Sermons From St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Sermon for The Last Sunday After Pentecost, November 22, 2020 150 150 johnpaddock

Sermon for The Last Sunday After Pentecost, November 22, 2020

Always Aim for the Center

This is Christ the King Sunday. Actually, that title is a designation that was adopted in the 1925 by Pope Pious XI.  The Episcopal name for today is The Last Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost. But since the collect for today refers to Christ as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, and this morning’s Gospel refers to the Son of Man sitting upon his heavenly throne—It’s been very easy to adopt the Roman Catholic term. 

The Good Friday image, of course, has Jesus wearing a crown—it’s made not of jewels and gold, but of thorns. His kingly robes are stripped from him and he reigns from a throne of wood in the shape of a cross. And on the cross is a sign naming him “King of the Jews”.

But the title of “King” still rankles in our context with its suggestion of royalty and wealth, earthly power and empire. It even spills over into our liturgical life where our bishops wear the trappings of royalty with their purple shirts, copes, and miters. 

Libby Howe, a pastor in our partner denomination, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recently wrote the following: 

At least in the United States, Christ the King has become a triumphalist and militaristic image of Ameri-canity bearing no resemblance to the ethic of compassion envisioned in Matthew 25. Because of this perversion, I along with other church leaders, grumble about Christ the King Sunday every year. Can we just not do Christ the King Sunday? Can we skip over the Sunday where we feel compelled to proclaim Jesus as king but use our theological scalpels to detach him from everything associated with kingship and consumer culture like wealth, conquest, victory, supremacy, and nationalism? The grumbling about Christ the King Sunday has become as much a part of the script as the holiday itself, not unlike the annual Feast of Complaining about Commercialization that accompanies Christmas. You know, right before we all go out and buy stuff.” Howe then goes on “to imagine Christ the King Sunday as Christ the Center Sunday.”[1]

Now that’s an intriguing idea. It is immediately stripped of thoughts of hierarchy and power, and it focuses us on what should really be the center, the heart of it all. Another writer, Audrey West, who teaches New Testament at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, shares this story of a short video about archery. 

It begins with a young man gently tossing a six-inch wooden disk into the air above his head. Seconds later an arrow speeds its way into the face of the disk, fracturing the wood into pieces that scatter on the ground beside the man’s feet. A high-speed camera, replayed in slow motion, captures the arrow’s impact nearly dead center in the disk. 

The next target is a two-and-a-half-inch plastic ball. Again, the arrow launches toward its target and hits it nearly on center. Whether viewed in real time or in slow motion, the evidence is clear.

The archer’s arrow flies three more times, each time into an ever-smaller target, a golf ball, then Life Saver candy, and finally an aspirin tablet. In each case the arrow goes straight to the mark, even when the target is not larger than the diameter of the arrow itself. 

When the show’s host asks how it’s possible to shoot an arrow so accurately using a handmade bow, especially when the target seems so small, the archer replies, “The center of an aspirin is exactly the same size as the center of a beach ball. Always aim for the center.[2]

Christ as the center of our lives: our worship, our prayers, our work, our play. Christ the center. 

I was thinking about this parable of the sheep and goats. What’s striking about them is that neither the sheep nor the goats were aware of what they were doing or not doing that would earn them eternal life with God. Both groups asked, “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison?” 

The difference between the sheep and the goats was that the sheep were focused on doing right and caring for others—especially the weak and the poor and the vulnerable. They had the same values as Jesus. Like a laser they are those who are centered on the love of neighbor. And in this parable Jesus is saying that loving and caring for the neighbor is the same as loving God and God’s Son. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So here we are today, marking the end the Church year, and poised to begin a new one next week on the First Sunday of Advent. The year ending has been one of great difficulty, struggle, and grief. The year to come promises to be similar—at least until late spring or summer—in terms of the Pandemic. We’re hopeful that there will be vaccines and treatments that will be broadly available by mid-year. But both years—and all years are years of the Lord—time marked with Christ at the center . . . at the center of our devotion, the center of our ethics, the center of our behavior. 

One of my favorite hymns is St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and my favorite verse goes like this:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Always aim for the center.


[1] Christian Century, November 4, 2020: Reflections on the Lectionary p. 23

[2] Christian Century, October 7, 2020: Reflections on the Lectionary p. 21

Exodus: Walking in the Wilderness 150 150 johnpaddock

Exodus: Walking in the Wilderness

Today, we begin a nine-week series of lectionary selections from The Book of Exodus

Exodus is about the birth of the nation of Israel. Gilgamesh in Babylon, and Romulus and Remus in Rome are examples of the foundation stories in other societies. In Genesis we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and a host of others who represented the matriarchs and patriarchs, the ancestral tribes. In Exodus we witness the formation of a national identity as the tribes escape from Egypt, wander in the Wilderness, begin to formulate laws and worship practices that will define them as a people. In fact, the rest of the Torah and the books that follow in the Hebrew Scriptures are a continuation of these same themes that arise in Exodus. 

The great prophets of Israel continually refer back to the Exodus period as the time when the essentials of Israel’s identity emerged—not unlike the ways that some people in our land refer back to the founders to find clarity about American identity and mission…Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and so on. 

The Book of Genesis ended with Jacob’s son Joseph serving as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, administrator of Egypt’s vast food stores that had been put aside against a coming famine. The famine began and Joseph brought his extended family from Palestine to Egypt where they were shielded from starvation.

Exodus begins when, we’re told, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Actually, it was at least several hundred years later, and a new and different dynasty of Pharaohs had arisen. Over those centuries the Hebrews had flourished and multiplied. 

The new king was afraid of this large number of foreigners in his land. So he “set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor to build supply cities for Pharaoh. But they continued to flourish and multiply, “so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” They became ruthless, imposing more and more harsh labor and tasks. 

Finally “the King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him . . . .’” But the midwives refused and they lied to Pharaoh with a tale about how the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they gave birth before the midwives could arrive.

Then came the directive to the Egyptians that they throw all the male Hebrew children into the Nile to be drowned. Of course, this sets up the story of the birth of Moses and how he survived with the connivance of his mother, sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter.

These stories were so formative and powerful for the Jewish people that when more than a millennium later a young woman gave birth in the little town of Bethlehem, some early Jewish Christians told the story against the backdrop of Exodus: a child was born to be God’s anointed. When the evil king Herod heard the news, he tried to kill him by ordering the deaths of all the young male children. The baby Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, fled into Egypt, only to return some years later after Herod’s death. So the new Moses also came up out of Egypt. Moses the lawgiver on the mountain of Sinai; Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, reinterpreted the law. Exodus becomes a template which we can lay alongside subsequent experience in order to discover its meaning. 

In our Exodus passage this morning, please note that the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are named. Pharaoh, the powerful king of all Egypt, is not. 

John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, wrote the following in his commentary on this passage:

Telling us the midwives’ names makes them real people; not just anonymous functionaries. They are people who revere God. Exodus knows them by name; we know them by name; God knows them by name. We’ll later discover the names of Moses’ parents and his sister. They’re real people. It is less important for the representatives of the Egyptian court to be so. Not naming them suggests that they are subordinate to the story. . . . The Scriptures have a different scale of values; it’s not Pharaoh and his daughter who count. Pharaoh is someone the newspapers think is important and powerful, yet he can be defeated by three or four women.[1]

We have all observed in recent decades, that the role and place of mainline religion and institutions have diminished in our society. New kings, new values have emerged, that don’t know the old ways. There are a plethora of new spiritual associations. The rise of social media have provided millions with virtual friendships and community that were once experienced in neighborhood faith communities. For some, the reaction has been a tighter grasp on what they call the fundamentals. Fundamentalisms have emerged in almost all of the world religions.

Others have simply left their faith traditions and communities. Some have called them the “nones”—n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s—the box they check when surveyed about their religious preferences; or what Bishop Spong has called “the Church alumni association.” 

Still others, like you and me, are wrestling with questions about how to go forward when the landscape has changed. What do we do in this new environment? We’ve left the settled ways—as difficult as they might have been in Egypt. Now we wander in an unknown wilderness without familiar landmarks or maps. Is there a Promised Land in our future? What is it and what will it look like? How do we live in the meantime? These are the questions of Exodus. 

So I invite you to walk this Exodus journey with our ancestors in faith, seeking their wisdom, their insight, and the light of God. They eventually left Egypt where they were enslaved and walked into an unknown future. They walked that way, some resisting, others trusting, but everyone uncertain. May we continue to walk this way together.

In the name of God: our Creator, Redeemer, and Guide. Amen.

[1] Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, John Goldingay, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2010, p. 10

Prayer for a Pandemic 150 150 johnpaddock

Prayer for a Pandemic

Prayer for a Pandemic, by Cameron Bellm
May we who are merely inconvenienced
     Remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
     Remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home
     Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.

May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close
     Remember those who have no options.

May we who have to cancel our trips
     Remember those that have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market
     Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home
     Remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country,
     let us choose love.
During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,
     Let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.

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