Scott Painter - Author & Teacher
Halloween Homily 2011
Halloween Homily by Scott Painter
Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church on October 30, 2011
Matthew 23:1-12, Joshua 3:7-17
Perhaps, it is because of the browning lawns or yellowing trees; maybe it’s that Halloween is finally upon us (a big deal at my house!); it may well have to do the first few cool nights after an incessantly hot and humid East Texas summer.
I’ve noticed, too, that over the last few weeks our Gospel readings have begun to make a subtle turn. That is probably a large part of it.
Whatever the cause, at some point in the last few years, and again this year, I seem to have added an additional season to my own personal liturgical calendar. While the wide church still calls this “ordinary time”, my mind and heart have already turned. These days no longer much feel ordinary. Something is shifting. I guess I am in a Pre-Advent. I have already begun waiting… for the waiting, preparing for the preparation, longing with an Advent yearning for God’s reign.
We are almost back to where this year began. On the first Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2010, we encountered Jesus’ enigmatic words in Matthew 24: “Keep watch! For, you do not know what day your Lord is coming.”
And then we hit rewind and jetted back to the beginning of Matthew’s story, all the way back to someone like a Crazy Uncle living, quite literally, in the margins, and boldly declaring that things were about to change. It was John the Baptist, by the river Jordan, dressed in animal skins, living on bugs and bees, hitting everybody upside the head with his “turn or burn” message. “Repent! God’s kingdom is at hand!” (Something tells me that an encounter with St. John in this scene was not an altogether lovely experience.)
It is likely that John wouldn’t have envisioned then everything that was coming in the next few years. The Kingdom was coming, for sure. But, Jesus may have just been more and/or less than he hoped for. (We’re even told that in at least one instance he sent his own followers to verify the authenticity of this would-be savior.) But John’s message was spot on in a very important aspect: what was coming, God’s Kingdom, would require a wholesale change on the part of anyone moved to embrace it.
And, so, over these last months, we have witnessed Matthew’s Jesus. We have heard him declare GOOD NEWS: that “the kingdom of God has come near”-- sometimes translated “among you” and sometimes, “within you.” And, the now-present kingdom will require repentance—a turning from the way things are to the way they are meant to be.
Then, we hear Jesus’ most famous of sermons – the one in which he proclaims that the poor are blessed, and the meek and humble are blessed, the forgivers are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed, the pure and the persecuted are blessed. He has taught about the essence of forgiveness, about the high bar of right living, about the worry-free life, about being devoted to God above all else. He has assured that God cares for us, will take care of us.
Our Lord has been actively lifting folk out of the muck and mire of their lives—forgiving sinners, healing the sick, restoring the dignity of people, raising the dead. He has fed the multitudes.
In all of this, Jesus has enacted the advent of God’s rule and reign, the heavenly kingdom breaking into this world and setting things right. He says that the Kingdom is going to be open to anybody who wants in. He declares that “tax collectors and prostitutes” will have a far better chance of getting in on it than those posted at the gates, trying to keep people out.
Jesus tells a story of a vineyard owner who hired whomever he wished and paid them whatever he pleased, regardless of their “merit” or time worked; he said that God’s Kingdom is like that, offensively open to anybody and everybody.
He analogized shepherds who would leave 99 to find even one lost sheep. So, in the Kingdom, he teaches, each and every one—even the most helpless and weakest member of the flock—is of equal value. No one gets an edge; no one gets left out.
Have you been adequately scandalized by Jesus yet? There is much to offend us in what he said and what he did, who he loved and how he lived. Conventional wisdom does us little good when God is getting God’s way.
In recent weeks, the Gospel narrative has taken a subtle turn. Lately, we have discovered some folks to whom this Kingdom of Heaven business doesn’t sound all that great.
These folks are dismayed at the prospect of losing some of their power, of losing the prestige and popularity of being on top. Their place in this new order is in doubt: they are not the least, nor the last, nor the lost, nor the lonely. They are not the weak, not the powerless, not the “sinners” (ahem!). They don’t have need, don’t lack for anything, and aren’t interested in change at all. In fact, these are the very ones profiting and maintaining their own power on the backs of the rest.
So, the conspiracy begins to take shape. Jesus is fundamentally messing up the system, and the ones in charge are determined to beat him back. The tests and the tricks are set to begin.
They question his authority, and he questions their devotion. Then, they plot against him, to trick him into speaking out against the government. He offers a pitch-perfect response–give to this world what belongs to this world, give to God what belongs to God.
They test his knowledge of the law, and Jesus responds with the perfect summation of all the law and the prophets—love God with all that you are and love the ones God created—your neighbor—as much as you love yourself.
And today’s reading offers us the rest of the story from last week. Jesus really pushes back; he takes it right to the power players who are causing all the damage.
I heard someone say once, “If we want to know what God is like, we need not look any further than Jesus.” Just imagine if that’s true. Just imagine.
In our lesson today, Joshua picks up where Moses must leave off. After decades of wandering in the desert, God’s people are ready to cross literally to the other side of the Jordan into the land of promise. Moses’ time as their leader has come to an end, and it is Joshua’s task to lead God’s people forward into Promise.
In first century Palestine, a new Joshua—Yeshua, Jesus—has arrived to lead God’s people into promise: not just another land, but a new creation—life in the perfect care and keeping of God, under God’s reign.
Jesus has lived and taught and acted to demonstrate the glorious possibilities and promise of God’s Kingdom. Now, the time has come to draw a contrast, to cast a vision of life as we know it, juxtaposed against the “eternal kind of life” that God has made available. He offers a new covenant, one written on the heart; and he offers a new deliverance from spiritual exile, from political captivity, from religious oppression.
Jesus offers a light and easy burden, has summoned the weary and heavy-laden to rest in him and the life that he offers. He cannot allow those appointed to keep the gates of Moses’ law (the same ones who have tied up heavy burdens and dumped them on the shoulders of the people) to continue to speak with God’s authority. They are teaching the law, for sure, but their lives are not lived in the spirit of the law.
The religious hierarchy sits on the seat of Moses, disseminates the Law of Moses. But, Jesus has come to fulfill the Law of Moses. He is preparing to lead his people in the new way, into new life, in preparation for a new order of things, in anticipation of all things being made new and set right and being made whole.
He must call a spade a spade, he must help the people to see that this is different: the life offered in him is more than they have ever thought or asked or imagined.
If it’s true that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, then the reign of God is for anybody and everybody. If it’s true, then the least and the last and the lost turn out to be first and the found and the dearest to God’s heart. If it’s all true, then it really is the best message we could ever imagine – it is GOSPEL. And it CHANGES US.
Brennan Manning, former Roman Catholic priest, monk, and ascetic, and now modern-day preacher of God’s grace offers a glimpse of a life set free in this Gospel: “Uncontaminated trust in the revelation of Jesus allows us to breathe more freely, to dance more joyfully, and to sing more gratefully about the gift of salvation.”
If this is the case--that the Kingdom has come and the Kingdom is good and the Kingdom is better than the most genius conception of any human mind—then, it turns out, there is bad news, too. Because, the new way, the way of God’s reign, must displace the way of my own.
If it will be that God gets God’s own way, than my own way must bow down. My best offering is to be humble and to serve, to live in love, to welcome those whom God welcomes, to embrace whom God embraces.
All of this leads us to the most fundamental question of why Christians do what they do. Why do we worship? Why do we serve the homeless or send missionaries to far away lands? Why do we invest so heavily in things that often yield intangible rewards? Because we believe that this is all worth it!
To be captured by the beauty and power and promise--the love!--of God, to turn and embrace it as my own way, to be called into the vocation of seeing it realized through my own actions in the world around me is worth it. This is why we are here: to live out the life of LOVE BY WHOM we have been transformed.
It seems sometimes that the notion of belief in many religious circles has been relegated to one of two worlds—one, of wishing upon a star or clicking together the heels of one’s ruby slippers to bring about some magical outcome; the other, a list of propositional truths to which one must ascend in order to be certifiably “in”.
The belief espoused by Jesus is different, something more. It is not a mental assent to fairy tales or a blind subscription to stories of old; neither is it just some newly militarized zone with clearly defined borders of belief. Rather, Christian belief is something living and active—something that involves transforming love and the reorientation of one’s entire existence around a story that is so good--too good, in fact, to be true—that it must be true. It begins in each of us, but necessarily works its way into the words and actions and relationships of every true believer.
And coming into this belief is where we repent and turn TO the good and holy and loving reign of God—near us, among us, within us, and through us, to the glory of God and for the good of others.
May it be so in each of us.
Scott Painter grew up in rural Ohio, the son of a Pentecostal preacher. Himself a former minister, Scott resides in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He is the Upper School Director at Holy Trinity Episcopal in Houston. Scott holds degrees from Evangel University, Springfield, MO and the University of Houston.