“… all else is commentary.”

“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

This familiar doxology of praise is a source of comfort and reassurance for me, especially when things are getting crazy; but perhaps not for the reason you may be thinking. Of course there is the unmistakable and timeless praise given to the undivided Trinity. But, if I’m honest, it is the second half of the doxology that reassures me, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”

The conclusion of the doxology is reassuring because it reminds me that the craziness, the fear, and the uncertainty we may be encounter or experience is nothing new under the sun. While you and I may be encountering it for the first time, or the scale of it may have expanded with time, humanity that has gone before us has certainly experienced it on some scale and thus far survived and shared their experiences; and for almost two thousand years so have other followers of Jesus Christ.

It’s not so much that humanity has seen it all, but that we have experienced some variation of recurring patterns and have that history to inform our response. Today, Jesus is tapping into this shared history in the last days of his earthly existence as he is confronted by Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees who are trying to discredit him before his followers and onlookers. Jesus knows the commentary of the Hebrew Scriptures that has been formed through debate and scholarly study by those who have come before him, and he uses this knowledge to present his case to those who seek to silence him.

Thus far, in the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus has been able to use his knowledge of the midrashic commentary to silence the followers of Herod, who seek to entrap him on the topic of the Temple tax; and he silences the Sadducees, who try to ensnare him on the implication of levirate marriage and resurrection. Now the Pharisees make one last attempt to trip Jesus up; one of them asks, “which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

As with the Herodians and Sadducees, Jesus is prepared. Citing Deuteronomy 6:5 he responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”[1] But he doesn’t stop here; as if to thwart an anticipated rebuttal, Jesus cites an unquestioned teaching of perhaps the foremost Jewish scholar and sage of Jesus’ time – Hillel the Elder.

According to legend, Hillel the Elder, like Moses, lived to be 120 years old. His death occurred in the year 10 CE when Jesus was boy. While not exactly contemporaries, Hillel’s teachings would have been as current to Jesus and his peers as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s preaching is to Kadance or Josiah.

Just as Michael Curry may be remembered for the Jesus Movement and his preaching, one of the most recalled teachings of Hillel the Elder is his teaching on Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” As you hear it here, this is the New Revised Standard Version of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Another translation of this verse, as it is attributed to Hillel reads, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law, and all else is commentary.”[2] It is thought that Jesus is citing Hillel the Elder’s teaching when he says, “And a second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[3] The significance of this connection is not just its nearness in time, but that Hillel the Elder was a Pharisee and the Nasi – that is the President – of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious authority in Roman occupied Jerusalem, and the same body to which the Sadducees and Pharisees belong.

Thus Jesus taps into a common experience and learning by citing not just one of the Pharisees’ own but one of their preeminent teachers and leaders. Hearing Hillel’s own words from the mouth of Jesus, the Pharisees are disarmed, the question is settled, and they are done. The Pharisees realize that they are no match for Jesus when it comes to the substance of the Law. They will have to find another way.

Having endorsed the Pharisees’ own commentary on the Law and then using it to disarm them, Jesus moves on to clarify his own authority as Messiah. Not in terms of common expectations but in scriptural and genealogical terms. Rather than cite the Prophets, Jesus quotes the Psalms, which are commonly attributed to David – the ancestor of Jesus’ step-father Joseph. I say step-father because Jesus is not descended by blood but related by his mother’s marriage. Thus Jesus poses the question, how can David call his descendant Master? Just days before his death, with this question Jesus bridges the gulf between his biological existence and his divine existence, and none of the religious authorities dare ask anymore questions lest Jesus prove his case against them before the people.

Jesus has his opponents on the ropes. So why doesn’t he press the argument home and carry the day? Because, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Because commentary – debate and scholarly study – in and of itself has never carried the day. In the end, it has always been our human need for hard lived experience to reveal life-altering lessons to us. In other words, we need to experience the Passion – Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection – to recognize the Messiah in our midst.

You and I experience the Passion together year after year, and we remember it week after week. Yet still, amid the noise and distraction of life, we lose sight of it from time to time and slip back into petty disagreements with our neighbors and even with our Creator. We need the regular reminder of our crucified and resurrected Savior to check and correct our inclinations and bring us back into communion with one another. “[A]s it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”

Therefore, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law, and all else is commentary.”[4]

[1] Matthew 22:35

[2] Shabbath 31a, as cited by Albright and Mann, Matthew: A New Translation and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, Yale University Press, 1971, p. 274

[3] Matthew 22:39-40

[4] Albright and Mann, p. 274

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On the Occasion of Diocesan Convention

It’s a rare pleasure for me to stand before you on the occasion of this 158th Convention Eucharist. Yet, my presence in this pulpit is a palpable reminder that there is no bishop in the house. We are in a period of transition that began almost nine months ago, and we are still a year away from an electing convention. This has been, and will continue to be, a period that demands the best of us as this branch of the Jesus Movement. Nonetheless, I could not be more delighted to be a part of this branch of the Jesus Movement in this place and during this period of transition.

The notion of being a branch of the Jesus Movement may be an idea we’re still getting used to. But I like it, because being within the branch is like being a part of the body of Christ, it reminds us who we are, whose we are, and of our place in the scheme of things, especially when our heads gets a little swollen and our egos are in the driver’s seat. Remembering that you and I are pieces of something incomprehensibly greater than ourselves is humbling and a good check upon our ambitions.

I also like it part because being a branch reminds us that we are a part of a living and life-giving organism that requires our individual best efforts to provide the energy needed for the vine’s growth, and to harvest the fruits. In this branch, you and I are indispensable parts of something incomprehensively greater than ourselves, where we are bound together and mutually dependent.

But being a part of this branch of the Jesus Movement can also make us aware of our limits, and our individual limits can in turn cause us to think small – to shrink in our vision and imaginings.

Over the past nine months, it has been my privilege to hear a diverse variety of stories and voices from around the diocese. In these stories and voices I have seen us at our best and at our least; and it is the stories of our thinking small that I hear most often. The circumstances where we have thought too small range across personal matters, parochial matters, diocesan and even regional matters. Within these stories and voices of thinking too small the common elements are our uncertainty and our questioning of our ability.

But such stories and voices are not unique to us at this point in time; they have been present throughout the history of God’s people. These stories and voices are the recurring theme of the entire canon of Holy Scripture. Auspiciously, our lectionary today reveals God and Jesus’ responses to us as the people of God during such uncertain and transitional times.

In the reading from the Book of Isaiah, God is addressing the post-exilic people of Israel; a people whose identity has been profoundly affected by a period of dissolution, captivity, and uncertainty. Yet God does not coddle them, instead God extols them, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; ….”[1] God affirms God’s claim upon these people and then goes on to call these frazzled refugees to a monumental undertaking, “… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”[2]

In this passage, “my servant” is not an individual; “my servant” is the people of Israel, a community bound together in covenant and mutual dependence. And God’s affirmation and challenge of a chosen people is not frozen in time or unique to the post-exilic people of Israel. It has been heard over and over throughout history.

Today, over two millennia later, we can see the text from Isaiah as God’s affirmation and challenge of us, as we stand amid our harried and frazzled uncertainty bound together and mutually dependent in this branch of the Jesus Movement in the Diocese of Kansas. This text appeals to us to understand ourselves to be affirmed by our Creator and challenged beyond our small sense of capacity to what appears to be a monumental undertaking, just as Isaiah and the people of Israel understand themselves to be called beyond their sense of capacity.

For millennia, as Christians we have also understood this passage of Isaiah to be a prophetic affirmation and call of Jesus as Messiah during a similarly harried, frazzled, and oppressive era some 600 years after the words were first spoken.

Today, through Matthew’s eyes, we see an example of the affirmation and call of Jesus lived out. As Jesus is moving from a fixed place of teaching on the mount there is no shrinking from the challenge, there is no small thinking or vision as he is beginning to travel among the cities and villages of his native land teaching, proclaiming the good news, and curing every disease and sickness. And note his compassion for the crowds amid their harried uncertainty.

Having demonstrated this compassion to us, his disciples, Jesus summons us and challenges us with authority as the leaders and representatives of the Diocese of Kansas. While I will not go so far as to assert “authority over unclean spirits to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness,”[3] I will assert that we have it within our capacity to cast out uncertainty and to be clear as possible about our expectation and the outcome of this election process. This call is echoed in Jesus’ mission and ministry; it is the same challenge he summons us to as his disciples.

During this convention and over the next 12 months, we the leadership and representatives of the diocese are called to lean into our roles as leaders, teachers, and healers, most especially when we leave here tomorrow and return to our cities and villages. We must teach, proclaim, and meet the uncertainty we encounter with the compassion of Jesus, telling all that will listen, “Yes, there is no bishop in the house, but we as followers of Jesus in this branch of the Jesus Movement have every gift we need to be a light to the people, to open eyes that are blind, and to meet the person God has called as the 10th Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. We must tell all who will listen, during this season of transition, we will not be fearful. Rather, directed by the Spirit, together we joyfully walk with Jesus the road ahead.

[1] Isaiah 42:1a

[2] Ibid., vv. 6b-7

[3] Matthew 10:1

Conquering the shadow

The use of Maren Morris’s Dear Hate for our sequence hymn this morning was prompted by the massacre in Las Vegas last Sunday night. In the aftermath of that tragedy, this song resonates with so many because it gives voice to our heartache and disappointment even as it gives voice to our hope. It speaks to the complex emotions and reactions we have at a time like this, but mainly it gives voice to hope.

But don’t be misled, the topic of this sermon is not about hate per se, rather it is more about hate’s kissing cousin fear, the awkward relationship we have with fear, and the way we might respond when we stand in the shadow of fear.

Normal fear is a healthy reaction to stimuli that may be seen as threats; its intent is to stimulate a physiological response of self-preservation in the face of danger. However, fear can also reveal itself in unhelpful ways, such as mental illnesses like paranoia, acute anxiety and a variety of phobias.

Fear is almost always accompanied by suspicion and often a sense of helplessness; these can cause us to react or act out in unsociable ways. And there is such a thing as too much fear, which can manifest itself in hate, which some may excuse as justifiable.

All this said, we may never fully understand what led Stephen Paddock to carry out this horrific act, but that is not the point. The point is, how do we find ourselves reacting to the fearful violence of this act and the host of others across the world that we are exposed to through media on a regular basis? Are we becoming more fearful, withdrawn, suspicious, or judgmental? Or more disturbing, are we justifying such acts?

In the face of all this, this morning we and the Israelites, are presented with the Ten Commandments. As we stand this week in the shadow of the massacre outside of the Mandalay Bay; I am mindful of how the Israelites stand in fear and trembling in the shadow of Mt. Sinai.

They have witnessed the thunder and lightning and smoke coming down the mountain and are afraid. In their fear they crave a mediator who will allow them to remain present but at a safe distance. I wonder if the fear of this encounter colors their perception of the Ten Commandments. Do they perceive the commandments as a judgment upon their morality, or as council for how to live in relationship with God and their neighbor?

Hopefully, we know the commandments as council to shape our relationship with God and one another. But I suspect some of us know people who would use the commandments as a cudgel of judgment. How we see the commandments may reflect how we see the shadow we find ourselves in at the foot of the mountain or across the way from the Mandalay Bay.

As we encounter them in Exodus, eight of ten of the commandments are presented as proscriptive, that is they are forbidding, “you shall not.” There is something clear and definitive about forbidding something; but it can also lead to condemning behavior for those of us who find ourselves crosswise with a commandment or two.

In contrast, the fifth and sixth commandments affirm behaviors, specifically remembering and keeping the sabbath, and honoring your father and your mother. Nonetheless, the forbidding tone of the eight seems to overshadow all the commandments with a tone of forbidding and foreboding.

Does this forbidding and foreboding tone color the shadow of Mt. Sinai and Mandalay Bay? Is our experience one of an encroaching and enveloping shadow, or is it one of seeing the light behind a passing shadow? Remember, a shadow is created by something that comes between us and the source of the light.

If we feel ourselves being overwhelmed by an encroaching and enveloping shadow, we need to acknowledge it and try to name the fear or emotion that stands between us and the source of the light. Then remember Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[1]

It is worth remembering that Jesus offers this affirming, positive, and love-filled interpretation of the Ten Commandments as he stands in the encroaching and enveloping shadow of his own cross just days before his own horrific death. His interpretation is not Pollyannaish sweetness and light; it is a faithful and resolute confrontation of his own and our fear.

Jesus knows well our fear; in the midst of his innocent and horrible death, he will cry out, naming his fear of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet, within days, Jesus’ love-filled and love-led interpretation of the commandments will yield this aftermath: abandonment, death, and fear are defeated and Jesus’ resurrection gives us our proof that love does conquer all.

So how does this proof affect our reaction to the fear in our lives? In a moment we will each have an opportunity to name our fear and then name an act of love that covers that fear.

While the Nicene Creed is recited and the prayers of the people are offered, remove the two post-it notes on page two of your bulletin. On the bottom post-it write the fear that most occupies your mind, then on the top post-it write an act of love that would help you conquer that fear.

Finally, during the offertory, come forward and nail your post-its to the cross with a pushpin. When we are finished, we will begin the Great Thanksgiving, in which we celebrate the love of God that conquers all fear and shadows if we will only accept that love and, most importantly, share it with everyone we encounter.

[1] Matthew 22:37-40

Is the Lord among us or not?

Is the Lord among us or not?[1] This question is a recap of the Israelites’ complaint as they encamp at Rephidim. They are in a querulous mood because they are thirsty.

It is more than a little ironic that the Israelites are so upset in Rephidim because in their language Rephidim means a place of rest, as in contentment or serenity. But they are so thirsty they can neither see God in their midst nor recognize Rephidim as a place of rest. They need Moses to reveal God as the source of that contentment and sufficiency.

If you have ever really been thirsty, that is dehydrated from a lack of water, you can probably relate to how the Israelites feel. But their scarcity of contentment can be revealed in other sorts of “thirst” as well.

I once had a long conversation with a very thirsty young man. He is very intelligent and perceptive, and he is trying to reconcile what he sees as a disconnect between the faith of his family and what reason and science reveal to him.

He finds little serenity or equanimity in the religion of his family because he sees a scarcity of answers. Instead he experiences contradictions and absurdity, especially in contrast to the seeming certainty he finds in science. In science he sees proof – demonstrable answers to questions about his existence. While he acknowledges that not all has yet been proven, at least in the scientific method he sees the potential for understandable answers.

Unfortunately, his thirsts – his questions – also reveal a lack of contentment among some “faithful” people. This lack of contentment reveals itself in unhelpful ways. For even raising these questions he experiences rejection by some. He has even been told on one occasion that he is going to hell. Is this response from heaven, or is it of human origin?

These “faithful” people can’t see the holy curiosity in this young man’s questions. They can’t see the holy connection between faith and questioning because the questions are too distressing for them.

I understand this distress – this discontent. It is a natural response to ideas that challenge the delicate balance of our understanding of our selves and the things we value, our own contentment, if you will. We do, after all, want to preserve the serenity of our lives and livelihood. However, I can also see the harm done by an unthinking reaction to that discontent; I suspect that many of us have witnessed it as well. “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Such is the circumstance at the temple in Jerusalem on the day following Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city. The day before, Jesus had literally overturned the tables in the temple, and was teaching things that radically confronted the contentment of the temple authorities. Thus they ask, “… who gave you this authority?”[2]

To their credit, the authorities are not too quick to condemn Jesus; at least they ask the question. But Jesus, like the young man, wants to challenge the authorities; not to pick a fight, but to question where they are coming from. What is the source of the contentment they want to preserve? Is it from heaven, or is it of human origin?

Jesus’ question reveals the competing motivations at work in the authorities’ question. Is it from heaven, or is it of human origin? In essence Jesus is asking the very same question his ancestors asked in the wilderness. “Is the Lord among us or not?”

But Jesus is not asking the question because he needs proof. Rather he has turned it around to question the authorities’ need for proof. A paraphrase might sound like this, “Can you see beyond your reaction to my question to see the contentment of God – the Rephidim – in your midst?”

When authorities sit on the fence, Jesus presents them the parable of the two sons and the vineyard. “Which of the two did the will of his father?”[3]

The authorities answer correctly, they get this part right – it is the son who had the change of heart and did what his father asked of him. Unfortunately, the authorities are unable to recognize themselves in the parable as the son who said the right thing but did not do the will of his father.

None of us is immune to this sort of “blindness” as we try to interpret events in our lives. But if we are blessed we will – perhaps only in retrospect – see where God has been present to us. Often God’s most profound presence is found in those that love us – the Moseses of our lives who endure our challenging questions with wisdom and patience even when they can’t answer the question of “why?” It is the Moseses of our lives who reveal to us that we are indeed in Rephidim, that place of rest, because through their example and presence we recognize that God is among us. But God’s presence can also be found in the one causing us distress – the inquirer or the one challenging us.

Are we able to tell if it is from heaven, or of human origin? In the face of distress we may not get it right, but that is not the proof. The proof is in how we respond to one another’s need. Through our example and presence, you and I are called to be the Moseses to the querulous and thirsty young men and women among us.

[1] Exodus 17:7

[2] Matthew 21:23

[3] Matthew 21:31