The Rev’d Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Proper 12, Year C
July 24th, 2016
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
St. Paul has fallen on hard times in many Episcopal pulpits. Probably because he often comes across as an old crank who says things we moderns find wrongheaded. Think about it: when was the last time you heard a sermon on Paul?
Yet we run the risk of missing something important if we leave Paul behind. What’s more, built into the scriptures is a principle that helps us think differently about Paul. Within the collection of Pauline letters, which the Church takes to be the Word of God, is a principle of updating and rewriting the Pauline tradition. That is, Colossians was written by a disciple of Paul who remodeled Paul’s key ideas for a new day and in a new place. Built into the Bible is an example of what every community of faith must always do: hold onto the essential things from the past as well as reimagine how to faithfully live out the faith in their own day.
In our epistle reading, we see a core message of Paul that is carried into a new day by a later generation, and it has to do with fuzzy math.
The other day I was working on a project on angels and I wanted to get a sense of what the “person on the street” thought about angels. So, naturally, I asked my four-year-old son, “What is an angel?” He thought for a moment and then said, “An angel is half human, half fairy, … and half butterfly.” I guess that works, right? I mean conventional human math doesn’t always work when explaining things like angels.
The writer of Colossians has similar fuzzy math. There is some form of early Christian asceticism being opposed. Some Christians are worshiping intermediary angels as part of their worship of God, imposing lots of new rules about observing religious calendars and other religious observances. The writer of Colossians takes a key principle from his mentor and updates it to his present situation. It is fuzzy math but critical theology:
Jesus + anything = nothing
… but …
Jesus + nothing = everything.
In Christ, the Colossians already have everything they could possibly need. They have already died with Christ and been raised with him in baptism. They are already seated with him in the heavenly places. Don’t let anyone or anything tell you that you need anything more than Jesus.
The opponents are saying that it is Jesus + specific liturgical regulations. Submit to these human traditions. Perhaps now would be a good time for a reminder for us high-church, Anglo-Catholic types. I love the worship we have received and we perform each week. But, like a nice car or some other prestige, it can become an idol. If they distract from or add to our encounter with the risen Lord, they are missing the point.
Now, of course, our readings are in no way anti-liturgical. Just anti-liturgy as idolatry. The point is that our liturgy is a means to an end of meeting the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And they are time tested ways of doing that. Our Gospel reading makes this connection. It teaches us that the way to pray, the way to meet God is through liturgical prayer. The Lord’s Prayer.
We hear it, we say it, we read it—all the time. Everyday. Several times a day. So much so that we run the risk of forgetting what it means and losing sight of what we are actually asking.
When we ask that God’s name would be hallowed we ask that God would be God, in our lives and in our world. When we ask that God’s reign would come, we ask that God would take charge and establish justice. Thy kingdom come is just another way of saying, God, please step in and stop the mass shootings, please stop the hate speech of our politicians, please heal my friend, please comfort those who are lonely and hopeless, please find me a job.
Think about how radical it is to ask God to only forgive us in the same way and to the same extent as we have already forgiven those who have wronged us. If we are bold enough to say those words, we had better also be bold enough to release our grudges and our resentments. The valve that allows forgiveness out is the same valve that allows forgiveness in, and if we close it off, it is closed off in both directions.
Now what about that really weird parable right after Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer? That parable has always bugged me. Up until this week, I heard it as teaching something like bring your prayers to God. Sometimes God is sleeping or busy, but if you bug God enough, you will eventually get an answer.
As a parent, I admit sometimes my kids simply ask for the same thing over and over again until I finally lose stamina and give in. Yes, OK, you can have macaroni and cheese again for the third time this week!
Is that what God is like? I would like to believe God is not like human parents at their most exhausted.
Now, I thought about it this week and realized that’s not what the parable teaches. The story uses the word “friend,” φίλος and invokes the patron-client relationship, which, in their culture, was a big deal. We tend to think of the annoying person who won’t stop asking for bread as the problem. But in their context, the person who was breaking social codes was the man who wouldn’t open the door and give bread. The man whose reputation was at stake for them was the man in the house who wouldn’t open the door. The next day the neighbors wouldn’t be talking about the annoying knocker, but the shameful, lazy patron inside.
Jesus is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. If even a lazy, no good, bum of a patron will eventually open the door and give bread, how much more will a good God always give bread to those who need it. We ask God, give us today ἐπιούσιος bread. Ἐπιούσιος can mean both our bread for today, but can also be translated our bread for tomorrow. When we pray it, we ask for the physical needs of humans to be met. God, you know we need bread. Please help us. [Plug for the ministries of the community soup kitchen here!] But to ask for our ἐπιούσιος bread is also to ask that today we might already receive the bread of the age to come, of the heavenly wedding feast.
To ask for daily bread is to ask for Jesus. When we come to the altar and ask for Jesus, God always, always, always gives us what we need.
Here’s a question: If you have Jesus, if God meets you at the altar and gives you his own life, is there anything else you really need? Is there really anything that you lack?
Maybe the point is to learn to ask for our daily bread, to come to the altar and find God already waiting there for us, and to learn that Jesus + nothing else = everything we could ever need.