For my most recent sermons at St. Chrysostom’s, look for The Rev. Ian Burch on the sermons blog on our website here.
Below are some sermons I’ve kept in my archives.
To hear audofiles of sermons, simply click here and scroll down for Ian Burch, preacher.
Easter 2C 4.7.2013 St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Glen Ellyn
In the name of the Father + and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My parents made me and my siblings get jobs the summer we each turned 15, and I’ve been working ever since. I’ve done everything. I have worked in a gift shop, as a waiter on a train, as a textbook editor, as a tutor, a graduate assistant, a church publishing freelance writer, a violin teacher and an SAT/ACT instructor. And this is a very partial list. All of these jobs were part-time while I was a student, and they helped put a few bucks in my pocket during my twenties. The strangest job, though, by a long shot was when I played fiddle in a Christian Rock Band.
This is 100% true. When I was 19, I used to plug an electric violin into an amplifier and accompany such great Christians hits as, “Jesus Unplugged,” “My God is an Awesome God.” and my personal favorite “Jesus is a Rock and He Rolls My Blues Away.” The band played at youth gatherings, mostly on the West Coast. One summer, at the height of my Christian rockstardom, the band had the opportunity to play for a crowd of 40,000 teenagers in the SuperDome in New Orleans. The stage was on the 50 yard line, and right behind the band was a huge, florescently-lit cross. Just imagine–a stadium full of teenagers, singing at full volume about Jesus. The was the pinnacle of my Christian Rock career. After that, I hung up my showbiz shoes, entered the seminary and became a hospital chaplain. I still have our CD somewhere, and if you ask me very nicely and ply me with some wine, I might let you listen.
I don’t miss playing in a Christian Rock Band. The music was terrible. The hours were insane, and the pay was minimal. At the time, though, I was young and it was awesome.
I do miss the kind of faith I had in those days. I could stand in front of a SuperDome of 40,000 teenagers and proclaim the Risen Lord with the earnestness that youth provides. I stood confident at the foot of the cross, literally. I really hadn’t seen much of the world. I was at a private church college, and I didn’t know much of human suffering. I was well cared for by a loving family, and my problems weren’t very serious. Jesus was the King of Heaven, and I was His rockin’ servant here on earth.
I’m older now. I’ve seen untimely death, divorce, miscarriage. I’ve participated in our broken political processes. I have had to make hard decision about where my money goes. I’ve read about drone attacks and seen poor children deprived of quality education. I’ve held the hands of my beloved father as he died. My faith isn’t as shiny as it used to be. It is worn and kind of shabby sometimes. I ask “why” a lot more than I did when I was a teenager rockin’ out to Christian hits. You might say I’m in the “Thomas” phase of my faith.
God Bless Thomas. God bless this disciple who needed a little more information. I have nothing but deep respect for those folks who find faith to be pure and easy. I have nothing but satisfaction when I think of those teenagers singing their hearts out in the SuperDome, and I treasure the memories and the purity of my youthful faith. Bless them. I envy them. Some of the disciples had that sort of faith. Peter comes to mind. But, in all the Gospels, Thomas speaks for me the best. Perhaps he speaks for you, too. Maybe you’re in a Thomas phase.
The upper room was locked. The other disciples saw Jesus appear and instantly knew that this man, this Messiah, had risen from the Grave just as he said he would. The believing disciples took it as a matter of course. Peter and the rest were instantly validated in their pristine belief.
But not my man Thomas. He didn’t believe. He needed further proof. He had a lot of questions. Maybe he’d seen some of the evils in the world and had a hard time believe that something so divinely good as Resurrection could take place. Maybe he’d always been a little skeptical of this radical teacher named Jesus. Thomas needed to place his fingers into the wounds of the friend who had died; the Jesus who had risen. Only after this did he come to believe. Jesus rebukes Thomas gently. He reflects that those who believe without question are blessed. And I agree.
But I’m not one of them. I’m just like Thomas. I wonder about a lot of things. I wrestle with angels. I doubt god sometimes. I want to place my hands in the wounds of Jesus to allay my own doubts. And, now and again, Jesus appears to me. In a holy moment of reconciliation in a family. In a kindness to a stranger unexpected and unasked for. In the way I see a nurse tending to a patient when she thinks no one is watching. I see these Sacramental moments of heavenly intervention, and I am satisfied that God is Good and Christ is among us.
I miss the kind of faith that I had when I was a musician for Jesus. I was young and energetic and on fire for Christ. God bless that young man. And God bless those disciples who believed without seeing. For me though, my man is Thomas–the disciple who needed extra reassurance. I get my reassurance here at St. Mark’s–from all of you as you accompany one another through the ups and downs of living the Christian life. I get my reassurance from our gorgeous Holy Week celebrations last week where I felt a magnificent spirit of love and support in with and among all the members here at St. Marks. And I ultimated received my strength and assurance from the real presence of Christ here at our altar, every Sunday, where I am fed, and loved and reassured.
So, if you are not a Thomas–God bless you. Your faith is powerful and a gift from God. If, however, you ARE a Thomas, join me this Easter season for the gift of reassurance at this table, at that font, and in this holy community. Amen.
Lent 1C 2.17.13 St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Glen Ellyn, IL
In the name of the Father + and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My family likes to tell a story. Fair warning; in this story, I don’t come out looking that great. In fact, we might call this story: “The Time I Briefly Lost My Mind.”
About three years ago, I was professionally restless. I had been serving as a
hospital chaplain and bereavement counselor for five years, and I was starting to look around for a change. While flipping through some job postings, I saw one for an Executive Director position at a big fancy hospital that intrigued me. I did not have the kind of experience they wanted. I did not have the years of experience they wanted. But I didn’t let a little something like that stop me. I spent several days polishing my resume and composing a cover letter. I collected and submitted the requested materials, and then I put the entire thing out of my mind.
Months later, I received a phone call. Imagine my surprise when they wanted me to come to the fancy hospital and interview. I drycleaned my only suit, and I showed up determined to knock their socks off. And I must have done something right, because they called me back for a SECOND interview. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the precise moment when I lost my everloving mind. Right then. I went crazy. I lost all sense of reasonable perspective.
At that moment, I was under the spell of the what ifs? What if they give me the job? What if I get a bigger paycheck? A better office? More people reporting to me? What if I get nicer business cards with my name, my degrees and my title smeared across the front and back? What if I get an assistant?
I found the idea of all that prestige intoxicating. The temptation seduced me utterly for about a week. I was unpleasant to be around. I couldn’t sleep very well. I shirked my work. I stared at my phone, and I wasn’t very kind to my family. In short, I had been bedeviled.
The devil is not a popular topic of discussion for mainline Christiansprobably less so for Episcopalians. We talk a little about Satan at Baptism, but that’s about the only place that this little demon shows up in our liturgies. The idea seems antiquated and maybe a little barbaric.
The devil is an important part of our Christian tradition, so let’s set aside our discomfort for the moment and dive into the story.
In Luke’s Gospel, the devil attempts to enthrall Jesus, quoting Scripture and offering him dominion over the nations of the world. Jesus had been fasting and praying for forty days and was, presumably, weak and susceptible to the devil’s wiles. The devil takes Jesus up to a high place, then up to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. The devil tempts Jesus, goads him to use his divine power to feed himself, to save himself, to perform a miracle. Jesus evades each temptation. Each time the devil attempts to get Jesus to do something, Jesus replies, cool as a cucumber, with a piece of Scripture that flummoxes the devil’s plan. You almost get the impression that Jesus wasn’t even tempted in the first place.
Jesus seems to know something; he’s playing something close to the vest. The devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and Jesus does something surprising. He does not strike the devil down. He does not take rulership of the world. Instead, Jesus takes the devil’s offer, ignores, and reminds us that “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God. This is the reply of Jesus to the devil.
It turns out, the antidote to temptation is to love and to serve God. I suppose you could say that a life of service and worship keeps the devil off your back.
Remember that big job I started with? I’ve learned a few things since then. When I was in that interview process, it turns out that I didn’t lose my mind. I lost something much more precious. I lost my God. And I lost my God to the temptation of privilege, of prestige. To my everyday devils. Pride. Vanity. Envy. Discontent. Entitlement. These were, and are, my devils. What are yours?
Which horned monsters tempt you to lose your God?
The everyday devils bring us to the pinnacle of the temple to the roof of this very church. They show us power; they show us riches; they tempt us with illusions. Cheap tricks. Remember what Jesus said, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” This will require us to be faithful. This will require us to be humble. This will require sacrifice. This will require us to ask God “to come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations,” as the Collect today says.
This is all easy to say, I realize. It’s harder to do. I’m sure I’ll be dancing with the devil on the rooftop again some day, probably sooner than I expect. I’m far too quick to forget Jesus’ teachings. This is the beauty of belonging to a worshiping community like St. Mark’s. We come together in this holy season of Lent to support one another as we wrestle with our devils and pray for God to drive away our temptations. There are some saints out there who might be able to go to a mountaintop, resist the devil and live into God’s love. I’m not nearly that holy. I need the rest of you, my Christian sisters and brothers, to support me in my prayerful disciplines of worship and service to God. Because I never know when I might lose my God again.
And, of course, we are not alone as we resist temptation. Christ is with usin our presence when two or three gather, in the water at our baptism, in the bread and in the wine at His table. This presence will strengthen us as we resist those everyday devils as a worshiping community, as the Body of Christ.
So, my sisters and brothers, remember that we have been invited to a Holy Lenta season of fasting, prayer and preparation. And remember also that these disciplines are the very tools we employ to worship and to serve God. And in this worship and service, we will find our eyes fixed on the God who lived for us, who died for us, who rose for us. Amen.
Easter 6B 5.13.12 St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church Oak Park, IL
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A curious set of circumstances found me Thursday on my hands and knees on the floor of a patient’s room, reverently picking up crumbs whilst simultaneously consoling a sobbing volunteer. We’ll call her Ethel. Here’s what happened: earlier that morning, I was sitting in my office about to have that first glorious sip of coffee before starting my day when I received a frantic phone call from upstairs. Apparently, Ethel, who brings communion to our Roman Catholic patients in the hospital where I work, had had a Eucharistic mishap of disastrous proportions. She dropped Jesus all over the floor. Literally.
So, when I arrive at the room, I find Ethel crying and about 200 crumbs of the Body of Christ all over the floor—under the hospital bed, behind the trash bins, under the wheels of the IV stand. Everywhere. Disaster. I do my very best to assure her that God is love and understands that accidents happen. She seems skeptical. Following Ethel’s lead and with great solemnity, we both get down on hands and knees and pick up every single piece of Jesus we could find. We take them into the special sink in the hospital sacristy and return them to the earth. I can feel generations of my Anabaptist ancestors rolling their graves, appalled at the reverence I showed to these little crumbs of consecrated bread. My relatives wouldn’t understand that Ethel and I weren’t honoring crumbs of bread; we were honoring Jesus who promised to abide with us in love.
This episode with the crumbs got me thinking a little about the nature of bread. What is it that so powerfully moves us to this kind of reverence? It is after all just some wheat and yeast. I suppose that from the outside, making a big deal about little crumbs might seem silly. But our Christian tradition is full of allusions to wheat and bread and vines. We clearly come from farming stock. Our scriptures are filled with our collective, agrarian memory.
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never held a wheat seed in my hand. I have it on good authority (internet) that they are about 1/8 the size of a penny. Farming and subsistence level communities live or die by the success or failure of these tiny packets of potential. The church has historically honored the role that seeds play in the thriving of a community by taking the three days before the Ascension to bless the seeds and their planting. We call these the Rogation Days. Rogation comes from the Latin rogare which means “to ask.” We’re asking God to bless the seeds and watch over them as they take root and grow.
Today’s ecclesiastical meaning is a bit lost on a neighborhood boasting five grocery stores and no fewer than three specialty bakeries. We have forgotten what it means to be dependent on the success of a seed for our daily bread. We’ve forgotten that for most of human history, the sun and the rains determined the success of the crops, and the crops determined the success of our lives. I can see why the Psalmist talks about the seas and rivers and hills clapping their hands and singing to God with joy. We might into nature for a hike or a bikeride, but then we come home to our houses and our pizza delivery. The world of the Bible is the world where one early frost can devastate a community. Of course our ancestors saw God in life-giving bounty of the fields. They praised God for the conditions that made wheat, bread, life possible.
A word of warning: lest we become idolators this morning, let me make clear I am not advocating the worship of fields and trees and rivers. I’m simply suggesting that our spiritual forbearers lived and breathed the cycles of the natural world in a way we don’t—and it stands to reason that they would talk about their relationship with God using the images in the world around them.
Back to the bread. As the seed matures into a stalk of wheat, supported by sun and soil and hard work, we see a glimpse of the bread it will become. We grind it into flour and bake it into loaves of all shapes and sizes. The move from field to table is quaint and charming to us city folks. We probably can’t understand these images of hills and rivers and fruit and wheat as well as our ancestors. Maybe we need some new images to talk about what God does in our lives. For God so loved the world, that he “liked” the world’s Facebook status. Or, in my Father’s house, there are many wi-fi hotspots. New images for God are wonderful; still, it behooves us to try and enter the world of the Biblical writers. Jesus didn’t say to his disciples “go and synch each other’s mobile devices.” He said, “go and bear fruit, fruit that will last”?
Jesus, I believe, is trying to tell us that the fruit that grows in a Christ-centered community is different from the fruit of the vine. Wheat is harvested, and orchards go dormant. But the results of a community filled with the love of God are bounteous and everlasting. When Jesus abides with us, we can’t help but produce crops of love, kindness, justice and charity. Put another way, God has done the planting and tilling on our behalf, and we are richly blessed by that gracious labor.
And, strange though it may seem, this is why Ethel was crying on the floor this week. She knew that Jesus abides with us. And she knew that one of the signs of Jesus’ presence is in the bread we eat. For her, the Communion wafer is the very presence of Jesus—the fulfillment of his promise to his disciples. Those crumbs were Jesus’ love, and she felt like she had disrespected that promise. While I don’t exactly share her understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, I empathize with her reverence for the bread. We don’t have Jesus with us in the same way the disciples did. We’re not fortunate enough to hear the words directly from his mouth and to feel his abundant love abiding in us like the love of a dear friend. Instead, we are separated from his words by two thousand years and a radically different culture. Some things, though, are the same. The process of seed to wheat and vine to fruit still seems miraculous to us. More miraculous still is the way that our God meets us in the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven. The Eucharist is one of the ways that Jesus fulfills his promise to abide with us, and when we are filled and strengthened by this spiritual food, we can do the difficult work of loving one another as we were first loved. So, if you are feeling moved to reverence a piece of bread, I say go with your instinct, because those little crumbs contain the secrets of God’s love for us and for all of creation. Amen.
Pentecost 7B 7.15.12 St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church Oak Park, IL
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Let’s talk about prophecy. Really talk about it for a minute. Prophecy as a theme crops up all over the Biblical narrative. We can’t get away from it, no matter the Testament. It’s how God talks to God’s people. And it’s usually pretty brutal.
It’s easy to misunderstand prophecy. We sometimes think that prophecy is the same thing as fortune telling. Soothsaying. I think we get this idea because of Christmastime, frankly. At Christmas, we hear the prophet Isaiah talking about that wonderful counselor and prince of peace stuff. Isaiah foretells of a messiah, and BAM–we get Jesus in a manger on Christmas morning. Sweet though that is, it’s a pretty simple view of Biblical prophecy. It’s a lot more than just predicting the future.
Long before Christianity, prophets were called—usually by a vision or voice—called to preach to God’s people during times of grave injustice. Fire in the sky; lakes of blood; black funnels of clouds; locusts–you know, the usual. These predictions of doom that prophets fortell, we call oracles. So, the prophet comes to town and gives the people an oracle–an image of doom to come. The trick is that the oracle is usually a corrective. It’s a threat of what will happen if the people don’t restore justice in the land. One of the great things about belonging to God is that God likes to make sure the community knows when justice has left the gates. You might say that having prophets in our midst is one of the signs of our covenant with God.
So, this means that when a prophet appears among us, we get excited, right? We make this person a feast? We make a point to listen. We always do what the prophet says so we can restore justice in our community. Right? Don’t we react really well to the messages of doom? Don’t we love it when we see a prophet coming?
You all know better than that. As much as we need them, we HATE prophets. Especially if we are intimately connected to the systems the prophet is criticizing. I’m getting defensive just thinking about it. Amos said that Israel was a corrupt land. And he said it right to the face of the king. King Amaziah, understandably, if you ask me, asked Amos to go back where he came from. The King didn’t appreciate Amos’ bleak criticisms.
We don’t like prophets. We treat them poorly. What do we do? Think Martin Luther King, Jr. Think Ghandi. Think John the Baptist.
All this background was necessary to get us to Mark’s story in the Gospel. John the Baptizer would have known all about the prophetic tradition in Israel. You might say, he inherited it. Today’s Gospel reading is gruesome and, frankly, wonderful. The image of the Baptizer’s head on a platter compels and abhors. John, like the prophets before him, came into the center of power–into the very lives of the Herod family, to tell them that their occupation of Israel was unjust. It’s almost like we know how the story must end. The powers that be do not like being reminded that their actions are contrary to the will of God. And, as is the case over, and over and over with humans, John’s oracle—his criticism—got him killed. And it got his head served up on a platter.
What possible reason would Mark have to include this scene. And further, Mark, who is notoriously stingy with words, spends lots of ink on this scene. How did this macabre farce end up in our holiest of scriptures?
I think there are two answers:
1. This is the story of every prophet who has fought power. John knew that. He knew when he told the Herods that their vision for society and God’s vision for society were not the same. He knew what he was getting into when he went into the lion’s den. I think this story is in our scriptures because it’s in our bones. This story has happened before John the Baptizer, and it will happen long after we are all dead. As long as we live in a world full of sin, death and suffering–God will send prophets, and we will kill them. That grim reality is part of our worst nature. It’s nice to identify with the prophets, but I think I just as easily identify with the Herods. Likely you do too. Mark knows this is our story. It’s every story. It’s part of the risk and task of seeking justice in a fallen world. John’s head on a plate reminds us that the risk of fighting for justice is real. And it reminds us that some brave ones pay a price most of us don’t care to think about.
2. In addition to the mythic nature of the story: I believe Mark points the listener toward another prophet–is setting us up for the bigger story in the Gospel. Just like John the Baptizer’s ministry was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry; so is John’s death a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. If I ask what the story of John the Baptizer is about, I hope you’ll answer like you’re in Sunday School. Just raise your hand and say Jesus.
Jesus, also a prophet. Also unappreciated in his hometown (see last week’s sermon). Also familiar with the tradition of prophecy in Israel. Amos, then John, then Jesus. They are brothers in arms in a long history of divine rabble-rousing. It’s just that, when we get to Jesus, the rules change a bit. Jesus will say some of the same things as Amos, and he’ll anger some of the same people as John.
Jesus meets an end just as cruel, just as senseless, just as violent as our prophet John. With one difference. With one, important, vital, necessary, omnipotent difference. God, in the person of Jesus, changes the story. Instead of a prophet who is killed by the powers of the world. God becomes a prophet who redeems death itself. Jesus is raised from the dead. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has started a salvation narrative in which we, this morning, here in Oak Park, are participating. The author of Mark shows John the Baptist on a platter. And then the author shows Jesus risen after death on the cross. First is the way of the world. The second is the way of God. And the way of God is the way that we remember here at St. Christopher’s. When we come to the altar, we’re participating in a future reality in which the prophet is not ignored in her home town. In which the voice for justice and righteousness is not silenced. In which the Herods of the world do not have the final say. The prophet’s call is one of repentance for us. And Jesus’ story is one of great and vast forgiveness. You might say that Jesus’s Resurrection redeems John’s story. In God’s vision for the world, the prophet doesn’t end up on a platter. The prophet goes on to save us all. Amen.
Epiphany 8A 2.27.11 St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church Oak Park, IL
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be ever pleasing to you, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Jesus has been preaching to us from on top of that mountain for a few weeks now. And he says increasingly puzzling things. But this week takes the cake. Jesus says to us, calm as can be, we need to have the faith like the birds have faith. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
Hold on a second. Birds? Is Jesus a theologian or an ornithologist? Maybe a birdwatcher? What do sparrows have to do with my faithfulness? I grant you that this kind of scripture looks great cross-stitched on a pillow, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Of course birds don’t worry. And I think I can tell you pretty quickly why that is. I have yet met a bird with a mortgage. Nor have I met a bird with student loans, kids with learning disabilities, doctor’s bills, aging parents or any number of other legitimate worries that Jesus dismisses in today’s Gospel. We sit at Jesus’ feet for answers, and he tells to take up bird watching.
I’m not sure about you, but I don’t stop and watch birds very often. In fact, I spend a fair portion of my week worrying about some problem or another. And I spend the rest of my week, using gadgets to somehow calm my own worry (The irony ,by the way, was not lost on my last night as I worried about my sermon on the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, Don’t Worry). I have an application on my phone that spits out the credit card balance, the banking account figures and how much money will hopefully be available to me when I retire at 72 years young. I have another application on my phone that lets me enter the number and kind of calories I eat in a day so that I can hopefully: avoid diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and/or stroke. I have other programs that let me predict weather, stocks, read minute to minute news reports and keep up with an everlasting stream of Facebook status updates. I have a work computer and a home computer that magically sync up my work calendar and my home calendar. It even beeps at me before I need to be someplace, because I worry about forgetting all my obligations. Maybe I could find an application for my phone that could have faith for me, because it’s safe to say, I don’t have faith like the birds in Jesus’ sermon. If you do, I am happy for you and envious of you.
I think some of us, brothers and sisters, are better than others at practicing this kind of bird faith–this kind of avian certitude. Maybe it’s like being a gifted athlete or talented musician. Perhaps, when God was handing out the spiritual gifts, some of us received patience, gentleness, peace and kindness while other received faithfulness like a bird. This has to be the case, because I do meet people– lay, ordained, old, young — it doesn’t really matter — who seem to go through life with a spiritual serenity, a Godly equanimity. I admire these Christians, and I feel lucky when our paths cross.
My Dad was one of these fortunate folks. I think he may have had faith like a bird. I remember a car ride when I was about sixteen years old. I had just been to a leadership camp for young Christians, and I was riding in our dinged up family mini-van with my Dad. I turned to him and asked him what he thought would happen when he died. He said, in his folksy, Kansas-born accent — ‘Well Ian, I guess I will die and Jesus will come for me. Then Jesus will say ‘Who Am I’? And I will say, you’re God’s Son. And that will be that.’
My Dad was able to reduce five thousand years of Scripture and two thousand years of Christian theology into a two second conversation with the Creator of the Universe.
Years later, as my Dad lay dying, he looked over at me and said “You know son, I will see you again before you see me.” “I don’t understand, Dad. What do you mean?” “Well,” he said, “I can’t imagine a God who would take me to heaven and make me wait around for my family. You will have to live your life here, and it will be many years before I see you, but when I die, I will see you again right away.” My Dad just seemed to have an intuitive sense about God’s providence and graciousness. He was probably part bird.
But, Merciful God, what is to be done for the rest of us–the ones without that kind of faith? Where will we go to receive our wings? Scripture has some ideas. The Church has some ideas. When in doubt, begin at the beginning. Every time we enter this space, we pass the baptismal fount. Think of it as our own, sacred bird bath. It stands at the entrance to our life together in community. It is the first symbol of Christian living, and the Sacrament from which all others flow. Three or four times a year, we take a little baby; incapable of cognition, incapable of theology, incapable of decision, incapable of worry, and we pour water of his or her head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Then we hold this baby up and say to each other, this, THIS is faith.
Every baby knows already about this faith; every bird already knows about this faith. Those lucky folks with a gift for faith know about this faith. It’s the rest of us who need help. This is why we remember our baptisms ritually at different parts of the year. We’re asking God to stir up our ornithological (bird-like) faithfulness.
Behind me stands the largest and most expensive bird feeder in the free world. Every Sunday, the priest stands behind that altar and tells the story of the people of God. She starts and the flood and moves all the way to the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then she tells us that when we participate in this meal, we participate in that same Resurrection. It seems pretty far fetched, and yet we line up, faithfully, week after week. Even the doubters. Even the worriers. Even the vaguely agnostic, the questioning, the seeking and the downright hostile. We line up and come to the table to participate in the very life of Christ.
And this is why the birds don’t worry. Because they remember that God feeds God’s creation. We don’t need to fill the barn for wintertime, or worry about the future, because right here, right now, we are washed clean from beak to tail- feathers, and we are participating in God’s feast for ever and ever and ever; world without end, Amen.
Pentecost 9B 2.14.11 St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church Oak Park, IL
Grace mercy and peace, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have taken many, many odd jobs for a few extra bucks. I worked the night shift at Perkins. I edited textbooks out of my house. I played the fiddle in a country cover band at an amusement park. That’s right, brothers and sisters, – I got my boot scootin’ boogie on six shows a day for an entire summer while paying for college. In hindsight, helping out a friend at a High School debate tournament was probably the oddest of my odd jobs. Still, the gig paid $100, and I got a free hotel room WITH cable.
Full disclosure: I didn’t know anything about debate when I agreed to help out. I’m a little conflict avoidant. I assumed debate tournaments were full of socially awkward teens standing around arguing, wearing their parents’ over-sized clothes. And there was some of that to be sure. But there was so much more.
I came away from the tournament super impressed with the debaters. They were prepared, eloquent and argued at a polished, sophisticated level. This was the very best kind of arguing. These High School kids tackled the nation’s biggest issues: from nationalized healthcare to the war in Iraq, from the personhood of corporations to raising the retirement age. I was impressed mainly because, in the real world of politics, families and the church, I usually hear the worst kind of arguing, not the best. These high school kids showed me that arguing is an art. Persuasion is a gift like any other. And that good could come from it. The debate tournament taught me that argument doesn’t have to end in gridlock. Argument can serve to educate us about complex problems—complex problems not unlike the one we encounter in this morning’s Gospel.
A little context: the most difficult and persistent problem in the New Testament is, probably, who will receive God’s gift of salvation through Jesus. Or, put another way, who gets to be in the kingdom of God? The very earliest followers of Jesus spent a lot of ink time trying to figure out who the true initiates were. I regret to inform you there is not a lot of agreement on this question.
There are several Biblical authors who hold to the idea that a person needs to follow Israel’s dietary laws, become circumcised and obey the Law of Moses before being saved. Some New Testament writers argue for a radical inclusiveness – a notion that goes back to today’s Isaiah reading…that all countries and nations will be saved because of the work of God. Still other New Testament authors advocate for rigid, ascetic, end-times living. Sort of, get yourself a bunker, some Campbell’s soup and wait for Jesus to come back. So, our Biblical cannon has threads, arguments running through it. And the argument that comes up again and again and again is: who gets to have the good stuff the Jesus offers? Given all the arguments in the early church, I’m surprised Christianity survived at all.
Arguments about ‘who is in and who is out’ bubble just under the surface of today’s Gospel text. I think we are supposed to ask ourselves: Is the Canaanite woman part of God’s kingdom. Is she in or is she out? Is her daughter to be healed of demonic possession?
The author of Matthew can’t seem to decide. In this story, the Canaanite mother says to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus doesn’t answer. Jesus completely ignores this poor woman, turns to his disciples and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is not a Jesus who welcomes the stranger. This is a Jesus who sticks with his disciples and ignores the suffering of anyone outside his tribe.
So, the argument is over. That’s that. The Canaanite woman clearly is not of the tribe of Israel and neither is her daughter. So they are out. They are distanced from the grace and power of Jesus. QED. Debate over. We can all pack up and go home.
But this marvelous Canaanite mother won’t let us. The story is about to take a very surprising turn. This woman. This mother. This Canaanite. This outsider. This unclean foreigner. This debater has the nerve to ARGUE with Jesus. She won’t take no for an answer, and she asks again for Jesus’ help, begging Him on her knees. ‘Lord, help me.’ Jesus, with a rhetorical flourish that would have gotten lots of points at the debate tournament, responds to the woman with a harsh statement: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I think most people would have left at this point. If Jesus had called me a dog, I would have gone home and cried. But so great was the Canaanite’s need, she presses on. She matches Jesus point for point and says “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
And with her response, with her argument, the entire ministry of Jesus as we know it is transformed. God’s Son was sent to the house of Israel, but the healing and grace of God could not be contained in that tiny tribe. It spreads to out of Galilee into Tyre and Sidon; it spreads to women and Canaanites and even to those possessed by demons. The grace of God couldn’t even be contained by Jesus. And this woman’s deft questioning opened the floodgates.
I would expect Jesus to give this woman a piece of his mind after she questioned him so brutally. But, in a plot reversal, Jesus instead proclaims in front of his disciples and us that this woman has ‘great faith’ And it is this Canaanite mother, who dared to challenge Jesus and demand a blessing for her demon-possessed daughter.
This story takes us into some tricky waters as Christians. Are we supposed to argue with God until we get what we want? If God says no, is it because we don’t have enough faith? That is certainly one reading of the story. And it’s a reading that millions of Christians have ascribed to over time.
But that isn’t the message as I see it. I see in this story a struggle about how wide is the gospel of salvation. How massive is God’s grace? The arguments in this story are the same exact arguments we have in Christianity today. Who is in. Who is out. And I take great comfort that Jesus, the perfector of our faith, chose to give grace to the sick and to the stranger. And I think God that everyone in this room, at one time or another, has been both. Amen.