EQUAL TO US

A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 20:1-16

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

     These parables of Jesus are teaching devices that make us think.  They are like riddles, with object lessons in them that describe the way God acts with us.  Today’s parable begins with “the kingdom of heaven” is like …, and we’re to find ourselves in them and whether we can learn something about ourselves and about God.  There are about forty of them recorded in the four Gospels, and it is typical of Jesus not to give the answer to his parabolic riddles.  They’re designed to make us think, and often we’ll hear about Jesus’ disciples grabbing him by the elbow and asking “What did that thing mean?”  He doesn’t tell them, because he wants them to think.  After all, his parables are all set in the living conditions familiar to them:  the woman baking bread, the farmer sowing seed in his field, the guy who get mugged on the street, the son who runs away from home.  It life familiar to his disciples, and he wants them to see themselves in his parables and discover how God acts with them and for them in the world they know.

     In today’s parable it is not hard to find ourselves there.  At first we think there’s a lot of unfairness going on in Jesus’ parable.  The ones who worked all day long get paid the same amount as the ones who worked only one hour.  That doesn’t seem fair. Of course, the ones who worked all day started with a contract:  they agreed with the landowner to work for the usual daily wage.  But the ones who worked only one hour don’t have a contract:  the landowner invites them at the last minute to work in his vineyard and they just go and do so.  And when the day is done and the whistle blows and paytime comes, they are all paid the usual daily wage.  They’re all paid the same thing.  And the ones who worked all day complain about that.  “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  And deep down inside we at first want to agree:  they got shafted.

     But the landowner said, “Wait a minute: you have a contract.  You agreed to work all day for the usual daily wage.  I fulfilled the contact I made with you.  But if I’m generous and give everybody the same wage, “are you envious because I am generous?”  That question is actually a paraphrase of the real words in the Greek text of the parable.  The original words are:  “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  

     Jesus’ parable is a picture of the way God acts.  It starts with the words “the kingdom of heaven” is like….”  It’s all about our own relationship with God.  If we base our relationship with God on contract, i.e. on law, we will never understand God’s grace.  The ones who worked all day think they deserve more than the ones who worked only one hour.  They are the achievers who think they deserve more from the landowner, and they complain about it.  And it is so typical of Jesus to put the very gospel of God in the mouths of the grumblers:  “You have made them equal to us….”  And the landowner then asks them:  “So why can’t you be happy about that?  Why can’t you be happy that I have given them as much as I have given you?”  

    So often in the Gospels people complain to Jesus’ disciples, “Shame on your master – he eats with tax collectors and sinner.”  “That’s right,” Jesus answers; that’s the gospel, the good news of God.  Why can’t you be happy about it?”

It is so typical of Jesus – and part of his ironic sense of humor:  the good news is put into the words of the grumblers themselves, who have trouble with it.

     When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he made the point that there is a difference between believers and unbelievers.  He said that unbelievers “cannot thank God” (Romans 1:21), because they do not understand that they are recipients.  Rather they think of themselves as achievers before God, because they have done so many wonderful things in life that God should thank them instead.  You have heard it many times:  “I really don’t go to church, but I do a lot of good things – I give to local food pantries, I give to the March of Dimes, I contribute to disaster relief, I share things with my friends – so I’m OK with God, because God has to be happy with me for doing all these things.  God should thank me.

     Achievers think God should thank them.  They deserve it.  But people of faith know that if God deals with us on the basis of what we deserve, it will be lights out for us.  There will be unhappiness, and grumbling, and envy, and complaining about life, about being short-changed, and finally unhappiness about God and God’s way of doing things.  Only recipients, not achievers, can say “thank you” to God.

     People of faith know that they are recipients, not achievers.  They did not ask to be born when they were; they did not ask for the gifts they have been given.  Their families, their talents, their skills to pursue their professions, the strengths they have to overcome their hardships, their church -- these are all given to them from God.  Faith means living from God’s giving, not from our own achieving.  

     And every Sunday we have something here called “Eucharist,” which is a word that means “thanksgiving.”  We thank God for the gifts God has given to this congregation.  We thank God for Christ’s own giving of himself for us, and we come to his table to receive him into ourselves, in the meal he asked us to do in remembrance of him.  By holding out our hands to receive that bread and wine we are practicing receiving, and we are saying “thank you” to God, which is what “Eucharist” means.  We have received from God his benefits of grace and forgiveness, not because we deserve it, but because God is good, and generous, and makes us all equal before him.  It is the Lord’s Table, Christ’s own supper, where everyone who considers themselves recipients are welcome.  It is another one of God’s gifts to you, where you are all welcome to receive at this Table of the Lord.

     So in the lives of Christians there is a lot of thanksgiving going on, because they know they are recipients of God’s giving, and they are able to give thanks, which is something achievers cannot do.  And once again today we thank you for joining us in the giving and in the receiving.  And we all thank God for this place, where all of God’s giving is always joyfully received and celebrated. 

                                           Richard L. Jeske

                                                  9/24/17

 

 

“CHURCH” IS AN ACTION WORD

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 18:15-20

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point, NY

 

     Do you remember the game we used to play as children, when we put our hands together, our fingers intertwined downward, and said, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open your hands and you see all the people”?  (Try it).  

    And do you remember the little proverb that we saw – and we still see it every now and then, usually on a poster appropriate for Rally Days and Church Festival and occasions like that:  spell the word “church” – “It can’t be `church’ unless UR in it”?       

     That little game and that little proverb were all too true:  the church, Jesus’ church, has to do with people.  The singular word “church” is really a plurality of people, working together with a common purpose.  The original New Testament word for “church” was “ecclesia.”  It is an action word, and it means “called out” – the people of Christ’s church are “called out” of the world, “called out” from the people of the world to be something special that the rest of the world wants.  Jesus made that very clear when he said:  “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  The people of Christ’s church are to make it known to every one else who God is, a God who loves them above anything else.

    Did you know that that was the unique attribute of the God of the Bible?  When Israel came into the land that God had promised them, they encountered other peoples already living there and the gods they worshipped.  The Egyptians had worshipped Amon and Re, Ptah and Aten, and the Canaanites worshipped Baal and Asherah, and the ancient texts tell us that El was a word commonly used for God among Semitic peoples of the ancient near East, including Isra-el.  In the Bible Israel’s God is called a warrior, but so are some of the other gods.  Early Israel understood itself to be a theocracy, in which God was their king; but the nations around them also referred to their gods as their kings.  We now know of other cultures of the ancient near east that had their own stories of the creation and their own stories of the flood, with their gods active in these stories.  But the one thing that was unique about Israel’s God, that described none of the other ancient gods of the religions around Israel, was this:  God was a God who loves.  The prophets spoke of God in terms of God’s love for Israel:  “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my child out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1).  God’s rescue of Israel out of Egypt was an act of God’s love.  In every case of the religions around Israel, their gods did not define themselves in terms of their love for their people, nor did they demand or expect their worshipers to love them in return.  Obey them, fear them, do reverence toward them, yes, but love was not part of the equation.  

     So when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment God gave us?’, Jesus responded simply and clearly:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.”  And of course, Jesus was quick to add a second commandment just like it, he said, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).  

     That was what was unique about Israel’s God, and that’s what Israel’s God expected in return.  No wonder, then, that Jesus’ followers took that unique attribute of God and built their own community around it.  They saw it as the reason for their own redemption, that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  And they saw it as the one commandment that Jesus himself would have his followers observe.  “One commandment,” he said, “I leave with you, that you love one another.  By this everyone else will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  

     So Jesus’ earliest followers took upon themselves a hugely challenging task:  to show the world that God not only loves Israel, but the whole world and everyone in it.  And that task has become an even greater necessity for our world today, because, if all religions and everyone in them would see God as a God of love, tragedies like 9/11 would not ever have happened.  Jesus’ earliest followers, and all followers of Jesus ever since then, know that they have been given a gift that never, ever, runs out, the gift of God’s love, which they are to show in the world toward all other people of the world.

     Of course, we all know that that is a very difficult task to do.  To practice God’s love in a world full of hatred, a world that is so fragmented into sub-units of humanity, from individual nations and their interests to ethnic groups and tribal cultures with their own insecurities and their suspicions of others.  That is why Jesus had to make sure that God’s love was practiced first and foremost at home, among his followers, within his church, so that other people could see it and want it for themselves.  So the words of Jesus that we hear in our Gospel reading for today give us a regimen, a practice routine, for the exercise of God’s love among us.

     First of all, Jesus tells his followers that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he would be there in their midst.  But he also knew his disciples very well, and he experienced the fact that where two or three of them are gathered together there would at times be some conflict.  So he did not leave them without some directives about how to resolve that conflict, so that the community would not be fractured and could maintain its unity as a community.

     So he said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out his or her fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  Notice that Jesus wants us to be open with each other, to be able to tell each other what bothers us, when we are hurt, or feel betrayed.  The purpose is always “to regain” the brother or sister, so that we can continue to be sisters and brothers in Christ’s family.  If that doesn’t work, then we are still not to act publicly, but privately, by taking two or three others with us and trying again.  We are not to tear each other down in front of others, before trying again and again to regain our brother and sister in Christ.  When that doesn’t work we are still not to go public, but to keep it within the church, the community of God’s love.  Then, Jesus says, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  To Jesus’ first disciples, and to Matthew’s own church community, Gentiles and tax collectors were the outsiders, people who would not have the community’s best interests in mind.

     “Let such a one be to you as an outsider.”  These words may sound harsh, but in effect they are there to build a mutual accountability inside the circle of Jesus’ followers.  Jesus’ community was a community in the making, and his words are meant to preserve the integrity of the community.  At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the God whose uniqueness lies in his love for his people, a love that is to be shared among his people for each other.  Love for God and for our neighbor is the mark of the community Jesus wants to build.

     If we were to take today’s gospel reading in Matthew 18 and retell it in a way that reflects the standards and practices in our own surrounding culture today, you can imagine how it might sound:  “If your brother sins against you, call him on your Smart Phone with the `record’ button set, and tell him his fault.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother and you will also have evidence should he have second thoughts.  But if he does not listen, take one or two attorneys along with you, that every word may be confirmed before you issue the press release.  If he refuses to listen to them, threaten to tweet the story and sell it to the highest bidder, and let him become a cash cow for you and a ticket to fame.  Truly I say to you, whatever you tweet on earth will go viral through cyberspace, and whatever is syndicated on earth will pay residuals forever and ever.  Again I say to you, if public opinion polls agree about your brother’s sin, go ahead and sue, and the court will award you a large settlement.  For where two or three are gathered in a talk-show audience, there are 15 minutes of fame for the guest and his entourage.”  (Adapted from W. Willimon, PR 30,3, pp. 42-43)

     The difference between a get-even culture and the community of Jesus’ making is that conflict can become the creative ground for regaining, not destroying, human relationships.  The God of the Bible is interested in restoration, in binding up human relationships into his unique way of love.  Regaining, restoring, and rebuilding God’s community in the making – that is our calling.  In fact, I would like to see it expressed in every congregational mission statement, to read something like this:  “We are called out of the world to proclaim the gospel in all that we do, so that all people may experience the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

     This month of September is the month when Christian congregations restart their parish programs, and we look to our parish leaders to engage us in our worship and music activities, in our educational and outreach tasks, and in stewardship in general, in the use of our time, talents, and treasures for the glory of God.  We recall to ourselves that the word “church” is an action word, and that we are called out of this world to practice the one unique thing about God, unique among all the other gods of this world, namely the love of God, starting first and foremost among ourselves.  Because, when others see it, they will want it for themselves.          

                                                                                                                   -- Richard L. Jeske
                                                                                                                                     9/10/17      

 

 

LOSERS FINDERS, KEEPERS WEEPERS

A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 16:21-28

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point

     They had left everything, just to go follow him.  Left their homes, their families, their professions, their towns, their friends.  All for someone who one day came out of the blue to call to them in their boats, “Come in now; come with me; I want you to go with me to fish for people,” of all things.  And one look at him, and they just picked up and left. 

     And “fishing for people” started.  And soon the people came.  They flocked around them, came to hear their teacher, came to ask him (and them) to help them with their problems, followed after him for miles.  They gradually knew they were into something successful here.  A new movement, with new people joining the crowds every day.  Everything looked so good.  And they were his right-hand men.

     Finally, half-way through the story, it dawns on them that something very special is happening right before their very eyes, until, finally, one of them, their leader, says, “Jesus, you’re the Messiah.”  And then suddenly instead of “Good for you, you finally got it!” – the teacher tells them to shut up about it – not to go around saying he’s the Messiah.  Because if they do, everybody’s going to get the wrong idea about that.     

     Now, half-way through the journey, it’s time for them to get the right idea.  So he tells them in crystal clear terms what they should have figured out for themselves from his parables, his teachings, his actions.  He has to spell it out.  He has to sit them down and tell them what it’s all about:  he’s going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.  And that shocked them so much that they couldn’t even hear the third part – “and on the third day be raised.”  They couldn’t get to that part; instead they asked him “What’s this suffering and dying business?  You have the crowds.  They’re on your side.  You’re their man!”  In fact, as our Gospel reading for today tells us, Peter felt that he had to flat out rebuke Jesus for what he just said:  “suffer and die?  No way!  That’s not going to happen,” Peter said.  

     And at that point the Jesus who had called them from their homes, called them to leave everything to follow him, made them his own disciples, the Jesus who loved them, looked Peter directly in the eyes, and called him the devil.  “Get behind me, Satan!” he said to Peter.  “You’re getting in the way; you’re a stumbling block.  You’re tied up by your own ambitions.  You have to reset yourself; because right now you’re set on getting your way – and not God’s.”

     When Peter rebuked Jesus it struck a nerve, and Jesus reacted accordingly.  We’re half-way through the story and he discovers that his disciples hadn’t learned a thing.  Yes, he had the crowds – and when he fed them they wanted to make him king on the spot (John 6;15).  They loved his miracles, and they wanted him to entertain them by doing new ones again and again – and, of course, to prove to others how great he was (John 6:30-31).  They wanted him to show himself openly to the world and prove that he was God’s chosen one (John 7:4-5).  But each time they asked him to do that he refused, because that would be making God fit our standards and our ambitions.  So he told them you can’t prove God, because every time you try that you’re asking God to obey your rules, to act according to your standards for proof.  You want to make God accountable to you?  That’s what a demonic temptation is, to want to make God do things our way – to make God dance to our tune.  

     So when Peter rebuked Jesus, and told him he ought to be giving the people what they want, it struck a nerve in Jesus’ thinking, and he called his disciple “Satan,” and told him he needed to reset his thinking.  And then he gave them all an example of the new mindset that he wanted to see in them:  “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, then let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” 

     What a hard lesson to learn!  I remember an incident from my first parish when today’s lesson was the preaching text, and I titled the sermon “Losers Finders, Keepers Weepers.”  A few days later a woman in our congregation told me that her two little daughters do listen to my sermons.  That afternoon one of the girls came crying to her that her sister had found her toy and was playing with it and should really give it back to her.  But the other one said, “No I shouldn’t; and besides `weepers losers, keepers finders’ – Pastor said so.”

     It’s a hard lesson to learn, because we want to keep our own lives the way we want them, and Jesus’ words about losing them for his sake come very hard for us.  But he makes that the very essence of discipleship:  that those who want to be followers of his are to deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow him.  That’s what he’s going to do, by the way; it’s not just something they’re supposed to do.  How easy it would be to give the crowds what they want.  But he will go to the cross, because only there is resurrection on the other side.

     Today people choose churches according to their needs.  They leave churches who do not “fulfill their needs.”  They flock to churches that tell them that God wants them to be happy and rich.  God is going to bless them with riches and happiness.  What a great message to hear!  God forbid that someone should tell them to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus.  That’s not a message that will get the crowds – after all, they’ll only come in and ruin your expensive carpet.   

     Of course, Jesus had the crowds, but the more he talked about his cross and losing themselves in his mission, the more he lost them.  Of course he wanted the crowds.  That’s what he sent his disciples out to do, to call them to him.  But not just to be entertained by his miracles, or to benefit from the food he could give them in dire circumstances.  He did not train people to be takers, but to be givers, as he himself would give.  He called them to deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow him.  

     Crowds or not, Jesus wants to talk to Peter about where he had set his mind:  on what you want, or on what God wants.  If consumerism is the mark of church life today, then what would Jesus have to say about that?  Would he give the crowds what they want?  Well, he didn’t.  He didn’t give his own disciples what they wanted.  He asked them to adjust their minds, to have minds set on what God wants, not just on what they want, to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. 

     What makes that so difficult for us?  Luther had an answer, and he taught it to us with a Latin phrase.  He said that the human being is by nature “homo incurvatus se” – the human being turned in on himself.  He said that was the story of the Bible:  it begins with two people in the Garden doing what they wanted, to people building a tower to show their splendor, to a king willing to kill to satisfy his own lusts, to prophets and priests who sell themselves to the government.  All these stories depict the very nature of the human being, a creature turned in upon itself, a person that thinks this whole world is all about himself.  Until – and this is the good news – until God steps in and offers another way:  by the power of the gospel to turn us away from ourselves, to see that God has redeemed us through Christ the Crucified, so that we can see the whole world, including our own nature, made new by the power of his resurrection.  Only through God’s saving action are we turned away from ourselves to live for others, as Christ has lived for us.  

     Back in the 1930’s what Jesus said in today’s Gospel lesson inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer to leave the safety of a seminary in America to return to his native Germany and give his life to rebuilding the church within an atmosphere hostile to the church.  It led him to write his book called The Cost of Discipleship with its famous sentence:  “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die.”  And then he adds another:  “To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy.”  Bonhoeffers’ favorite image of Jesus was not that of a crowd-pleasing entrepreneur, but a “man for others.”  For Bonhoeffer Jesus suffered the cross, because he was a “man for others.”

     So we will continue to lift high Jesus’ cross in this congregation, because that cross is the prime example of someone who gave himself for others, i.e. for us.  It has the power to get people to reset themselves, and to find out what real life is all about:  not locked into ourselves and our own needs, but aware also of the needs of others.  We are changed from takers into givers, and now we invite people into the giving, something they are not used to doing.  And along the way we will remember that Jesus started with twelve, only twelve, and now his name is uttered this day throughout the earth.  Today Christians throughout the world gather in front of a cross with the ability to reset their minds not on what they want, but what God wants of us, so that all people may experience the love of Jesus Christ.

    -- Richard L. Jeske

                                                         9/3/17

       

     

             

 

BUILD MY CHURCH,” HE SAID

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 16:13-20

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

 

     Today’s Gospel reading happens to be one of the most formative and influential passages of the Bible, for both Protestants and Catholics.  But both groups would disagree on the most important part of the story.

 

    Protestants say it is Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” that is the most important part of the story.  Peter’s dramatic answer is “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  We call it “Peter’s confession,” and we think of it as the highlight of the story.

 

     On the other hand, for Roman Catholics, the most important part of the story is Jesus’ follow-up statement “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  It’s like Jesus was making Peter the foundation of the church and a sign that Peter would be the first pope. 

     For Protestants, especially among conservative evangelical circles in this country, the most important thing about Christianity is for you to accept Jesus as your personal Savior, that you’re able to say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Often when you see in the news that some criminal, white-collar or otherwise, is being brought to justice, they often try to reassure us that they’re really nice people after all, even good Christians, because they’ve accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.  

     So the dramatic part of the story for Protestants is Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?,” and Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Wow, what a wonderful confession, we say.  Yet the part we forget in this story is that Jesus doesn’t want Peter to tell anyone else what he just said.  He’s to keep his opinion about Jesus to himself – because, we’ll soon find out in the following verses, Peter has the wrong idea.  There’s more to being a disciple of Jesus than just mouthing a confession out loud.

     For Catholics, on the other hand, the dramatic point in this story is when Jesus gives his disciple Simon the name “Peter” (which means “Rock”), and tells him that he will be the one on whom Jesus’ church will be built.  For Catholics this is a founding moment for the church:  it is founded on Peter, and Jesus gives him the keys to heaven itself, and tells him that he gets to decide who will get in and who will get left out.  “To you (i.e. Peter) I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

     Catholics also see in this passage the entire developing history of the Western Church, a church that must look to Peter and his successors as the dominant authority in their lives.  The office of the Bishop of Rome is called “the chair of St. Peter,” and the Pope “the successor of St. Peter.”  And throughout the history of the Western Church that authority and those keys have been wielded.  In the year 1054 the Bishop of Rome closed heaven to all of Eastern Orthodox Christianity by excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople, and a wound opened between Eastern and Western Christianity that has not been healed to this day.  A host of others in the West, including Martin Luther, are still officially supposed to be standing outside heaven and looking in.  In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, who was head of the Church of England, and the breach between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church became complete.  In 1896 Pope Leo XIII declared the ordinations in the Church of England invalid.   One wonders if all that was originally meant by Jesus when he said “On you I will build my church.”  

     Maybe when Jesus told his disciples to be quiet about all this he already knew what they would do with his church until they learned a few other things.  Maybe he realized that there would be people who would lie, cheat, steal, kill, and defame others and still think they could be great members of his church if they would just say they love Jesus.  Maybe he realized that once given the authority to forgive sins they would wind up splitting his church into countless denominations, where people who want to learn about him don’t know where to begin.  Maybe that’s why Jesus initially told his disciples to keep their grandiose opinions about him to themselves.  Maybe he knew from the beginning what we would do with his church once we got hold of it.

     That’s why it is important for all of us Christians throughout the world to read the same passages together on this day, and especially to hear St. Paul’s words in our second lesson for today:

“By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”  (Romans 12:3-5)

That was not just Paul’s idea.  Jesus also prayed that his followers might all be one, and he connected that unity to the mission of his church:  “Father, I pray that they may all be one, so that they world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).  St. Paul knew that when our egos get in the way, the unity of Christ’s church will be fractured.  

     I love the story told by the late great rabbi Alexander Schindler, who left his hotel room in Jerusalem one morning to go pray at the Wailing Wall.  When he got out of his taxi, he noticed that he had forgotten to bring his yarmulke, the small skullcap that is a sign of humility before God when Jews pray.  When he approached the Wall, a young boy was standing there carrying a box of yarmulkes for sale, and the boy pulled at the edge of the rabbi’s jacket and said, “Sir, you forgot your yarmulke.”  Schindler thought to himself, “I can finesse this kid.”  So he said to the boy, “Oh no I haven’t.  Do you see that sky up there that God has made?  It stretches from horizon to horizon.  That beautiful sky is my yarmulke today.”  The boy looked up at the sky, thought for a second, and said to the rabbi, “Such a big yarmulke for such a little head.”

     What a big yarmulke Jesus placed on his followers’ heads when he said, “On you I will build my church.”  What a huge yarmulke when he gave them the power to forgive sins, that what they would bind and loose on earth would be bound and loosed in heaven.  But that’s how he said he would build his church, and it is those three words that are the most important part of today’s Gospel:  “build my church,” he said.

     First of all, Jesus could not conceive of any other church except his church.  It is his church because he does not want to give it away to anyone else.  He does not want to give you away to anyone else.  “On you,” he said to his disciple, “I will build my church.”  That means that his followers are not to mouth their confession of him as their Messiah only to lie, cheat, steal, kill, defame, and exclude others from his church.  He is the one who drew all people to himself; he was the friend of tax collectors and sinners, and when people chided him about that, he said, “I haven’t come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).  And why?  To offer them the forgiveness of sins, so that they can experience a loving God in the midst of a loving church.  

     So whenever we think of our church as “our” church, we need to remind ourselves that it is not “our” church at all, because it has never been “our” church.  It is Christ’s church and it will always be Christ’s church, even when we are gone.  And whatever time is still left to us on this earth we are to do what we can to make Christ preeminent in our church, to let his plans for it unfold, and to set our own egos aside so that people are able to see Christ here in our midst.  It will be a church that will always remind others of what Jesus himself said:  “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

     “My church,” he said.  So what about his own ego?  Well, we know the answer to that.  He took his own ego to the cross and gave it up, and now we get a chance to participate in that.  Our baptism into his death and resurrection allows us to put our own designs aside and look for his plan, his way, his mission, that we might engage in the real building of Christ’s own church.

     A second thing we need to hear again and again is that Jesus wants to build his church.  “On you,” he said, “I will build my church.”  That’s the mission he gives us, the big yarmulke he places on our heads.  To build his church.  You know, that is a task that is never done.  Just because we’ve erected a building here at this spot is not the end of the task, but just the beginning.  The church is not a building, but people.  “On you,” he said, “I will build my church.”  That job is never done.  Generations come and go, people die, people move, people come and people go – but the task remains the same, and we are given a big yarmulke, to build Jesus’ church.  And remember, the yarmulke is a sign of humility before God.  To build Christ’s church is something that must be done with humility.

     Each one of us is invited to take part in building Christ’s church.  Each one of us must ask “what am I doing to help build Christ’s church?  Are my wants and my desires getting in the way of building Christ’s church?  After all, in the long run, it is not we who build it, but Christ himself.  “On you,” he said, “I will build my church.”  And how does Christ do this?  He does it by sending us to each other with the most precious gift he can give, namely the forgiveness of sins.  And he tells us to share it – to participate in opening heaven to people.  It is not a gift that we keep for ourselves, but a gift that we share with others.  That’s how the church is built:  with the love of God.  “I will build my church on you,” he said, “and to do that I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

     So ask yourselves, what have I done to help build the church?  What can I do?  What can I do to build unity among Christians, among my own congregation?  What can I do to help build unity among Christians in the worldwide Body of Christ?  How can I see myself in Jesus’ promise:  “On you I will build my church”?  Think of it:  we’ve been invited to build, and we’ve been given the gifts to do so.  So let’s use them and we will witness the fulfillment of that promise:  “On you I will build my church.”

                                                                                                              -- Richard L. Jeske, 8/27/17