The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 25, Year A
October 25, 2020
Listen to me. Listen to me.
We called him the big Mahaph. I am not sure why, but he was a large man with a large voice and plenty of passion. He was my best friend, James’s father. The Big Mahaph was a pediatric research doctor and professor at the Medical College of Georgia. He rose through the ranks of medical school, residency, and fellowships treating complicated cases. Trauma was a constant in his work.
I spent a lot of time at James’s house, especially on college breaks. And whenever we would leave to go to the road trip, go out on the town, go play golf, or just go to the store, the Big Mahaph would chase after us saying: “Listen to me. Listen to me.” And then he would tell us how careful we needed to be, regaling us with a trauma story. He had stories about how kids got hurt in every way imaginable, and he did not spare us the gory details. One time, when we were going to get some school supplies, he told us about a kid who fell down at school and stabbed a pencil through his hand. For Christmas that year, James and I got him 100 pencils with the words “Listen to me! Listen to me!” printed on them.
While we knew they were coming, we always stopped and listened to the Big Mahaph’s cautionary tales. It was best not to try to sneak off or get away. He would just chase after us. If we laughed, he would lengthen the story. And in the end, he would say “Listen to me. Listen to me, because I love you.”
Listen. Listen. As a culture, we are not all that good at listening. Listening is an art that requires intentionality. There is plenty of talking going on out there. Technology has brought more talking to our ears than ever. News noise is particularly loud right now, and rather than listening for deeper understanding, we are delivered the news noise that marketing algorithms determine what we want to hear. Thus, we are hearing, but not really listening.
The gospel we hear today takes us back to Jesus in the Temple where there is a lot pf talking going on. He is being grilled and tested yet again. “Which commandment is the greatest.” This is a popular intellectual parlor game for the Pharisees. They have extrapolated the law to include 613 particular commands and argue endlessly about each of them. There are a thousand things Jesus could say. Where will his plant his flag?
Rather play the game and argue for one particular rule or regulation, he says speaks the content of their most sacred prayer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (and) You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” They know this as the Shema. It is the prayer they speak to their loved ones as they rise and before they sleep. Once again, Jesus does not answer their question directly, going, instead, for a deeper and most fulsome response. But there is a statement buried in this answer too. The know the Shema by heart, and the Shema is so named for the first word of the prayer, the first word of the command, and the centering utterance of the statement. Shema means listen and hear.
There has been so much noise around Jesus. Noise from the Romans who see him and his followers as a rebellious threat. Noise from the religious elites who see him as a threat to their authority, purity, and control. Even Jesus’ disciples make noise, jockeying for position, seeking a place in the plan, and hoping they will gain special blessings and powers. But Jesus stops them all dead in their tracks. Shema. Yes. Listen. Hear.
This was a perfect revelation for those around Jesus. He calls them back to the heart of who he is, who God is, and who we are for ourselves and one another. This is a perfect revelation for us right now. With the world spinning at a maddening pace in its polarities and politicization of everything, Jesus helps us get above and beyond our wallowing in details and points us to the heart of faith.
There is so much of God in the world for us to hear. The natural rhythms of winds in the trees, the rustling of leaves, and even the falling acorns. There is running water and crashing waves. There are the squeals of children and deep belly laughter. There are cries of pain and joy. If we listen beyond the noise, the world is so alive with God that we cannot help but see and love God with all of it: heart, mind, soul and strength. And if God gives us all of this, we must love us too, because we are awash in God.
The great theologian and author, Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
After this, they stop asking Jesus questions. If they want to know who God is, they can see Jesus right in front of them. Even as they send him to the cross, he will not give up on them. The time for talking is over. The command to listen is dropped like a pebble in still water, rippling out for all to see.
Above all of the noise, the fear, the anger, the blame, and trauma of what we do to one another, Jesus calls us home. Listen to me, he says. Listen to me, because I love you. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 24, Year A
October 18, 2020
Whose face is on the money? Of course, that depends which coin or bill. But whose face is on the standard of unit of our money? That would be George Washington. I had to think about it for a minute. Funny how we chase it relentlessly, create particular vessels to hold it, take serious measures to protect it but almost never keep it as cash, at least not for long.
It is worth reading a dollar bill now and again. It is a Federal Reserve Note, printed at one of two facilities and then issued at one of the Reserve’s banks. It is six inches long, given a specific serial number, covered with symbols and imagery including the statement that “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private,” and the words “in God we trust.” Each note is particular and specialized in its printing so it is nearly impossible to counterfeit.
Each bill of succeeding denominations has a similar, but particular design, and a different face. It is a big honor to make it on the money. That is true not only in our nation, but around the world. We love good old George Washington: the honest and brave general of the American Revolution, father of our country, first president, and all that. It makes sense that he makes it on the primary unit of American money.
Of course, we do not believe George Washington, or any other of our national leaders to be holy, righteous, and blameless all of the time – certainly not to be divine. There have been a number recent kerfuffles lately as to the beliefs and actions of those whom history has tended to lionize. Some of that is warranted. Some of that has become a purity test that no one could pass, if we are honest. Even Mother Theresa had her hot-tempered moments. Many have passionate views on the subject, and that is not what this is about. What it is about is that we take money seriously and the images we engrave on it makes a statement of importance.
When Jesus is in the Temple, he is asked about money directly. It comes in the form of a gotcha question about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the occupying emperor. The Herodians and the Pharisees, who are not even friends, get together to try and trap Jesus in either religious heresy or Roman rebellion. They start out with lavish compliments about his credentials, acting as if they are friends and admirers. They are neither, and Jesus knows it. The controversy is about the money itself and the practice of paying taxes. The Pharisees do not wish to support Rome. They believe taxes should be paid to the temple. The Herodians support Rome and comply with their taxation.
Jesus asks them to produce a denarius. A denarius is standard monetary unit for Rome. Someone produces one for him and he asks whose picture is on it. He uses the word icon – a word we used to use for an image that points beyond itself as a window into deeper truth. Nowadays, an icon has become a little image upon which we click to get into a computer application, program, or file.
The icon, they say, is of Emperor Tiberius. Further, the inscription calls him the son of Divine Augustus, which is quite a claim. Everyone gasps. It is not kosher even to have such a graven image in the Temple, so Jesus is on dangerous ground. But then he diffuses the whole thing, saying, “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what is God’s.”
Jesus is not talking about the separation of church and state and some have opined. He is talking about the reality of all creation. Nobody asked what is the emperor’s and what is God’s because that answer is really self-evident. Everything is God’s creation, thus everything is God’s. Our lives are a pass through. We bring nothing in, and we take nothing out.
Even so, money is a very real symbol for us and it is really important to us. Almost every culture and civilization has developed money of some kind. Jesus never says that money does not matter. If fact, he says quite the opposite. Even his little community of followers keeps a purse to feed and clothe themselves. But Jesus tells us is that money itself is an icon, a symbol pointing to something beyond itself to a deeper truth. It may not be able to buy me love as the Beatles remind us, but money does give us choices, and the power to make choices. We work for that power, we esteem that power, and yes, in this critical season, we vote according to what we believe about the part we play in directing that power.
Far from trying to take us to some pie in the sky utopian world without money, Jesus gets down in it with us. He knows that we think about and contend with money as a matter of human interaction and survival. Most likely, we think and worry about money as much as anything else. And if we are honest, one of our biggest concerns is if there will be enough: enough to provide for our families, enough for education, enough for retirement, enough to have choices about where we live, what we do, and where we are able to go.
Jesus comes to it from a different angle. Over and over he points to the earth and all that is in it as God’s. He sees this life as only a part of larger life. He preaches and teaches and shows abundance in love, mercy, and forgiveness. Not only do we have enough, we are enough and we are filled with possibility for being God’s hands, feet, and heart for this world. Money, then, is a tool and a symbol of how and where we choose to thrive. What we do with it tells us who we are, and what we value. When we work out of abundance and not scarcity, we chase away the worry and welcome the opportunity. That is easy to say and hard to do. It is a spiritual challenge.
Seasonally, this is stewardship time in the Church. We are all crafting a budgets for 2021. I am suspicious – no, I am sure -- that the lectionary committee, the people who plan and select the thematic readings for each Sunday, plant this lesson here to help out the cause. In reality, stewardship is not a season but an everyday practice of taking what we are given, everything we are given, and using it to value what matters to us. Given our history and practice, you all really value Emmanuel and our work as the local Jesus Movement. The place, the people, the hopes and dreams of God we encounter here really matter to us. As we do the right things, money will follow. There will be opportunities in this season to think, pray, and make a commitment.
One of the devotionals I read offered me this, a great reflection on this lesson:
“Where is God’s impression in the coinage of my daily life?” It is a lovely question and it cuts to the heart of how and what we give in this life. If we are there, thinking, praying, and acting as God’s beloved vessels, no matter what, we are on the money. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 23, Year A
October 11, 2020
Four years ago, a series came out on NBC called “The Good Place.” It featured some A list actors and garnered critical praise. The show was based in the afterlife, where people who had achieved a high-level moral score in their mortal life got to live in a utopian “Good Place,” presumably, heaven. It is a nice enough and all of the people are just lovely, if not a little bland. Others, we are told, are consigned to the “Bad Place,” about which we learn very little. The whole plot takes a turn when the main protagonist and her only friend in the “Good Place” begin to believe that they have slipped through by mistake. Both of them are not all that nice and they find the rest of the people there really boring, too good, and uninteresting. The head “Good Place” guy senses her discomfort, denies that there could have been an error, and assigns them moral coaches to help their experience.
Eventually, the main characters discover that really, they are in the “Bad Place” and they have been thrust into a fake “Good Place” as punishment and reproof, and the so-called moral coaches are really punishing demons After that, I confess that I tuned out. It was a good idea, but it ran its course. I did learn that in the final season, they were given the chance to return to their earthly life. Their memories of the afterlife were erased, and they are given a chance for an earthly do over. Then, the show was cancelled. Probably, that was best.
Good places and bad places are front and center in all of our lessons for today. In Exodus, we hear of the whole golden calf caper in which the people, fearing that Moses has left them, and God has abandoned them, revert to some old pagan ways, melting down their gold and crafting an image of a god that they can worship as a thing, requiring no real relationship or commitment. In a frenzy, they forgot all that had been done for them, lost faith, and took themselves to a bad place. In the Ten Commandments movie, that scene was scandalously reviewed as lewd and provocatively costumed. It was a crude caricature of hedonistic pleasure seeking that did not end well. The people looked silly. It could have ended poorly, but God had mercy on their foolishness, and got them back on track. It is cautionary tale for us to remember the God’s blessing even when we feel lost or confused.
Matthew’s gospel offers yet another perplexing parable in which a king throws a wedding feast and the guests cannot be bothered to accept his largess. After exacting a violent revenge, the king then sends his servants out into the streets to gather whoever is there to be his celebratory guests. One poor soul, apparently clueless, turns up without the proper attire, and he is summarily thrown out into the outer darkness. Then we get the stern line that “many are called, but few are chosen.” It identifies the bad place as outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. If you have ever perseverated in the night and ground your teeth, you get the picture. It is a hell of our own making.
Far from a complete metaphor for God’s grace, the parable introduces the themes of judgement and exclusion from the God’s kingdom. It is meant as a swipe at the religious elites. It is a scandalous exposé. It might leave us wondering and nervous about how we are clothed and whether we are destined for the “Good Place” at all. Fortunately, that is not the end of the story, but the parable leaves us hanging. It is not a bad idea to consider our role in owning God’s goodness and love, even if our destiny is not all up to us.
The ideas heaven and hell are so various and so laden with human contrivances that it is really hard to accept or understand how or why a God of love would set us up to fail. We are left wondering about the calculus of salvation but, looking deeply at the whole of the story, it seems that the bad places are places of our own creation. As we build and adhere to structures of materialism, envy, avarice, exclusion, and separation, we establish hellish ways doing life. Cutting ourselves off from grace, love, forgiveness, and community, we attempt to go it all alone: us against them, might as right, and above all, me first, we get lost and more alone than ever.
I almost wish we could have read from Paul’s letter to the Philippians after the difficult Gospel. In the midst of our confusion and wonder, Paul sends a love letter of encouragement. Certainly, if St. Paul had a greatest hits album, these verses would be on it:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
He offers a guide to living in a good place. Instead of seeing the Kingdom of God as something to be realized in the future, he offers a way to be kingdom people in the here and now. It is a tall order to rejoice always, not to worry, and to live in constant prayer, but the last line offers a peace which is pure grace. He asks us to practice the presence of God rather than waiting for some future reckoning. The good place is breaking in, here, now.
He goes on: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Notice that he says the God of peace will be with you, not might be with you. The truth is that we can see good and bad places in our lives, in our world, and we can speculate and worry if we so choose. We are plenty capable of consigning ourselves to bad places.
Ultimately, living our faith is not about us attaining or reaching the “Good Place” where everything is perfect. The future is all in God‘s hands. Ultimately, living our faith is about positioning, listening, and believing that we are always in God’s good hands, and that is a really good place to be. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 22, Year A
October 4, 2020
When we moved into our house a little over a year ago, our master bath came equipped with one of those special kind of mirrors that pulls out from the wall and gives you a really magnified view of your face. I have never been one to stare at myself in the mirror. I give it glance as I brush my teeth and hair, but that is about it. But this special mirror captured me - and scared me a little. It is like being at the fun house at a carnival. While the image is not distorted, it is so magnified beyond what I can see in a regular mirror. Wrinkles are like canyons. Pores are look like moon craters. Eyebrows look like strands of pasta. I prefer to see myself at a safe distance, so I do not use that mirror on my side of the vanity.
Even so, the close-up mirror has proven useful. Looking at a spot on my nose, I decided it needed to be seen by someone who knows about skin, and sure enough it was cancerous and had to be removed. Now, I can find my little scar in that close-up mirror, and admire the handiwork of a skilled surgeon. It is a visible receipt of good health insurance.
Perhaps you can see where this is going. Pun intended. The whole progression of today’s lessons is meant to give us a clear look at ourselves in relationship with God. The ten commandments, as presented give us law to follow: a clue of basic behavior standards from being in community with God and one another. If you have seen the movie, you may remember Charlton Heston as Moses, and coming down from Sinai with a super red face, and wigged out hair as representation of him having seen God.
St. Paul’s letter to the faithful in Philippi reminds them of the law but tells them that knowing and following Jesus is deeper and more life giving than external actions. It is not about having the right pedigree, the right denominational affiliation, or the right political affiliation. Instead of establishing credentials, he encourages them, and us, to go deeper, to make a leap of faith that moves us from intellectual or practical assent, to full fledged lose-yourself-in-it relationship with God in the person and work of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus tells a parable. The story is like a complete review of the history of people in relationship to God. The landowner plants a vineyard. He knows what he is doing. He fences it in, sets it up to make wine, and builds a little look-out tower so folks could see the whole thing in all its glory. This is creation: the earth and all that is in it. And it is a marvelous, nourishing, and sustaining creation.
Then the landowner (God) leaves it in the hands of tenants to care for it and help it thrive and produce good stuff. When the time comes for the landowner to enjoy the benefits of his good design and fruitful harvest, he sends his people to collect the bounty. Much to his chagrin, the tenants beat up one guy, kill the next guy, and stone the last guy. Seeing their disrespect for what they have been given and their refusal to honor the one that gave them the place to tend in the first place, he sends his own son to straighten them out. But the tenants still refuse to do the right thing. The throw the son out of creation and kill him.
Remember that Jesus is in the Temple and he is speaking to the Pharisees. Pharisees are the religious leaders, scholars, and uptight score keepers. Jesus asks them what that landowner should do, and their response is sharp and direct. An eye for an eye. The landowner should kill them and get some honest folks to do his work.
Then comes the twist. Jesus points them past their notion some sort of redemptive violence. Instead of all that, he holds up the mirror, tells them that they are the wicked tenants. He tells them that the Kingdom of God will be given to folks who embrace the one they reject – Him. Instead of giving them what they deserve, he tells them that what is deeper than all of their laws and competitive piety is a loving and fruitful relationship with God.
Naturally, they are upset. Jesus challenges their self-styled superiority, opening the door for them folks to drop their preconceived notions, break up their exclusive club, and get right with the generous and loving One who includes, accepts, and welcomes all comers. Rotten Pharisees, boy, does Jesus expose them for who they are.
Not so fast. A parable is a picture. Like any picture we are given, we must look for where we are in the scene. How do we look? Are we busted for assuming that we have everything right? Are we busted for thinking of creation as something we possess? Are we really going to labor under the assumption that we have what we have because we earned it? Creation is given. Whatever we make of it, we make out of what we have been given. Even the scientific record affirms that out of nothing, everything came into being. It is the Creator’s gift. We are all tenants. What will we do with what we are given?
Today, whether we like it or not, Jesus holds up the magnifying mirror. And if we look carefully, honestly, and faithfully, there are plenty of blots and blemishes. God knows that about us. It is good for us to see that as clearly as possible. What Jesus shows us is that God doesn’t throw us out because we flop and fail. Instead, God takes the broken pieces that we are, and builds something new and beautiful. Creation is not finished.
Here is the challenge. It is so easy for us to look past the magnifying mirror of ourselves and find what is wrong about others. There is no shortage of opinion, vitriol, violence, and corruption in the bigger and wider pictures we see, share, and create. And we are almost hard wired to fight back when challenged or threatened.
Here is the opportunity. If we listen deeply to Jesus parable, and gaze at the picture he develops, we see how to breaking the cycle of reactive destruction. Ideas, positions and policies can be discussed and evaluated with respect and, even, disagreement. The worth and value of each and person is not up for discussion. The worth and value of each and every person is a given. When we start there, we live the Way of Love.
Look in the mirror. See that even up close, we are wonderfully made. All that is in us is a miraculous blend of systems and senses. Creation is amazing and it keeps happening. Skin has a remarkable way of telling a story. See the lines, folds, scars, and spots as well-earned experience. Look in the mirror and see the person God loves and cherishes. Looking in the mirror we see the only person we can change. Get the picture? Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood