One Job

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Sermon for May 2nd, 2021

Readings:

My favorite story in the entire Book of Acts is the one we get this morning: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. It is such a brief little passage, and it is such a brief encounter between Philip, one of the first deacons of the church, and this unnamed Ethiopian, but I could spend days talking about it because there is just so much going on here. There are so many implications that can be drawn from this passage for how we, as disciples of Jesus, should be evangelizing and proclaiming the good news to the world; how we should be sharing the faith with all people and baptizing them into the body of Christ. We could draw all sorts of conclusions from this passage about what we as Christians need to be doing to grow the church, but I want to point you in a different direction first this morning. I want to draw your attention to something else. First, I want you to pay attention this morning to what God is doing to grow his church. 

Take a closer look at that passage from Acts. It was an angel of the Lord that said to Philip “go down this road.” And when Philip had gone down the road that the angel had told him to go down, the Spirit of the Lord told him to “go over to this chariot and join it.” And after Philip and the Eunuch have their encounter, and the Eunuch is baptized, it is the Spirit of the Lord that snatches Philip away and sends him off to preach somewhere else. You know, it’s almost like God has something to do with this! Like maybe God has his thumb on the scale with helping the Church out.

It was God who told Philip to go down this road. It was God who told Philip to go and talk to this person. And eventually it is God that tells Philip that it is time to move on and preach to other people. God is directing the action here. Yes, Philip has a role to play. Philip needs to be obedient to God. Philip needs to go where the angel or the spirit direct him to go, and Philip needs to have the courage to speak when it is time for him to speak, but I doubt that Philip woke up that morning with a grand plan to evangelize the Ethiopians. This encounter was a part of God’s plan, not Philip’s. Philip wouldn’t have imagined it. God is directing Philip here and Philip’s success comes directly from his ability and willingness to listen to God. 

Philip wasn’t a biblical scholar. There is no evidence here to suggest that he was rich, or that he was a charismatic speaker; we don’t know what he looked like: if he was handsome or charming…we don’t know any of that. What we know is that God said go, and Philip went. Philip didn’t have all the answers, but there was one thing that he had supreme confidence in, and that was that Jesus was the messiah. As far as Philip was concerned that is the only answer that matters. Philip doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows who does…Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just have the answers; he is the answer. Philip knows that Jesus is the answer, not just to the Eunuch’s question about scripture, but to all of the Eunuch’s questions; all of his struggles and pains and hopes; Philip knows that the answer to all of that is the man who died and rose again. The man who forgives sins and defeats death. Philip knows that Jesus can change this man’s life. Philip knows that Jesus can give him a new life, a life that is about more than just guarding other people’s riches; a life where you aren’t forced into slavery and mutilated along the way. Philip doesn’t have much power to help this man, but he knows that Jesus has unending power. So Philip, as a follower of Jesus, has one job. One Job. And unlike all those other people in the world that have one job and can’t seem to do it, Philip does his job. Philip’s job, Philip’s one job, is to connect people to Jesus. That’s it. Philip’s one job in his encounter with the Eunuch is to connect him to Christ, and he does his job. And you’ll notice that the moment Philip does his job, God moves him on and basically says, OK, I’ll take it from here. 

And the Eunuch goes his way rejoicing and Philip is moved by the spirit off to preach the gospel somewhere else. All Philip needed to do was to point this man to Jesus. Philip needed to connect him to Jesus; once that relationship was made, the Eunuch is going to get his nourishment and sustenance from Jesus. Jesus will answer his questions.

You know, Episcopalians are notoriously bad at evangelism, or sharing our faith, and I think that one of the reasons why, is because we are afraid that someone might ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to. What does this scripture mean? Why do you cross yourself here? Why do some Christians do this and some Christians do that? We don’t want someone to ask us a question that we don’t have the answer to, so we avoid the situation by not talking about our faith at all. 

But we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to know every scripture by heart or know every answer to every question about our faith, as long as we know that the ultimate answer, to all of it, is Jesus. We just have to connect people to Jesus. That is our job. He will help them find the answers. He is the answer. Our problem is not lacking knowledge, it is lacking courage. Lacking courage to go when God says go and to speak when God says speak. We get so caught up in our plans and in our strategies for growth and in trying to figure out how we are going to grow the church and draw in new members and attract new families, and on and on and on, and we forget that God is playing an active role in all this, and God may not care one bit about your plans. Listen to God; go where he sends you, share your faith with those you meet along the way, and most importantly, connect people to Jesus! Do not forget that God has his thumb on the scale and he is trying to help us, we just have to be willing to listen and to know that even if we don’t have all the answers, we know the one who does. 

Over the past two thousand years, some of the most brilliant minds in history have written some deep, powerful, mystical, complicated stuff about Christianity, and Christian theology, and scriptural interpretation. The reality of God and the mystery of what Christ did on the cross and the implications of his resurrection, all these things are probably far more profound than what you learned in Sunday School as a kid. The Christian faith is not a simple religion and I am not at all in favor of dumbing it down. I think we still need to use our greatest minds to grapple with the truths that God has revealed to us, just like we always have. But you don’t need a Master’s degree to start your Christian journey. You shouldn’t have to have a diploma in theology or scripture to become a baptized part of the body of Christ. As far as I am concerned, if you can come to me and in good faith make the responses in our prayer book that are a part of the baptismal service, if you can reject Satan and the evil forces of this world and if you can affirm to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and saviour and if you can affirm a belief in the Church’s faith as the creed states it (even if you don’t completely understand every word just yet), well as far as I am concerned, that’s good enough, let’s find some water and get you baptized. We don’t need to make joining Christ’s body needlessly hard for people. Now following Jesus, that is a life-long endeavor. And I would expect that if you are a sincere follower of Jesus that prayer, and serious study, and scripture reading, and acts of charity and mercy will feature prominently in your life, but God didn’t wait for us to love him before he loved us. If we are waiting for people to become expert Christians before we encourage them to join the fold, then our churches are going to be very empty indeed. God is already at work in people’s lives, leading and directing them to his son long before they figure it out and respond. God wanted that Eunuch in his church, that is why he leaned on Philip and tipped the scales to make that encounter happen. God wants people in his church and we can either facilitate that process or we can be a barrier to it. 

You don’t need a master’s degree to become a baptized Christian, and guess what, you don’t need a master’s degree to become an evangelist either. You don’t need every answer to every question about theology and scripture. You just need the conviction that Jesus is the answer and the conviction that he wants people that are outside the church to be inside it. Don’t worry about knowing what to do or what to say. The truth is, it may not be your job to bring someone to the beatific vision of the heavenly throne. It may not be your job to bring them to a complete understanding of God and Holy Scripture. Your job might be just a momentary encounter with someone, planting a seed, redirecting someone, setting them down a path, telling them that I think the answer is this way, this is where I found God, this is who the messiah is. That may be all that God wants you to do. You have to trust that God has a hand in this too. 

What do you need to make a new Christian? What you need is some clean water and a person with a desire to follow Jesus. That is what you need. That is when you graft a new shoot onto the vine that will give them life. What do you need to be an evangelist? You need faith that Jesus is the answer and you need the courage to listen to the Holy Spirit. That’s it. 

Friends, we as the church, are all called to be evangelists, not all in exactly the same way, but every one of us is called to connect and direct other people to Jesus Christ. We, the church, have one job to do, and we had better get busy doing it.

Not in word or speech

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Sermon for April 25th, 2021

Readings:

 

 

 

There are 4 people in the world that you never want to trust, or at least I should say, you don’t want to trust them completely. Not really people actually, but professions. There are 4 professions that you would be wise to be very cautious around and I’ll explain why. Here they are: politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists. I’ll say that again for those of you who are taking notes: politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists. You have to be very careful with these people. It’s NOT that you can’t trust ANY of them, there are good, honest people working in all 4 of those professions that do amazing things, it’s just that you have to be very careful because the potential for abuse is so high. As we are sitting here right now, you can probably think of multiple scumbags in every category I just mentioned. Please don’t embarrass anyone by saying them out loud though.

 

Why are those 4 professions so tricky? Why are we rightly suspicious of politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists? It’s quite simple really: all 4 of those people get paid to use words. Words are their raw materials, their product and their currency. Politicians, preachers, lawyers, and journalists all make their living by using and manipulating words. They aren’t the only ones, most professions use words to some degree, but those 4 especially do. And your success in one of those 4 professions is quite often linked to how cleverly or how skillfully you use words. People in these jobs become masters of word use. We know which words will make you laugh; we know which words will make you cry. We know which words are going to make you angry. We know how to make you feel proud of yourselves. We have an arsenal of words, because that is how we make our living. If we don’t have the right word, rest assured we will make one up. And just so that you don’t forget that we are masters of words, every now and then we will throw in a Latin word just to remind everyone that we know more words than they do. And you know what, sometimes, a lot of times, knowing lots of words is not a bad thing.

 

When politicians use the wrong words, they can cause great harm, but a politician that uses words effectively can make good trade agreements, settle shaky markets, calm public emotions, pass good laws and create peace treaties. When a preacher uses the wrong words, he or she can get people hoping or believing in the wrong things, but when a preacher uses the right words, to direct people to God and to Jesus Christ, well that has the power to save peoples’ lives as well as their souls. Those words have the power to give meaning to a meaningless world. Lawyers? Well we all love to pick on lawyers, and it’s all fun and games until you need one. In a world where people do NOT always have the best intentions, a good lawyer can protect you and defend you with their carefully chosen words. And yes, we all know how manipulative journalists can be with the information that they convey and how they convey it, and yet we also know that some journalists go to extreme lengths and take huge personal risks to share important information with us. The words of a good journalist have the power to reveal truth and connect us to the rest of the world.

 

There are good and trustworthy people in all of these professions, but whenever you encounter someone who uses words for a living you need to be very careful. Because words are so cheap and easy to use. It is so easy to manipulate people just by using words. You know, there once was a time when the printed word was quite costly. Certainly in the ancient world and the medieval world, not everyone could read or write, paper, parchment, vellum and papyrus were all expensive, so writings, the written word, that was a precious thing. Our word scripture, comes from the Latin word for writing. (See what I did there, I used a Latin word. I am earning my money this morning).

 

But even long after the invention of the printing press, the written word was still highly regarded and trusted. So was the spoken word on radio and television. Words, themselves, have always been cheap, but broadcasting those words to people who aren’t standing within earshot of you, well up until very recently that has been very expensive. But not so anymore. Think about this: this service is being broadcast on the internet this morning, we have been doing this for over a year now. Lots of churches have had to do this over this past year. We had to make an initial investment in the equipment, but beyond that it doesn’t cost us a whole lot to do this. My words can be heard anywhere on earth by anyone with internet access and a computer or phone. That should kinda scare you. Because what if I were a crackpot? What if the words I used up here had no relationship to reality or truth? Words are cheaper now than they ever were, not just for politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists, but for everyone.

 

You have in your pocket or in your purse, or if you are watching at home, in your hands, a device capable of sending words around the world. You can put words in print and you can broadcast them in ways that even our grandparents never would have imagined. Now everyone is discovering what politicians and preachers and lawyers and journalists have known for a long time, everyone is learning just how easy it is to use and manipulate words and how cheap they really are. Anybody can go online and say anything they want. A teenager can create graphics and memes and webpages that say anything. Doesn’t have to be true. Words are cheap. The internet is cheap. Why shouldn’t I share my opinions about molecular biology, epidemiology, or economics? Does it matter that I am in no way qualified to talk about those things? Doesn’t everyone want to know my opinion on everything? Does it matter if the things I say and share, either in person or online, are in any way connected to the truth? If I type in the right words to form the correct opinion that is sure to gain approval from my very carefully cultivated group of friends, can I go home and congratulate myself for a hard day’s work?

 

Some people are so courageous these days…some people will even go to the length of changing their Facebook profile photo, adding a few words to show the world that they support a particular cause. I mean, if I don’t go out of my way to tell people that I think something is wrong on my Facebook page, then how would anyone possibly know what I stand for? And if I do that, and if you do that, and if we all just agree to use the right words and say the right things, then we can solve all of our nation’s problems overnight right? Does it matter if the words we say are true? Does it matter if we ever back them up with action? It is so much easier to take moral stands on issues when all it involves is issuing a public statement with a few carefully chosen words. So there will always be this temptation to just use words.

 

Well for the average online pundit, words may be enough, but they are NOT enough for a committed Christian. Manipulating words might make you successful as a politician, a preacher, a lawyer or a journalist, they might even make you socially popular in person and online, but words alone will not make you a follower of Jesus Christ, because Jesus taught us using more than words.

 

 “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, NOT in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

 

 Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

 

Words are great. Words are wonderful. Words are powerful. I love words; I’m a preacher and I get paid to use them, just like politicians, lawyers and journalists, but words need to be connected to truth and action. Not just for those of us in these sketchy professions, but for all of us, especially for those of us who bear the name Christian, because our words and our lives need to bear witness to the truth of the gospel. All of our words. The words we say in person, the words we share online or in print. People need to be able to trust that when we are talking about the love of God, we really mean it. People need to know that we aren’t just using words to manipulate them, but are actually sharing truth that is reflected in our actions and in our lives. In John’s epistle he’s talking about the word love, and he says how can you go around saying that you love people or using the word love if that word doesn’t seem to have any relation to truth or action in your life? If someone says that they love you with their lips but then mistreats you with their hands, where is the truth? It’s great for someone to say they love you, but if you have to choose between someone that says it and someone that shows it. Pick the person that shows it, because words are cheap, and they are getting cheaper all the time, not just for politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists, but for everybody. Christians have no business using love, or any other word, unless those words are connected to truth and action. Before you post something or share something or say something, online or in person, ask yourself “is this true?” “Do I know this for a fact to be true” AND “am I willing to actually DO anything about it?” “Am I willing to put my money, my time or my life on the line for this?” Am I using my words to spread actual truth, not just uninformed opinions? Am I using my words to inspire real action, and not just self-righteousness? Because words are cheap. The word “love” is cheap, but true love, the love God shows us in the gospel, well that can cost you everything.

 

 

 

The Resurrection of the Body

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Sermon for April 18th, 2021

Readings:

Picture it: Jerusalem, the year 33AD. 

Jesus had been crucified, and three days later rose from the dead. Forty days later his disciples witness him ascend into heaven. Ten days after that was the Feast of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and they are given the power and the ability to preach the gospel in every language. Jesus’s followers are being transformed into the early church right before our eyes; that is the story that we are told in the beginning of the Book of Acts. And one day, during these early days of the church, Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray. Remember that even though Peter and John were followers of Jesus and were believers in his resurrection, they were also still faithful Jews. They had no problem worshipping God in the temple; after all, the God that was worshipped there: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, they believed that that very God had shown his glory in the person of Jesus Christ, so they were headed up to the temple to praise the God that raised Jesus from the dead. 

And as they are headed into the temple a man who was born lame stops them. He asks them for alms; some spare change…anything. And Peter stopped and looked him in the eye, so did John. And Peter says to him “look at us.” Now this is kind of a strange moment, because how often do we avoid making eye contact with people, especially if we think they are going to ask us for money? I’ve done it and you probably have too. But here Peter and John look this man in the eye and they invite him to do the same; it is a very intimate moment between strangers. 

And Peter says to the man “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Now let me say that I am willing to believe Peter here that he didn’t have any money. I’m sure that the lame man had been told hundreds of times by people rushing into the temple, people that wouldn’t look him in the eye, that they had no money, but Peter doesn’t do that. Peter and John stop, they look him in the eye, Peter takes the man’s hand, and offers him something more precious than gold…the name of Jesus. Peter says “in the name of Jesus, stand up and walk” and he helps him up. And not only does the man stand up, he jumps up, leaps and walks and goes into the temple with them to praise God. And people saw it and were amazed.

Incidentally, this episode is represented in this stained-glass window over here. Anyways, after all this happens a crowd gathers around and Peter begins to address them, and that is where our first reading from Acts begins this morning. And Peter says to the crowd: “hey folks, don’t look at us. We didn’t do this through our own power. This man isn’t walking again because John and I have magic words or superpowers, or because we are especially holy. This man is walking again, because we called on the name of Jesus. Do you remember Jesus? You know, the man that you rejected as a blasphemer; the man that you had killed so that a murderer could walk free. Do you remember that man? Well guess what, God has raised him from the dead. The God that is worshipped here in this temple, that God has raised a man you killed from the dead. This God raised up something that you rejected, and guess what…he just did it again. That is why this man is walking: through the name of Jesus, God has restored his health.”

And Peter goes on to say: “look, I know you didn’t do this on purpose. You didn’t know that this man was the lord of life; you didn’t know that this was Emmanuel, God with us, you didn’t know that this was the Messiah; it’s ok because all of that was predicted in the scriptures.” Peter says, “it is OK if you rejected Jesus in the past…you can turn to him now. Turn to him, listen to him, and he will wipe away your sins and refresh you. The man that you rejected will raise you up too.” 

And before Peter and John can even finish their address to the crowd, they are arrested. Why are they arrested? What did they say that was so controversial? Well, the scripture tells us: “they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” You see, Peter didn’t just say that God raised up Jesus, Peter also said that through Jesus God would raise us up too, and the temple authorities they didn’t like that one bit. 

You may recall that in Jesus’s day, there were different groups of Jews that didn’t always agree with each other and didn’t really get along, and the two biggest groups were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Well, the Pharisees believe that the prophets foretold of a future day when God would raise the dead back to life and make his whole creation new. So, you get images of God restoring Jerusalem and images of dead bodies coming back to life like Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones. The Pharisees were longing for and hoping for that day of Resurrection. That is why in the Gospel of John when Jesus meets Martha outside the tomb of her dead brother Lazarus, she says that she believes that her brother will rise again on the last day. The Pharisees believe that there will be a last day when God will raise the dead back to life. 

The other group, the Sadducees, don’t believe that at all. The Sadducees worship God and obey the commandments, they are even in charge of running the temple, but for the Sadducees when you’re dead you’re dead; there’s no coming back; there’s no resurrection.  So when the temple authorities, all Sadducees, hear Peter talking about a man that came back from the dead, a man that he says will return at a future date that he calls “a time of universal restoration,” they are upset with him because he is teaching the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which they don’t believe. That is why Peter and John are arrested. This isn’t a case of Jews persecuting Christians; this is a case of Jews persecuting other Jews and Peter and John get caught in the middle of it. Peter and John get caught in this fight between the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they have witnessed something that convinced them that on this particular issue the Pharisees were right. They have seen the resurrection of Jesus.

You know, when Jesus met Martha outside of Lazarus’s tomb, he said something rather strange. When Martha said something about her brother being raised again on the last day, Jesus said to her “I am the Resurrection.” Even though Martha said that she believed him, I’m sure that she must have wondered what that really meant, but then when Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified, his disciples began to understand that Jesus was the embodiment of the hope of resurrection that the prophets talked about. That future day of resurrection when God would make all things news…they were getting a foretaste, a glimpse of that in Jesus. Jesus was, what they called, the first fruit. His resurrection would be their resurrection. Peter and John had witnessed in Jesus’s resurrected body a vision of God’s salvation and they felt compelled to share that with anyone that would listen. 

When Christians stand up and affirm our belief in the “resurrection of the body” as we do in our creeds, we are essentially saying that we stand with the ancient Pharisees in believing that there will be a future day, at the end of time, when God will raise the dead to life and make all things new, including our bodies. But for us Christians, this isn’t just a theory, because we have witnessed it. We have witnessed in Jesus Christ the resurrection from the dead. He actually was the resurrection, just as he said. This was the Lord of life, the God who creates and recreates the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, the God of the Prophets, the God who forgives sins, the God who has the power to take broken, rejected and dead lives and make them new again…we have witnessed that God walking among us, and he has a powerful name: Jesus.

It is a name more precious than gold, Peter and John knew that, because it is a name that has the power to give us new life, not just in some distant future day, but here and now. Only I wonder if we call on it quite as much as we should. I wonder if we really appreciate, as Christians, the power of calling on the name of Jesus. I don’t think we do. I think we all, from time to time at least, get lured into the trap of focusing on what we have to offer the world, and not on what he has to offer. Even when you are bragging about your church to others, especially folks that don’t go to church, how often do we end up saying things like: well, the people are really nice, the music is exceptional, the building is charming, the preacher doesn’t preach too long, there are some great outreach programs…and all of that may be true, but in the end how much does any of that really matter? 

There are nice folks everywhere, there is good music in the concert hall, I can find beautiful art and beautiful buildings at the Metropolitan Museum, If you want a motivational speaker you can find one on YouTube to suit your tastes whenever you want, and you can even mute him or fast forward if he or she gets too boring, and maybe you like to give back to others and make a difference in your community, but you could just volunteer at the local soup kitchen and do that. If those things are all that church is really about then I really don’t blame your non-religious friends for choosing brunch with bottomless mimosas on Sunday morning rather than coming to mass. 

When Peter and John met a stranger on their way into the temple, they didn’t tell him how great the potluck suppers are back in the upper room, nor did they pretend to be a social service agency. They offered him the most valuable thing they had, which was the name and the power of Jesus. His forgiveness, his renewal, his hope, his power was the most precious thing Peter and John had, and they knew it, and that is why people started following them by the thousands. 

Do you meet Jesus here? Does God’s power touch or transform your life through the ministry of this church? Does this church connect you to the Lord of life? Those are the important questions, and they are the only ones that really matter. We don’t need to try and explain to people why our church is better than some other church. We need to talk about what Jesus has done for our lives and how his power and his name give us new life and hope. If people truly see and believe that Jesus has changed and saved your life, they will follow you to where you found him.

I shall know him

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Sermon for April 11th, 2021

Readings:

I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
And redeemed by His side, I shall stand.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the print of the nails in His hand.

Those words are from a great Fanny Crosby hymn called “My Saviour First of All” and they kept ringing through my head as I was rereading today’s gospel this week. I shall know him, I shall know him, by the print of the nails in His hand. 

First of all, you need to understand that Fanny Crosby, the author of this hymn, was blind her whole life. She never saw any paintings of Jesus. She never looked on his face in a statue or a stained-glass window. She never watched a movie with Jesus played by some hunky Hollywood actor. The ridiculous debates some enlightened church folks have about what Jesus’s skin tone would have been precisely, would have been meaningless to her, because she never saw him represented anywhere in any way. We, who have good vision, have all these pre-conceived notions about what Jesus looks like. These ideas are culturally transmitted; they aren’t from scripture, not most of them. It’s just that we have been depicting Jesus in art for so long now, that we expect Jesus to look a certain way: he wears a white robe, with a cloak, has longish hair, a beard. We think we know what he is going to look like. 

We had a dear family friend when I was younger, who swore that she could see the face of Jesus in the popcorn ceiling over the bed in her guestroom. Now I’m not saying that the face wasn’t there, and who knows, maybe God was trying to comfort her by giving her a sign, but she had no doubts that it wasn’t just a face; it was the face of Jesus. I think it shows just how confident we can be that we think we know what Jesus looks like. We have expectations. We think we know. 

But Fanny didn’t know. She was blind. She knew she didn’t know what Jesus would look like. Fanny longed to see Jesus though. Fanny longed like Job to see her redeemer. There is a line from the Book of Job that we say as a part of the burial office: 

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold,
and not as a stranger.

Fanny longed for her eyes to be opened and to see Jesus, and to recognize hymn, but how would she recognize him? By the print of the nails in his hand. That is how she would know him. 

When you heard about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb last week, you may recall that when she went to the tomb, she saw Jesus, but she didn’t know that it was him until he calls her name. In the Gospel of Luke after the resurrection, two disciples go walking to the village of Emmaus, and Jesus comes and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him until he breaks the bread at dinner. The resurrected face of Jesus isn’t the first thing people recognize: it is his voice, his actions, and perhaps most of all his wounds. 

The first thing that Jesus shows his disciples on that first resurrection day, the first thing he does after entering their home and greeting them, is show them his wounds. He shows them his hands and his side. Before they even ask. Before Thomas says anything about wanting to touch Jesus’s wounds, Jesus shows his wounds to his disciples as the unmistakable, irrefutable proof of his identity. And they rejoice. 

Does it seem odd to you that the resurrected body of Christ would still have the nail marks where the Romans crucified him? It isn’t what I would expect. I would expect that a resurrected body wouldn’t bear any of the scars or wounds that it received in life. Afterall we are talking about a miraculous resurrection, not just a resuscitation. Jesus wasn’t just really sick you know and got better. He was dead. If God is giving new life to a dead body, why isn’t he patching those scars up on his hands and side? 

It’s true the scars don’t hurt him anymore, but why are they there at all? The resurrected Jesus is so mysterious. He can pass through locked doors, but he has a body that you can touch and feel. He has the ability, and the desire to eat, just like a regular person, but he also just appears and disappears. Sometimes people recognize him as Jesus, sometimes they don’t. There are so many mysteries about this resurrected body of Jesus that we just can’t comprehend and one of the greatest has to be the fact that he still bears the scars of his sacrifice. He still has the print of the nails in his hands. 

 Why? Is it just so that the disciples will recognize him as the man on the cross three days earlier? That could be part of the reason, but I imagine there may be more. Maybe these wounds aren’t some accident of history, but are actually a part of who Jesus is. The wounds that represent Christ being nailed to the cross and his life being poured out, they weren’t just injuries done to Jesus, they are a part of his very identity. Our God bears eternally in the body of his son, wounds that are the ultimate symbol of his love. Thomas’s didn’t say “my Lord and my God” when he saw Jesus’s face. He said it when he saw his wounds. We, who have good vision and are used to seeing Jesus, we think we will know what he looks like, and so often we miss him when he is right in front of us. Fanny couldn’t see, so she knew she wouldn’t recognize him that way. Fanny expected to know her saviour, by the print of the nails in his hands.

When he calls your name

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Sermon for Easter Sunday April 4th, 2021

Readings:

“Where is your Lord?” she scornful asks:

“Where is his hire? we know his tasks;

Sons of a king ye boast to be:

Let us your crowns and treasures see.”

We in the words of Truth reply,

(An angel brought them from the sky,)

“Our crown, our treasure is not here,

‘Tis stored above the highest sphere:

“Methinks your wisdom guides amiss,

To seek on earth a Christian’s bliss;

We watch not now the lifeless stone;

Our only Lord is risen and gone.”

Yet e’en the lifeless stone is dear

For thoughts of him who late lay here;

And the base world, now Christ hath died,

Enobled is and glorified.

No more a charnel-house, to fence

The relics of lost innocence,

A vault of ruin and decay;

Th’ imprisoning stone is rolled away:

‘Tis now a cell, where angels use

To come and go with heavenly news,

And in the ears of mourners say,

“Come, see the place where Jesus lay:”

Oh! Joy to Mary first allowed,

When roused from weeping o’er his shroud,

By his own calm, soul-soothing tone,

Breathing her name, as still his own!

So it is still: to holy tears,

In lonely hours, Christ risen appears!

I shared the words of the priest/poet John Keble on Good Friday, so I thought it would be only fitting that I should share his words on Easter Sunday as well. Poetry has a way of helping us see and experience familiar stories in a different way. Poetry also has a way of helping us experience the heart, the spirit, or the emotions of story in a way that prose just doesn’t. You may think, “well, I’m not really a big fan of poetry.” Do you have a radio in your car? Do you listen to it? Then you ARE a fan of poetry. That’s what music is. Songs are a form of poetry. That’s why hymns are so important: they help us to experience parts of the gospel story that we can’t fully grasp when we are just reading the words on a page. And singing and poetry have been a part of the worship of God from the very beginning. That’s probably why music was invented: to worship God, to tell sacred stories. Jesus sang on the night before he died. And you can be sure that there were angels singing three days later.

When this covid crisis has passed, I promise you, we are going to have a great big hymn sing here, so we can get caught up on all the singing, and on all that beautiful poetry that we have missed over the past year. Now obviously I have written this sermon with the 10:30 service in mind, because we all know that 8 o’clockers don’t sing, but I’m willing to bet that secretly they love music too, they’re just a little shy and like to get up early. 8 o’clockers know the power of music and poetry too. It is one thing to say “He is risen!”, but it is another thing to sing “because he lives!” It is one thing to read “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb” but it is another thing to sing “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.” It is one thing to tell the story of the resurrection, but it is another thing to sing about it, or to read and write poems about it. The poem draws you into the story; the singing the song makes it your story too. 

You have probably heard the story from John Chapter 20 many times, but did you ever realize that everything changes for Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her name? That is when everything becomes real for Mary. That is the moment of transformation for her, when she realizes that her Lord is calling her name. She had seen the stone rolled away, but she had another explanation for that. She had seen the empty tomb and the linen shroud lying on the floor, but she thought someone had stolen his body. Angels were speaking to her, only she didn’t realize they were angels; she is so wrapt up in her grief. She even sees Jesus, standing right in front of her, only she doesn’t recognize it is him, until he calls her name: “Mary!” 

That is when the resurrection becomes real for Mary, when Jesus calls her name. 

Earlier in the Gospel of John, when Jesus talks about the good shepherd, he says: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him, because they know his voice…I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” And a little further on Jesus says: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again…I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again.”

It’s all coming true. Jesus lays down his life, and takes it up again. Jesus calls one of his sheep by name, and she knows his voice.

It’s one thing to hear about or to see an empty tomb, but it is quite another for the risen Christ to call your name. That is when you realize that God didn’t go through all of this for his own benefit; he did it for yours. Jesus doesn’t just get out of the tomb and leave; he comes back to it, to call his sheep out of the tomb, by name, so that his resurrection can be their resurrection. Jesus calls Mary, as one of his own, and invites her to share in the joy of his resurrection. Mary was the first, but she’s not the last. Jesus is still entering tombs and calling his sheep by name. Have you heard him call yours yet?

It’s ok if you haven’t. Just wait. Cry if you need to, but keep praying. Keep singing. Keep telling the sacred story in poetry and in prose, because some glad morning when he does call your name, your eyes will be opened and you will see him and you will realize that it’s not his empty tomb you are being called out of…it’s yours. 

Within the veil

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Sermon for Good Friday 2021

Readings:

There is a wonderful verse in the hymn Amazing Grace that you may have never heard. 

I know this may seem hard to believe; it is one of the most popular and frequently sung and frequently recorded hymns in the history of the world, but there is still one verse that is almost never sung or recorded; in fact, the verse isn’t even in our hymnal. But it was one of the original verses that John Newton, the slave trader turned priest, wrote back in 1772. 

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
   And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
   A life of joy and peace.

Hear it again:

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
   And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
   A life of joy and peace.

You never hear that verse. I learned about it through one of my favorite television shows Call the Midwife. There is a scene where they sing that verse at the bedside of a dying woman. What really stood out for me was the phrase “within the veil.” I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace. Within the veil.

If you know your Old Testament, or even, if you look back to the beginning of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, you may recall that in the temple in Jerusalem there was an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred spot on earth; it was the place where God most nearly dwelt with man. In the original temple, this is where the ark of the covenant was kept. In the second temple, the temple that Jesus would have known, the ark of the covenant was gone, but the inner chamber was still regarded as the most sacred place and once a year the high priest would enter this chamber and offer incense, and the blood of sacrifice to God. In the Gospel of Luke, we find the priest Zachariah standing just outside this veil at another altar of incense when he is told by an angel that he will have a son, whose name will be John. John the Baptist. 

What separated this inner chamber from the rest of the temple, and indeed from the world outside was a veil. A curtain. God was worshiped all over. Sacrifices were made in front of the temple. Incense and shewbread were offered in the first chamber, and there were crowds gathered outside; some to pray, others would have been catching up on the latest gossip, because people never change. We know, of course, that there were money changers in the outer court of the temple. The whole complex was in one way or another directed to the worship of God, but to go within the veil, well that was to be in the nearer presence of God, and it was only the high priest that got to do that. Your average, everyday people worshiped God, but they didn’t get that close to him. There was this barrier. If you ever watch the movie King of Kings, it begins with the Roman general Pompey, forcing his way into this inner chamber and tearing open the veil with his sword. Only all he finds when he enters are a few scrolls of parchment that talk about this Hebrew God’s love for his people. Worthless to Pompey, but the temple priests are willing to die to save them. This was a symbol of God’s love for his people, and it was more precious than all the gold in the world.

You just heard the story of Jesus’s death from the Gospel of John. But think if you will, to the story of Jesus’s death that you heard on Sunday, the one from Mark’s gospel. Or you can think about the way that Matthew tells the story, or the way that Luke tells the story. In all three of those gospels, what happens right at the moment of Jesus’s death? Just as Jesus takes his last breath, the curtain of the temple, the veil is torn in two. It is ripped open. Not from bottom to top, the way that Pompey ripped it, but from top to bottom. 

It is interesting, in Luke’s gospel, the last thing that happens before we hear about the veil being torn in two is the thief crucified beside Jesus says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies: “truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Then darkness covers the land and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The moment that Jesus’s heart literally breaks, the division between us and God, is torn in two. 

There is a way for us to enter the holy of holies now. There is a way for us to enter into the nearer presence of God. And not just into an inner room of a temple that was built with hands, but now there is a way for us to enter into the very heart of God. The thief who repents has a better view of the heavenly throne than all the priests that ever lived. The temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent and holy place, but the real temple where God truly dwelt more fully than any place else was Jesus. The real veil, was not a curtain in an interior room, it was his flesh. And the real holy of holies, was his heart. His flesh was pierced and his heart was broken, so that we might enter in. That is what the author of Hebrews means when he talks about the “way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” There is a life within the veil, a life of joy and peace, but that life is Jesus’s life and the veil is his flesh. Our pathway into the heart of God was opened by a cross and a spear. In Christ’s wounded side, we will find our ultimate refuge and peace. Our holy of holies is the heart of Jesus, that is where the true blood of sacrifice is offered; his blood. That is where our true joy and peace are to be found, within the heart of God, and that heart is broken open, like the temple veil being torn in two, so that our broken hearts may find a refuge inside.

John Keble, a famous Anglican priest from the 19th century is a particular hero of mine, and in his own day he was a best-selling poet. Well in his little book of poems called the Christian Year, he ends his reflection on Good Friday this way: 

Lord of my heart, by thy last cry,

Let not thy blood on earth be spent-

Lo, at thy feet I fainting lie,

Mine eyes upon thy wounds are bent,

Upon thy streaming wounds my weary eyes

Wait like the parched earth on April skies.

Wash me, and dry these bitter tears,

O let my heart no further roam,

‘Tis thine by vows, and hopes and fears.

Long since- O call thy wanderer home;

To that dear home, safe in thy wounded side,

Where only broken hearts their sin and shame

may hide.

What happens to us when our hearts fail? When they are literally and figuratively broken? The cross tells us that there is a place for us within the broken heart of God. When Jesus’s body is broken, and offered to us and for us, the veil is torn apart. There, within the life of God, is the true life of joy and peace, and now we all may enter it. That is what God’s grace has done for us on the cross, and yes, it is amazing. So maybe it is time to start singing that verse again, and now is as good a time as any.

The Hard Part

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2021

Readings:

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

The easiest part of being a Christian is studying about Jesus. 

Reading Jesus’s words in the gospel; reading what others like Paul and Peter and James and John had to say about Jesus; studying the Old Testament passages that the first Christians used when they spoke about Jesus; analyzing the creeds to understand how the early church defined who Jesus was…that is the easy part. 

Sure, lots of people struggle with those things. People are forevermore misquoting Jesus or saying that he said things that he didn’t say. The scriptures aren’t always straightforward. They can be confusing. And there are references and place names and words that you may not understand. Maybe you don’t understand every part of the creeds or why they were written, but you can study those things. You can learn them.

Studying about Jesus might seem like a chore, but that’s the easiest part of being a Christian. Doing what Jesus said….well, that’s another story.

That’s the hard part: following Jesus. Listening to what he says AND doing it, actually doing it with your own hands and your own feet and your own mouth; that is where people stumble. There are tons of people in the world that know ABOUT Jesus, that have heard his teachings; there are plenty of people that have the ability to recognize that he was a good teacher; there are plenty of others who may even have the faith to proclaim with the church that he is the son of God. But how many are willing to actually do what he commands? How many are willing to follow his example when it involves humiliating yourself, or doing something unpleasant, or giving something up, or suffering? That number will always be fewer, because that’s the hard part. 

It is easy to want to be a Christian on Easter Sunday. When we are talking about the glories of being a Christian, or God’s promises and gifts to us; when we are talking about the resurrection from the dead and the promise of eternal life with those we love, we all want to lift our arms and shake a tambourine. Amen. Sign me up. I want to be forgiven for my sins. I want eternal life. I want healing. I want to be blessed by God. Give me flowers and happy hymns about feasting at God’s table; I’m here for it. Those things are all real, but they are the easy part of being a Christian. 

The hard part, is actually following Jesus. 

This week in the life of the church is an important reminder that Jesus’s life was about more than comfortable words and eternal promises. Jesus did things, very difficult things; and he asks us to do them too. 

Now let me be clear, there are some things that only Jesus can do. Part of the church’s proclamation is that he was NOT just a good teacher, or a wise man, he was the incarnate son of God. He was fully God and fully human. He was the saviour of the world and only he can save it. Let’s be clear about that. The sacrifice that Jesus makes for the sins of the world is not one that we can repeat. None of us has any right to eternal life, we cannot achieve it on our own; it is given to us through and by Christ, and it is given as a free gift. There are some things that Jesus does for us that even he is clear, we cannot do for ourselves. He goes places that we cannot go; he knows things that we cannot know.

But if we are going to take Jesus’s promises seriously, then we also need to take his commandments seriously. If we are going to take him at his word when he proclaims “this is my body” then we need to take him at his word when he commands “love one another.” If we are going to obey him when he holds the chalice and says “do this in remembrance of me,” then we need to obey him when he says “wash one another’s feet.” For both of those commands came from the same Jesus, at the same supper, on the same night, with the same disciples. Maundy Thursday can be a tricky night to preach, because a lot of preachers, myself included, feel torn between preaching about Jesus instituting the sacrament of his body and blood, which happens tonight, or between preaching about Jesus washing his disciples feet and commanding his followers to do the same, which also happens tonight. We can sometimes feel pulled to talk about one OR the other, as if they are unrelated events. As if it weren’t the same Jesus making both commandments. But it is the same Jesus.

Yes, there are wonderful, miraculous things that Jesus does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Yes, our God in the person of Jesus Christ, saves the world, and humanity, which cannot save itself. But Jesus willingly and knowingly gave his disciples instructions and examples of behaviour thatb he very clearly expects us to follow. That is the hard part of being a Christian: not believing in what Jesus said, but doing it. 

Feet are not always the most pleasant part of the human body. If everyone’s feet were just gorgeous and beautiful it wouldn’t be like pulling teeth to have people come up and get their feet washed. Feet take a lot of abuse. They get misshapen. You get veins and bunions and scars from surgery. There are some things even the best pedicure can’t make look pretty. Sometimes they smell. They get dirty very easily now, can you image how dirty they would have gotten in Jesus’s day? But without the feet, the head can’t go anywhere. Jesus, who was the head of this little band, was not above getting on the floor and washing its feet. 

“You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. Knowing about Jesus is one thing; doing what he says is quite another. We are called to do both. We are called to know the one giving the command; and we are called to follow the command that was given. Jesus did not command us to outsource morality to others; he did not say that compassion and pastoral care and listening to people, feeding people, washing people, healing people and generally caring for others, he did not say that these are just the job of the priest. Nor did he say that they are the sole job of the government, or of doctors and nurses and health aids or social workers or police officers or firemen. Jesus did not tell us to just pay others to do the things that we find unpleasant. The example, and the commandment, that he gave was that love should compel even the greatest among us to do even the lowliest jobs. It is one thing to know that, but it is another thing to do it. Doing it is the hard part. 

There is a sign that hangs in our narthex that many of you may have seen. It is a quote from the sometime bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston. It is there for you to read as you go back out into the world, hopefully after having received sustenance from our lord in the sacrament of the altar. His words are true always, but they are especially powerful on this night:

You are Christians, then your Lord is one and the same with Jesus on the throne of his glory, with Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, with Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, with Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray and with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down the world. NOW go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you find him, gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship, and wash HIS feet in the person of his bretheren.

Offended

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Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Readings:

It was two days before the Passover and Jesus was having dinner with some of his friends and followers in Bethany which is a village just outside of Jerusalem. And while he was there a woman came in. The gospel doesn’t give her a name. She goes up to Jesus sitting at the table and takes a jar of ointment, nard, which is a very strong perfume, and she breaks open the jar and pours some of it on Jesus’s head. She anoints him. This is an anointing.

Think about when anointing happens in the life of the church. We anoint people when they are baptized. The bishop anoints you when you are confirmed. When you are ordained as a priest your hands are anointed. If you ever happen to inherit the crown, you will be anointed at your coronation as king or queen. When you are sick you may be anointed for healing. Every year during Holy Week the church blesses fresh holy oil for use throughout the year in its ministry; we make sacred chrism and oil of the sick.

Here is a bit of trivia which you may not know: we also have oil of exorcism. We call it the oil of catechumens, but it is really oil of exorcism and it is used to do exactly what you think: to drive out demons and to defend the anointee against evil and the devil. It is rarely used anymore, but one of these days, I swear I’m going to pour it into the hand sanitizer here just so I can make sure that everyone has gotten a squirt of it. It couldn’t hurt. 

We also, of course, anoint people right before death. In all of these cases to be anointed is to be blessed. Even in death, if someone is anointing your body it is a sign of care and kindness. Whenever you are anointed by the church, that is a symbol of God’s love to you. To have someone anoint you, literally rub oil into your skin, is to be blessed by that person and reminded that God’s grace touches us body and soul. God works through physical elements too. 

When this woman comes into the house in Bethany and anoints Jesus, she is showing him a great kindness. It is an act of love and compassion. And people are offended by it. Offended.

These supposed friends and followers of Jesus are offended by this woman’s act of kindness. Watch what happens here because this is important: you have a group of people that have been watching Jesus be loving and compassionate throughout his ministry. They have seen him heal the sick. They have heard Jesus in his teachings advocate for the poor and the dispossessed. They have listened to Jesus talk about caring for the “least of these” among us. And what did these followers of Jesus do with these glorious, compassionate teachings? They decided to use them as another reason to hate someone. Yeah, watch what happens here, these people use Jesus’s concern for the poor as a weapon against this woman who is trying to do something nice to show her love to Jesus. She performs an act of love and compassion and they are offended by it. They are angry. Angry! That is their response to this woman. Anger. Why are they so angry?

It wasn’t their ointment. She didn’t steal it. We don’t know much about this woman; we don’t know her financial position, but if what the disciples said about the ointment was true, then we can assume at least that this act of anointing Jesus was a sacrifice for her. This act of kindness actually cost her something. Love and kindness comes at a great price sometimes doesn’t it? It’s too bad that offense comes so cheaply.

The episode with the woman and the alabaster jar just screams out at me this year, because I think it says so much about human nature. Jesus’s followers, Jesus’s followers, find a way to be offended by an act of love and kindness. Think about that for a moment. The woman wanted to show Jesus love, and she is basically accused of stealing food from the poor. 

Now could she have sold the ointment and given the money to the poor? Yes, I’m sure she could have. And I’m willing to bet that our Lord would have approved of such generosity. “Blessed are the merciful” our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus approved of mercy, love, and kindness. If the woman had decided to make a donation to a charity in Jesus’s name, I have no doubt that he would have smiled on it. But just because one thing is good, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another thing is bad. Jesus can see that the woman is motivated by love and kindness and that is more important to him than how she chooses to show that love and kindness. 

What is motivating the other people in the room? The scriptures don’t say that the disciples had a debate or an ethical discussion about the best way to use resources for the benefit of all. There is no dispassionate reflection here on how to best love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. No, the scriptures say that people are angry. They are angry and offended and their first response is to scold the woman. 

Where is this anger and offense coming from? Is it a genuine love and concern for the poor? I don’t think so, and apparently neither does Jesus. He very famously says, “the poor you have always with you.” He’s not dismissing the needs of the poor at all, but he is saying to them that every single day from now until the end of time you will have the opportunity to show someone love and kindness and mercy. The question is not “do you care about the “poor”?” in theory or in principle. The question is, “can you show love and kindness to another human being, regardless of their circumstances, when they are right in front of you?” The disciples could choose to recognize this woman’s act of love and kindness for what it is, they could choose to respect her love for Jesus, even if they thought the money for the ointment could have been put to better use, they could choose to show her love and kindness as someone who was clearly seeking God. Instead, they chose to be angry and offended. 

Why do we make that choice? This little scene in the dining room at that house in Bethany has been replayed over and over again throughout history. The location may change, the names of the characters may change, the costumes and hairstyles may change, but the dynamic is the same: we are looking for ways to be offended. In Jesus’s day it was in the dining room, today it is on the internet, but it doesn’t matter, it is the same thing going on. Human nature hasn’t changed. We are addicted to being offended. It is like crack to us and we are always looking for that next hit. Something about being offended makes us feel superior to the person giving the offense. Something about being offended focuses our attention on the supposed wrongdoings of others, so that we don’t have to take too close a look at our own lives, and our own sins. If I can find a way to be offended by you, then I guess I don’t have to show you love and kindness, do I? That’s convenient. So here’s what I will do, I will just look for reasons to be offended. I will monitor your every word and your every action. I will watch you like a hawk waiting for the moment when you slip, or better yet I will set you up. We want to be offended so badly, we want that self-righteous rush coursing through our veins so much, that we will try and be offensive, just so we can get someone to offend us in return. That is the level of our addiction. 

Now you may be thinking, this is Palm Sunday, the longest gospel reading we get all year, the story of our Lord’s passion, and he’s still talking about the first 9 verses. When are you going to get to the actual passion story itself? But, you see, I am already there. This IS the story of the passion. Love was right in front of us, and we chose to be offended by it. 

Jesus, our great high priest, burst into this world, walked right into our everyday lives to anoint us. “Thou anointest my head with oil,” Psalm 23 says. Jesus came to anoint us, to mark us as his own. It is the anointing of God that strengthens us and defends us from the enemy. It is God’s anointing that heals us, and God’s anointing that prepares us for death. Jesus came to anoint us as a demonstration of the love and compassion and mercy that God has for us. And we were offended. We responded to God’s love with anger and offense. That is how desperately addicted we are as human beings: we looked for reasons to be offended, and if we couldn’t find any, we made them up.

Why was Jesus crucified? Because he offended us. He confronted us with our addiction to anger and offense and we didn’t like that. We became angry and offended. We set traps for him, and when that didn’t work, we just made things up. We had the choice between love and offense, the crowd had the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. We know the choice that was made. 

Every year on Good Friday, during the veneration of the cross, the choir sings a very traditional text called the reproaches. We can’t do it this year, because for obvious reasons we can’t do the veneration of the cross, but normally we do. The reproaches are meant to be words from God to his people. The verses retell al the glorious things that God has done for us, but in the refrain God says: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”

 How have I offended you? These words aren’t just meant for the mob in Jerusalem. They are meant for all of us. We did this because we were offended. We have a problem. The cross confronts us with our addiction.

The cross also shows us another way. The only person in the universe that actually has the right and the righteousness to be truly offended is God, and God chose to show love. The answer to our addiction is the cross. Show love. Don’t go around saying and doing offensive things and just telling people not to be offended; if we truly love others, we won’t do that. The answer is to show love. Show love, not to hypothetical groups of people, not to ideas or institutions, but to the person who is right in front of you. Show love to the person that is right in front of you, whoever that person is, no matter what they have done to offend you. That is the example that we have been given. That is how we were saved.  

How it all started

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Sermon for March 25th, 2021

Readings:

She was a young woman really. Now, we don’t know Mary’s exact age when she was greeted by the angelic visitor, but we can assume that she was probably in her teens; marrying age in the ancient world. She was already espoused or promised, but not yet married, to a man named Joseph. He was a good man, and it was probably a good match, but I doubt Mary had much say in the matter. Women typically didn’t back then. There were some notable women in the world that had great power and influence, sometimes on their own, sometimes through their husbands. One thinks naturally of Cleopatra or Livia, Augustine’s wife, famous for their power in the Roman Empire; and of course, there are quite a few strong women in scripture: Deborah the judge, Hannah the prophetess, Esther. But these women are really exceptions, aren’t they? The average woman in the ancient world going to the well for water would not have had much say over her own life. She would not have had power or influence. But if there is anything that our scriptures make incredibly clear, it is that when God is looking for someone that he can use to do amazing things in this world, he does not judge people the way we do. God does not see power the way that we see power.

We humans we look for external beauty; we look for strength; we look for youth, but not like real youth, not child-like youth; we look for supposedly prime-of-your-life youth, you know, mid to late twenties. Those are the people that we want to make heroes and superstars.

 I think it is remarkable that they are still making James Bond movies with Daniel Craig. He’s over 50 years old! By pop culture standards he’s a relic; but fortunately for him, he’s really strong, he’s really attractive, he’s really talented and he’s really a man. He’s not young anymore, but he ticks all the other boxes so he can be a hero. 

But when God is looking for a hero or a heroine, the scriptures make it very clear that God is not looking for the same things we are looking for. There is a power and a character inside of people, that is more important than muscles or money. Time and time again in our scriptures, God finds favor with people that the world doesn’t really have much use for, including a young, humble, unmarried Jewish girl from Palestine.

That was the angel’s message: Greetings favored one! God saw something in her that the rest of the world didn’t…at least, not yet. Of course Mary was terrified. She had every reason to be. Who would believe her story? What would happen to her? But as much as Mary was frightened by the angel’s message, it must have also been a powerful revelation to her. It was a revelation that in God’s eyes she was favored. In God’s eyes, she was important and powerful and gifted. The world gave Mary very little, but God was willing to give her everything. Everything. His own life. What a revelation that must have been. With all the rich and powerful and strong and influential people in the world, God wants me. God favors me. God wants to use me.

I imagine that Mary never forgot that moment of the Annunciation. Who could? Mary had felt the power of the angel’s message. Mary would have remembered how it felt, to be a young woman, insignificant in the world’s eyes, and to be told by a heavenly visitor that God wants you. The world may not see your value, but that doesn’t matter, because God does. God wants you. God favors you. God has a task for you. Mary knew exactly how it felt to be a young woman and to be given a message from God. 

So maybe it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us, that other young women, through Mary, would experience something similar. 

In the year 1061, a Saxon woman, a young widow by the name of Richeldis de Faverches, living in the region of Norfolk, England, had a vision. It was more than a vision really, because Richeldis didn’t just see the Virgin Mary, Mary transported Richeldis to her home in Nazareth where the Annunciation happened; to see the very home where our Lord was raised. Then Mary asked Richeldis to do something astounding. Build me a home here, she said. Build a copy of this holy house in England. And that is exactly what Richeldis did. In Walsingham, England, she built a replica of the house she had seen in her vision. Her son Geoffrey, would eventually have a priory built there. Pilgrims started coming, first just a handful and then by the thousands. It became one of the most important religious shrines in England, and it all started with a message from a heavenly visitor to a young woman. 

I don’t need to detail here the desecration that happened to Walsingham. King Henry’s commissioners did their worst; the shrine was torn down and the image of our Lady that had been an aid to devotion for so many, was either lost or destroyed. But we know that God, will not be so easily hindered. Stories and symbols are more durable than the wood and stone that they are carved into. After centuries of neglect, Walsingham, the shrine, the image and the story were all revived. The image of Our Lady of Walsingham now graces many churches, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and serves as an aid to devotion and a reminder of a sacred story; two sacred stories really: the story of Richeldis, and the story we tell tonight; the story of God using a faithful young woman to save the world. 

 Many of you know that the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham here in our shrine was brought back from Walsingham by pilgrims from this parish in 2015. She’s more than just wood and paint you know. Yes, I know that we don’t worship statues as God; that is idolatry. God is not contained in this little statue, we know that; but when I look at her, or when I touch her to move her, I feel connected to all those people who have come before me, like Richeldis, like the pilgrims that traveled to her shrine; I feel connected to all those who have heard the story about how God uses the most unlikely people to work his wonders in the world; I feel connected to those who had the faith to believe in heavenly messages when they are given. We are a part of that story too.

Do you think these miraculous things only happen in the ancient world? Are these stories just about medieval knights and damsels? Are they just fairy tales? No. The God that sent the angel to the Virgin Mary, the God that inspired the lady Richeldis to build a replica of Mary’s house, that God is still alive and well in the world, even today. We may look for ways to dismiss his messages and his mysteries; we may think that we no longer need God, but God is still speaking. Time and time again, humans have tried to drown out God’s voice. We have torn down churches and temples; we have tried to dismiss these religious experiences as superstition or hallucinations, but like the crocuses in the garden that are coming up anew, these heavenly visitors, these experiences of divine revelation, they keep coming back. God will not be so easily hindered by the unbelief of man. 

You know, we Anglicans talk a lot about the destruction that happened with the English reformation, with the monasteries being suppressed, shrines like Walsingham being torn down, and massive disruption in the life of the church. But England isn’t the only place that happened you know. In France, during the French Revolution, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was desecrated and rededicated to the “cult of reason.” Church property was confiscated, monasteries were closed, and the government set about trying to remove this superstition called Christianity from the land. But God will not be so easily hindered. God finds power in the most unexpected and unlikely places. 

On the 11th of February in the year 1858, a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous was out gathering firewood with her sisters near their village in the South of France. Just on the other side of the river, in what was then the town dump, Bernadette had a vision. Behind a wild rose growing in this stone grotto in the side of the hill, she saw a bright light and a figure dressed in white…a lady. The lady asked her to pray, which of course she did. The lady asked her to come back, which Bernadette did. The lady asked her to dig a spring and to drink the water from it; Bernadette did that too. Bernadette saw the lady many times. Others began to join Bernadette in her prayers, first a few, then many, many more. The Lady asked Bernadette to go to the priests and ask them to come and build a chapel there. Bernadette did that too. Today it is one of the most visited and popular shrines in the world, and it all started with a message from a heavenly visitor to a young woman. Today, the sick go to bathe in the waters from the same spring that Bernadette dug, the faithful gather in the same grotto to pray where Bernadette prayed, mass is said in the same glorious chapel built on the hill that the lady asked Bernadette to have built. How many lives have been touched by those two little hands that the world thought were barely good enough to fetch firewood? Bernadette went to that grotto looking for something to light a fire, and did she ever find it! Only it wasn’t a bunch of dried wood; it was a story and a message. And every day, every day thousands of people, of every language and nationality gather there, in that spot with flames in their hands, and the words they sing tell the story of how it all started with a message from a heavenly visitor to a young woman: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. 

Not translating anymore

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Sermon for March 21st, 2021

Readings:

I was in France for almost a month back in 2019. One day after I had been there for about two weeks, I decided to take a train out to visit the famous Chartres Cathedral. Well as I was navigating the Montparnasse train station, trying to find the right car on the right train, I noticed something funny. 

I was walking down this long train platform looking at the car numbers printed on the side of the train, looking for the number that was on my ticket, when I caught myself saying out loud each car number, only I wasn’t saying it in English, I was saying it in French, and not intentionally.

Now you may be thinking: “this is the most boring story he has ever told! Who cares if you were counting train cars in French? Get to the part that is inspiring and profound!” 

This isn’t an exciting story I agree, but for me it was significant, because it was a moment when I realized that I wasn’t struggling quite so much as I was before. Look, I’m not good with numbers even in English, and the French way of counting can be very confusing. Counting in French involves translating and doing math problems at the same time. And there was just this moment when I realized that my brain was starting to do it automatically, I wasn’t translating anymore, and it was a little moment of joy for me.

I had studied French off and on since college, but I had never had an extended amount of time when I had to use it. My knowledge was mostly book knowledge: rules of grammar and how to decline verbs and vocabulary. But I never had to speak it everyday. I was never trained to understand actual French speakers in everyday conversation. On the few occasions when I did encounter someone speaking French to me, there would usually be a 30-60 second delay between them speaking to me and my brain translating that into English, and then of course I had to figure out how to translate what I wanted to say back into French. 

For a split second on that train platform I realized that my brain wasn’t translating anymore. That is when you know you are beginning to really understand and speak a language, when you no longer have to translate it in your head. When you understand the language on its own terms and not in relation to some other language; that is when you really understand it. That is when the language is no longer some external, foreign thing that you have to grapple with; it just becomes another way of relating to and communicating with the world around you. It really is a moment of joy, when you don’t have to stop and think “oh, let me decline this verb” but the verb is just there for you, ready to use. I studied French off and on for 20 years and I could never get to that point; but I lived in Paris for two weeks and there it was. I was beginning to get it.

Language is not something that you can just study out of a book. That is not how we learn to speak as children. As children, we learn to speak by listening to and mimicking the speech of those around us. We are steeped in it; it is a part of our everyday life. Hopefully as we grow older we can study to improve our vocabulary or our grammar; the books can help; but with few exceptions, most children learn how to talk before they learn how to read. They learn to use a language before they become masters of all the rules. I guess you have to crawl before you can walk. 

I love and adore books, but there are some things in life that you really have to learn by doing. There are some things where book learning can only take you so far, where if you really want to understand it you have to do it, touch it, taste it, say it, or live it. Language is that way, and I think faith is that way too.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

When the prophet Jeremiah is talking about this new covenant that God is going to make with his people, he is talking about something that is more than just words on paper. This isn’t something that is just taught formally like a history lesson or the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Latin nouns. This new covenant will be within them, on their hearts, a part of their lives. It won’t be just a bunch or rules or words on paper that are memorized but never used. It won’t be something that people study for extra or elective credit. No, this new covenant will be a new way to understand and communicate with the world. This new covenant will be, almost like a new language, a language that is really a part of our daily life. This new covenant will open doors to new experiences and new understandings. Our lives will be blessed because we will finally understand how to speak God’s language. Only, as with other languages, the only way to really learn how to speak it, is to speak it. 

You can study the rules all you want, but until you live them and use them every day, they will still be external rules that you have to translate or interpret or wrestle with in order for them to be of value to you. But Jeremiah says God wants his law or his language to within us; to be on our hearts. God wants us to see the world the way that he sees it and in order to do that we need to be fluent in God’s language. And no, I’m not talking about French or English or Latin or Greek or Hebrew. I am talking about something that goes far deeper and that transcends all human languages. I am talking about the language of love that is God’s own language. This is the language God speaks when he creates the universe and declares that it is good. This is the language God uses when making a covenant or bond with his people. It is the language that is behind all of the commandments. It is the language that Jesus speaks with all of his actions. God speaks to us in this language everyday. The question for us is: are we fluent enough in it to hear it and understand it? 

Is love a foreign language to you? Are God’s commandments a bunch of words in a book that you memorize and repeat, or are they a part of how you understand and relate to the world around you? I am convinced that faith is like a language: it is something that we must live with, and practice and use, on a daily basis, it we want it to really be a part of our lives. It is like a muscle that only gets stronger when you use it. You can study it forever and never really understand it. You have to use it.

Now, there are two great pitfalls to learning a new language that most people encounter at some point, and perhaps it will be no surprise to you that they are stumbling blocks to faith as well: one is fear and the other is disuse.

In the first case: fear. We are afraid of making a mistake or embarrassing ourselves, or getting something wrong. So our brain panics, we become paralyzed; we can’t think of what to say, so we don’t try. This has been my huge struggle in trying to learn French. I would get scared of making a mistake or saying the wrong word, so I wouldn’t try, and of course I never improved. I think people do that with faith too. People are so afraid of doing the wrong thing when they come to church, that they never bother to come at all. Sometimes people are so afraid of offending God that they end up not having a relationship with him at all. 

When I was in France, the couple that owned the place where I was staying would have me over for drinks and conversation, and I’m sure that it must have been a little painful for them, because they had to speak a little slowly for me and of course I was making tons of mistakes when I was speaking to them, but not once did they ridicule me, or make fun of me, or speak down to me. If I said something the wrong way, they would gently say it to correct way, and we would move on. If I needed a fuller explanation they would give it, but it was clear that we weren’t gathered together for lessons in French grammar; we were gathered together for drinks and for pastry and for watching the sunset; we were gathered together for a few moments to enjoy life on a summer afternoon; it’s just that the language we were using, wasn’t one that I spoke perfectly, so I needed a little help along the way. 

When it comes to faith, none of us speak God’s language perfectly. Some speak it better than others, but we all need a little correction now and then. We must be very mindful of doing it gently though. What made it so easy to speak to and learn from my hosts in France is that there was no shame or judgement attached to making mistakes. There was trial and improvement and practice. It didn’t matter to them if I mispronounced something or used the wrong word; what mattered was that I was trying. That was my experience all across France actually: if you are at least trying to speak the language, your mistakes will be forgiven. The same should be true when it comes to people practicing their faith. When someone is trying to learn how to walk, you can’t shame them when they stumble. Help them up and keep going. People will learn more from the practice than they would from a lecture. Forgiveness is a fundamental part of God’s language, so if we wish to become fluent in that language we must learn not only to forgive the mistakes of others, but also to overcome our own fears of failure. 

The other great pitfall to language is disuse. Use it or lose it. If you don’t regularly listen to, or speak, or read a language, it does fade away. It can’t be something that you learned once. It has to be something that you use. My French was better after two weeks of using it everyday than it was after twenty years of studying it now and then. Yes, they study helps, but nothing can replace use. I haven’t been using it much for the past few months, and yes, my fluency is slipping. I need to keep practicing. Likewise with faith. The world is filled with people that went to Sunday School, or were confirmed, or were baptized or converted; there are plenty of people that have read the Bible once or twice, or even studied it; there are people out there who have managed to memorize all ten commandments, but how strong is their faith? Faith isn’t something that you can study once and be done. You have to use it. 

You need to practice your faith if you want to be able to understand God when he speaks to you. It may not happen quickly, but someday in some little way you will get a message that goes directly to your heart and you will realize, in that moment, that you aren’t translating anymore.