Thursday, May 10, 2018

10 May 2018 - Ascension Day

Ascension Day  — 10 May 2018
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Acts 1:1-11  |  Psalm 93  |  Ephesians 1:15-23  |  Luke 24:44-53

“Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”  [Luke 24:47-48]

[[I’m going to make an assumption – I don’t doubt a reasonable assumption for some of you, but perhaps not for some others of you, and if that’s so I apologize, it’s okay, I’m not criticizing! – an assumption that you who are attending this Ascension Day service in the middle of lunch hour have attended Ascension Day services before, and thus you have previously heard Luke the Evangelist’s narratives of the ascension of the Risen Jesus to heaven.  Both of them, from the Acts of the Apostles and from his Gospel.  And you have previously noted that they are not quite the same story, at least in terms of their chronology.  There is no reasonable doubt that the Gospel and the Book of Acts were written by the same author, but, as Lauren pointed out in her sermon last Sunday, we have no indication of how much time elapsed between the writing of the Gospel and the writing of Acts.  Did Luke finish the Gospel, roll up the scroll of the manuscript, say “Well, the first half is done!” and open a fresh scroll to begin Volume Two?  Or was there a lapse of time – maybe a little, maybe a number of years – between the composition of the Gospel and the composition of the Book of Acts?  We don’t know.  One thing we can say is that although they are by the same author, there are distinct differences in literary genre.  The first book uses the genre of “gospel” invented by St. Mark, one of St. Luke’s major sources, and the second book is in the genre, more or less, of Hellenistic historiography.  That, and the possible lapse of some time during which St. Luke may have done further reflection and perhaps received additional reminiscences from the early Christian community, might explain the differences.  The bottom line is, it doesn’t really matter.]]

Today I want to focus on what the Gospel records Jesus as saying to his disciples just before his ascension.  (I say “ascension” because that’s what we traditionally call it, and spatial imagery is pretty much unavoidable, as long as we understand that “heaven” in this context is not “up in the sky,” even though for the Greeks the word “ouranos,” “sky,” always also connoted the realm of the gods.  The point is how the Letter to the Ephesians puts it today, “[God] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  [Eph. 1:20-21]  As I said, spatial imagery is pretty much unavoidable!)\

Anyway, you recall that during Jesus’ earthly ministry, his disciples tagged along after him, very frequently not getting the point, but occasionally doing pretty well (remember when Jesus sent them out two by two and they were able to heal in Jesus’ name).  Well, now this is it.  Jesus says, “Now it’s your responsibility.  You can’t just stand around watching me do stuff anymore.  [Or, as the angel in Acts puts it, “Why are you guys standing around staring at the sky?”]  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will now be my witnesses.  And (as St. Matthew’s community remembered it) I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

So Ascension Day is not “Goodbye, Jesus!”  Ascension Day is “It’s time to get on with it!”

Saturday, March 31, 2018

30 March 2018 - Good Friday

Good Friday  — 30 March 2018
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Isaiah 52:13-53:12  |  Psalm 22  |  Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9  |  John 18:1-19:42

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

“It is finished.” 

St. John’s Gospel is hard.  I don’t mean that it is too hard, that you should give up trying to read or understand it – very much the contrary!  But be aware that the evangelist, for all the relative simplicity of his common Greek, is a very sophisticated literary writer.  His words often have multiple meanings.  And the answer to the question, does he mean “A” or “B’? is likely to be “Yes.”

“It is finished.”  On the surface, what we may initially hear is:  “It’s all over.  It’s done.  That’s it.”  And that’s one of the meanings of the Greek word in the text.  But the phrase also means “It is completed.”  “It is done” as in “this project is now done.”  “It is accomplished.”  The underlying word also means “purpose,” as in “the purpose is fulfilled.”  Jesus is saying, “I have fulfilled the purpose for which I came, and now I can let go.”

(I might note that the same Greek word is used by St. Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matt. 5:58]  That has given a lot of Christians palpitations, because we think that’s demand for a moral perfection in terms of keeping all the rules without fail, and I’m only human, give me a break!  That’s not the point.  “Be complete.”  “Be whole.”  “Be mature.”  “Fulfill God’s purpose for you.”  “Live in the image of the God who created you.”)

John’s Gospel goes on:  “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”  I suppose the first thing that comes to our minds may be a picture of Jesus dropping his head and “giving up the ghost,” as the King James Version says.  “Breathed his last,” the synoptic gospels say, translating a word that can mean “expired.”  Okay.  But I think John means more than that.  The Greek says “He inclined his head.”  (In fact, the Greek word, through Latin, is where our word “incline” comes from.)  Jesus doesn’t just drop his head, he points his head.  One inclines to, points to something or someone.  Who was there, in the Fourth Gospel?  His mother, and the other women, and the Beloved Disciple.  The last of his faithful community, and the beginnings of his church.  “He inclined his head and gave up…”  Stop there.  The word means more than just “give up.”  It means “give over” or “hand on.”  It can mean “entrust.”  The root word is one we often translate as “tradition.”

Okay.  “He inclined his head and gave up – or handed on – his spirit.”  Except that’s not exactly what the text says.  It says, “He handed on the spirit.”  What spirit?  His own spirit, his soul, his breath?  Surrendered back to God the Father?  Yes, perhaps.  Or The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, handed over to the Church, gathered at the foot of his Cross?  As he will three days later, to his disciples in hiding:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit.” [John 20:21-22] 

The author of the Fourth Gospel wants us to understand that Jesus was not a tragic victim who was foolish enough to let himself get caught by the Jerusalem Establishment and the Roman Empire?  It is quite clear in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the protagonist in his own Passion.  This is God’s drama, God’s mission, for the reconciliation, the healing, the completion, the perfection, the finishing of the human world.  Jesus’ earthly mission, the first act, is complete, it is finished, almost.  In the second act that mission has been handed over to us, in the power of the Spirit, to continue.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

14 February 2018 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 14 February 2018
Trinity – 12:15 PM
Joel 2:1-2,12-17   |  Psalm 103:8-14  |  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum revertéris.” (“Remember, humanchild, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”)
My text this noon comes not from one of the Scripture readings, but from the Liturgy itself, as we will see in just a few minutes at the Imposition of Ashes.  But of course that sentence itself comes from the Scripture, from the second creation story in the Book of Genesis [3:19].  We know that story, the first part of it at least, fairly well – the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, and God’s response to the man and the woman – because we hear it as the first reading in our Advent and Christmas services of Lessons and Carols.  But we don’t follow it through to the end, where God condemns the man to hard agricultural labor – “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – and God expels them from the Garden.  And thus we are mortal.  We shall die.  (Just as God warned in the first place about the fruit of that tree.)  But we all know that.  We are mortal.  (Sometimes we try to find ways to deny it, but we know it.  We will die.)

(By the way, I trust that you understand that the Genesis creation stories are stories.  Brilliant stories.  Profound stories.  But not cosmological or anthropological history.  Those who insist that they are such are usually missing the point of the stories, much to God’s annoyance.)

And so we begin the Season of Lent with the Imposition of Ashes, “as a sign of our mortality and penitence.”

The thing is, isn’t this contrary to our Biblical doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul?

Well, actually, there is no Biblical doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul – at least not in the sense we are likely to mean it.  The ancient Israelites, like most peoples in the ancient world, thought that the shades of the dead descended into a dark realm of gloom that they called “Sheol” or “the Pit,” but that hardly qualified as “immortality.”  The best spin they could put on it was when they said of those who had died that they were “gathered to their people” or “slept with their ancestors.”  Many postexilic Jews apparently gave up even on that; what we see for example in the Book of Ecclesiastes and some of the later Psalms is an admission that when we die, “that’s all she wrote.”  This apparently was the attitude taken by the Sadducees at the time of Jesus.  But in later Hellenistic Judaism, especially from the time of the resistance and subsequent successful insurrection against the Greek/Syrian Empire, the hope that God would vindicate and raise his faithful servants from the dead at the end of the age became widespread among the Jewish people.  This was where the Pharisees were coming from.

And then of course for the first followers of Jesus, this hope became vividly explicit in the resurrection of their Lord.

But the resurrection of the dead is not the same thing, exactly, as the immortality of the soul.

[We do find in some strains of late Judaism a doctrine of immortality, for example in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, so called, one of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament.  Wisdom was written in Greek, probably about the time of Jesus himself, probably by a Jewish author in Alexandria who was influenced by Greek philosophy, for which the immortality of the human soul was pretty much a given.  (And that sneaked its way into subsequent Christian theology as well.)  But even the author of Wisdom did not go all the way with the Greeks on this:  for human beings, immortality is the fruit of virtue and faithfulness to the Lord, not inherent in human nature itself.]

In Christian theological terms, immortality is not a matter of nature but of grace.  Our bodies and our souls are not separate things.  We are psychosomatic unities.  Despite the language we sometimes use, we are not a duality of mortal bodies and immortal souls.  “Immortality of the soul” is not a default setting.  Eternal life is a gift from God.  And although we have no very good idea of exactly how this will work in the event, our faith and hope and trust is that in the end God will raise our whole selves to the fullness of God’s Kingdom. 

Which brings us back to what we are about today as we begin the season of Lent.  And so, if you will stand as you are able, let us continue with the service in the Prayer Book at the bottom of page 264.

Monday, December 25, 2017

24 December 2017 - 4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent  — 24 December 2017
Trinity – 7:45, 9:00 & 11:00 am

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  |  Psalm 89:1-4,19-26  |  Romans 16:25-27  |  Luke 1:26-38

As we approach Christmas, we are surrounded by many familiar artistic images – from copies of great paintings to simple line drawings.  Perhaps the most common is the manger scene of the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem.  Another common one is the three wise men.  Still another image common at this time is actually not of this time but of an event a day short of nine months ago (do the math), the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.  In the Church Year we celebrate this event every March 25, but on this Fourth Sunday of Advent this year we also read this in the Gospel today. 

So familiar a story, from Like’s Gospel, from paintings medieval, renaissance, baroque, romantic, modern, that I suspect we have forgotten what a very strange story this is, and what (I think!) is its most important point.

(I’m going to put the issue of the historicity of this story aside; historicity is an issue, but not for today.  Perhaps some other time.)

For all its familiarity, we may not always completely notice that the angel, God’s messenger (that’s what angelos means), is not delivering a divine command.  Gabriel is not a bailiff from the heavenly courthouse with a summons.  God is asking for Mary’s cooperation.  It is God’s purpose for the redemption of fallen humankind to become incarnate, to become enfleshed as a human being in the human world.  But that requires a human consent, because that’s how God does things.  God is not a puppetmaster. 

Mary could have said no.  Do we take that seriously?  Mary could have said “No.”  Maybe Mary wasn’t the first young woman whom God asked!  Maybe Gabriel had gone to Amber (let the reader understand), and Amber said “WHAT?”  Mary could have said, “You’re kidding, right?  Are you crazy?”  Remember, in the context of turn-of-the-era Galilee, what God is asking this young woman is a Really Big Deal.  (In fact, in any context to be the mother of the Incarnate Word of God is a Really Big Deal.)  We can well understand it if Mary had said, as I myself often do, “Don’ wanna, don’ gotta, ain’ gonna.”

But Mary didn’t.  Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary was not only holy, she was gutsy.  And she was willing to share in God’s plan of peace, justice, and healing.  “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,…for he has remembered his promise of mercy.”

You may recall the brief instance later in St. Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is teaching, and “a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But [Jesus] said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’”  [Luke 11:27-28]  Jesus is not changing the subject away from Mary his mother, but focusing our attention on the real reason Mary is blessed.  “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”

There are a lot of things to be learned from today’s Gospel reading.  One of the things that I’m not sure we always catch on to is what it says about who God is and how God deals with us and our world.  An important teaching in Christian (and other) theology is the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God.  And that’s true.  We believe that ultimately, God rules.  The problem with the way we often understand that, and I suggest we see it especially in the Calvinist tradition (although that’s unfair because we’re all guilty of it) is that we think that God is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe in the way that we would be Sovereign if we were Ruler of the Universe.  We all too often are control freaks.  We would love to be puppetmasters.  But God is not us.  And God is not a control freak.  God is not a puppetmaster.

God is love.  I hope we realize that I don’t mean that God is a warm fuzzy feeling.  (Indeed, God is very often not warm and fuzzy!)  But God is self-giving.  That is the very nature of God.  God’s own internal being is self-giving, and that underlies what we articulate as the doctrine of the Trinity (but I’m not going there today).  Externally, God’s self-giving expresses itself in creation.  God created the universe out of love, and love respects the freedom and the autonomy of the beloved.  Love does not control.  The 17th and 18th century Deist philosophers were not completely wrong:  God created the universe with a structure of what we call scientific laws, and God doesn’t fiddle around with them.  God lets them be.  God does not manipulate the world.  The universe is what it is and does what it does. 

(We now know what the Deists did not, that the laws of the universe do include a certain amount of chaos.  But I think that’s just part of the autonomy with which God endowed the universe.  Some modern theologians have suggested that chaos theory is how God can sneak in “miracle,” but I’m not at all comfortable with that.  It sounds too much like a reversion to the “God of the gaps” which too many religious people have used to avoid taking science seriously.  But I am digressing…)

The big mistake the Deists made was they thought that the Great Clockmaker of the Universe had just wound up his Creation to set it running and then walked away from it and is no longer involved with it.  Au contraire, say I.  Yes, God does not manipulate the physical workings of the universe; God’s actions in the world are not expressions of what in St. Thomas Aquinas’ scholastic philosophy would be called “efficient causality.”  God works in the world, and specifically among human beings, not by manipulation but by grace; grace, God’s own loving self-communication.  Grace empowers, but does not manipulate.  (Modern neoscholastic theologians speak of grace as “quasi-formal causality,” and thirty years ago I understood what that meant, but now I’m an old guy, and I forget!)

Here’s the point (finally!):  The Gospel reading today is about God’s grace.  God created the universe as an expression and as the object of the divine love, and God created us to be God’s stewards of this little corner of the universe.  But, as we say in one of our Eucharistic Prayers, “We turned against you, and betrayed your trust, and we turned against one another.”  So what does God do about that?  Does God manipulate us all to better serve God’s will?  Does God attach puppet strings to us so God can control us?  Does God take us down to the basement and put us on the workbench and disassemble us and change out a few parts and tighten our screws?  Does God remotely access us to upgrade our system?  No.  God’s purpose is to come among us, as one of us, to share God’s life and God’s love, to show us God’s love, to invite us into God’s love, to pay the price of love.  And so God asks us.  That’s how God works.  God offers the divine presence.  God offers grace.  In an obscure corner of the world, God visits a young peasant woman, and presents the divine plan, the divine hope.  And she says Yes.  “Let it be with me according to your word.”

That’s who God is.  That’s how God is.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

2 November 2017 -- All Souls' Day

All Souls’ Day  — 2 November 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm

Wisdom 3:1-9  |  Psalm 116:10-17  |  1 Corinthians 15:50-58  |  John 5:24-27

The celebration of the Communion of Saints – living and departed – in one form or another, at one time of year or another, goes back a very long way in the history of the Church, back into the early days.  In the New Testament, and in the earliest days of the Church, the “saints” – that is, God’s holy ones, God’s holy people – meant all faithful Christians, including you and me.  But over the years the celebration came to focus on the extraordinary saints, the heroes of the faith, especially the martyrs.  But we ordinary folks, and particularly our departed family and friends, seemed to get left out.  Except that we didn’t, really, because it has been a custom among peoples all over the world to have some annual celebration or remembrance of our dead ancestors.  

The Church, of course, developed and scheduled Holy Days to compete with and to absorb pre-Christian festivals – a classic example being the setting of the observance of the birth of Jesus – about whose actual birthday we have absolutely no idea at all – at the time of the celebration of the winter solstice.  And of course All Saints’ Day came to be observed in the medieval Western Church – apparently originally in Ireland – at the season in which departed family were remembered.  (For example, Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas.)  This settled into a three-day sequence, centering on All Saints’ Day (November 1), preceded by All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) and followed by All Souls’ Day, focusing on those “ordinary folks” who we had forgotten were also saints.  

Meanwhile, under the influence of some of the less healthy aspects of the theology of St. Augustine, the concern grew that since human beings are all rotten to the core and on our way in handbaskets to hell, All Souls’ Day became a day of moaning and whining, with black as the liturgical color and the chanting of the funeral hymn Dies irae (“Day of wrath, O day of mourning”), perhaps especially known through musical compositions by Mozart and Verdi, though Gabriel Fauré declined to set that text in his Requiem Mass.  All of this degenerated into a system of attempts to pray or buy Grandma’s soul out of purgatory, resulting ultimately in the sale of papal indulgences, which finally led the German priest Martin Luther to say “Enough!” and to challenge the whole corrupt system, five hundred years ago this past Tuesday.

Protestantism on the whole dumped the All Souls’ Day business, considering it irretrievable.  Some Reformed churches dumped All Saints’ Day as well.  Anglicans, naturally, waffled, at least until modern times.  But folk religion is not always wrong, and our desire to remember and pray for our departed family and friends has a legitimate place in our spirituality and worship.  Not because they need us to cajole God to let them through the pearly gates, but because we love them and therefore we pray for them.  And they, being with God, pray for us.

And so we celebrate All Souls’ Day today, now as an extension, as it were, of All Saints’ Day, so we can focus in our prayers and remembrance upon our own saints, our parish, our friends, and our families.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

9 July 2017 - Proper 9 / 5 Pentecost

Proper 9 / 5 Pentecost  — 9 July 2017

St. Peter’s, Bettendorf – 9:00 am

Track 1:  Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67  |  Psalm 45:11-18  |
  Romans 7:15-25a  |  Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

“To what will I compare this generation?”  [Matt. 11:16]

“To what will I compare this generation” indeed!  What a thoroughly contemporary sentiment!  Or, as perhaps we might say, reading the paper or watching TV news or checking the newsfeed on our computers or phones – as I do say! – “What is your problem?!  Just get over it!” 

As anyone knows, who has ever been in a position of leadership – in politics, or the church, or education, or business, or as a parent – no matter what you do, somebody is going to complain about it.  You can’t please everyone.  And sometimes it seems like you can’t please anyone.  Poor John the Baptist – he comes out of the desert a severe figure of strict asceticism, looking like a reminder of the great prophet Elijah, warning about, even threatening, the near coming of God’s Kingdom – and people whine about that.  Poor Jesus – he takes up a similar theme of God’s Kingdom, but he walks around the countryside and the lakeside, proclaiming a message of love and acceptance, visiting people in their villages and sharing meals with anyone who will eat with him, from Pharisees to outcasts – and people whine about that.  Just get over it! 

In the Gospel today we hear some of Jesus’ sayings which Matthew the Evangelist has strung together.  Not necessarily originally said by Jesus all at the same time.  Most of them come from a tradition of the sayings of Jesus, which the evangelist Luke also uses, but Luke often strings them together in a different way. 

Actually in today’s reading from Matthew 11 one of the sayings has been left out, as you may have noticed in the bulletin listing:  verses 20-24, in which Jesus reproaches the cities of Galilee.  I have no idea why the Lectionary Gnomes left out these verses; the Lectionary Gnomes do a lot of things I don’t understand.  But it doesn’t really make much difference.  If they had left these verses in, then I would feel a need to preach about them, and I’d rather not!  You can look them up when you get home.  Or not.  And that’s okay too.

Anyway, in the next section of today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus thanking his Father that the mysteries of God's Kingdom have been hidden from the wise but revealed to children.  I am reminded of St. Paul's reminder to the Corinthians [I.1:25], "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."  Our own standard operating assumption is that for Knowledge we have to consult the Experts.  (An Expert, of course, is anyone with an attaché case more than ten miles from home.)  (Maybe I shouldn't knock it; here I am sixty miles from home with a vestment bag!  I don’t know whether that counts!)  I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from serious Bible study, or the study of theology or church history or any of that stuff – quite the contrary! – but we do need to know that all that academic stuff is not a requirement for entry into the life of the Kingdom.  Jesus did not say “Study me,” he said “Follow me.”

Jesus goes on to say, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  This line has been referred to by New Testament scholars – the “wise and intelligent” folks from a couple of verses earlier! – as “the thunderbolt from the Johannine blue” – that is, it sure sounds a lot like St. John’s Gospel, and St. John’s Gospel is as we know pretty much sui generis, in literary style unlike the other three Gospels, and (probably) rather later in composition.  On the contrary, I am inclined to think that this fairly explicit claim by Jesus about his relationship with God the Father comes out of the sayings in the Jesus tradition from which the Gospels are compiled and composed.  John the Evangelist didn’t just make up stuff like this!

Jesus continues: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. [Y’all remember the “Comfortable Words”?]  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  “Learn from me” – but not “take a study course” but “Take my yoke upon you.”  But a yoke is a means of harnessing oneself or one's beast, to work; furthermore, Christ's yoke is the most demanding yoke possible, for it requires a total commitment to the mission of God's Kingdom.  And yet this burden is the one that liberates and truly refreshes and renews; as we pray day by day, "to serve you is perfect freedom."  “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Unlike the yokes and burdens of some religious (or other cultural) obligations, Christ’s yoke is a yoke of grace, and his burden a burden of love.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

25 June 2017 -- Proper 7 / 3 Pentecost

Proper 7 — 25 June 2017

Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 9:00, & 11:00

Track 2:  Jeremiah 20:7-13  |  Psalm 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20  | 
Romans 6:1b-11  |  Matthew 10:24-39

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [Matt 10:34]

There are still a few of us around who remember the little section of the Prayer Book Communion Service called “The Comfortable Words.”  That was the part that began, “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.”  The first of those sayings, you may recall – or not! – was from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

(Those were in the “old Prayer Book,” as opposed to the “new Prayer Book.”  But the “new” Prayer Book is forty-plus years old now, and the “old” Prayer Book that it replaced only lasted for about fifty years.  And the version of the Prayer Book before that only made it for a bit over thirty.  But I digress.)

Actually, these “Comfortable Words” are still in the current Prayer Book, in Rite One, but they are no longer called “The Comfortable Words”; now they are introduced with “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.”  (Page 332, if you’re getting bored, or haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, and want to look them up.)  But the “Comfortable Words” title goes back to the first English-language Book of Common Prayer, in 1549, four and a half centuries ago.  Do these verses from the New Testament make us feel comfortable?  Well, actually, I suppose they do, and that’s fine.  But probably not exactly what Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had in mind when he compiled the first English Prayer Book.  As you’re aware, words shift meaning over the centuries, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  The original meaning of “comfort” is not so much “make feel better” (the general modern meaning) as it is “strengthen.”  (The English word “com-fort” comes from Latin through French.  Check the OED!)  A related example is the still-in-some-use title “The Holy Comforter” for the Holy Spirit.  But the Spirit is not a warm fuzzy blanket, but a source of spiritual strength.  And what makes us strong may or may not make us feel good.  And very often not. 

And this, in case you were wondering, or may already have guessed, brings us to the Gospel reading today. 

There’s not much very “comfortable” (in the modern sense) about the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.  You possibly may have noticed that today’s reading, from St. Matthew, follows directly upon the Gospel reading last Sunday, which also wasn’t very comfortable.  You may recall Jesus’ words last week: “…You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”  [Matt 10:18,21-22a]

Well, it doesn’t get any better in today’s Gospel reading.  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’”  [Matthew 10:34-36; quoting Micah 7:6] 

Oh, that’s comfortable!

We should note that the part about “the man against his father” and so on is Jesus quoting the prophet Micah, where it is part of a prophecy of doom against Israel for her faithlessness.  Jesus’ disciples would presumably have recognized that, as would the Christians in Matthew’s community.  I’m not sure whether that’s very helpful for us, but it does mean that Jesus didn’t just make these words up on his own!  But it is still the case that Jesus is warning his disciples in his mission charge to them (which is what last Sunday’s Gospel reading and this Sunday’s is) that if they are faithful in proclaiming God’s Kingdom, they are not likely to be regarded as rock stars.  God’s faithful ones may very well end up in all kinds of worldly trouble, rejected, maybe persecuted, even unto death.  It was true for Jesus’ own disciples; it was true for Matthew’s community; it is true for us.  I think we need to take that seriously. 

No, it is not very likely in this country that faithful Christians will suffer overt persecution, although indifference and even scorn are likely to increase.  But there are many places in the world today where Christians are currently facing oppression and even death.  As was the case for the first three centuries of Christian history, at least on and off in the Roman Empire, and in other places for many centuries after that, up until and including our own time.

Jesus was not crucified because he went around saying things to make people comfortable (in the modern sense).  He certainly didn’t preach a “prosperity gospel.”  He said, “Follow me,” and we know, as he knew, where that would lead.  Yes, ultimately, resurrection; but first the cross.  As we hear St. Paul today, writing to the Christians at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  [Romans 6:3-4]

Jesus speaks to us to challenge us, to strengthen us, yes, even, ultimately, to comfort us.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  [Luke 12:32]  Last week we heard him assure us, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  [Matthew 10:22b]  He gave comfort – strength and assurance – to Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  [Showing 13]  And to his disciples, including us, Jesus says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:20]