Jesus is the Answer

That Blessed Dependancy

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Questions. Our readings this morning are filled with questions. We began with Paul asking the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Do you not know that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? Do you not know that you are not your own?” Then in our Gospel, we heard Nathanael ask Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” just before he asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” And after earnest Nathanael makes his remarkable confession of faith, finally we heard Jesus himself ask, “Do you believe because…

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All Signs Point to Jesus

Have you seen the new Netflix series, “Marco Polo”?  Jordan and I only made it through the first two episodes, but setting the premise of the show–how it is that Marco ends up in Mongolia–required a certain amount of time during the first episode to be spent traversing the land between Venice and his new home in the Far East.

Viewers get a contracted look at what was a dangerous, arduous journey at the close of the 1200s.  Can you imagine what the mission must have been like back in the first century?  These Magi, wise men from the East as Matthew recounts it, traveled through unknown difficulty and harm to follow this sign the stars had given them. 

Matthew is telling us that strangers, foreigners, these smart dudes who didn’t quite fit into the Jewish and Roman cultures, overcame ridiculous obstacles to find this new king that they might worship him.  Not only are they out of their depth culturally, but they found him using a star, using astrology–what kind of weird religion are they into?

But read the passage–when Herod calls together his own wise men, his scribes and the chief priests, they’re able to decipher the sign, though they haven’t been out to see the baby themselves.  It even seems as if they weren’t really aware of the prophecy, of signs, or of Jesus’ birth until these strangers with their weird star-gazing penchant came to tell them about it.  Having had to do some fancy mathematical work in verse 7, “when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared,” Herod clearly hadn’t been aware of what happened in his realm, or when it had taken place.  He was completely asleep at the wheel, and rightly for him, he and Jerusalem “were troubled” (verse 3) at the news.

The people who were closest to Jesus geographically and religiously were totally clueless about God’s arrival and presence in their midst.  They had the sort of background and upbringing–the sort of culture–that was supposed to make them primed and ready to recognize the savior of the world when he came.  Then a band of strangers show up on the doorstep, asking directions to the new king, citing the authority of some heavenly body, a light in the sky.

Aside from Herod’s political problem of having an extra–read: competing–king on his hands, these Easterners weren’t the sort who were supposed to be paying special attention to the movements of kings in this area of the world.  This was Herod’s turf, or if you wanted to look at it another way, this was a Jewish matter of faith and religion.  Whichever way you look at it, the wrong people were noticing and interpreting signs that couldn’t possibly be for them.

What an embarrassment!  Leaving Herod’s politlcal issues aside, which is significant enough (a breach of security so grave that there was some rival king right under his nose?), just outside the stronghold of Judaism, such as it was in the first century under Roman occupation, the Israelite God had come to earth, not for a one-night engagement under shining lights, but born, growing up, living everyday life just down the road, and somehow, all the Jewish wise men had missed it.

We’re now here in waning days of Christmas, tomorrow will be the twelveth night, and yet we’re still hearing these Advent themes: stay awake, keep watching, be vigilant, don’t get distracted.

Here in the natal days of 2015, we may be more vigilant, too; keeping our schedules more assiduously, counting our calories more carefully, tracking our exercise, measuring our tallies toward our resolutions.

But our Gospel lesson today is calling us toward a different kind of paying attention, another sort of resolution.

Look again: the Magi left where they were living.  They abandoned their homes–to be gone for who knows how long–they gave up whatever jobs they held and thereby, in a way, surrendered their identity.  Their trip exposes their willingness to strip away all they knew, all they were, in order to find and follow Jesus.

God revealed the star to them, God made his offer and asked them to follow.  With laser focus, they pursued the sign God had given them.  They didn’t assume God was already in their midst, or that they should just sit tight and let God come to them.  They plunged into the unknown, disregarding fear and death, overcoming whatever obstacles were in their path, that they might find more of what God had shown them.

They didn’t know where their trek would lead them or where they’d end up.  Just like their fellow-seeker Abraham, they left their kindred and their father’s house and went to the land that God showed them, though they knew not where that was.  They were willing to go and look for Jesus somewhere foreign and unknown.

In an increasingly global society, what’s left “unknown” to us?  In a world where I can talk with my sister on a computer screen while she’s half a world away, where can something be found that’s not-home, something strange, foreign, or uncomfortable?

Though we’re more global than ever, we’re also increasingly divided.  This is one of the most politically divided moments of American history, and the gridlock in Washington is visited upon our personal lives in our own political and religious convictions.  So what about the body of Christ?  We pray every Sunday that Jesus’ whole body, the Church, would be made one, that we may be united in Jesus’ sacrifice and made one body with him.

There’s plenty unknown, even in the pews next to us.  There are plenty of obstacles to seeing God at work in each other; we perhaps have the hardest time seeing Jesus in those closest to us, in our family and our church family.

The Magi came in humility to the Jewish and Roman wise men, they said, “We’re trying to find God, and we’ve gotten a bit stuck, can you help us?”  The Magi didn’t claim to know God better or to speak for God’s purposes more faithfully; they came to fellow seekers and said, “Sirs, we want to see Jesus.”  Indeed, the scribes and priests helped the Magi, they remembered Micah’s prophecy which mentioned Bethlehem and sent the Eastern wise men on their way.

Can you imagine what might have happened if the scribes and priests and Herod had dropped all their prideful pretense and their self-serving suspicion and gone with the Magi?

We can’t know whether the Magi asked them to join the jaunt from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but let’s pretend for a moment that they did, and their offer was accepted.  Herod, who turned around and tried to kill Jesus in the following passage, would have met God face to face.  The scribes and chief priests, those whose successors were thorns in Jesus’ side for all his ministry, would have witnessed the miracle of Emmanuel–God with us–as a disarming baby.  How could their lives have not been changed by an encounter with the living God?

What if East and West, Left and Right, one side and another, came together kneeling at Jesus’ feet?  What if they’d been led there by their nemesis, the person or people who raise our ire, who make us grind our teeth, throw up our hands?

What if we realized we need our infuriating family members, and our political enemies, and our theological adversaries to lead us to Jesus?

I don’t have God all figured out, I’m no closer to cornering the market on a pathway to Jesus than anybody else.  I need to humbly ask others for help.  None of us has the perfect picture of God or the secret, back way into his presence, but each of us really truly does need each other in order to find God.

In the midst of disagreement, through information that comes out of left-field, from people who shouldn’t know what they’re talking about, God comes.

Where are you? Come out!

a sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

At the beginning of the parable, the passage reads, “they would not come.”  Why didn’t they want to go to the banquet?

Perhaps, to figure out why someone wouldn’t want to go to the banquet, we should understand what the banquet is about–for whom it is given, where it is taking place, what is required for entrance to the event.

Who are these servants who have been sent out to compel others to come to the banquet?  Why would they be killed for their message?  What kind of invited guests are these who not only send their regrets with lame excuses, but then go so far as to kill the king’s help?

What is this parable about except the history of the world–the history of God’s relationship with humanity?  In the beginning, when God had placed Adam and Eve in the garden they ate and then they disobeyed and they hid themselves.  God came to them in the cool of the day, walking in the garden, looking for his people whom he’d created and whom he loves, wanting to feast with them.

He said, “where are you?”  They had hidden themselves from him because of their shame.  The king in the parable today, looking for guests with whom to share his feast, asks the same thing–“where are you?”

Later in Israel’s history, the nation suffers exile.  What does God do but send prophets to them to bring God’s message of mercy and invitation and repentance?  What do the people do but kill his prophets, those who have been given the task to compel the invited guests to come to the banquet, to find themselves in God’s presence, to be made whole by God’s nourishment and to be filled with joy?

From our vantage point in history, we can see that the banquet which is prepared for the wedding of a king’s son is the Holy Eucharist–the feast which God instituted through Jesus and has prepared for everyone to enjoy.  So why isn’t everyone there?  What is keeping people from coming to church to experience God’s gift, the feast to nourish and give us life?

This is a question almost as old as humanity–“where are you?” In the passage just before this one, which we heard last week, we hear the parable of the vineyard.  Something similar has happened in this story–the vineyard owner sets up a top-notch operation and finds some tenants to put in charge.  What happens in this parable is familiar: when harvest time comes, the owner sends a servant for the rent–for his share of the profits of the land.  As you may recall, or may be able to guess, the tenants aren’t particularly kind to the servants.  They beat one, and killed a few more.  The same thing happened to the second set he sent, and then, in a last-ditch effort, he decided to send his son to collect the rents.  As you can imagine, this didn’t go well–the tenants, predictably, killed the son.  Jesus asks those listening, “what do you think will happen to the tenants when the owner himself comes?”  and again, predictably, you can imagine those listening, many of them pharisees, did not like what was told them (Matthew 21:33-46).

After reading these two parables together, someone asked me this week, “Is that where we are right now?  The son is dead, and we’re waiting for the owner to come and make things right with us?”  Praise God that this is not where we are!  The son is not still dead–the Son is alive, he was raised on Easter morning, of which every Sunday is a memorial and a recreation.

There are pieces of each of our lives that are stuck there–we still see sin in our world in war, we see it closer to home in the ways our relationships with each other are broken, how we are selfish, how we are careless and let our brothers and sisters go hungry and slave away for clothes we wear.

But there is resurrection and redemption, too–we see it in love that is more powerful than counting and mounding up wrongs against me, in the beauty of music and art and reconciliation, in families that continue to show up for one another, in people who give up their lives to make others’ lives better.  We live in the already and the not yet.  We live in the midst of sin and darkness, and also in the middle of God’s light–the full revelation of who God is to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.

We still sometimes choose darkness and disobedience, we sometimes fight against desires that draw us away from God and each other, but because of the freedom we have been given through Jesus, we also have the power to say no to darkness and to say yes to light–to God’s invitation, which is for us, for everyone.

At the end of this parable, there’s a sort of strange image–there’s a wedding guest there, who seems to have stumbled in and he doesn’t have the right clothes on.  The king is outraged and throws the guest out–what’s up with that?  If everyone’s welcome, if everyone’s invited, why on earth would the king be so petty as to care whether someone is wearing the right clothes?

But what’s going on here isn’t just about decorum or about the way that something looks.  It’s not about society or about being appropriate for Page 6.  Wedding clothes would have been made available for these guests as they came in–a closet near the door, or perhaps the equivalent of a dinner jacket hung up for the use of anyone who needed one.  Just slipping on a jacket (or toga, or robe) would have been a way of showing honor, gratitude, and acknowledging the importance of the event to which the person was invited.  The person walking around without the pro-offered jacket was a slap in the face, not just a fashion statement, even the equivalent of flipping the bird.

Being appropriately attired for this event is not something we can do on our own.  Everyone’s invited, everyone’s welcome, but everyone’s got to be humble, too.  This man, who refused to accept the clothing offered, in effect communicated that he thought he didn’t need any help, he was fine on his own–he was full of pride, perhaps even drunk on it.  In this day and age, especially in the sorts of lives with which we’ve been blessed (as you must be reading this on a computer, with access to the internet!), it’s easy for us to believe that we’re totally self-sufficient, that we are not only welcome at the banquet, but can pay our own way in.

Deep down, we know that we’ve still got darkness tempting us, we know that we’re still living broken lifestyles, we’re still selfish and prideful.  We need God to clothe us.  We need God’s light to wash away our darkness and to make us fully able to enjoy the feast prepared for us.  We don’t have to hide our darkness, God already knows it, as our Collect for Purity puts it (“from whom no secrets are hid”).

We are invited to the banquet, God sends his messengers to call us in, he asks us not to hide, but to come into the light and be clothed by it, by God himself.

Where are you this morning?  Come out, and join the banquet!

The Older Sister

First person (imagined) narrative of the older sibling in the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32), delivered during Soul Stories, Soul Food


photo by the incomparable Roger Hutchison.

Oh, hello.

You must all be here for the feast—my brother’s feast. So you’ve gotten the news, he’s back! Isn’t that wonderful?

My dad aged so much when he left; when my brother asked for his inheritance a few years back, I didn’t think that Dad should give it to him, because I knew my brother, Josh, was just going to spend it all. He’s never had the self control or the wisdom or the foresight that I have to plan for the future, and to work hard for it.

Anyway, my dad did give it to him, because Josh is his youngest child, and the youngest child… well, I don’t want to offend any youngest children in the room, but, usually the baby of the family gets whatever he or she wants. Can you tell I’m an oldest child?

Well, what happened to Josh was really just too bad—he took his money, and he went out West. He bought himself a Mercedes roadster, and he drove all over California. Then, he went over to Las Vegas, “to really strike it rich”—he said in his postcards to me.

This was not how our father raised us. He raised us to be respectable. We did our homework–*I* got A+’s, of course, but Josh didn’t do so bad himself. We were raised to accept our responsibility, to make good on the investment that our father was making in us—to fulfill the destiny we were given with our good education and good upbringing, to join our father’s life in the family business, or at least become a doctor or a lawyer or a banker.

But that wasn’t good enough for dear Josh; he’s a dreamer. He plowed his own way, with his Mercedes and his bright lights. Eventually, though—you’ll remember, being that you’re father’s friends, here for the banquet—the postcards stopped coming. Josh’s leaving made father seem older, but the not-knowing, the mystery and pain of disappearance—that’s what really wracked him. He walked our long, long driveway himself every day to check the mail. Then, the worst—when he stopped checking the mail. He gave Josh up as dead.

He sent people to look for Josh, to see if we could at least recover his body, at least have some kind of closure, some kind of scrap of evidence to lay the whole messy, emotional debacle to rest. But no one turned anything up—nothing to confirm whether he was alive or dead.

Then, finally, you remember—we had that memorial service for him, if he wasn’t dead, he surely wasn’t coming home again, Father figured, and we might as well move on with our lives. I have to tell you, I was relieved. All this searching and not-knowing and walking down the long driveway was taking up so much of Father’s time and resources, so much of his energy, his money—I was running the business all by myself! I could do it, I was good at it, but it was exhausting. Further, it seemed like Father just assumed I’d always do it—I felt taken advantage of. Josh, who had always gotten more attention when we were growing up, was STILL getting more attention even though he was gone now.

And now—you know the story—he’s back. Yay… And here you all are, showing up to celebrate the prodigal’s return! I’ll never forget, I was bringing Father his tea on the porch, he was practically bedridden, when he pushed me to the side to get a better view of the driveway. I was taken aback at the strength he showed—I had no idea the old man had it in him still. He pulled himself up out of his chair, wobbly but resolute, and shielded his squinty eyes from the sun. He shouted, “Josh?! Josh! Is that you, my son?!” as he started down the porch stairs. I turned and squinted, too, trying to catch Father’s arm—the poor man must have been going crazy in his grief.

Father was already halfway down the long drive, already almost to this stranger who was hobbling up to our home. “What audacity,” I thought, “for someone so poor and stinky and flea-eaten to come through our beautiful gate and wend his way up to our house. What was this person thinking? Why did he think we had anything to offer him? Couldn’t he go to Trinity, to the homeless breakfast? Why would he come to our house—where we LIVE, where WE live?” It was inconceivable that anyone would try to invade our space.

Then, of course, I realized it was actually Josh—alive, coming home. Father was so, so excited, you could see the years of worry melt from him, he seemed as if he was as young as when Josh had left. Father’s eyes came alive, he practically danced a jig. He started yelling and shouting—the servants came, it was really a scene, I must tell you… It was all chaos and unkemptness—Father started pulling off his clothes to put them on Josh, who was practically naked, having gambled or given or lost everything he’d been given.

Can you believe that? All his inheritance—down the drain! He didn’t have a shred left. After he ate, Father sat him down, having not taken his eyes off of Josh the whole time, and asked him what made him come home. Josh said he’d been sitting on the street in a big city, begging, covered in fleas, trying to barter his clothes for some bread, and the realized that even the lowest worker here on Father’s estate had it much better than that, and perhaps he would be allowed to come back and to work here. Father laughed, slapped Josh on the back and said, “Nonsense! You are my son! You were dead, and now you’re alive again! I never thought I’d get to see you again! You are my son, you will be just as before, learning to manage the business, here, with your sister.”

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, of course, I’d missed Josh, too, and I was so grateful he was alive, but there are rules, there’s the inheritance, not to be crass—but now Josh got half of MY inheritance, too? And Josh gets all this?–this great big party with everyone from the whole town? I followed all the rules, and I haven’t even had a birthday party in years—I’ve been trying to keep the family together! I’ve sacrificed everything for this family, for its upkeep, to keep the business going, to make sure there IS an inheritance, and here Josh swoops in and is given it all back.

I wonder if my father even loves me at all. He doesn’t run to greet me when I walk down the driveway. It’s almost as if he doesn’t notice me at all—it’s just assumed I’ll always be here, I’ll always do the right thing, dutiful Emily.

I guess it’s up to me, though—this resentment, holding on to the past, keeping score, assuming I know what’s going on in Josh’s mind and heart, and in Father’s mind and heart—it could eat me up. I could spend all my time concerned about how much I’ve gotten in response to what I’ve given, and how much Josh has gotten, and what I think he deserves; but maybe what’s more important is Josh himself, and my father himself—looking for the good in them, trying to follow my Father’s example and enjoying the company of who ever comes across my path, never losing hope that our family will be whole again, as God promises us.


Watch Yourself.

Romans 11:13-24

“13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! 16If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ 20That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”

There was an article in Foreign Policy magazine this week revealing the March Madness irony of Americans’ stubborn hatred of Duke basketball–you see, in the world of international affairs, the United States is Duke.  There’s a reason the U.S. is called a superpower, why we’ve got a bad reputation throughout the world, why Europeans are sometimes storied to turn up their noses at people with American accents.

Both Duke and United States have an attitude of Manifest Destiny, both have been rather successful despite their pride.  Like Duke, like the United States, so are 21st-century Christians, especially us in the West.

It’s as if Paul is standing before us today!  We are Gentiles.  We are wild olive shoots.  We’re wise to remember that none of us is here on our own merit or because of our own resourcefulness.  Listening to these words rubs me the wrong way a little bit–“the root supports you,” “perhaps he will not spare you,” and “do not become proud.” How can someone else, someone like the Apostle Paul, tell me that I’m not exceptional?  Like the United States, like Duke, I have an attitude that I’m somehow an exception to the wisdom of Scripture; I’m not under judgment because I’m a 21st century Christian.

Of course, the truth is that we are.  We are grafted into an olive tree that’s thousands of years older than we are, that’s weathered hundreds more storms than we can imagine, that’s survived droughts, floods, scorching sun, erosion, brutal pruning, and frigid frosts.  The root, Paul says, is what keeps the olive tree alive; the root of God’s people is Jesus.  We’re physically connected to the Almighty through Jesus–our brother in humanity, our true nourishment in the Eucharist, and our pure lamb of sacrifice, slain for our shortcomings, our sin.

What we do when we come to worship, when we pray, when we study Scripture and listen–it’s nothing new.  We’re imbibing the root’s nutrition, which God has been providing for us through the Holy Spirit for thousands of years.  Being grafted in, added on to an already-thriving, already-healthful tree, we’re fortunate to benefit from the “rich root” of the olive tree.  We’re receivers.  Part of the reason that we worship the way that we do, and that we care about and bother to remember people like Thomas Cranmer, whose feast we celebrate today, is because we recognize that the Church, God’s people, have been around for a long time before we came along, and Lord willing, will be around for a long time after we’re gone.  We are not the trunk of the tree.  We aren’t in charge; it’s not our job to change the course of history–God already has.

As master gardener, God has taken a great risk in allowing all these wild, scrappy, untested shoots onto his one precious olive tree.  Not only could the wild bits wreck havoc on the tree, but the wild bits themselves may die–grafting is a tricky business, uprooting and cutting off bits of a perfectly happy plant and sticking in onto another, after cutting into that plant, too.  We’re grateful that God is as masterful as a gardener can be; if anyone can keep those wild shoots alive and thriving, it’s Him.

As part of this cultivated, long-established olive tree, we wild shoots may feel uncomfortable at times; it’s not our show, it’s not our game, not our “natural” home.  Becoming part of this tree means that we aren’t wild anymore; we’re under the care of a gardener, being protected from wild elements, but also being pruned and trained to grow in a way that makes us better, even though it may feel uncomfortable, or even painful.

Therefore, let us “not become proud, but stand in awe” (v. 20) of the tree to which we’ve been added.  Because of God’s kindness, as Paul puts it, we’ve been made to belong as God’s people.  Let us not take that title as an opportunity to boast, but as an invitation to humble, holy living, full of listening, full of flexibility, full of awe.

(from Friday, March 21st, 2014 – preached at Seibels Chapel, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC)