- September 17, 2023 Sermon
The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints Boise
September 17 2023
For a Gospel reading about forgiveness, the parable sure puts a damper on the lesson. The King forgives a slave an impossible level of debt – more than an average person could pay back in two lifetimes! That slave then goes out forgiven and pleased, and instead of paying it forward and giving forgiveness to a fellow slave who owes him, the forgiven slave grabs the other fellow and demands repayment, throwing him into debtor’s prison. The King, upon hearing this development, grabs the forgiven slave, undoes the forgiveness, and orders him to be tortured until it gets repaid.
Jesus then brings that part home: if you can’t forgive others when you’ve been forgiven, then God will remember that lack of forgiveness and undo the forgiveness given to you.
That’s … hard to handle. It sounds like forgiveness is always conditional. It makes it feel like our forgiveness is never complete, what we’ve done is always ready to come back and haunt us.
I get the lesson, I get it. Yes, you should forgive others from your heart because you are also being forgiven. Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness sets both parties free from being stuck with what happened. Sometimes forgiveness leads to a restoration of relationship; sometimes we have to forgive someone and let them go because the pain is still very real for us. We can forgive someone but we do not have to give them a position to hurt us again. We do not have to let ourselves be abused.
But the feeling that this forgiveness from God is conditional would be too much to handle.
I think of the experience of people in recovery from addiction: for many, there is always the specter of what they did while during active drug addiction. There is the fear that others will throw back at them what they did while under the influence of drugs, that they will never be able to make a new start; they will always be that past self.
That creates so much shame and self-hatred, it makes new hope in relationships so painful. The person struggling with addiction can be aware of the pain they caused others, they can be aware that loved ones do not want to be put into a position to be hurt again.
We want to be forgiven so that we may have a new start, but we also worry that the forgiveness is conditional and we can never mess up again. We want to forgive, but we also worry that the cycle will repeat itself seventy times seven times.
Forgiveness is a messy thing.
And yet, without it, we become cold. We grow a heart of stone. We must learn how to forgive, learn how to forgive well, learn how to ask forgiveness with real contrition in our hearts.
We learn to ask forgiveness by stepping into another’s perspective, seeing what happened for them. We learn empathy. We learn to give forgiveness by stepping into another’s perspective, seeing their desire to change. We learn empathy.
Empathy is what makes forgiveness real.
Turning to our first reading opens this up. Joseph’s brothers try to weaponize forgiveness – they bring up their departed dad’s wishes that Joseph forgive them. They’re terrified. Joseph is second only to the Pharaoh. He could do whatever he wanted. He could hand them over to be imprisoned or worse. Joseph is able to see past their manipulation and see their fear deep down, and he forgives them this. He tells them how he has learned to see their foul deed in selling him into slavery when he was a child – it was a terrible, evil thing to do, and Joseph suffered terribly in slavery and imprisonment. But Joseph felt that something good came out of it – he was able to save his family from starvation. His brothers didn’t justify their actions this way – Joseph as the victim was the one to discern this.
This is messy forgiveness. Joseph’s brothers weren’t really empathizing with Joseph’s childhood suffering, but Joseph was able to empathize with his brother’s fear. That little bit of empathy made forgiveness possible, and this forgiveness also became reconciliation.
Forgiveness is messy, and no manual or sermon or single Biblical story can give us a perfect theology of forgiveness because forgiveness is rooted in the here-and-now, in empathy, in the messiness of life.
We must make judgment calls, we must discern how to forgive, how to ask for forgiveness, how our forgiveness will look.
We must figure out how to live together in the messiness of life. This is what Paul’s letters are ultimately about in so many ways. His letter to the Romans shows us the messy divisions in the first decades of the Church – do we eat meat, even if it’s been sacrificed in pagan temples? Do we worship on Sunday as the Day of Resurrection, or is every day the same? What do we do with the messiness of our theology and our ways of life?
We figure out a way. Not a “live and let live” but a “let us learn some empathy for one another”. We may not agree, we may not be able to ever agree. We may disagree on some hugely important things. But we can learn empathy. That we can do.
Empathy is what makes forgiveness and life possible, it’s what makes life real, it’s what opens our hearts to one another to make a future that is better than what we have now. May God open our hearts to one another – to those we have hurt, to those who ask our forgiveness, to those we cannot agree with. We want a future to be possible. Amen.
- September 10, 2023 Sermon
The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
September 10, 2023
Conflict is not a catastrophe. Again: Conflict is not a catastrophe.
How did that statement sit with you? For us in the West, we tend to think that conflict is a catastrophe, especially in the church. To have conflict means that something is broken, we think, and that conflict never ends well. With Gospel readings like today’s reading, we might be tempted to jump over it – we already tend to. We jump to the last line: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We jump to that line to think about how Jesus is present as we are gathered. But the context is that Jesus is present in the midst of conflict and disagreement.
Conflict is not a catastrophe. Conflict is yet another place where we can discern the presence of Christ.
Conflict is not the end of the world, though maybe some of us learned that somewhere in our childhoods. Maybe we had parents that were conflict-averse, and so disagreements were handled with passive-aggression or ignoring the problem entirely. Maybe we had parents or families that were conflict-intensive, and so every little disagreement made us afraid that the conflict would explode into yelling or emotional or physical violence. We may have grown up in a childhood where we were not allowed to say we were mad at someone about something, and maybe we were told that being angry at someone wasn’t Christian, that we would just “forgive and forget”.
We’ve all learned a lot of lessons about conflict in our childhoods, and we then had experiences over the years that reinforced those lessons. Perhaps we married someone who is conflict-averse like us, and disagreements fester until they can’t be hidden any longer, and then we experience conflict as a big, scary explosion rather than a difficult conversation. Or maybe anytime someone tells us something uncomfortable, we jump back to a childhood where we were criticized by a parent, and so uncomfortable facts feel like a personal attack.
What lessons might you recall about conflict from your childhood? What was conflict like when you were growing up?
Because the answer is not to avoid conflict. It’s to reframe our understanding of conflict and to practice better forms of conflict and confrontation.
Someone telling us something uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a criticism or rejection. We might feel that way, but we should look inside. Is it our subconscious comparing this experience with one in the past?
Someone telling us that we’ve done something to hurt them may feel like a stinging accusation, but what if it’s coming from a place where the person wants to restore the relationship?
And looking at our Gospel reading for today: how might we practice conflict better?
First, actually go talk to the person. Have a difficult conversation. Speak and listen. Listen with the depth of your heart. And take note of your feelings – your feelings, your subconscious may be comparing the present with the past.
Second, if you decide to take witnesses, it’s not about ganging up on the person. It’s not about creating “us vs them”. It’s not about getting the right people on your side in the conflict or forcing people to pick sides as a sign of loyalty to you. That just rips the community apart. If others are present, it should be a prayerful, compassionate presence to remind us of the deeper call: to love your neighbor as yourself. There is honesty and accountability in love.
The sign Jesus gives us that the conflict is unhealthy is if the person or group stops listening. Now that’s a sign for our times! It’s easy to stop listening – if they don’t say the exact right thing, or if it’s something we deeply disagree with, or maybe it’s just straight-up nonsense like we see on social media more often than not. But we can always try to listen to what’s underneath the words: are they afraid of something? Are they wounded deep inside? Is there a value or ideal at risk for them? That we can listen to and try to paraphrase back to them. There is something we can do in listening.
That doesn’t mean someone gets to talk the whole time. No, we also know some people who talk the whole time because they don’t really want to listen. They just want people to agree with them – listening to the other person isn’t their goal; they only want to be listened to.
This all, of course, has to be grounded in the dignity of every human being. We can’t really listen if we don’t honor the dignity of the other person. Without mutual human dignity, there cannot be mutual human conversation and listening. Without that listening, there cannot be healthy conflict. So as we look for where Jesus is in our midst, let us also think of how disagreement and conflict can be an invitation to see Jesus present among us. Helping us to listen, to see the dignity of another human being, and to know that conflict is not a catastrophe – it can be an invitation to deeper mutual understanding and love.
- September 3, 2023 Sermon
The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
September 3, 2023
Last week the Gospel reading was a lot of praise of Peter. “On this rock I will build my church!” Jesus said. And this week, Jesus is saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” So which text would you use to build an interpretation of Peter? Is Peter the rock on which Jesus builds the church? Is Peter a stumbling block?
Of course we wouldn’t pick one and ignore the other. We see these parts of Matthew’s Gospel in conversation, and we see the Gospel of Matthew in conversation with the rest of the books of the Bible. But that comes pretty naturally to the Episcopal Church and other historic Christian communions that think deeply about how to interpret the Biblical texts. We rarely read a single Biblical text by itself – we like at least two. Plus a psalm. But that approach comes from our liturgy, our way of worship. On Sunday morning, we have three Biblical texts plus a Psalm. That conversation comes pretty naturally. This has been the Church’s tradition for over a thousand years.
This approach, however, isn’t shared by all Christian traditions. In some traditions, the emphasis is on one text alone, even one sentence by itself. The worship service centers around unpacking that one piece of the Biblical texts. The sermon, the music, the prayers will center around that one text.
In some cases, it might become a form of meditation on the depth of the text. Getting deep into the language, what it means for today. That is praiseworthy. In many other cases, however, it becomes an easy temptation to “proof texting”, where a whole doctrine gets based on that one single sentence. So much interpretation gets stuffed into that text to make it say what the preacher or theologian wants it to say.
It becomes the opposite of what we discussed last week. Last week the sermon talked about finding a Biblical text to chew on and make your own, to bring it to life in what you say and do. The Biblical text becomes part of us. Proof texting, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction – we force our own interpretation into the Biblical text and kill it with what we want it to say, what we wish it would say to confirm what we already believe.
This past week I had a conversation with some folks here at All Saints about theology and the Bible, and one person brought up a point about how we often don’t think about what the Bible means to other kinds of Christians who are Evangelical. There are significant differences. The image came up of how we Episcopalians read the Bible together as a community and hear different pieces of the Biblical texts: it’s like a symphony. Sometimes the passages make a nice harmonious chord. Sometimes the passages are unsettling because they make a sharp, dissonant sound against one another. Sometimes the passages leave things unresolved, and sometimes they come together in a nice, beautiful sound. A wonderful piece of music can have all these things together: harmony, conflict, lack of resolution, and wonderful beauty.
But for others, the Biblical texts need to be a fact. Everything needs to fit together like a big puzzle, and our job is to piece it together and communicate it to others.
When we’re talking about the Bible with other Christians, we need to keep in mind that what the Bible means for different traditions will vary greatly. For us in the Episcopal tradition, the Bible is the Church’s collection of texts that speak of a long, sacred conversation with God, filled with sacred story, the brokenness of human history, and God’s unending faithfulness and love toward us that culminates in God becoming human in Jesus Christ, and through his life, teaching, death and resurrection, we are bound to God’s divine life. We Episcopalians are aware, at least vaguely, that the Bible is not a book that dropped out of heaven complete as it is. We know humans wrote it down, we know there are contradictions in it, and we know that the books that got collected into what we call the Bible speak in a conversation. And we still love the Bible in its messiness. Texts about God’s relationship with humans have to at least reflect the messiness of humans to be real!
That’s not the same for other Christian traditions. For others, it’s of central importance that the Bible be a single text, like a textbook with chapters. For others, the Bible needs to be inerrant, to be literally and factually true to be trustworthy. The Bible needs to be a collection of facts about God, and the interpretation of it needs to be simple. Ambiguity, contradiction, disagreement cannot exist for them. It needs to be clear-cut.
You can see this in how some denominations or some non-denominational churches put belief in the inerrancy of the Bible at the top of their statements of faith. It’s the main thing, it’s the bedrock of their understanding. For us as Episcopalians, on the other hand, our most fundamental statements of faith are the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, and the Nicene Creed only mentions that Jesus rose again on the third day “in accordance with the Scriptures” i.e. the resurrection happened, and the Biblical texts attest to that, and that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets”, i.e. that the Holy Spirit has been at work even before Pentecost. The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t even mention the Bible. For us, our bedrock of faith is God and who God is.
Even though we share the texts of the Bible for the most part, we are also separated by them. We bring such different views to the Biblical texts that it can be hard to talk to one another. Sometimes we might even feel embarrassed if we don’t know the Biblical texts as well as someone else, that we don’t know as many facts as they seem to know.
But remember, to use the metaphor from earlier, the Biblical texts are musical. We don’t have to know that every single note in exact order to listen attentively to the music and to be transformed by it. I still do not comprehend much beyond the very, very basics of music, but I can still point to songs I love and say what I love about them, what treasures I see, and how that music is part of me. And we bring the music to life as a community – we read it together, we proclaim it, we study it. What would music be if the only way to appreciate it was to read the sheet music and never perform it together? To return to our Gospel passage from earlier: this week, Peter is likened to Satan, a stumbling block who doesn’t get it. He’s not literally Satan, and he’s not expelled from the company of apostles because he’s sometimes dense like a rock. Peter is human, and Jesus relates with him as a human. Why wouldn’t God use the humanity of the Biblical texts to relate to us? Why wouldn’t God use a conversation fostered over millennia to reach out to us even now? The Biblical texts are God’s gift to us, not as a dry textbook, but a song of love and heartbreak and triumph and repentance and grace and glory to us all, and to each of us, too! Thanks be to God!
- August 27, 2023 Sermon
The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
August 27, 2023
Growing up, I sometimes would read my copy of the King James Bible (which is what my old tradition used) but you can imagine I didn’t get very far. I read the book of Genesis (since it was first, and I knew it had someone named Joseph in it), I read the book of Revelation (since it was at the very end, made sense to at least get the first and last sections), and the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew I could mostly understand, even in the King James “thee thy thou” language.
But the rest of the Bible was an incomprehensible mystery to me. I would try to read bits and pieces, but then I would end up thinking about how little of the Bible I understood. I would realize how little I knew and thus would give up on the whole thing. It was like the wide ocean, and I had no way to navigate it. I was simply lost. And imagine how much more confusing the King James Version’s translation of Paul’s letters would be to a young person! I didn’t even dare to try to read those. Paul’s letters were like being on the open ocean with huge waves crashing into me.
And then, out on this wide ocean, I saw something marvelous. The open ocean of the Bible was still a mystery, but I knew a treasure when I saw it. One day, I remember being at a store with my mom. It was a little craft sort of store, some homemade goods. And there was a little rack with bookmarks with names on them. Of course I wanted the one that said “Joseph” – and when I picked it off the rack, it had a Bible verse on it. It read, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” This morsel of the Bible, even in the King James Version, spoke so very clearly to me as a young person. In all the wide sea that is Paul’s letters, here was something I could grasp and treasure.
“Be not conformed to this world” – this matched up so well with what I’d seen in comparing the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew with the world around me. Jesus says to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the world tells you to love money, or fame, or achievement, or “family”, or power. In the Kingdom of Heaven, there’s diversity and difference, and in the world there is narrow, confining conformity. In the Gospel of Matthew, the ethic starts with finding out your own flaws; in the world, it’s all about tearing down someone else’s moral failings and ignoring your own.
And the next line from Paul: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Oh, how wonderful that was for a kid who loved to think, think, think! Thinking, learning, digesting what I’ve learned – learning was in pursuit of truth. And the renewal wasn’t a “one and done” sort of life – renewing my mind meant being open to learning, and to being transformed by it, moving toward understanding what is the will of God, what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect.
That little sentence of Paul’s letters, then, helped me to explain what I saw at work in the Gospel of Matthew, and it became a way of being. I may not have understood the rest of the Bible – and, let’s be honest, there is still much to be learned and discerned in the Bible – but those pieces gave me a foundation of faith that remains deeply important to me. That yearning to understand, that desire to be myself in the fullness of the Kingdom of God, that hope in the love of God – that is, and I suspect always will be, at the very heart of who I am.
And as we get to the heart of who we are, we also realize the centrality of the question: “Who is Jesus?” Who is Jesus, that we follow, committing our lives to him? Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and he asks that same question of us. Who is Jesus? What does his life, death, and resurrection, what does his teaching and preaching and ministry mean for us? Not in an abstract sense – but in the real, and personal sense?
Our gifts, and our calling all differ. There is diversity and difference in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus Christ invites us to answer that question, “Who do you say that I am?” with what we think, say, and do.
Having that little morsel of the Bible at hand becomes a guidepost for us, for who we say Jesus is. My little morsel of Bible from childhood has been about discerning – figuring it out, always listening, looking for what is good and leads us to our perfection, our fulfillment in Christ. Other morsels of the Bible might speak to a different calling, and yet we are one in Jesus Christ.
I think of someone whose favorite verse is also from Paul’s letter to the Romans about how nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from the love of Christ. That mystical tidbit of Scripture speaks to the power of encouragement and hope. Or someone’s favorite verse being from the prophet Micah, to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, that justice, kindness and humility are woven from the same cloth. Or maybe a verse that comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where “as you have done it to the least of these, so you have done it to me” is a powerful and mighty command that how we treat the poor, the hurting, the sick, the imprisoned, the rejected and the neglected will show us whether or not we truly love Jesus, because Jesus claims all the downtrodden on earth as his own body. All of these are deeply important – and each of us get a little piece to bring to life in our own lives.
You may find yourself longing for a passage of the Bible, a morsel for your own. You may feel lost on the wide ocean of the Bible. Keep reading, keep listening, keep watching. You never know where the invitation might come. It’s not like I picked that verse for myself all those years ago! Did the person who made those bookmarks thirty years ago know what they would give me? They were picking verses from the Bible to put on bookmarks to go along with names. And little Joseph all those years ago latched onto that little sentence, and through it has been transformed by the renewing of his mind.
What piece of the Bible is Jesus drawing you to? And how will it help you to answer that question, “Who do you say that I am?” And how will you make that piece of the Bible grow and flourish and answer that question in what you say and do and pray? Amen.
- August 20, 2023 Sermon
The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
August 20, 2023
Over the summer, we had a Wednesday midday class on the Psalms. We made our way through all the Psalms, both the beloved classics and the more uncomfortable ones, the Psalms that call for violence and cry out in angered anguish and disbelief.
Those were hard Psalms to read. We often equate spirituality with certain happy, peaceful feelings. Those are spiritual, we tell ourselves. But the Psalms don’t let us off the hook; the Psalms confront us with the full range of human emotions, and human emotions include anger, sadness, despair. And the Psalms confront us with the real experiences of a human community that lived and breathed in Israel, a community that was at the crossroads of many empires who were more than happy to invade that little strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea. The Psalms refuse to give in to our modern inclination to “toxic positivity”, what psychologists call “spiritual bypassing.”
But it’s not just the Psalms that can be uncomfortable. The rest of the Bible can do that for us – even the Gospels.
For us, the first part of the Gospel might not have given us much discomfort. We don’t think certain foods or drinks are off-limits, or that we need to wash our hands before we eat lest we incur a ritual impurity (but really, at least wash your hands after using the bathroom, please, please, please). The bigger question is the motivation, the impulse, the desire that comes from what we do. What our heart desires is more essential than a sense of purity.
But, don’t forget that humans are really good about inventing purity tests. We make purity tests for religion, for politics, even for people’s worth. Think about how we use purity language around people. For example, if someone uses illicit drugs, they’re unclean and need to get clean – we are saying that they are impure. Or how purity gets applied to women’s sexuality – in that case, purity is treated as a thing that can be lost forever. But that same purity standard doesn’t apply to men, and neither does purity seem to apply to greed, cruelty, false witness, stealing, and plenty of other things. Hm. I think Jesus might want us to take a long look at the purity tests we invent, because we surely aren’t measuring purity the way that Jesus seems to – plus how many times does Jesus tell us to look at our own hearts first before we even think of looking at someone else’s?
And then comes the second part of the Gospel reading that absolutely did make us uncomfortable. Jesus tells the Canaanite woman that he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel, and she’s a Canaanite, the ancient enemy of the Israelites. The woman and her daughter are none of his concern. The Canaanite woman begs: please! And then Jesus gets mean: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
If you did not wince a little inside hearing that, you might consider whether you were listening! Why would Jesus say something like that?
Just like we did with the Psalms, let’s allow this passage make us uncomfortable. Not rush to minimize it and to make sure that Jesus still looks good. Not rush to defend or explain it away. Let’s sit with the discomfort.
I want us to sit with it. Sit with it like the Gospel’s original audience would have. The audience for Matthew’s Gospel was, scholars assume, predominantly Jewish. The way that Matthew weaves Scripture together, how he portrays Jesus as a kind of “New Moses”, an authoritative teacher makes sense for a predominantly Jewish community.
The first part of this Gospel is a good theological argument about the Law. Jesus stakes out his authoritative interpretation: the value that ritual purity has is vastly smaller than the immense value of that purity of heart, purity of desire, righteousness, doing what is right. I imagine the first audiences for Matthew’s Gospel might have discussed this a little bit. Maybe some would nod in agreement, and some would shake their heads. There would be discussion – was Jesus right? Was this external purity lesser than internal purity?
Maybe a consensus would emerge: Jesus is right. For one, the image he uses about the sewer is a pretty powerful image – what you eat is eventually gonna pass through you, but what you do and say is an expression of what’s really inside your heart.
And so Matthew’s Gospel continues. Jesus leaves that debate and it seems to completely shift away. They go into what is modern-day Lebanon. They leave the argument behind. Was it for a break from the disputation? But for whatever reason it is, Jesus will not get much respite. This woman shows up, begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus refuses.
At this point, Matthew’s first audience might be nodding in agreement: who does this woman, this foreigner, think she is? She doesn’t really care about Jesus’s message: she just wants healing for her daughter. She’s the wrong kind of person, anyway – she doesn’t follow our God. And so they agree with Jesus’ refusal.
But the Canaanite woman persists. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy.” The Canaanite woman knows who Jesus really is. And after Jesus’ insult: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” The Canaanite woman beats Jesus at the argument game. A small healing for her daughter would be a tiny crumb from the Lord. Jesus praises her faith, and heals her daughter.
And now the first audience for Matthew’s Gospel sits quietly. The woman from the wrong side of the tracks, the foreign woman, this stand-in for impurity won the argument.
Her heart was intent on healing for her daughter. She knows who Jesus is: he can heal her. She follows him, shouting, begging, pleading, kneeling. Jesus ignores her, rejects her requests, and then finally insults her. She is undeterred. Her heart is purely intent on healing her daughter, and, in contrast, Jesus’ behavior and words look less than stellar.
By this story, Matthew’s Gospel is illustrating Jesus’ point about purity. Jesus is only saying what the disciples already think. They want Jesus to send this woman away. She’s a nuisance, she’s a foreigner, she’s unworthy of a blessing and healing. The disciples made that clear, and Jesus is simply doing what they would expect him to do.
But her words come from her heart – she wants healing for her daughter. She loves her daughter. Her daughter is being tormented and needs this healing desperately. From her heart pours forth great love and courage and tenacity. She has a purity of heart that we all should admire. Whether or not she’s from the right people, keeps the right rituals, has all the right moral behavior is not nearly as important as that purity of heart, that righteous love for her daughter. And what about us? Perhaps we might consider who we think is impure, from the wrong kind of people. What would we want Jesus to say to them, to do for them? Would we want Jesus to tell them off and send them away? Who do we think is unworthy of any blessing or help from God? That answer will tell us a lot about what is in our own hearts.