“Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

shadow

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today. Continue reading

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“Helping those who have no helper”

helper“For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.”
—Psalm 72: 12

Psalm 72 begins “Give the king your justice, O God.” It implies that justice is a God-given matter, and though in our time we have no king, the seeking of justice remains one of the marks of authentic government. Continue reading

Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances: An Installation Sermon

Dire StraitsI am very glad to be here to celebrate with you the covenant between you and Mike as you begin your ministry here together. Today feels like a homecoming of sorts for me since I began my own ordained ministry 38 years ago, just an hour up the road from here in Northwest York County, Maine.

I was privileged to worship with you this morning, and inspired and humbled by the atmosphere of worship here in this congregation. As we like to say, “We had church today!”

I was also impressed and gratified to discern the obvious affection you already have for Mike and his family after just a few months in life together.

This afternoon I want to think aloud with you about what shape your ministry together might take in the years ahead. I was at a meeting with Mike about a month ago, and we all went around the room and introduced ourselves, and Mike introduced himself as the Pastor and Teacher of the First Parish Church in Dover, New Hampshire. Mike knows that I like that title better than senior minister, first of all because it has a nice old fashioned New England feel about it, but more importantly, it better defines the role of minister as I see it. And understanding the role properly will go far in Mike and you succeeding as pastor and people.

So let me say, first of all, what ministry is not. Ministry is not a commodity. Unfortunately, the search and call process does commodify ministry for both pastor and congregation, and perhaps it has to, but it is a very bad model for ministry.

The very term “installation” further confuses the matter. It occurs to me that the word installation sounds as if what we are doing this afternoon is plugging in a major appliance! And to add to the metaphor, a little later in this service Mike will get not one, but two charges. Let’s be playful with the image of installation for a minute.  I picture a giant cardboard box arriving at the front door. In my imagination the appliance store delivery guys look something like the cartoon characters on the old Dire Straits video, “Money for Nothing:” big burly guys in sleeveless T-shirts with visible tattoos, chomping on the butt-ends of cigars.  “Where do you want it?” they ask.  “How ’bout right over here by the outlet so it can get a charge. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?  much more efficient than the old one, and with many new features. Here’s the operating manual.  It comes with a one year warranty.”  Just about the time of your annual meeting. You get the idea!

I suggest that we regard that little flight of imagination as a cautionary tale for ministry. Because in contemporary America we tend to think of everything as a commodity, which then can be bought and sold. So it is a temptation for churches to think of their new minister as the new and improved model. And equally tempting for ministers to buy into that expectation. Who doesn’t like to be thought of as valuable and more worthy than others?

I caution you not accept that image. Mike is a gifted pastor, smart, well trained, well read, committed, personable and resourceful. But he is not a major appliance! It is precisely because of his vast talents, which make him especially vulnerable to being perceived, and perceiving himself, as a valuable ministerial commodity. And, like most temptations, there is just enough truth in it to give it appeal. For in fact, from a human point of view, Mike is a valuable ministerial commodity, in an age where both the supply and morale of talented clergy are low.

So how shall we think of the role of minister, of pastor and teacher?  In the Fourth Chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians he tells the church how to regard his ministry among them: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The word translated as “servant” here is peculiar to Paul in the New Testament, and, in the common tongue, it was the name given to slaves on a galley ship. I just saw the movie version of Les Miserables, and I picture the shackled convicts in the opening scene who are pulling a great ship into a slip to be like the galley slaves of Paul’s time. It is a harsh metaphor, or it would be except the master in this case is Jesus Christ.

The second of Paul’s images, and the one I want to focus on today is “steward.” We know this word from Stewardship Sunday, when we pledge our time, talent and treasure; or at least we do when we understand stewardship at its best and not at its worst as a dreary fund raising project.

A steward quite simply was a household servant, a sort of house manager, who looked after things for the master.

What’s Paul’s point in employing this humble job description? Paul was dealing with an early version of the cult of the preacher and the commodifying of ministry. That was the pagan way, as it still is. Preaching was all about skill in rhetoric, reading your audience, moving them, engaging them, entertaining them! And there was competition to see who did it best. So some liked Paul, some liked another itinerant preacher named Apollos, and some liked Cephas, which is just another name for Peter.

Paul rejects this cult of the preacher as unworthy of a Christian community. He himself, he writes them, “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God . . . in lofty words of wisdom.” No, he said,  “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1Corinthians 2:1,2)

The good steward doesn’t have to please the crowds, only the Lord, who will ask for an accounting when he comes “to bring to light the things now hidden in darkness.” (1 Corinthians 4:5) That is the only judgment that counts for the minister of God.

But what exactly is it to which the steward has been entrusted? “The mysteries of God.”  The NIV calls them “the secret things of God.” Here’s our first hint about the proper role for a pastor and teacher. As Mike and I know a minister can spend inordinate amounts of time in meetings, making plans, reviewing budgets, and managing all matter of things that none of us ever dreamed about or wanted when we received the call to ministry. So be it, it goes with the territory. These are duties of ministry, but not the role of minister, and it is dangerous to confuse duties with role.

The role of a pastor and teacher is to be a faithful house manager of the divine mysteries, a steward of the mysteries of God. And what are the mysteries of God?

Paul says that the divine mysteries are quite simply the Gospel, the good news of God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.

This good news tells us that whoever we are, whatever we have done, wherever we have been, wherever we are going, God’s love will not let us go. This love is as deep as the ocean, as fierce as the cross, as powerful as the resurrection, and as forever as time and beyond time.

The Good News about this love, Paul says, was once hidden but is now revealed by the Spirit, which is a good word for this Epiphany Sunday.

Let us think of the many glorious aspects of this Gospel as the secret things of God, secret in that they are not apparent to the eyes of the world, but only to the eyes of faith.

Now we are at the heart of the role. For it is the pastor and teacher’s responsibility to keep the eyes of the congregation on the horizon of eternity, rather than on the wearying preoccupations of the world. The steward of the mysteries reminds us again and again that the church is not our project, but God’s project. This is not easy. The cult of the preacher is easier and more fun. The cult of the preacher lets us assign success and blame depending how the numbers go. Every pastor is pleased when the numbers, members and money, look good, but the smart ones know they don’t control them. Unlike me, Mike with his economics background, actually understands numbers, and he’ll tend to that part of the job, but again that is a duty and not a role.

Too many clergy and congregations today are focused on the numbers, how much money and how many people. It’s a great temptation, and it can be deadly for a church because if the pastor is not a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God, then the congregation may get disconnected from the Gospel, and lose its way. It happens! And when it happens you may find yourself doggedly presiding over a frenetic activism that is all movement and no substance, what P.T. Forsyth once called the besetting sin of the church: “the sin of bustle.”

Too much of what passes for religion is not about what God is doing among us, but what we are doing ourselves. In this regard we have absorbed from the culture the misguided utopianism that thinks humans can control all things. The Czech dissident poet Vaclav Havel called modern utopianism

an arrogant attempt by human reason to plan life. But it is not possible to force life to conform to some abstract blueprint. Life is something unfathomable, ever-changing, mysterious, and every attempt to confine it within an artificial, abstract structure inevitably ends up homogenizing, regimenting, standardizing and destroying life, as well as curtailing everything that projects beyond, overflows or falls outside the abstract project. What is a concentration camp, after all, but an attempt by utopians to dispose of those elements which do not fit in.” (Interview in Times Literary Supplement)

A steward of the mysteries of God looks for height and depth as well as movement. What might that look like here in Dover?  Part of your role, Mike, is to keep the church in Dover a place where God’s story is not an ancient tale, but a present vibrant reality; a place to expect miracles, because the world is full of them for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. There are divine presences in every mundane transaction, and daily epiphanies around every corner. Keep that sense alive here. Gerard Manley Hopkins was right when he wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

A steward of the mysteries of God believes that all things are possible when God is involved, and helps others to believe it too. And when people believe God’s Spirit and power are among them, who knows what might happen?  Do you remember Thomas Merton’s comment about a Shaker chair?  “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” (From the Introduction to Religion in Wood by Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, 1966.)

The other piece of the role of pastor and teacher is the context: the congregation and its life together. Mike is gifted in this regard with a great deal of personal authenticity, warmth and humanity.

Are there any homiletic teachers in the congregation today? No, good, because I want to break a rule? Oh, what do I care, I am retired!? So I’m going to be personal and confessional and say that I met Mike about ten years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life, as I was struggling with the challenges of a new disability. Mike’s response to me was so empathic and tender without being in any way condescending. No one has been a better friend to me these last years, no one, and you are and will be blessed to have him as your pastor.

Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and become your pastor. Gardner Taylor continues:

Now you may tickle people’s fancies, but you will never preach to their hearts, until at some place, some solemn appointment has fallen upon your own life, and you have wept bitter tears, and gone to your own Gethsemene and climbed your own Calvary.  That is where power is.’  The power of preaching is “not in the tone of voice.  It is not in the eloquence of the preacher.  It is not in the gracefulness of the gestures. It is not in the magnificence of the congregation. It is in a heart broken, and put together by the eternal God.

In conclusion, despite the fact that we are “installing” him today your new pastor and teacher is not a major appliance, neither is he a ministerial commodity, nor a quick fix or a paid Christian so everybody else doesn’t have to be one. No, Michael Steven Bennett is a minister of Christ’s church, a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s mysteries.

Mike, if you accept that role you will find that it will be shaped by the cross more that by the judgments and expectations of people. But the only judgment that really matters is the one whose ministry it is anyway. Those who remember their identity and their role as steward, who anticipate the return of the master, look forward to hearing the master’s praise: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord.” Amen.

(I preached this sermon at the installation of Michael Steven Bennett as Pastor and Teacher of the First Parish Church (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire on Epiphany Sunday, 2013.

“The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed:” A Homily for Epiphany

 

When I was a small boy I thought that if you were able to go back in time to meet Jesus and the apostles they would have had visible haloes around them, as they did in the pictures I saw in books.  I later learned that this was an artist’s depiction of something called “glory.”

Glory meant a person’s honor and reputation. The glory of the Lord was understood to be visible, a kind of radiance that surrounded God and was reflected in God’s messengers the angels, and even in those who came close to God, so for example Moses was surrounded by a glow when he came down from Mt. Sinai.  Jesus himself is referred to as the glory of God as in the verse from Hebrews where it says that, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)

But there is more to glory than the visible; glory is a power that makes things happen.  In John’s Gospel glory means both the “radiant brightness” of God and the “powerful activity” of God.  So how do the disciples see Jesus’ glory in the miracle at Cana and come to believe in him?

In John’s Gospel we see a distinct pattern in which Jesus shows by actions and words that he is the fulfillment and replacement of Jewish institutions and views. So now Jesus is the real Temple; the Spirit he gives will replace the necessity of worshipping at Jerusalem; his teaching and his flesh and blood will give life in a way that the manna associated with the Exodus did not; at the Feast of Tabernacles, no longer the rain–making ceremony but Jesus himself supplies the living water; not the illumination in the temple court but Jesus himself is now the real light; on the Feast of the Dedication, not the temple altar but Jesus himself is consecrated by God.” (See Raymond F. Brown, John, p 104)

In each of these cases, Jesus himself replaces the former practices.  And not only replaces them in an adequate manner but in an abundant manner.  But what about the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle, one of the three traditional Epiphany events (along with the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus)?  What institution is Jesus replacing in the miracle of turning the water into wine?  Recall that the water that Jesus turned into the finest wine was there for the purification rites.  The miracle is a sign of that Jesus is the one sent by the Father who is now the only way to the Father.  Not just the purification rites but all previous religious institutions, customs and feasts lose their meaning in Jesus’ presence.

The disciples would have recognized some of the rich symbolism in the episode.  First of all, it was a wedding, which in the Old Testament was often used as a symbol of the messianic days. And Jesus himself frequently used both the wedding and the banquet to talk about himself and the kingdom of God.  Indeed, Jesus often spoke of himself as “the bridegroom.”

The disciples would have had understood the miracle of the wine as a sign of the end time, for the Old Testament employed the figure of abundant wine as a symbol of the final days. We see this in Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah.  And in Second Baruch we find a lavish description of this abundance: the earth shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold; each vine shall have a thousand branches; each branch a thousand clusters; and each grape about 120 gallons of wine. It is an oenophile’s idea of heaven.

The disciples then would have seen this miracle as a sign of the messianic times and the new dispensation.  The disciples knew that when the messiah came, he would reveal his glory.  They would have been well-acquainted with verses such as Psalm 102:16 which says, “For the Lord will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory” and Psalm 97:6 which says, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the people’s behold his glory.”

But John is not only interested in our seeing that Jesus’ first miracle is to be connected to all that will follow; he also wants us to see how it relates to what has come before, chiefly the calling of the disciples and their decision to follow Jesus.  After all, the reason that Jesus’ glory is revealed is that people may believe in him, that they“ may have life and have it in abundance.”

In the previous chapter in John before the story of Cana, two of John the Baptist’s disciples heard John say of Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God” and they followed him.  And in the story of the calling of Nathanial, Jesus promises Nathanial “You will see greater things than these.”

I think John’s Gospel is particularly helpful to us who live in a time of widespread disbelief, because for John, “seeing” Christ’s glory is by no means a universal event.  John gives us an interesting cast of characters who have trouble with believing: Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes by night to interview Jesus, the woman at the well, Thomas the empiricist who wants evidence before he will believe, and Mary Magdalene, so caught up in her own grief that she mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener.  These are people like us, men and women for whom belief comes hard.  So in John’s Gospel many people do not see, and even in this story the miracle is not a public event, so that the wine steward clearly regards the miracle as the bridegroom’s social ignorance in serving the good wine after the inferior stuff.

In Luke’s Gospel, which so dominates the Christmas season, the shepherds see the glory of the Lord shining round the angels.  The other evangelists report various transfigurations, glimpses of the divine glory in Jesus before the resurrection, an elevation of Jesus into some heavenly mode of being.  But in John we can only see the glory with the eyes of faith for now.  And why is that?

Because John takes the Incarnation so seriously that the veil of the glory is never removed, and the divine glory of Jesus is never seen except by the eyes of faith.  The direct view of Jesus divine glory, that is, his heavenly brightness, is reserved for the future, to the time when the believer will be there where Jesus has gone before.

Which reminds us that we walk by faith and not by sight, and even Jesus’ glory, so often defined as visible radiance, is seen only by the eyes of faith.   Someday the glory will be visible to all, so much so that it will be the new light which will replace the heavenly lights of sun and moon in the city of God.  So St. John the Divine says:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day —and there will be no night there.  People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Rev. 21:23–26)

That’s pretty glorious. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to miss it! Amen.

(I delivered this homily at the closing Service  of Word and Sacrament for the annual meeting of Confessing Christ in the United Church of Christ, held at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on January 8, 1998)

“They sought him by a star:” A Hymn for Epiphany

They sought him by a star

They sought him by a star
they followed from the East.
We know him in his Word
and eucharistic feast.
For those who look to him for bread
will find their souls are daily fed.

The nations need his light
against the darkened hour.
Their hate and fear and might
betray his gentle power.
But those who seek by word and deed
will find he meets them in their need.

We walk on paths unknown
through days of doubt and fear.
We face each day and frown,
we struggle each new year.
But those who follow in his way
will find his light for each new day.

And when he comes at last
his glory will shine forth.
The world that moved so fast
will stop to mark his worth.
And finally see the great “I Am”
and join the Supper of the Lamb.

© 2001 Richard L. Floyd

Suggested tune: Darwall’s 148th.

(Photo: R. L. Floyd, “Wise Men from Ecuadorian Creche”)