Not by the opinion of others

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018

Readings:

Before bibles like this were easily printed and readily available, if you wanted to hear the scriptures, if you wanted to know the stories of your faith, if you wanted to know the commandments and the promises of God, then you needed to gather together with others in a public assembly. The written word was precious and rare. People gathered together to hear it proclaimed and in those gatherings, in those communities, they also shared the unwritten traditions of piety and devotion. The learned how to interpret and understand what had been read. They were challenged to greater faithfulness. They learned that they needed each other. They needed to pray, not just for themselves, but for each other. They needed to help each other; to pick each other up when they are fallen and to help those who are too weak to approach God on their own, from the elderly to the nursing infant. As the prophet Joel says: “assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast.” The priests are instructed to weep and to plead for God on behalf of their people. There is an interconnectedness here. There is a recognition that in our walk of faith we need each other: for instruction, for comfort, for challenge, for strength, for inspiration.

 

Some things change, some things stay the same. We no longer need to gather in communities or assemblies to hear the word of God. The Bible is cheap, it is very often freely given away, you can download it on your phone if you want. Johnny Cash even recorded it on CD if you would rather listen to it. But even though the text of scripture is readily available now, we still need to gather in community for everything else. We need the community of faith for tradition, interpretation, love, support, guidance and even to challenge us from time to time.

 

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is the second commandment we hear in the summary of the law that Jesus taught. We as Christians are the body of Christ; we gather together as a community at the altar to share in his meal, we share in his promises, and we have responsibilities to each other.  The second half of the ten commandments deal with our relationships with each other in this world, so we dare not ignore that, but…they still come second.

 

The first commandment is: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other Gods before me.” Jesus summarizes the first five commandments as this: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul…this is the first and great commandment.” This is the first and the great commandment.  The second is like it, the second is important, but this comes first. It is our belief in and love for God that fuels our faith and makes obedience to all the other commandments a desire of our heart.

 

You see, communities are important to our faith, but there is also a danger to practicing your faith openly. I don’t think it is any accident that the church has assigned two very different readings to this important day in the calendar. From the prophet Joel we have the instruction to gather a solemn assembly of the faithful, and then from Jesus we have a warning about the pitfalls of public worship: specifically self-satisfaction and the approval of others. Whenever we gather in community we are prone to become aware of how others see us, and that often affects how we see ourselves. We can get caught up in that. It can easily become a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety about what others are thinking that eventually shuts out the only person whose opinion really matters: God’s.

 

We are here to worship and adore God. That is where we must begin. That must be the fuel that gives energy to our faith. Our relationship with God, our love for God must be the driving force behind our actions. Our love for him should overflow into a love for his people; our obedience to his commandments will compel us to love others, but we must start with God.

 

Jesus makes it very clear that there is no substitute for a private, personal relationship with God. If all you really want is the approval of others, you can get that rather cheaply, but beware…you get what you pay for. Real devotion to God, like any living relationship, takes time and energy. It takes practice, until it becomes a part of who you are.

 

This bible has some wonderful commentary underneath the verses of scripture written by Matthew Henry, a seventeenth century divine, and in today’s gospel passage, underneath verse 4, that says: “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” it has this little gem: “When we take the least notice of our good deeds ourselves, God takes most notice of them.”

 

It isn’t those deeds that we are cataloging; it isn’t the deeds that others notice or pay attention to; it is what we do purely out of our love and devotion to God; the things that we ourselves fail to notice because our eyes are fixed upon God and not our own hands.

 

In our gospel today, Jesus discusses three important actions, sometimes we call them the “three notable duties”: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are ancient forms of piety that people of faith have practiced to nurture their relationship with God. Not just Christians, but Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths as well. I would point out that Jesus, when he is speaking to his followers, does not say “if” you do these things…he says “when” you do them. Jesus doesn’t tell us to avoid acts of piety, he assumes that we will do them, he just wants us to understand why we are doing them. They are first and foremost about strengthening our relationship with God. It doesn’t matter if anyone else sees our devotion, in fact it is probably better if they don’t.

 

Lent is about falling in love with God again. It is about taking the time to nurture and strengthen that relationship. Yes, there are times like this when we gather as a community of faith, but nothing, nothing can replace the private time you spend with God and the personal relationship that you have with Jesus. We must always remember that in the end, we are saved by God not by the opinion or the approval of others.

Meaning and Purpose

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Sermon for February 4th, 2018

Readings:

 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.

 

So says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians this morning. Paul, was certainly one of the most enthusiastic proclaimers of the gospel of all time. He began by opposing the Christians, and ended by spreading their message all across the known world, and dying for the sake of that message. Paul makes it very clear that he will do whatever it takes so that the message about Jesus Christ will be made known to everyone: Jew, Gentile, Strong or weak…everyone. Paul wants everyone to know that God is alive and active in the world and he wants to draw people to that God. He finds God and the story of Jesus so compelling, so meaningful that it becomes the center of his existence and he cannot imagine suppressing it, or not sharing it. Proclaiming the gospel is in his DNA. It is a part of who he is. And it isn’t because he has something to gain from it. He actually has much to lose in this world. But what makes the gospel so compelling for Paul is what it has already given him: a vision of the glory of God and a glimpse of the personality that is responsible for all existence. That gives Paul’s life more meaning than anything else in this world ever could.

 

Christians…or perhaps I should say humans in general, but Christians in particular as worshipers of God have a really bad habit of lassoing the spotlight back onto ourselves. We become so concerned with whether or not we are worthy, whether or not we are sinful, whether our church or our preacher makes us feel good about ourselves, that we lose our primary focus which should really be the glory of God. Recognizing the grandeur and the majesty of the force that created the universe and gives meaning to all existence, that should be the first objective of any person of faith, not being obsessed with ourselves. That is the God that Isaiah is proclaiming when he says:

“It is he who sits above the the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing…to whom will you compare me, or who is my equal says the Holy One?”

Recognizing the supreme power of God, recognizing that there is a force in this world, compared to which we are but grasshoppers…that is the first step for those of us who are people of faith. Not focusing on ourselves, but focusing on God. Realizing how great God is how we receive the gospel, helping others to see how great God is, is how we share the gospel. Paul has seen a vision of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ and it is so compelling that he cannot imagine not sharing it with others.

 

We often have a very lopsided view of what it means to share the gospel. We have images of people standing or sometimes shouting in the subways and public squares, we see televangelists with big hair and even larger bank accounts, we think of the people knocking on our door inquiring about our eternal destiny. Well those may be forms of evangelism and I don’t want to doubt the sincerity of those individuals who practice such things, but I think there are more effective ways of sharing the gospel and they begin by keeping our own hearts and minds focused on the glory of god and not on ourselves.

I just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and spending time in one of my favorite places in the world: Jerusalem. There is a power and an energy in that city that is almost impossible to describe. The holiest place within the holy city, for me at least is the temple mount and the remains of the temple where Jesus himself worshipped and prayed and taught. I can stand in one place there by that temple, and witness hundreds of Jews dancing and singing and praying with complete strangers all to glorify God. I can hear the Muslim call to prayer, calling the faithful of Islam to stop whatever they are doing and direct their thoughts to glorifying God. And I can hear the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and numerous other churches, ringing to remind those within earshot that God has triumphed over the powers of this world. There is something very compelling about being surrounded by people that are alive for God, and say what you will about the middle east, there are people there that are alive for God. Their lives are centered on the worship and adoration and glorification of God. Yes, there is conflict. Of course there is conflict, wherever humans gather there will be conflict, but there is also meaning. People make huge sacrifices to live there, because the worship and adoration of God, particularly in that place gives their lives meaning and purpose, and meaning and purpose will always win over material comfort in the end.

 

We live in a very comfortable world. Now you might be very aware of some pains and struggles in your life, you may not think of yourselves as comfortable, but if we take an honest and close look at how the rest of the world lives, and how people in history have lived, we have it pretty good. Our culture is pretty good about selling us comfort, but what it’s not good at is giving that comfort meaning. We are good at finding and pursuing things, but we aren’t always good and finding and pursuing purpose. Think about this for a minute: we live in a culture, where at the supercenter down the road people will trample another person to death, just to get a few dollars off some cheap electronic appliance. We live in a culture where people will kill another person, will kill many other people, not for their land, or their property or even their religion, but for no reason at all. And I’m not trying to beat up on our country, the same could be said for much of the world we live in. I only say this to point out that our pursuit of material pleasures has not saved us, and more and more people are recognizing that. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things, and I have no issue with anyone that wants to improve their circumstances, but I think we have to recognize that there is something in the world far more valuable than any of the stuff we collect. There is God. More and more people are discovering that the rat race doesn’t really get them where they want to be. More and more people are longing for their lives to have meaning and purpose…and guess what…that is what our faith should give us: meaning and purpose.

 

If you want to share your personal testimony of faith with others, by all means do so. If you want to talk about Jesus and how he was crucified, died, and rose again, God bless you. Go out and do it. But far more compelling than any argument you can make is simply living a life that is alive to God. People are watching you. More than anything you say they are looking at your life to see if there is anything to this religion business. Most importantly, I think, people want to know if God and this Jesus person give your life greater meaning and purpose. That is and always has been my vision for this parish; it is my vision for myself, not just as a priest, but as a Christian and a person of faith: to be someone that is alive for God; to find such meaning and purpose in adoring the creator of the universe that others who may have found the promises of this world empty, may wish to know more.

I once was lost, but now am found

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Sermon for January 7th, 2018

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, a day when we traditionally remember the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. I have a very special place in my heart for the wise men. They are so mysterious, they ride into the story of Jesus, place their gifts before the child and then ride back out again. We know almost nothing about them; they could be anyone. What we know is that they came from the East, and they were not Jewish.

 

This would be a critically important detail, as it was another sign, early in the life of Jesus that his life would have profound effects, especially to those that were not born as a part of God’s chosen people. To all the gentiles that did not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, this child would be a beacon; a “light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel” as the priest Simeon would later say when he blessed Jesus in the temple. So this child was to be an invitation to seekers everywhere, of every background or race: come and be a part of God’s family.

 

It is important for us to remember that the Magi didn’t make it to the manger all on their own. The Magi, the wise men, were led to Jesus. They didn’t find him solely through their own calculations; they didn’t find him because somehow through their studies they managed to figure out how God works; they found him because God chose to reveal himself. They may very well have been wise men, but it was God that was leading them.

 

In the first place, he led them by the star; a mysterious sign in the heavens that something momentous was happening, but that isn’t the only way that the Magi were led by God. At some point, the star’s directions must have been unclear, because when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem they went about asking: “where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” They had seen the star at its rising, but it hadn’t yet directed them to Bethlehem. It was then that they sought the counsel of the tradition. They went to the scribes and to the religious leaders asking the same question: “Where is the child?” And it was those scribes and religious leaders who looked to their tradition for direction and advice. And there they found the Prophet Micah. The prophet Micah had foretold that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Here again God was leading them, through a sign or a prophecy that he had revealed centuries before.

 

And so it was through both witnessing God’s power first hand, and listening to God speaking through tradition, that those wise men were able to eventually find the babe lying in the manger. Yes, they were seekers, and they should be honored for their courage and strength and for their willingness to look for God in a world where many people just can’t be bothered, but we must always remember that it was God’s own act of revelation that made their journey and their discovery possible.

 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, when we remember an event that happened many years later in the life of Christ, when he was baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan. It is fitting that as a part of this service today, we are also performing a baptism. Now I must admit, I love baptisms. It is one of my favorite things to do as a priest, but I do sometimes fear that when it comes to baptism we have a tendency to focus a little too much on what WE are doing, and not enough on what GOD is doing.

 

In a few minutes these parents and Godparents will come forward and make vows on behalf of this child. They will reject Satan and accept Christ. They will promise to bring this child up in the Christian faith and life, and then they will affirm (and we will reaffirm) their belief in this faith as it has been received by the Church in the Apostles Creed. We also reaffirm our commitment to live a Christian life. That is a lot for us to do.

 

But none of that would be possible if God had not acted first. Baptism is not about us finding God; Baptism is about God finding us. Baptism is about celebrating the fact that no matter how far we humans wander away from the heart of our creator, our God is willing to go that far to find us; to reclaim us and to invite us to be a part of his life again. We never come to the waters of baptism on our own. We can never come to any understanding or knowledge of God through our own intellect. It is only through God’s love for us that he chooses to show himself to us.

 

God reveals himself to us. We don’t climb up to heaven; God comes down. That is what the Christian faith is all about: believing that God loves us and chooses to reveal himself to us. We have not figured God out, but he has revealed himself to us, and now it is up to us to respond to that revelation.

 

That is what today is all about: responding to what God has done. We are responding to God’s revelation, just like the wise men responded by following the star, or listening to the prophets and turning towards Bethlehem. We have seen glimpses of God’s light and we follow because we want to see more. We want to live in that light.

 

God reveals himself to us in so many ways: in the people he sends into our lives, in little miracles that often go unnoticed, in our traditions, in the voices of prophets and saints, in our sacred scripture, and most completely in the life of his son Jesus Christ, who leads us to the waters of baptism, invites us to repent of our sins and accept the new life he offers.

 

To be baptized is not to say that I have found God, it is to recognize that God has found me and to rejoice in that Amazing Grace.

 

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

 

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind, but now I see.

Born in a cave

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Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

If you have ever been to a service of benediction of the blessed sacrament, then you will IMG_0327have seen one of these. This is called a monstrance. Now this one is rather modest, but they can be quite large and they are usually gilt with precious metal and expensive stones. A monstrance is designed to catch your eye and grab your attention, but what is at its heart, the point to which your attention is drawn during the service is a little piece of bread, held inside this little chamber. Despite all of the gold and gilding, the part of the monstrance that is actually holy and worthy of our adoration is the very simple wafer, it doesn’t look like much (and most of you know that it doesn’t taste like much), but when blessed by our Lord, it becomes his body, his very life, given for us and given to us. We may surround the sacrament with all sorts of costly adornment, but that which has true value is really the simplest thing touched by God.

 

A Christian Church can be a monstrance of sorts. The holiest thing in this building is the bread and wine that is held in the tabernacle on the altar. It is the focal point of this building. It is what all the gilding and the architecture draws your eye too. It is to that bread and wine in the tabernacle that we genuflect. The chalice may be far more expensive than the altar wine, but in the end it is the wine that becomes holy. Bread is such a common and inexpensive thing that plenty of restaurants give it to you for free, and we think nothing of skipping it or leaving it untouched, but here it is given the highest dignity, here it is adored. Maybe that’s why the fancy tools are helpful: they do at least catch our attention, and make us notice something that we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. We may build great churches and decorate them lavishly, but at their heart the thing that makes them holy is something that God has done with something very common. The gold may catch our eye, but God lives in the bread.

 

Tonight, on the other side of the world people will gather in one of the greatest churches ever built. It isn’t great because of its size, which isn’t particularly large, nor is it great because of its beauty, which frankly isn’t that remarkable. No, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the oldest churches in the world, is great because of what lies in its heart. Situated underneath the high altar is an ancient cave. It doesn’t look much like a cave anymore, it has been decorated and embellished through the centuries, but here and there you get glimpses of the bare rock and you remember that once this was just a common cliff dwelling. What makes this cave so special, is not what men and women have done to it or built around it, the decorations are just there to grab our attention; what makes this cave holy is what God has done with it. God has taken something quite common, and done something amazing.

 

Now you may be wondering: “what is all this talk about a cave? Wasn’t Jesus born in a stable? Didn’t we just sing about ‘a lowly cattle shed’? What about the manger?”

 

Well if you travel in the middle east, one of the things you learn quickly is that there are a lot more rocks there than trees. There are caves everywhere and caves would have been commonly used to shelter livestock. Plenty of people lived in them as well, and why wouldn’t they? It only made sense. Our hymns and our nativity scenes aren’t wrong; they just don’t give us the full picture. But there in that common cave in the Bethlehem hillside, people have been gathering since there very first centuries after our saviour’s death to tell the story of his birth and what God did in that humble place. The Roman emperor Hadrian thought that he could put an end to the worship of Christ in that place. He had the cave covered over and even had a pagan temple built on top of it, in the hope that people would forget, but they didn’t. Years later, when Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine came to explore the sites associated with the life of our Lord, the local Christians led her to this temple. Hadrian wanted his temple to erase the memory of where Jesus was born, but ironically it just helped to mark the spot. The Christians hadn’t forgotten.

 

And then when the pagan temple was cleared away, there beneath it was the holy cave and off in one little corner, in the warmest part of the cave, a little trough cut into the stone for feeding the animals; a manger. This was the site; an unimpressive little cave, where God had performed his great miracle. Helena had a great church built over the site, decorated with rich mosaics, some of which you can still see today, but sadly most of her church would be lost to fire, only to be rebuilt by another Roman emperor, Justinian. Although Justinian’s church is still standing, it is the church we know today, what makes it holy is not it’s age or its decoration; what makes it holy is that small cave beneath it and the memory of what God did in that place.

 

On the floor of that cave is a silver star, to mark the place of Jesus’s birth. A whole war was fought once when someone stole that star, but it needn’t have been. How easy it is for us to forget that it isn’t the star that is actually holy; it’s the rock beneath it; just like this monstrance isn’t actually holy, only the bread within it. The decorations and the churches, they can be helpful in getting our attention, but ultimately they should always be pointing to what God has done and is doing in the world. God can take something so simple as a common cave or a little piece of bread, and he can fill it with his life. From the poorest shepherd to the greatest emperor, we are all saved and made holy by something that God has done.

 

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his magnificent book on the life of Christ wrote:

 “Because he was born in a cave, all who wish to see him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a babe on his mother’s lap, with the world poised on his fingers.”

 

If you want to see the Church of the Nativity, you will have to stoop…the main door is only 4 feet high; but it is the humble in spirit, those that can stoop in their souls, that will actually see Jesus.

 

I love Christmas, but at its heart it isn’t about what we do in the world; it is about what God has done. I love churches: the decorations, the vestments, the hymns, the incense, the candles, all of it, but not because they demonstrate what humans can accomplish. No, I love those things because they continually point my distracted mind back toward Jesus, and they remind me that no human in the grandest church or palace, will ever accomplish what he did in the tiniest cave; no artisan will ever craft from the finest gold, something more precious than he created from the simplest bread.

A Little Good News

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Sermon for Advent II, December 10th, 2017

Readings:

 

 

In 1983 Canadian singer Anne Murray recorded a song called “A Little Good News.” You may remember the song, it topped the charts for several weeks and it even won a Grammy. I have to admit that I have a hard time listening to this song without getting a bit tearful. The song begins with the following verse:

 

I rolled out this morning…kids had the morning news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talking about the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawking about the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see we need a change in policy

There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story’s one more than I can stand
Just once, how I’d like to see the headline say
Not much to print today can’t find nothing bad to say

 

Because…

Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD’d, nobody burned a single building down
Nobody fired a shot in anger…nobody had to die in vain
We sure could use a little good news today

 

That song tugs on my heart so much, because even though it is well over 30 years since it was written, it is just as relevant now as it was then, maybe even more so. I’m not sure what Bryant Gumble is doing these days, but otherwise the song could have been written yesterday. We live in a world of constant news. Every minute of the day we have this constant onslaught of people telling us what is wrong with the world. Fighting, wars, scandals, abusive men, politicians lying, murders, natural disasters…it never stops. It is overwhelming, and if you feel that you have just heard one more sad story than you can stand, then know that you are not alone. People have been feeling that way for a long time.

 

When we find the news overwhelming, I think it is worthwhile to take a step back, look at history and recognize how little of the news we are hearing is actually new. Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other for what is wrong with the country. That’s not news. A politician got caught having an affair or telling a lie. That’s not news. There is racism in this world. Not news. A bunch of influential men are being called out for abusing their power to make sexual advances…call it sinful, call it shameful, and by all means call for an end to it, but don’t call it news. It’s not news. There is nothing new about sin. There is nothing new about hatred, or murder or war or corruption. These things are old, old news. The brokenness of our world is old news and we are not the first people to find it overwhelming.

 

Anne Murray was singing 30 years ago, but she just as easily could have been singing 100, 200 or even 2000 years ago. Read some of the Psalms sometime and you will see that people have been singing about the brokenness of the world for a very long time. And like Anne, people have been hoping for something different. Despite the fact that bad news sells, deep in our hearts we long for good news.

 

When people hear the word “Gospel” they are usually inclined to think of one of two things: a type of church music, or a book about the life of Jesus. When we think about “the gospels” we think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the stories about Jesus and the collections of his teachings that we read with great ceremony in church every week. They are the beginning of the New Testament in our bibles and they are the bedrock of our lives as Christians. But the word “Gospel” doesn’t mean “book” or “writings,” the word “gospel” means “good news.”

 

Our gospel reading this morning is Mark 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the Good News, of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” This isn’t just a story, this is news. Good news. This isn’t a chronicle of everything bad that is happening in the world, that is old news. The presence of evil in the world isn’t really news at all, but this story that Mark wants to tell you is news, and it is good news.

 

But unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark’s story doesn’t begin in a manger. Mark’s story begins in a river, the Jordan river. The gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of Jesus, but the gospel of Mark, which we think was the first gospel written, begins with John the Baptist standing in the Jordan river preaching about repentance and forgiveness. Why were all those people thronging to hear what this man John had to say? Mark tells us that people from all the countryside and all Jerusalem went out to hear him. Why were they so eager to jump in the water? Was it because John told them that they were sinners or was it because they already knew they were sinners and John was offering them hope of something new?

 

I wasn’t there, but I think those people gathered on the shores of the Jordan listening to John preach were just as overwhelmed by their world as we are with ours. Maybe they didn’t have 24 hour news, but they had plenty of oppression, murder, violence, corruption and well…sin. Sin was old news to them, just as it is to us. John’s primary message was not that humans are sinful, they already knew that. John’s real message was that God is coming, coming into the world to save us from our sin. That is what makes him so compelling. That is what makes his preaching good news. God has heard our cries. God has recognized that we are weak, inconstant like the grass and that we have not the power to save ourselves. God knows that we are broken and have made a mess out of this world. God knows and he is going to do something about it. God is about to do something new and we are invited to be a part of it. That is good news.

 

In Peter’s letter this morning he says that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” What I love about that Anne Murray song is that she asks you to imagine what it would be like if you turned on the news and were overwhelmed by how much people loved each other and how beautiful life can be. Can you imagine what that would be like? Living in a world where righteousness was at home? That is what I think those people at the Jordan river were longing for and dreaming about. They wanted a little good news and that is what John was offering them. He was proclaiming that God was coming to do something new in the world and they could choose to be a part of it.

 

We may not be able to save ourselves, but we can prepare ourselves for the savior. We can admit that the world is this way because we have made it so. We may complain about all the negative news, but we sure spend a lot of time buying it and watching it, so at some point we have to face the fact that our desires and our actions are frequently in conflict. But of course, that is old news. I’m willing to bet that you already know deep down that you have done things in your life that have hurt others, hurt yourself or damaged the world we live in. You may not want to talk about it or admit it openly, but you probably know it. That’s not news.

 

What is news is that God is doing something about it. God’s son is offering us forgiveness of sins. He is alive and at work in the world; his grace is performing miracles and helping us to accomplish things we could never do on our own and most importantly, he is inviting us to live in a new world where righteousness is at home and where we are overwhelmed by love, not by evil. It will happen in his time, not our time, but it will happen. What a glorious hope we have.

 

Listening to the news can be overwhelming. It can be a painful reminder of just how much the world needs a savior; but we are Christians. We are a people that have been entrusted with the gospel, with the good news and the good news is this: we have a savior. Now let us share that news with a world that desperately needs to hear it.

 

When the miracle occurs, the reward is heavenly…

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Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, December 3rd, 2017

Readings:

Caramel Cake. It is a taste of heaven, but if you have ever tried to make one then you probably know what a test of patience they are. The cake is basic enough, but let’s be honest, it’s just a vehicle for the icing, and the icing is tricky. If you want to go home and try this, good luck to you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Here is what happens with caramel icing: you mix your sugar, and butter and evaporated milk together in a saucepan, get it all dissolved and melted, put it on the heat and then you wait. But this isn’t the type of waiting where you can set your timer and walk away, take a nap or catch up on a few television shows. Caramel icing will not be treated so casually. You have to stay there with it, watching it intently. You have to look for the gradual signs of browning, evidence that the miracle of caramelization is taking place. You give it a regular stir, you smell it, you look for changes in color and consistency, but mostly you wait attentively, because you don’t know the precise moment when the caramel will appear.

 

To walk away or get distracted is to risk absolute ruin. To rely solely upon the approximate time given you in the recipe is folly, because the miracle of caramelization is bound to no man’s schedule. It could take an hour, it could take an hour and a half, maybe more. If you think that you can beat the process by turning the heat up, think again. You’ll be testing your smoke detector before you know it. No, with caramel icing, one must actively watch and wait, keeping your eyes open to the miracle that is about to occur, knowing that the effort will eventually produce a heavenly reward.

 

It’s not just caramel cake of course, any type of caramel requires similar vigilance. It’s not just sweets either; if you have ever tried to make a dark roux for a gumbo, it’s the same process. It’s the same miracle. Timers are of little use. Shortcuts are usually a waste of time. Even the virtue of patience is not enough. A pot roast takes patience, but then you can more or less forget about it until it is done. You throw the right ingredients into your crock pot and then go on about your life. Caramel requires more than patience, it requires attention. It isn’t just a matter of waiting; it is waiting with your eyes open, knowing that at any moment you may be called to act or respond.

 

Attention is a valuable thing. There is probably a reason that we use the expression “to pay attention” because attention, on some level is costly. Like time, there is only so much of it that we have to give, so we would be wise to be careful about where we spend it, or what we give our attention too. You may not think that a caramel cake is worth your time and attention. You’d be wrong, but that’s your business. Maybe a sticky, delicious cake isn’t your thing, but you should at least ask yourself: “what is worthy of my attention?”

 

Here we are at the First Sunday of Advent when the church turns its eyes, its attention, not yet toward our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, but first to that future day when our Lord will return in glory. We are looking to “the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead” as our collect this morning invites us to pray.

 

C.S. Lewis once pointed out in an essay that when Jesus spoke about his return he made three things clear: 1. That he certainly would return. 2. That no one would know the day or time and 3. That therefore one has to be always prepared and ready. And Lewis pointed out that it’s the third point, the “therefore” part that is really important. God wants our attention. He wants us to live our lives with our eyes opened to what he is doing in the world and with hearts that are ready to respond to him at any moment. God isn’t just trying to catch us unaware…if he wanted to do that he just wouldn’t have told us he was coming at all. What God wants is for us to pay attention. He isn’t going to let us know the date and time of his arrival, because God wants to be a part of all of our days, not just the last few.

 

Advent is such an important season, there to remind us that Christ is our future as well as our past. Now I’m not one of those Advent purists that refuses to acknowledge Christmas, let anyone have fun in December or even decorate before Christmas Eve, but if I want to truly appreciate Christ coming into the world on December the 25th, then I need to pay attention to the ways in which he may be breaking into my world every other day of the year. In other words, I need to be able to live in a perpetual Advent, always keeping a watchful eye out for what God is doing, always prepared to respond to him. Having a real relationship with God, means paying attention to him all the time. You can’t just say “wake me when he gets here.”

 

It would be great if our spiritual life was like a pot roast: just throw in the right ingredients in the beginning, go on with your life and come home to a delicious feast at some point in the future. I know that that is how many people see religion. But from our Lord’s words in the gospel though, I am led to believe that it is probably more like that caramel cake: something that requires vigilance and attention, with eyes that are open to signs of change and hands that are ready to respond. Yes, it does require more work, it requires more attention, which is costly, but when the miracle occurs, the reward is heavenly.

 

For your edification and viewing pleasure you may listen to the above mentioned C.S. Lewis essay here:

Salvation is found in the small things

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Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King 2017

Readings:

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

If we take Jesus’s words seriously, and we certainly must, then it would seem from today’s gospel that there are going to be a lot of surprised people come the Judgement Day. In this morning’s gospel, when our Lord separates the sheep from the goats, there are people on both sides of the throne that don’t understand how they got there.

 

The people on the right hand certainly didn’t expect to find themselves to be inheritors of the kingdom. They probably didn’t think that their lives were anything special. These are humble people. They probably didn’t think of themselves as all that brilliant; they probably didn’t think of themselves as all that religious. Heaven wasn’t something they felt entitled to. These people were not listed among the famous saints of the church: they hadn’t left everything behind to worship God in poverty like Saint Francis or minister to the sick like Saint Damien or Saint Teresa. These were average, everyday folks living lives that were not all that remarkable.

 

And when the Lord proclaims that they are blessed, and invites them into his eternal kingdom, in their surprise and wonder they ask: “why Lord?” What have I done that was so great that I deserve this honor? Why should I be rewarded in this way? When was it that I served you? You are so glorious and beyond my grasp that I can’t even contemplate you, much less imagine how in my little life I could serve you. When Lord, when did I serve you?

 

And the Lord responds to his sheep: it was in the little things. It was in the small acts of charity and kindness that you did without thinking of what was in it for you. It was in the food that you offered to the hungry, the water you gave to the thirsty, the clothing you gave to the naked. It isn’t the big, grand and heroic gestures that you might have done once or twice, it is in the small, simple acts of love, kindness and compassion that you did all the time. That is how I know your character, that is how I know that you are one of my sheep: not what you did when you thought I was watching, but in how you acted when you didn’t realize that I was there.

 

And then the Lord looks to his left, to people that are equally surprised at where they have found themselves. They always thought of themselves as sheep, as part of the flock, but alas now they are being weeded out with the goats. What do you mean accursed? How can you lump me together with these people? They always just assumed that heaven was their destiny. After all, they had studied religion enough to have the right answers, they thought of themselves as clever and well informed, they could even point to some grand accomplishments of theirs, why should they be gathered with the goats? And they learn, like the sheep before them, that salvation is to be found in the small things in life.

 

In their case it was the little things that they didn’t do that led to their downfall. It was in the lives that they overlooked, the hands they didn’t hold, the mouths they didn’t feed, the stranger they didn’t help, the kindness they didn’t show, the time they didn’t take and the love they didn’t share. Maybe the goats had done some lovely things when they thought the Lord, or at least someone else, was watching, but their true character was revealed in how they treated others that had nothing to offer them in return. They were focused on the big things, but in the end they discover that it is the little things that really matter.

 

Last night we celebrated two baptisms here. Through an ancient ritual of water and prayer, we invited two souls into Christ’s eternal kingdom. Next Sunday at our Children’s prayer breakfast, I am going to talk to the kids about the font, and how it stands at the door as a reminder that it is through baptism that we are able to enter the church. At baptism, the Lord Jesus becomes our ultimate king and sovereign and we voluntarily pledge our allegiance to him and become subjects of his kingdom. This is a kingdom, the Church, but a kingdom unlike any other. It has no geographical boundaries, no official language, it isn’t represented by any one state or political party. It exists in the world, but isn’t of it. Our values will at times be necessarily at odds with the values of the world. There are times when our allegiance will call us to do things differently than our neighbors. Like any kingdom, we have our heroes: individuals that have done amazing things for God. But kingdoms are not populated by knights alone; there is always need of the loyal subject.

 

That is our primary call as Christians, as individuals who have proclaimed Christ as our King. We are called, first and foremost to be obedient in the small, mundane things in life. We are called to be Christians when no one is looking. We are called to show compassion and kindness to people who can never repay us. We are called to give of ourselves without expecting anything in return.

 

Yes, baptism is a big decision and a big moment in our life of faith. If you were baptized as a child, then your confirmation will be your moment of personal decision to follow Christ. Affirming that you believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, recognizing that we are sinners in need of redemption, and committing yourself to be a loyal subject of his is a big decision. It is an important decision, and yes, I believe it is the right decision.

 

But, your character as a Christian, that I think is determined more by the small decisions you make than the big ones. It is the small habits of your daily life that will demonstrate your loyalty to Christ, more than the great moments of public witness. Many of you are here because you recognize that we have a strong Christian Formation program. The religious lives of our children is a priority for this church, which is why we are starting next week with a children’s prayer breakfast. But parents you need to know that your child’s faith is going to be shaped more by what they see you doing at home, than by what they see you doing here.

 

Do you pray regularly, even when you don’t seem to have the right words? Do you seek to consistently show love and kindness to people that don’t deserve it and cannot repay you? Are you able to acknowledge your own sins and repent of them? Do you seek to have a closer walk with God and a deeper knowledge of him even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty?

 

Nothing you do for God is insignificant. In fact, what we learn in the Gospel today, is that it is the small things, done with consistency, that have the greatest power to determine what kind of subject we are and what side of the throne we end up on when Christ returns to sort us out.