We need to do better

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Sermon for Sunday, January 10th, 2021. The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Readings:

So let me make some things clear right out of the gate this morning:

Baptized Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to only one King: that is the Lord Jesus Christ. We may recognize the authority of our earthly leaders, we may show them respect, we can and should pray for them, but the moment that that water hits your head, you belong to Jesus and you become a subject and a citizen of God’s kingdom. 

Baptized Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to only one country: the kingdom of heaven. We may be proud of our own homelands, we can and should celebrate our culture and our accomplishments, we may work for and pray for the country we live in, and sometimes we may even have to fight for our earthly kingdoms, but make no mistake…Saint Peter is not checking passports at the pearly gates. When you reach the gates of God’s kingdom, it is not going to matter what earthly kingdom you were born into, or which earthly king you served. 

But were you born into God’s Kingdom? did you serve the heavenly king?

Christians have a higher allegiance than to just the principalities and powers of this world, but that does not mean that we can just divorce ourselves from the responsibility of serving and caring for the earthly kingdoms we are born into. In fact, if we actually believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life; if we actually believe that he is the incarnate son of God, whose birth we just proclaimed a couple weeks ago; if we actually believe that his way is THE way, and that he wants us to spread that message to the world; if we believe these things, then we have a sacred calling to show our fellow citizens on this earth, a better way. We have the responsibility, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to serve as ambassadors of that kingdom. 

Now this earthly country we live in is pluralistic. There is no state church here; there is no state religion. I think that is an amazing thing. Because not only does it give me the freedom to worship my God as my beliefs and convictions dictate, but also it means that I get to live side by side with people that don’t know Jesus, or don’t believe in God, or worship God completely differently than I do. We all get to live among the heathens and the agnostics and the atheists, and faithful people who worship God differently than we do. Living with people that don’t worship the way we do, and don’t think the way we do, can be frustrating at times, but how else are we going to spread the gospel if we never interact with, or talk to, or deal with, or live beside people that are different than we are? And if we want to draw people to Jesus, if we want to invite people into citizenship in God’s Kingdom, then we need to make sure that our neighbors and fellow citizens in this world, in this country, can see in us a way of life that is worth imitating. We have a sacred calling to do better, to be better, and to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It is not enough to sit at home in smug contempt and wonder why the rest of the world just doesn’t see things our way. 

Show them a better way. Make a better argument. Tell a better story. 

Christians love to complain about people not going to church anymore. Well here is my not-so-spicy take on that: if we did a better job of actually living the values we profess, if we did a better job of actually showing people Jesus and if we were better ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven, we wouldn’t need to worry about church growth, because the churches would be packed. People would see in us, something worth imitating. Something attractive. People would want to know more about this God that we worship. But if you pray to Jesus on Sunday and act like the devil the rest of the week, then nonbelievers are going to be rightly suspicious about this so-called faith of yours. 

Show them a better way. Make a better argument. Tell a better story. That is how the Church, that is how God’s Kingdom grows.

Now, in this church, most of us, in addition to being citizens of God’s kingdom through baptism, are also citizens of the United States of America. We are a mixed group of people here. I think one of the strengths and beauties of this parish is that it is made up of very different people with very different opinions and backgrounds, and yet the same faith. There are very few places in our country anymore where Democrats and Republicans actually sit side by side and breath the same air, but we manage to do it here. I think, and I hope, that it is because we believe in something greater than party loyalty, something greater than national loyalty even. We believe in loyalty to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to choose between loving God or loving our country, not at all. What it means is that our love for both Kingdoms should compel us to proclaim to one the glories of the other. If we truly love the United States of America, then we need to proclaim to it, and continue to proclaim to it, the vision that Christ has shown us of his kingdom. We need to show our fellow citizens, with love and respect, the better way that we have been shown. We need to make better arguments and tell a better story. No earthly Kingdom or country is ever going to be perfect, just like no human being, save Jesus, is ever going to be perfect, but we can all strive to be better.

I don’t think anyone here would dare accuse me of being a partisan hack in the pulpit. I do my level best to keep the focus here, in this space, on our citizenship in heaven. It annoys me greatly when preachers talk about politics and party platforms as if they were the gospel. But if we expect people to take us seriously when we talk about Jesus, then how we behave as Christians and citizens in the public sphere matters. What we say matters. How we act matters. People are never going to believe you when you talk about the truth of the Resurrection if everything else you say is a lie.  There are plenty of opinions and issues that faithful Christians AND good citizens may sincerely disagree about; God doesn’t belong to a political party; but that doesn’t mean that God has no interest in how we conduct ourselves in our earthly kingdoms.  Make no mistake, God is watching us.

I do not think that it is a partisan statement to stand here and tell you that what happened this week in our nation’s capital was disgusting and a travesty. On so many levels. It was beneath us as a country. While our nation has never been perfect, we know that, we have been better. We can do better than this. And I say “we” very intentionally, because while the blame for what happened this week may not be equal for everyone (I’m not saying that at all), but we have collectively, over time, allowed our national discourse to descend to this level. While I think that individuals need to be held responsible for their actions, I also think that we have a collective responsibility to each other. So what I say, I say to Republicans and to Democrats: We have all stopped trying to persuade and evangelize others and now it is all about winning through the power of force and not the power of persuasion. We have stopped talking to each other and we have stopped listening to each other, and that is on all of us, not just the angry mob that stormed our capital. We can do better than this.

The worst part of it all, is that so many of the people that participated in Wednesday’s debacle, most of them I would say, call themselves Christians. Now I certainly am not in a position to know who will be in and who will be out come judgement day, only God can do that. But I can say that we Christians, regardless of our political affiliations, need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than our neighbors and fellow citizens. It doesn’t matter if someone else did something wrong before, that doesn’t give us license to do it. Pointing to what other people have done wrong, never excuses your own wrongdoing. Yes, I know that Christians have done far worse things in the past; we have been worse, but we have also been better. We need to do better. If we claim to be following Jesus then we need to be looking to him to set the standards we will follow. We need to show others that truth and decency and integrity matter to us. We need to show people how to disagree without demonizing. We need to do better, so that others will look to us and wonder, what is it that allows these people to act and live differently than everyone else? Our actions as citizens of this country matter, because they have the power to point people to Jesus. 

Today, we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord, and we remember Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry, heading out to meet John the Baptist at the Jordan river. I think it is interesting that the very first act of our Lord’s public ministry was an act of repentance. That is what baptism is first of all, it is a ritual of repentance, a washing away of sins. Our Lord, who knew no sin, still chose to do this before he did or said anything else. In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time we see Jesus; not in the manger, not with the wise men or the star, that is in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, but in Mark we first see Jesus down by the river, walking into the water with a bunch of desperate people that really want to start over. For Christians, your entry into the Church and into the body of Christ still happens by participating in this ritual. Even the newest little baby, who we may not think has had any occasion to sin, still is made a part of God’s holy family through an act of repentance. There is no other way…it is almost like repentance and being a Christian are intimately linked in some way…like you can’t be one without the other. That’s just it…the Christian life begins with an act of repentance: owning your own sins and your own failures, not pointing the finger at someone else, but knowing and understanding that you are prone to making mistakes and that there is no way out of this cycle without God’s help. That is where Christianity begins, with an act of repentance, and repentance must be a way of life for Christians; not a one-time act, but constantly approaching, God, our neighbors and our own thoughts and actions with humility. Confessing our sins and failures is a life-long act for Christians, but God doesn’t leave us there. Jesus doesn’t leave us to drown in our failure, but draws us back up out of the water and gives us the Holy Spirit and a chance to live our lives differently. You see, I think some people have the wrong idea about repentance. The devil wants you to think that repentance is just about feeling guilty all the time, or beating yourself up, or thinking that you are worse than everyone else. No. Repenting doesn’t mean that you are worse than everyone else, it means that you recognize that you are no BETTER than everyone else. The devil wants you to think that repenting means you are weak, because he doesn’t want you to discover the Holy Ghost power that comes through repentance. In our scriptures today we are reminded that baptism carries with it the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we participate in that act of repentance we are given power, from God, to live differently. We have to learn to draw on that power. 

We have to draw on that power right now, because our country needs to witness people whose lives have been truly changed and transformed by God. Our country needs Democrats and Republicans who will stand up, as people of faith, and say that honesty, integrity, decency and truth matter. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We need to show people a better way; persuade people with better arguments; and inspire people with better stories. We can do this. God has given us the power to do this. Our country needs us to do this…because although no earthly king or kingdom is ever going to be perfect, our country, and the world, now more than ever, needs a witness to the one that is. 

Looking for Jesus

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Sermon for January 3rd, 2021

Readings:

There are two types of people in this world that are looking for Jesus:

Those who want to worship him and those who want to eliminate him.

There are those who in true humility are seeking a divine saviour, who are searching for and following light in a dark world. In our gospel this morning we hear the familiar story of the magi, the wisemen, most likely Persian astrologers traveling from the East. They are looking for Jesus. They don’t know is name. They aren’t sure exactly where he is (they aren’t Jewish, and they need the Hebrew prophets to give them some direction), but still they have been observing the universe with a keen eye and in that universe they found a star, a light, that has led them in this direction. These wise men are looking for mystery and truth and revelation, they are looking for the miraculous, and when they find it, they are prepared to give it everything they’ve got. They offer Jesus their most precious possessions. 

But they aren’t the only ones looking for Jesus in the gospel today. Herod and his centurions want to find him too. These men, who me may call clever, but dare not call wise, are looking for the exact same child that the magi are, but their intentions could not be more different. To these men, this child is a threat to their way of life and their view of the world. Herod wants complete control over his kingdom, over his own decisions, over his own life. Herod cannot stomach a divine saviour that rules the universe. Herod wants to be the judge and jury. He doesn’t want some peasant child telling him that he needs to reprioritize his life. Now Herod can put on a good show. He partners with the wise men and makes out like he is looking for Jesus just like them, like it is a shared quest, but we know that his intentions couldn’t be more different:

The magi want to worship Jesus; Herod and his centurions want to eliminate him. 

This is the world that our Lord was born into. We could have made the gospel reading shorter this morning by picking one passage or the other; we could have cut parts of this story out, but I think in order to really appreciate the implications of Jesus’s birth we need to hear the whole story. We need to see these two responses to his birth side by side, because as different as these two types of people looking for Jesus are, sometimes they look an awful lot alike. Even the wise men assumed that Herod’s motives were good, until they were warned otherwise.

There are still two types of people in this world looking for Jesus:

There are still those who are looking for a sacred force to worship and respect, and there are those who see Jesus as a tool to be used or an opposition to be eliminated. The question for each of us is: which one am I? Am I looking for Jesus because I am looking for real truth and meaning that has the potential to completely turn my life upside down? Or am I looking for a prop that will simply endorse my already formed opinions that I can them eliminate the moment he becomes a threat to my way of life?

It is far too simplistic and naive to suggest that those inside the church represent one type of person and those outside the church represent another. The story of the magi should remind us that the world is filled with people that are genuinely searching for Jesus and don’t know his name. There are people seeking truth and meaning and revelation and they are willing to give it everything they’ve got when they find it. Maybe they just need a little direction. And sadly, there are plenty of people within the church that talk a lot about following Jesus, but either just use him as a prop for their own gain, or simply strip him of all his power and authority the moment he asks them to do something, give something, or truly change. 

Take a close look at today’s gospel reading and when you do, pay attention to these people that are looking for Jesus. Herod is looking for Jesus, but his quest is motivated by fear and ends in rage. The wise men are motivated by wonder and their journey ends in Joy. The people who find joy in this gospel are those who seek Christ to worship him.

Trouvé

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Sermon for December 27th, 2020

Readings:

I was ordained priest at a church on the upper east side of Manhattan, and we had a delightful parishioner in that parish, who despite living in one of the country’s richest zip codes, was not particularly wealthy. She always referred to her home decor as “trouvé” the French word for “found” meaning that her home was furnished and decorated with stuff that she found on the side of the road. 

Now I have since discovered that this is quite a thing, especially in NYC, because the difficulty and expense of moving things often leads people to abandon some very fine furniture pieces to the garbage collector. If you keep your eyes peeled and actually pay attention to what others are discarding, you can find some real treasures mixed in with the trash. That was this parishioner’s firm conviction, so her house was filled with “trouvés.”

I was thinking of her this past week as I was setting the table for Christmas dinner. If you know the character Hyacinth Bucket from the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, you will recall how famous she was for her candlelight suppers. Well, I must admit, I channel Hyacinth sometimes. I too want people to stagger back in admiration when they enter my dining room. But as I was polishing silver and setting out china, I realized that quite a lot of my treasured, beautiful things are trouvés, things I found. Sure, I have a number of lovely gifts that have been given to me by friends and family and parishioners, and there are some quality items that I have purchased myself, but a great number of my treasures, were at some point, in someone else’s eyes, trash…not worth keeping. 

Growing up, I used to spend hours and hours scouring thrift stores with my Grandmother, maybe that is where my own love for trouvés started, but I have since discovered that there is more to this than just collecting milk glass and used furniture. It is a way of looking at the world. It is a realization that we humans have this tendency to cast aside things that are really of great beauty and value. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. And we all had our reasons.

Maybe we thought the leg on that chair couldn’t be fixed. Silver has to be polished. Fine china can’t go in the dishwasher. As things get older, they frequently require a bit of work and maintenance, and let’s face it, a lot of the time we just can’t be bothered. And then there are other times when we no longer see the beauty in something because we are bored with it, disinterested or distracted. We don’t just do this with furniture and Nic-nacs, we do it with houses and buildings, whole neighborhoods and cities; the church has at times done it with her prayers and rituals, casting aside things of great beauty in favor of that which is simply new or convenient. We throw treasures away; we do it with things, we do it with thoughts and ideas, and we do it with cities and we do it with people. 

In the Book of Isaiah this morning we hear the prophet proclaiming “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” Why all this rejoicing? Why the exultation? Because he can see Jerusalem and the glorious temple of God being rebuilt. The temple had been destroyed and the entire city laid waste by the Babylonians. After Babylon had taken what they wanted out of the city, it and its inhabitants were rubbish as far as they were concerned. Jerusalem, the treasure of the Jewish people and the place where God dwelled, had been trashed and cast aside. Thrown away. And now, it was being redeemed. God was taking her and picking her up, dusting her off, and putting a new garment on her, a garment of salvation. God was fixing that which was broken; God was polishing that which was tarnished. In God’s hands, that which was cast aside as worthless and of no value, was now shining like a jewel: a crown, a royal diadem. But it isn’t just the walls of Jerusalem that are being redeemed; it is her people. God was saving people that the world had thrown away. 

If God behaved like we do, this world would have been consigned to the dust bin long ago. The moment we humans lost our ability to shine, the moment we became broken or a little old, God could have just tossed us all out and started over. But that is not the story of our faith and that is not the God we believe in. God does not behave like us. God is in the business of redemption. The Christian story is a redemption story. From the beginning of time, God has always been looking for trouvés, treasure among the trash. God’s mission is to find the broken and the forgotten and the obsolete and to make it shine and sparkle again. That is what the mission of Christ was all about: redemption. In this world, that by human standards should have been thrown away, God still sees great beauty; enough at least to jump down into this dumpster with us, confident that there are still treasures here that with a bit of love and polish, just might be fit for his heavenly banquet. 

The answer to all of our longing

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Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020

Readings:

In 1942 Bing Crosby recorded a single album of a song that was featured in one of his recent films. He didn’t think much of it at the time and he had no reason to. As songs go it didn’t seem very special to him. The lyrics weren’t profound or clever. The melody was sweet, humable, but not really remarkable. 

It became the best-selling single album of all time, and it set a record that to this day has never been broken, and no one has even come close. That one little song has sold over 50 million copies. 50 million copies.

The song was White Christmas by Irving Berlin. Maybe you already knew that. It is still the best-selling single of all time. 

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know

Where the tree tops glisten

And children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow,

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

With every Christmas card I write

May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white

This is a secular Christmas song. It mentions Christmas over and over, but doesn’t actually talk about the birth of Christ. The lyrics are simple; they might even feel saccharine or overly sentimental to you, but try to imagine the song for a moment in the context of those that first heard it:

It is 1942 and all across the world families are separated and the future seems very uncertain. For several years Europe has been in the midst of a cataclysmic war and now America is coming to the end of its first-year fighting in that war and there is no end in sight, not yet. Thousands and thousands of troops know that they won’t be with their families for Christmas, and many of them probably know that there is a chance they will never be with them again. And in the midst of all that fear and uncertainty and longing, deep longing, a voice comes across the radio inviting them to dream of a happier, simpler time. 

It hit a nerve, because in that moment when the future seemed so uncertain, this little song was offering people a moment of connection. A moment of connection with the past; and a moment of connection with all those that the listeners longed to be with, but couldn’t. I think this song hit a nerve, because it is a song about deep longing; and deep, deep longing, is really at the heart of what Christmas is all about. 

We long to feel connected. We long for peace and happiness and stability. We long for our world to be other than the way it is. These emotions aren’t new to us in 2020. They weren’t new to the troops in 1942 either. Where does all of this longing lead us? Well longing to feel connected; longing for hope, joy and peace can lead people in all sorts of different directions, sometimes down very dangerous paths, but the Christian answer, and the story we tell tonight, is that the longing leads us here: to a simple birth in the backcountry of a Roman province 2000 years ago. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight, O little town of Bethlehem. 

Here at the stable we find the connection we have been longing for. Here is our past and here is our future. Here we gather with loved ones near and far. Here, the departed gather with those that are yet to be born. Here we find the hope and courage to face an uncertain future. The answer to all of our longing is a holy child, Jesus, and he, in truth offers us more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. He offers us a new life, and a new world. Jesus offers us a connection, a communion, that is the answer to all of our longings. 

Later in his life, one of Bing’s nephews asked him what was the most difficult thing he ever had to do in his career. He said in December 1944 he was doing a USO tour with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters and at the end of the show one night, in snowy Northern France, he had to stand on stage and sing White Christmas while 100,000 troops stared back at him with tears streaming down their faces. Bing said that getting through that song without breaking down was the hardest thing he ever had to do. 

The notorious Battle of the Bulge was just a few days later.

Those troops weren’t wishing for snow, they had that in abundance. That isn’t really what that song is about, not really. So many of the things we associate with Christmas, things like sleigh bells, and snow and Christmas cards, aren’t really the point of Christmas at all; they are just symbols that point us to something greater. They point us to this longing that we all share: the longing to be connected. Connected to the past, connected to the future, connected to each other and connected to God. It is the longing for connection that led those troops to sing alone with Bing through their tears. It is the longing for connection that draws us together tonight. 

May you find the answer to all that longing in the same place a few shepherds did 2,000 years ago: wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

The Four Last Things: Hell

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Sermon for December 20th, 2020

Readings:

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

Be it unto me according to thy word.

Let it be with me according to your word.

May your word to me be fulfilled.

When our Lady responds to the Angel Gabriel she says “yes, Lord!”

I don’t understand how this is possible. I don’t know where this is going. This doesn’t make any sense; but, yes Lord. May your will for me be done. Mary said “yes.”

It could have been otherwise you know. 

When that angel came to Mary and explained to her how God was going to use her for the salvation of his people, she could have said “No.”

Not me Lord.

I’m too busy. This is too dangerous. This really isn’t a part of my five-year plan. It’s not a good time for me. I’m not interested. This will be too hard. What’s in it for me? Choose someone else.

No. Mary could have said no. God didn’t create little drones or robots. God created free human beings. And free human beings, with free-will, have the power to say “No” even to their creator. Yes, we believe that God is all powerful, but we also believe that our God is a god of love. God created us out of love; God wants us to love him in return. But in order for love to be real and meaningful, it must be freely given. God doesn’t take, and God doesn’t want prisoners. Mary is not God’s prisoner. She can turn away. She can refuse God’s offer. She can refuse God’s grace. She can say no.

But she didn’t. Thank God she didn’t. But can you imagine if she had? If Mary had refused God’s offer of salvation, where would we be? What would our hope look like? 

We owe so much to a brave little girl that had the courage and the faith to say yes to God. She is worthy of our utmost admiration and respect for her role in our salvation.

And yet, each and every one of us is faced with a similar dilemma to the one Mary was faced with. No, we don’t all encounter angels in quite the same way, and we haven’t all been asked to bear our Lord into the world in the way she did. Her role in that is unique. But we are all faced with the choice of whether to say “yes” or “no” to God’s salvation. There are so many moments in our lives when God offers us grace and forgiveness. Sometimes they are big moments; sometimes they may seem completely insignificant; but time and time again God offers us grace and we have the choice to say yes to it…or no.

Those who hunger and thirst for God’s grace; those who long for salvation, are unlikely to say no to it when it is offered. Those that are self-satisfied and filled with their own conceit, those that are mighty in their own eyes, the self-righteous and those who don’t long for God, well it is quite possible that they won’t recognize what is being offered them and turn away. We all have the power to turn away from God.

The popular image of hell, is of a place where God sends you for being bad. Lakes of fire and devils with pitchforks and pointy tails. Like popular images of heaven, this is far too simplistic and based on very little scripture and actual church teaching. In our scriptures, when Jesus uses the word “hell” the word he is really using is an Aramaic word “Gehenna.” Gehenna means the valley of Hinom, which is a valley just outside of Jerusalem, where scripture tells us that long before the time of Jesus, children were sacrificed and slaughtered. People, even kings, were worshipping other Gods, and this worship led them to sacrifice their own children. Jesus uses Gehenna, whenever he wants to talk about the opposite of God’s kingdom. And yes, he uses the images of fires in Gehenna, because that is how those children were sacrificed, by fire. But here is the question: who started those fires in Gehenna? It wasn’t God that lit those fires in Gehenna, it was man. Hell is something we created by trying to worship false Gods. Hell was the work of our own hands. Hell was a choice that we made.

Maybe you think it is unlikely that people would actually choose hell. I’m not so sure. When I look at history, and when I look around even now, I see plenty of evidence of people choosing their own destruction. It seems hard to believe that people would actually say No to God, but the evidence would indicate that they do. I don’t want to believe in hell, but much like heaven, I see glimpses of it all the time. The hell that I see though, is not something that God has imposed upon us; it isn’t God being vengeful towards us; it is simply the natural result of our turning away from the source of all life. If you choose to walk away from the light, you can’t be angry at the darkness. 

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in conclusion of my series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, we come to the subject that nobody wants to talk about: hell. We really don’t like talking about or thinking about hell. People will say that they don’t believe in a God that would allow hell to exist, but you see without at least the possibility of hell, without the possibility of turning away or saying NO to God, then a YES to God could have no meaning. Love is meaningless unless it is freely given. The truth is, what I think disturbs us the most about hell, is that deep down we know that it isn’t God’s choice, it’s ours. Hell is a choice that we make. 

There was a very famous French Jesuit priest in the 20th century named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote in the conclusion to his book the Divine Milieu:

You have told me, O God, to believe in hell. But you have forbidden me to hold with absolute certainty that any single man has been damned. I shall therefore make no attempt to consider the damned here, nor even to discover-by whatsoever means-whether there are any. 

The words of scripture, the words of our Lord and a faith in the free-will of God’s created children, bind us to a belief in the existence of hell, but we needn’t speculate upon its population. Nor should we speculate on who walks its lonely streets. The population could be zero for all that we know. People aren’t bound to say no to God any more than they are bound to say yes. Perhaps when the true light of God is revealed, no one will choose to walk away from it. Time will tell. 

Our concern, must be to simply show the world what “Yes” looks like. What does it look like to seek God above all things? What does it look like to be humble and lowly? What does it look like to follow God even when you don’t know where he is leading you? What does it look like to invite and allow God’s grace to transform you and your life? Well, we have seen what it looks like. It looks like a little girl talking to a mighty angel and saying “be it unto me according to thy word.” That is what not looks like to say yes to God. 

Very often you will see the Virgin Mary depicted slamming her foot down on the head of a serpent. That is the power of saying yes to God: it casts the powers of hell right down under your feet.

The Four Last Things: Heaven

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Sermon for December 13th, 2020

Readings:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Perhaps you may be tempted to ask the Apostle Paul why. Why should we rejoice? Why should we pray? Why should we give thanks? Why is this God’s will for us?

When there is so much darkness right now, both literally and figuratively; when so many are sick and suffering; after so many have died; when there is so much division and hatred; when we cannot gather with or see many of our loved ones…how can we rejoice and give thanks?

In the Northern hemisphere, it is getting darker and colder. This time in the church’s year, Advent, is traditionally a time of penitence. It is a time when we talk about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, and in the midst of this season, in the middle of all this darkness the church tells us to rejoice. Gaudete! The Latin word for rejoice. The word that Paul uses in his epistle this morning. December can be such a difficult month. There is so much stress. There are so many demands placed upon our time and our resources. We have so many emotions to contend with: anticipation, joy, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, love, disappointment. This time of the year brings out the best and the worst in people, and in the midst of the cold and darkness, the church by tradition puts on splendid apparel, decks the altar with roses and proclaims in the words of Paul: rejoice!

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Rejoice. 

As we sit in darkness and contemplate the end of all things, even the end of our own lives. We are told to rejoice. 

Why do we rejoice? We rejoice because we believe something marvelous is coming. No matter how dark it may seem, we believe that something better is coming. We have seen a glimpse of it. We have seen a light and We rejoice to proclaim to the world that darkness doesn’t win. 

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, which is traditionally Rose Sunday. The vestments are a bit brighter, we have flowers on the altar again, and on this day in the midst of a season of repentance we are told to rejoice. We rejoice because we know something wonderful is coming, but here is the thing you may not know: the wonderful thing that is coming is NOT Christmas. 

The thing that Christians are told to rejoice over, to pray and prepare for and to live in hope and expectation of, is not a commercial holiday. We aren’t told to long for the presents under the tree. Our joy is not based on a party held on December the 25th. We are not here to celebrate one day that comes and goes every year. We are here to celebrate, and to long for, eternity with God. We are here to proclaim an end to suffering and pain and death. We are here to say that there is a light that the darkness cannot overcome or destroy, and it’s not the light from your Christmas tree or your front lawn light display; it is the light that comes from God. 

We long to stand and live in the light of God. At Christmas we celebrate the vision, the glimpse we were given of that light in Jesus Christ. His life and more importantly his resurrection was a foretaste of the life and the light that awaits all of us. On December the 25th we celebrate our Lord being born among us, because in that moment we were allowed to see our eternal destiny: life with our God. We got to see the face of God and it was glorious. Can you imagine Christmas with all of the joy and none of the stress? Can you imagine a day of beauty and love and excitement and wonder that you didn’t have to create or pay for or make, but was just given to you as a free gift? The beauty and joy of Christmas may give us a glimpse into heaven, but what God has in store for us, is bound to be so much better than the holidays we create.

That is why we rejoice. We rejoice because we have heard the good news of the glorious feast that God has prepared for us. 

We have been discussing the four last things this advent: death, judgement, heaven and hell. No doubt you have figured out by now, that today I am talking about heaven. Now popular piety has given us many images of heaven: clouds and pearly gates and angels as little fat babies with harps. Most of these images have nothing to do with scripture or actual Christian teachings. The truth is, there is much mystery for us surrounding what happens when we die, but our conviction, as Christians, is that it can be a glorious mystery and not a sorrowful one. No we don’t have a perfectly clear picture of heaven, but we have been given glimpses of it. We saw it in the face of a tiny child born on a Bethlehem hillside. We saw it again in the life of that young man as he taught the power of truth and love. We saw it once more, gloriously, after his broken body rose from the dead. Saints have seen it. Prophets have seen it. And maybe from time to time, you and I have seen it. Maybe you have had a glimpse of heaven and you didn’t even know it. 

Maybe heaven surrounds us as a mystery that is begging to be seen and recognized, only we are usually too distracted by the darkness to notice. In the midst of darkness, we need something or someone to grab us and shake us, to cry out to us saying: rejoice! Something wonderful is coming! Heaven is on its way and you really don’t want to miss it.

The Four Last Things: Judgement

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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

December, 6th, 2020

Readings:

In 1941, in the middle of the Second World War, C. S. Lewis did a number of radio broadcasts for the BBC. In one of his broadcasts, entitled: “Right and Wrong: a clue to the meaning of the universe” Lewis begins by giving the example of two men quarreling. 

Quarreling, not two men just trying to overpower one another, but two men engaged in an argument. Two individuals, each trying to prove that he was right and the other person wrong. Lewis says we can learn something from listening to people quarrel. Lewis said, that if you listen to people quarrel you will hear something interesting. People will say things like:

I was here first.

That is my seat.

How would you like it if someone did that to you?

You promised.

That’s not fair.

People say things like this every day. Educated people and uneducated people. Children and adults. 

What Lewis says is fascinating about these statements is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior doesn’t happen to please him, he’s appealing to an external standard of behavior that he expects the other man to know about. He appeals to the idea of right and wrong. And he expects that the other person must have some basic understanding of right and wrong as well, otherwise the quarrel would be pointless. How does the other man respond? Well he either tries to appeal to right and wrong himself, in order to show that he in fact does uphold the standard, or he tries to provide some reason why he should be exempt from the standard, but he pretty much never argues that right and wrong don’t exist.

Or I will give you my own example: think about the Supreme Court. You have some justices that argue that the constitution should be interpreted this way; you have other justices that argue that the constitution should be interpreted that way. But NO justice ever argues that the constitution doesn’t even exist. That is a given.

Why do we take it as a given that some actions are right and others wrong? Why do humans even have this notion of right and wrong at all? Where does this idea of an external standard come from? Well, Lewis’s argument is that this is where we begin to see God breaking into the human world. For Lewis, the very fact that we humans believe in right actions and wrong actions is evidence for the existence of God.

Now, you may have some objections and questions about this argument, and Lewis has already anticipated you and answered them. I won’t go into his entire argument here, but I will send you all the link so that you can listen to someone read his essay. If, by chance, you have read his book Mere Christianity, then you have already read Lewis’s argument as his radio broadcasts were the foundation of that book. Give it a listen, because the objective existence of right and wrong is, as Lewis says, a clue to the meaning of the universe.

As I said in a sermon a couple weeks ago, we believe that the power at the center of the universe is not just a creative force but is also a judge. Think about the book of Genesis and the creation story: God creates and then God judges. God creates the heavens and the earth and the seas, and all the animals and even human beings and after creating each one, he looks at it and says “This is good.” God creates and God determines what is good. This God is a judge.

Now the words judge and judgement have gotten a bad rap in recent years. When I say judgement, you may think of individuals you know that are judgmental. You may think of self-righteous people that sit in judgement over others. You may think of all those people casting stones on the internet, filling everyone’s comments section with their virtue signaling and their pious opinions. You may think of people who rush to judgement without having all the facts. When I say judge, you may think of Judge Wapner, or Judge Judy, Judge Harry Stone, or Judge Joe Brown. You may think of the Supreme Court Justices that you like, or you may think of the Supreme Court Justices that you don’t like. The words judge and judgement get a bad rap because whenever we think of those words, we think of human beings making judgements and we are reminded whenever we do that of how prone we are to making bad judgements. Even the wisest, most benevolent person can make bad judgments because we never have all the facts. We know that our judgments are clouded by things like emotions and prejudices. We all know that human beings make pretty lousy judges and judgements.

How do we know that? How do we know when a judgement is bad? How is it that we can recognize a bad judgement or an unjust judge? Well maybe, it is because deep in our soul, way down in our being, there is this imprint or image of a higher standard. Something tells us that right and wrong are real things, and faith tells us that that something is God. Faith tells us that the author of right and wrong is a force in our lives. It is such a powerful force that even when we try to run from judgement we usually end up running to the ideas of righteousness, justice and fairness that this force, this judge, created in the first place. When the creator of the universe is also a judge, you cannot escape judgement, nor would you want to. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom mentions in his book Morality, that “there is no justice without a judge.” Our vision of the world is of a place where right and wrong, good and evil objectively exist, the evidence for that is in our daily language, but we also recognize that we are not the best arbiters over which is which. We love justice, or we say we do, but we act unjustly. We want people to be fair with us, but we also know that we treat others unfairly. We have the power to recognize the existence of good, we know the standard exists, but we also know that we don’t always conform to it. There is only one judge that really knows how closely we conform to the standard, and that judge is not us…it is God.

Today is the second Sunday in Advent, and as this Advent I am discussing the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, today I am discussing the second of those things: judgment. Just as we believe that there truly is a standard in the universe of right and wrong, so we also believe that one of the questions that all humans must face is where we stand in relationship to that standard. When the author of good and evil, right and wrong, examines our life, how will we be judged? 

We are not capable of accurately judging where other people stand in relationship to their creator; we know that we are not qualified to do that, because we don’t have a complete window into the lives and the thoughts and the hearts of others. But hopefully we do have a bit more insight into our own lives. What is our relationship with God? Where do we stand with our creator? That is a question we all must ask. 

Yes, we believe in forgiveness. Yes, we believe that Christ suffered and died for us, even while we were still sinners. There may be, as Paul says, “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” My sins may not have the power to damn me so long as I am a part of the body of Christ, but that doesn’t mean that my actions here and now don’t matter. Our actions in this world matter a lot, because our actions are either drawing us closer to the eternal judge, or they are drawing us farther away. Where do we want to be, which direction do we want to be headed in, when our actions can take us no farther? Yes, we cannot save ourselves, but if we have judged ourselves rightly and recognized that on that day of judgement that there will be much in our lives that will be in need of forgiveness, and if we have confidence that through the mercy of Jesus Christ that forgiveness will be offered, then what sort of lives ought we to lead in the meantime, or as Peter says, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness? We may not be called to judge someone else’s walk with God, but we are called to judge our own. We are called to constantly judge for ourselves, whether we are moving closer to the author of right and wrong, or whether we are moving further away.

One of the things that Lewis says in his broadcast is that “we all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

I guess that is what repentance is all about. Who would have guessed that John the Baptist was such a progressive?

C. S. Lewis Essay Recordings:

Right and Wrong: A clue to the meaning of the Universe Part I

Right and Wrong: A clue to the meaning of the Universe Part II

The Four Last Things: Death

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Sermon for Sunday, November 29th, 2020

Advent I

Readings:

The really scary thing about this plague that has been running rampant through our world this year is that this virus has a strain of unpredictability about it. 

On the one hand, doctors and scientists have identified clear high-risk activities and high-risk groups. There are some patterns to how the virus is transmitted and who is likely to suffer the most from it. 

On the other hand, we all know stories of extremely high-risk individuals that contracted covid and defeated it, some barely suffering any symptoms, and we all know stories of healthy, young individuals that this virus has killed quickly. There is this degree of uncertainty to our lives right now. Granted, it is not a huge degree of uncertainty, compared to our ancestors and compared to much of the world even now we live in relative comfort and safety, but still the grim specter of death has invaded our lives this year in ways that we would not have even imagined on the first Sunday in Advent last year. We have less certainty. The reality of death and the possibility of our own deaths is probably a little bit more real to us this year, than it was last year. Let’s face it, we have gotten very used to shying away from death in the modern, western world. We’ll show it on TV, and in video games, and in movies, but we don’t want to talk about it or think about it in real life. It makes us uncomfortable. It has gotten to the point where we won’t even talk about death at a funeral anymore. We have gotten so good at blocking the reality of death out of our daily lives, that we can no longer process it when it actually happens. We were not always this timid.

When I was a child, which really wasn’t all that long ago, I can remember that the first prayer my grandmother ever taught me, was the “now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. You know:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Think about that for a second. In my first prayer as a child, I was taught about the reality of death. And you know, I didn’t find it unusual or upsetting. It didn’t give me horrible nightmares. I didn’t envision snakes encircling my bed like in that Metallica video enter sandman, which that prayer makes a cameo in. You know what I find interesting about that prayer now? It is that it isn’t a prayer to be spared from death. Death is not presented as something that is scary or to be feared. Death is just a given in this prayer. The request is that if death should happen that we would be gathered unto God. The main fear here is not death, but separation from God. That is what we should be concerned about. Maybe death will come like a thief in the night, and maybe it won’t; our concern as Christians is not whether we live or die; it is whether in life or in death we are connected to Christ. That is what that prayer is all about.

Several years ago, I discovered this little prayer bear, where if you pressed his paw he would say a little prayer. And the prayer was “Now I lay me down to sleep,” only some of the words had been changed. Now it was:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

Angels watch me through the night,

And wake me with the morning light.

That is a very different prayer. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you, but it is really a huge change. In the first prayer death is not something to be feared, it is a given; the second prayer is so afraid of death it can’t even say its name. The second prayer is just about God using his power or his angels to keep us alive for another day. Death is what is to be feared or avoided in this second prayer. In the first prayer, it is separation from God.

Maybe some well-meaning person thought that kids aren’t capable of understand or dealing with death, so they re-wrote the prayer. I don’t really know the origin of the new prayer. But what does it say about our own fears if we cannot discuss death with our children? What does it say about our faith as Christians if we treat death like it is the worst thing imaginable? What kind of power does death have over us if we are so afraid of it that we can’t even talk about it? We need to learn how to talk about it again, and this year is as good a time as any to start.

You know, there is an old preaching tradition in the church of using the four Sundays of Advent to talk about the four last things. You may think of Advent like an Advent calendar, a chocolate filled countdown to Christmas, but as our scripture readings make clear this morning, Advent is first and foremost about the second coming of Christ. Christians believe that the world as we know it will some day come to an end and that in that moment Christ will once again break into our reality, in powerful and glorious ways, and that that end will also represent a new beginning. There will be a new creation: a new heaven and a new earth. Things that seemed everlasting, like the sun and the moon and the stars will fade into insignificance in the light of the eternal creative Word of God. Things that we thought were important will no longer be so. Advent is about longing for God to be present in our lives and in our world. When Jesus talked about the coming of the son of man he used the image of a fig tree getting ready to sprout new leaves. In other words, this is something that will represent new life and new fruit. It isn’t just an end, it is an ending that is also a new beginning. So what are these four last things? What are these things that represent the end of one world and the beginning of another?

The four last things are death, judgement, heaven and hell. It used to be quite common for Advent sermons to be focused on these four last things, but it has largely fallen out of favor in recent years. But I’m in a festive mood, so I figured, what the heck? I’ll do a sermon series on the four last things, which is why we began by discussing death. Lucky you. And lest some of the more protestant minded among you think that this is some bit of old popery that I have dug up, there is an extended poem about the four last things written by the Puritan John Bunyan. What is the Christian response to the first of these four last things, death, according to Bunyan? Here is what he writes:

45. Among those glittering Stars of light

That Christ still holdeth fast

In his right hand with all his might,

Until that danger’s past,

46. That shakes the world, and most hath dropt

Into grief and distress,

O blessed then is he that’s wrapt

In Christ his righteousness.

47. This is the man Death cannot kill;

For he hath put on arms;

Him Sin nor Satan hath not skill

To hurt with all their charms,

48. An Helmet on his head doth stand,

A Breast-plate on his Heart:

A Shield also is in his Hand,

That blunteth every Dart.

49. Truth girds him round the Reins, also

His Sword is on his Thigh;

His Feet in Shooes of Peace do go

The ways of Purity.

50. His Heart it groaneth to the Lord,

Who hears him at his call,

And doth him help and strength afford,

Wherewith he conquers all.

51. Thus fortify’d he keeps the field

While Death is gone and fled;

And then lies down upon his Shield

Till Christ doth raise the dead.

Our greatest fear, as Christians, cannot be death, because death only has ultimate power over us when we are separated from God. That should always be our chief concern: in times of plague and in times of health, in good times and in bad times, in sleeping and in waking, in starting a new year and in ending an old one: are we being united to Christ? If we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live therefor, or die, we are the Lord’s. Our greatest fear is not death, it is separation from God. 

Advent is a celebration of our union with God. It is a union that we await and look to be completed in our Lord’s second coming; and it is a union that we have been given glimpses of in our Lord’s first coming. We stand and live our lives in between the two. For this next month I will be discussing the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. My hope in doing so, is not to bring down fire and brimstone on the month of December, but rather to encourage us as Christians to live and die as people who are longing to see Jesus. That is what Advent, and the entire Christian life is really all about: longing to see Jesus.

Shibboleth

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Sermon for Sunday, November 22nd, 2020

The Feast of Christ the King

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Shibboleth

No, that is not a swear word, though maybe it should be. 

Shibboleth is a Hebrew word and if you know what it means or what it refers to, then that means you are quite possibly a biblical scholar, a linguistic scholar, or more likely a fan of the TV show “the West Wing.” 

What is a shibboleth? Well, to put it quite simply a shibboleth is a tool that we use to sort ourselves into insiders and outsiders. A shibboleth is a test, only you may not know that you are being tested. A shibboleth can be something cultural, it can be a food, it can be a word or phrase, it can be a WAY of pronouncing something, that is a signal, usually a secret signal, that I am a part of a special group. It is like a secret handshake. We use shibboleths all the time and don’t even know it. 

When I hear someone uses the pronoun “y’all” correctly, I immediately start to think “hey, I bet this person eats grits; I bet they know how to cook okra.” The word is a signal of something greater. It is a signal that you might be a part of the in-crowd. You might be like me. We might have something in common. That is what I start to think when I hear “y’all”

What “ya’ll” start to think may be a different story. You may think Goober and Gomer Pyle. Yokel. Unsophisticated, uneducated. You may make assumptions about my family background or my politics, all just because of one word. The word is a symbol of something greater.

In the Book of Judges there were two warring tribes the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. And the Gileadites controlled a river crossing and they would ask everyone that crossed the river to pronounce the word “Shibboleth.” Well, if you were a Gileadite you said “shibboleth” with an -sh, but the Ephraimites pronounced it “sibboleth” with an -s. Well whenever the Gileadites head someone mispronounce their word, they killed them. It wasn’t about the word at all though, it was about what it signified. This shibboleth was a signifier of which group you belonged to. It was a tool to sort ourselves, and boy do we like to sort ourselves. 

We use shibboleths all the time, sometimes they are very secret and subtle, sometimes they are obvious and overt. And it’s not just words that we use; it can be anything: food, clothing, what kind of car you drive, what kind of church you go to, whether you go to the 8 o’clock service or the 10:30 service. This week your Thanksgiving table will probably be covered with shibboleths and you didn’t even know it. Did you roast that turkey or did you deep fry it? Are you serving white bread stuffing or cornbread dressing? Does your cranberry sauce still have the rings on it from the can it came out of, or is it made from whole, fresh berries that you have boiled with lemon zest and Gran Marnier? And don’t think that the shibboleths end when you step away from the dining room table either…oh no, because then there is the issue of which football team you are going to root for. Oh, you see, the problem with shibboleths is that they don’t know when to stop sorting people. Are you from the Western world or the Eastern world? Are you from Europe or the United States? Are you a Northerner or a Southerner? Are you a wealthy, coastal southerner that drops the ‘r’s from your words, or are you a poor, in-land southerner that adds ‘r’s to words? Are you a white southerner or a black southerner? Which state are you from? Do you put white gravy or brown gravy on your country fried steak? Is your cornbread sweet or savory? Are you rooting for Auburn or Alabama? That is like asking someone up here if they are a Yankees fan or a Mets fan. Get it wrong and you are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

We are constantly looking for ways to sort ourselves. I do it. You do it. We all do it, and sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are doing it. It may seem like fun and games, and it is…until it’s not. Shibboleths don’t know when to stop. Healthy rivalries turn into vicious divisions. In the Bible, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites weren’t playing a football game, they were killing each other. This desire we have to sort ourselves has a dark side: it becomes an addiction. We won’t stop until we are deciding who is worthy of life and who isn’t, or who is entitled to sit on God’s right hand and who should be on the left.

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judgebetween sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Jesus talks about the great day when he will come in glory and separate the sheep from the goats. When those who are the righteous will be separated from those that are accursed. God tells Ezekiel that some day he will come and judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. We hear these prophecies and it confirms for us what we already know and believe: that the world is filled with sheep and goats, or fat sheep and lean sheep. The world is filled with bad guys and good guys. The world is filled with those who are blessed and those who are accursed, so why can’t we get a head start on all this sorting? 

Ah but, you see that’s not our job. The sheep are not qualified to sort themselves out; whenever they try, it is just sheep pushing flank and shoulder against other sheep; the strong butting against the weak until all are scattered. We want to decide who the sheep are and who the goats are, but Jesus makes it clear that that is his job, not ours. We love to judge and sort ourselves, but God makes it very clear that the only sorting and judging that is every going to matter is the sorting that he does. The more inclined we are to sort people according to who we think is blessed and accursed, or who we think is a sheep and who we think is a goat, the more likely we are to find ourselves on the wrong side of Jesus when the real sorting happens. 

If we really believe that Christ is our king, which is what we proclaim today. If we really trust that Christ is the Lord, King, and judge of the universe, then we have to learn to put our own little shibboleths aside. We need to stop trying to sort the world out for Jesus and trust that he will know his own sheep when he comes looking for them. None of us are qualified to judge, not even the best among us, we are all gonna get it wrong.

In Jesus’s little story this morning, did you notice that the sheep and the goats have something in common? The righteous people on Jesus’s right hand and the accursed people on Jesus’s left hand have one important in common: they are all surprised at which side they wound up on. 

Our God has power AND expectations

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Sermon for November 15th, 2020

Readings:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The Lord will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”

The prophet Zephaniah makes a startling claim in the scriptures this morning. Zephaniah is talking about “The Day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is the day when we see God’s power. The day of the Lord is the day when God is victorious. It is a day to be longed for, and it is a day to be feared, because the day of the Lord will bring with it truth and consequences. When Christians talk about the day of the Lord, we are usually talking about Jesus’s second coming or judgement day, the last day, the final battle,  or as Paul says: “the day of the Lord which will come as the thief in the night,” but the prophets were talking about that future day of the Lord before Jesus came. 

The prophet Zephaniah is talking about that future day of judgement when we see God face to face, when God reveals who he really is and when God reveals who we really are, and Zephaniah says something really shocking:

He says: At that time God will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and He will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The Lord will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”

God is going to search out his Holy City, and who is God looking for? Is God looking for the people that sincerely tried and failed? No. Is God looking for people that made honest mistakes about what was right and wrong? No. Who is God looking for? God is looking for the people that just don’t care. The complacent. Those who are satisfied with the dregs. 

Do you know what the dregs are? The dregs are the bit that is left over when all the good stuff is gone. The dregs are that last bit of coffee that sits there cold in the cup; the dregs are that last bit of wine in the bottle that is all sediment. That is what the dregs are. Some people think that we should eat the best and give to God the rest. Because what difference does it make? Does God really care what we do? Think about what it means to say that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” What does it mean to say that? What is so offensive about that that would make God want to turn Jerusalem upside down just to set some people straight?

 Well, If you say “the Lord will do no good, nor will he do harm” you are essentially saying that you think God is neutral. To say that, is to say that God is just this impersonal force that shows no partiality to right or wrong; that right and wrong don’t really exist. And if you say that, then you are basically saying that it doesn’t matter matter what we do in this world, because God doesn’t care and isn’t going to do anything about it. Those are the people, Zephaniah says, that God is looking for. Even if they don’t say it out loud, but in their hearts believe that God doesn’t care, well, they are going to be in for a rude awakening. God is going to show the world that he is NOT neutral.

You know, historically, throughout time, there have been two very popular ways that humans have thought about God or the Gods or the higher power in the universe: 

Some people have talked about the Gods as if they were just like human beings. Think about the Greeks or the Romans or the Hindu gods or pagan Gods. These Gods behave just like human beings; maybe they have more power, but their emotions and passions and behaviors are largely the same. The Greek gods were petty and vain and abusive and manipulative. Their actions do not reflect any greater morality or ideas about right and wrong. These Gods were just about appeasing desires. 

Other people have talked about God as if God was just this neutral, disinterested force. This is often the God of the philosophers. This God is an impersonal higher power that creates, but doesn’t really care. This God is immovable and unknowable. This God is a force without a face. There have always been people in the world that thought about God this way; it isn’t a modern innovation.

But these two ways of looking at God, despite their historic popularity, are not the way that the Jews looked at God. For the Jewish people, God is neither of these things. God isn’t just a more powerful human being, nor is God some impersonal, immovable force. The God of the Jews is an all-powerful God of righteousness. For the Jews, the creator of the universe is also the author of the moral law. Their God is not just a force, but a judge. Right and wrong fundamentally exist in this God’s world. So does truth. This God has more than power, this God has expectations. 

Do you want to know what kind of God you worship…ask yourself this question: does God expect something of me? Does God expect something of me? Does it matter what I do with what God has given me? Because if you don’t think it matters, if you think God is indifferent, then I’m not sure we are worshipping the same God. Because the God of the Hebrews and the God of Jesus is anything but indifferent. Think about Jesus’s story today. The master entrusts each of his slaves with some of his property, some of them try to make something of it, to varying degrees of success, and one does nothing. The master isn’t mad that the slave with one talent didn’t do as well as the slave with five; that’s not an issue he did what he could with what he had…but the slave that didn’t even try…that’s another story. Now this slave tries to make excuses saying that he thought the master was harsh and unforgiving. Nonsense! That is a lie and the master knows it, and the master calls him out for it. If he really thought that he would have tried even harder. No, that’s not what that slave really thought at all. He thought that it didn’t really matter what he did with what the master gave him, so he just couldn’t be bothered. The problem is not that he tried and failed…he didn’t try at all.

Certainly, as Christians, we believe that our God is forgiving and merciful, but being forgiving is NOT the same thing as being neutral. Mercy is not the same thing as indifference. The prophets and our Lord remind us that our God has power AND expectations.