June 21st Third Sunday after Pentecost
The last words my father said to me before he died were, “Give’m hell, Poll.”
I understand that this might strike you as odd—my father was a priest, after all, and speaking to me in this way, as if I were one of his old marine platoon members, might sound severe to you, or authoritarian. To me, though, they are words of love, words I cherish.
My dad, you see, was rarely stern. He was not a controlling parent at all— he gave us the freedom as kids to find ourselves, with lots of room for mistakes. I think my friends loved him almost as much as I did, as dad was Father Bill to them too— the gregarious priest with a personality as big as the sky and some endearing but definitely unconventional ways about him.
When dad said to me, Give’m hell, Poll (short for Polly) he was encouraging me to go on, get after it—to be bold in following my call. You see, we’d just talked that week, or I should say, I had just gotten up my courage to tell dad I was going to go to seminary one day.
That was over 18 years ago, but just as the thought of dad comes rushing back to me when I smell Old Spice mixed with stale cigarettes, or when I eat an egg sandwich and remember how dad smothered his in ketchup, I can still clearly hear dad, giving me his unorthodox blessing: Give’m hell, Poll.
Dad served only his two obligatory years in the Marines. But even as a priest, Dad was a marine to the day he died.
His approach to life embraced two mottos: “Take that hill,” and “Live by faith.”
If your platoon sergeant says take that hill, by God you take it. And if your savior tells you he loves you even until the end of time, by God you live the life of a beloved. My father was fearless– which is not to say that he was always the best one to follow, as sometimes his fearlessness got us into trouble.
I tell the Story of the ill-fated Canoe trip down Clear Creek.
The next morning you should have heard the sermon Dad preached, on the evils of the ego and the sins of pride, boasting, and self-absorption. Right there in the chapel on the side of Clear Creek Dad preached a hell, fire and damnation sermon aimed entirely at his own folly.
This is the way Dad tackled everything, every problem and every challenge, head on and with unwavering faith.
When I sat down with today’s gospel lesson, I thought of my dad. I’m sure Father’s Day had something to do with it, because I remember how dad embraced the revelry of passages such as these: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
Dad never shied away from preaching the fiery words of Jesus: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” And Dad believed to the sole of his feet, “that even the hairs of your head are all counted. So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
These disparate sentences hold such contrasting ideas. Yet, Matthew saw fit to capture them and put them all together here. The dissimilarity in these verses, the way they contrast one another, fueled my father’s preaching, and have to admit that I feel their energy fueling me too: these challenging words make us think.
Jesus begins this teaching using the imagery of masters and slaves, and we cringe to hear these words— remembering how the church used these passages and others in the bible to justify the horrific practice of slavery in this country—the end of which we celebrated this Friday, June 19th, Juneteenth. Tragically, as if the whole practice of legally enslaving humans wasn’t bad enough, Juneteenth was well over a year after slavery was outlawed.
Let’s be clear, Jesus was not referring to modern day slavery.
Jesus is teaching his followers, just as the prophets of old had done, that there is only one god, one master, and that is God, whom he called Father, the creator of all things visible and invisible, and this master offered life, not enslavement, this master gave his only son to reconcile us to himself.
Matthew tells us that Jesus goes on warn his followers about those who call the master of the house Be-elzebul, “how much more will they malign those of his household.” Here we need to learn more…we may hear the word devil, when we hear Be-elzebub, but this was mostly a Christian interpretation.
For the Hebrew people, Be-elzebub was the name associated with a Philistine god. Again, like the prophets of old and all of scripture, Jesus reminds Israel there is only one God—look to no other gods, not those you’re jealous of or those wonder if they might make you feel safer or happier. We are to be faithful to the one who made us and who aches to redeem this beautifully diverse and wondrous world. While we won’t attempt that in this one sermon, Matthew’s entire string of Jesus sayings all need exploration— like most of ancient literature—none can be torn out and used apart from the bigger story—all are part of the greatest story ever told, the long and ongoing work of a loving God who continually calls us to love. That is the big story.
One of the distinctions of the Anglican way, of which we are, by the way, as Episcopalians, is that we believe we are all theologians—that is, our faith embraces the belief that we best discern scripture in community. We understand the words of the New and Old Testament only when study together, and study with the scholars who’ve studied this forever. The ancient beliefs, biases, mythologies of the writers of scripture are foreign to us. But not undiscoverable.
We are all theologians, we are to do theology—which as one scholar puts it, is simple: The task of theology is the linking of our individual story to the biggest story we can imagine.
The late great Rachel Held Evans wrote: “If the biggest story we can imagine is about God’s loving and redemptive work in the world, our lives will be shaped by that epic. If the biggest story we can imagine is something else, like religious nationalism, or “follow your bliss,” or “he who dies with the most toys wins,” then our lives will be shaped by those narratives instead.”
We call ourselves Christians, so, as I see it, we are to choose the first narrative: God’s story of redemption—and remember …
it is not a story of long ago, God’s story is ongoing in each of us. Every morning we wake up, just as Paul in his letter implored the Romans to do: we are to walk in newness of life. That means, wake up and remind ourselves what we took on in our baptismal vows—Do you renounce the evil powers that destroy the creatures of God? Do you put your whole trust in Christ’s faith and love?Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? All persons? Will you strive (that means work) for justice and peace?
In other words, Christians, take that hill.
And every morning we are to wake up reminding ourselves we are loved—loved to the end of time.
In other words, live by faith.
So I say to you now, go out there and Give’m hell, friends!!