same. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost 8-16-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our gospel reading tells us of Gentile woman with a sick daughter who pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter. The world Jesus lived in, however, was afflicted with many of the same prejudices, divisions, and hatreds as our world is. The vast majority of our memories of Jesus are stories where he is with his own people. There are a few stories where a true outsider intrudes. This morning’s desperate mother is one of those outsiders. Notice that he at first ignores her and does not respond at all, as if she lacked the necessary status to bring to Jesus any request at all. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away complaining how bothersome her shouting at them is. They want it to stop. Dismissed and insulted, nevertheless, she persisted.

Jesus doesn’t look good in this story does he not? It is in the Bible, though, because clearly there is something we are to learn from her. Jesus explains to her that his ministry is first of all to the Jews and later it will spill-over to Gentiles like her. She can wait. Likely with her ill daughter in mind, this woman will not wait. She gets on her knees and begs for help. He, likely giving voice to what his disciples around him were thinking, says out loud, “it would not be right to give the food intended for the children of Israel to the dogs.” How very insulting! She had probably heard that kind of dehumanizing insult before and here it is from Jesus no less. (And after his big speech insisting that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles. Maybe Jesus should listen to himself?).

Is she done persisting? No, not her. When confronted with an attitude of Jesus that appears near bigotry, She does not defend herself. She does not say, “I am as much a human being as any Jew!” (She would have been right!). Still kneeling she says, “Lord even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What a disarming answer! Jesus praises her saying, “Woman great is your faith!” We’re not told anythign about the disciples who wanted her chased away like a dog, but they likely stood there ashamed. Jesus grants her request and heals her daughter, Gentile and all.

She is held up in Scripture as a forerunner of what would become the Gentile church, or what we call Christianity. It is a hard story for us to hear though, because of what looks to us like embracing humiliation. It seems to push in the opposite direction of much of how we are taught to look at ourselves and how to look out for ourselves.

One of the extraordinary things about our time is the enormous pressure put upon everybody to market themselves, that is, to manage how they are perceived by the world by promoting a certain image of themselves, and maybe defend against would-be critics. Children in middle school often already have Facebook pages where they are curating pictures of themselves and their activities, presenting themselves as happy, successful, and attractive. Our media age has made it possible in a way to place an image between you and the person looking at you. That is so powerful. It used to he that to be a professional at anything was just about have a skill that people were willing to pay for. Now part of professional life is making yourself a brand. Some of the most successful professionals these days are not necessarily the best at what they do. What they are particularly good at is managing their brand, with all sorts of social media pages devoted to promoting themselves, or, more specifically, a certain image of themselves. It is time consuming and it can be all consuming. There are people now who are only a brand. That is all they do.

The Gentile woman in today’s Gospel has no brand, she’s not managing an image when she says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” I don’t think her example is one that says not to engage in social media managing a certain image, but it does mean that there really does need to be somewhere where, like her, you are you, the real you, the unmanaged you, the you not burdened by the pressures of self-presentation and self-preservation. It certainly means that that you is to the one to bring to Jesus who has no interest in our brand or image and sees through all of that anyway.

You longtime Episcopalians probably noticed that the words of this Gentile woman show up in our Book of Common Prayer uncredited to her. There is prayer technically named, “The Prayer of Humble Access.” It appeared in the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and in every one since then. It is what was to be said prior to the reception of communion. In the Rite I version of our liturgy it goes like this: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” The instructions are that it is to be said kneeling just like the Gentile woman.

Some of you may have noticed, that there is a difference between our prayer and hers. Our prayer says that we are “not worthy of the crumbs”, while hers insists that she was worthy. Why it is that way is that the framers of the Prayer Book did not want us too easily to assume that we are worthy of making her words our own, as if too easily or too cheaply we assume that we are her equals. Nearly 500 years of prayer books have assumed that we kneel next to her saying we are not even worthy of that, but Lord grant our request anyway just like you did hers.

This determined humble woman anticipated the great Christians of the following centuries. Her confident humility exposes the empty posturing that is too common in our media age. She is such a contrast to every adult playground bully that seeks to appear powerful but in the larger scheme of things amounts to nothing. This sort of proud arrogance wants to be admired for always defending itself. People puff up like balloons, but each balloon in fact grows weaker the more air that goes into it. If we live this way, it is difficult for us to be vulnerable to God or to other people or to have any confident security that is larger than ourselves. In bringing before us this woman to be our example, Scripture wants to move us away from an empty presumption that is all bark, that is all style but no substance.

Scripture wants to move us toward her strange confidence that is real; it has substance and not only style. It challenges us to have such confidence in God that we are free to no longer conceal our weaknesses. It is that that allows us to own fully our faults, failures, and finitude as creatures, and to find the fullness of life without continually hiding who we are through image management. It makes available to us a true closeness, togetherness, or solidarity, because we are only really loved when we are known and loved as we truly are and not just as who we present ourselves to be. In short, our Gospel reading exposes the superficial selves our culture promotes and offers instead a daring vulnerability that is most human and most Christian.

As Christians we come to God not as members of the Jewish people that he brought out of Egypt and made promises to, we come to God as this Gentile woman did. She foreshadows the Gentile Church, and even when others are saying, “send her away,” she maintains her great faith. In this non-defensive faith, she is loved by Jesus. May we have her confident humility so that we can be free not to be always defending ourselves. May we be as vulnerable to Christ as she was and find the strength that is found in weakness, so that our Lord Jesus Christ may approve of our faith as his did that of the Gentile woman. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet