“In truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer focused much of his brilliant mind on the problem of ethics and particularly the problem of ethics in the face of violence. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the take-over and transformation of Germany by the Nazi Party, knew and experienced violence and hatred personally.
His theology proceeds, as does any really good theology, directly from his lived experience. In it, Bonhoeffer argued strongly and persuasively that there are no ethical principles – none; and that Jesus was not a teacher of morality. Yet Bonhoeffer argued that for the Christian there is simply one guide and one guide only: Jesus Christ. Each moral decision, Bonhoeffer said, presents us, as individuals, with a fresh and unique moment of choice. Each choice is a unique opportunity, to make a choice, unrelated to any choice we have made before, or will make hereafter. And that choice is about one thing and one thing only: Is what I choose consistent with my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ or to put it another way: Am I, in this particular instance, choosing love? Always, the same question: Am I choosing love?
In a fit of desperation, I asked God for a sign. A light, a feeling, a sound in the dead of one cold November night. I got nothing. But that nothing is the moment I have pointed to, for years, as the beginning of my conversion. Because, in retrospect, I don’t think I received nothing. I think I received silence.
What’s your experience with demons? Demons appear on practically every page of the Gospel. Sooner or later, every conscientious follower of the Gospel of Christ must arrive at his or her own interpretive conclusions about these demons, a personal demonology, if we are to engage in any life-giving and meaningful way with these ancient texts, their ancient authors and their first-century worldview.
Feast of St Philip, Evangelist
I’m intrigued by the question the Ethiopian eunuch puts to Philip in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Philip has joined this powerful man in his chariot and beginning with the words of the prophet Isaiah, has interpreted the scriptures and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (v.38).
The answer is ‘nothing,’ it seems. And so they stop the chariot, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. I suppose Philip might have objected to the fact that this man was a foreigner or suggested that he needed further instruction and formation, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate at all.
Except that some ancient authorities add another verse following the eunuch’s question in which Philip does add a qualifier. In response to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and the eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (v.37) It’s likely that someone added that verse just to make sure that there was some agreed-upon criteria by which candidates would be admitted to the fellowship of the Church.
If God were to appear to you in a dream and tell you to travel to New York and walk through the center of Manhattan pronouncing God’s judgment and impending destruction of that city, how would you respond? I suspect many of us would wake up and think, wow, that was a really strange dream and perhaps share it with friends for a laugh over a coffee or lunch break. If we felt particularly disturbed by the dream, we might call our therapist or spiritual director to help process the feelings and emotions the dream conjured. Somehow I suspect most if not all of us would eventually shrug it off and forget about it. But what if this dream were to reoccur persistently?
In this evening’s Old Testament lesson we hear a portion of a comical story about Jonah who receives this very message from God. This short book is only four chapters long start to finish and the introduction to Jonah in the New Oxford Annotated Bible states that he is never even called a prophet in the text.[i] To add insult to injury, the book of Jonah is more about God’s dealings with the ‘prophet’ himself than with the recipients of Jonah’s message, therefore making Jonah the ‘circus clown’ of all the prophets. His day starts out by getting a daunting assignment from God: go to Nineveh, the capitol city of the hated and oppressive Assyrian Empire, and pronounce God’s judgment on them. I don’t think there is a single one of us who blame Jonah for his response. Jonah runs away and we shake our heads at him intuiting that this is only going to get worse.
Isaiah 5: 1 – 7
Psalm 80: 7 – 14
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Matthew 21: 33 – 46
Everything I known about vineyards and growing grapes comes from watching several seasons of Falcon Crest, a Friday night TV soap drama that competed with Dallas and Dynasty. I preferred Falcon Crest over Dallas because there was a priest, Father Bob, who would show up every so often in Falcon Crest, and who wouldn’t love a night time TV drama with a priest in it.
You’ll perhaps remember that the drama of Falcon Crest centered around two branches of a family, living in California’s Napa Valley, one of which had extensive holdings and the other quite a modest operation. Week by week we were offered up a menu of greed, corruption, competition and family dysfunction, with a little sex and murder thrown in for good measure.
What I leaned about vineyards and grape growing from Falcon Crest is that grapes are pretty temperamental. They demand just the right amount of sun and rain and certain soils. But even more important, vineyards are not only big business, and at times a cut throat business, but they are also a long term business. You can’t plant a grapevines in the spring and expect a profitable harvest that same fall. It takes years, and a great deal of hard work before you will see the results of your labours.
St Francis of Assisi
I have twice visited the town of Assisi, which rests on a hilltop in the breathtakingly-beautiful central region of Italy called Umbria. Assisi is, of course, the birthplace of the little poor man, St Francis, who has long been recognized as one of the most beloved saints of all time. I love to sit in the small chapel in the undercroft of the great Franciscan basilica, where the body of St Francis and four of his early companions are buried, and witness the silent, steady stream of admirers and devotees from all over the world, as they approach the tomb to offer their prayers and to pay their respects. I wonder, as I look on, how one man, one life, could have had such an enormous impact on the world and could have influenced for good millions upon millions of lives.
Francis was a man whose life was completely transformed by his encounter, and subsequent relationship of love, with God. He seems to me to have been a man who awakened to new life in God, and who, as a result, saw the world and other people and himself in a completely new light. It was as if he had been born again, infused with a divine light and presence, so that he saw what others could not see and perceived what others could not recognize or comprehend.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
“How long, O Lord?” How long shall the news be of disaster? Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and violence. More and more of it all. Mass shootings repeatedly, this week larger in Las Vegas. As in an Orlando nightclub and at the Boston marathon, a place of celebration turned into chaos.[i]
The psalmist prays with groans and wails. With memories and hearts broken again, we join in:
“How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart day after day?” How long and how much more?
More trauma—feeling threatened and our ability to cope overwhelmed.
Sometimes when we call out prayers for help, the situation seems to grow worse. We get more upset, questioning, “Where is God?”
After more loss, with life feeling out of control, God becomes visible. With Job, Old Testament prophets, and the psalmist, we can be angry. “If only you had been here sooner, the situation wouldn’t have gotten out of hand, with so much hurt. Pick us up. Get us out.” We want to be rescued and healed, swim to safety, for life to be resolved and back to normal. Yet healing is a slow work, not usually quick or simple, not neat and tidy.
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The other day I ran across a video on YouTube that made me incredibly uncomfortable. The scene was of the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Orchestra. In the video, the famous maestro singles out the trumpet section on a particular passage of music and tries to instruct them on what he would like to hear. Confused, one of the trumpeters asks for clarification on the sound Mr. Bernstein is looking for. The maestro answers: well, not a brassy ‘waaah’, indicating how he thought they had just played it. With an agitated expression on his face and obviously disagreeing with the maestro’s assessment of their performance, the second trumpet player responds to Mr. Bernstein, taking a tone that is both ungracious and confrontational. The air in the room is tense as you would expect when a brilliant musician with a bruised ego pushes back against one of the most renowned conductors of that era. At the end of the brief two minute video Mr. Bernstein summons the rest of the orchestra to move on and the camera catches the principal clarinetist smiling nervously, almost disbelieving what he just witnessed.[i] I don’t know about you, but my reaction would probably be like that of the clarinetist. Even though conflict and confrontation are sometimes inevitable in life, I have to admit, I certainly do not go looking for it.
A sermon on the Feast of St Jerome
II Timothy 3:14-17 and Luke 24:44-48
There’s a wonderful exchange between two young boys at the beginning of Walk the Line, a 2005 movie about the life of Johnny Cash. Johnny (nicknamed “J.R.”) and his older brother Jack have just crawled into bed. Jack is reading his Bible and J.R. turns to him and asks, “How come you’re so good? …. You know every story in scripture.” “Look, J.R.,” Jack replies, “If I’m going to be a preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.”[i]
“You can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.”
Jack is already wise enough to know that reading and hearing the Word is essential to Christian faith and worship. The stories contained in Scripture form the foundation of our faith and steady us amidst all the “changes and chances of this life.” They shape and transform us, and equip us to live for God.