I shall know him

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Sermon for April 11th, 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he calls your name

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Sermon for Easter Sunday April 4th, 2021

Readings:

“Where is your Lord?” she scornful asks:

“Where is his hire? we know his tasks;

Sons of a king ye boast to be:

Let us your crowns and treasures see.”

We in the words of Truth reply,

(An angel brought them from the sky,)

“Our crown, our treasure is not here,

‘Tis stored above the highest sphere:

“Methinks your wisdom guides amiss,

To seek on earth a Christian’s bliss;

We watch not now the lifeless stone;

Our only Lord is risen and gone.”

Yet e’en the lifeless stone is dear

For thoughts of him who late lay here;

And the base world, now Christ hath died,

Enobled is and glorified.

No more a charnel-house, to fence

The relics of lost innocence,

A vault of ruin and decay;

Th’ imprisoning stone is rolled away:

‘Tis now a cell, where angels use

To come and go with heavenly news,

And in the ears of mourners say,

“Come, see the place where Jesus lay:”

Oh! Joy to Mary first allowed,

When roused from weeping o’er his shroud,

By his own calm, soul-soothing tone,

Breathing her name, as still his own!

So it is still: to holy tears,

In lonely hours, Christ risen appears!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within the veil

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Sermon for Good Friday 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

Hear it again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord of my heart, by thy last cry,

Let not thy blood on earth be spent-

Lo, at thy feet I fainting lie,

Mine eyes upon thy wounds are bent,

Upon thy streaming wounds my weary eyes

Wait like the parched earth on April skies.

Wash me, and dry these bitter tears,

O let my heart no further roam,

‘Tis thine by vows, and hopes and fears.

Long since- O call thy wanderer home;

To that dear home, safe in thy wounded side,

Where only broken hearts their sin and shame

may hide.

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

The Hard Part

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hard part, is actually following Jesus. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offended

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Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How it all started

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Sermon for March 25th, 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not translating anymore

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Sermon for March 21st, 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A symbol of death that gives life.

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Sermon for March 14th, 2021

Readings:

God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen. God starts over.

This, brothers and sisters, is a recognizable pattern in the scriptures, in particular the first five books of the bible, the books of Moses or the Torah. Pay attention to this pattern as you read the scriptures.

God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen. God starts over.

It happens with creation and Adam and Eve; it happens with Noah and with Moses and you will see it in the prophets and in the writings and in the history books of scripture. Watch for this pattern in scripture.

God uses his power to create or do something wonderful. Humans use their power to make a mess out of it and they suffer the consequences. Then God uses his power again to start over and create something new. 

Think of the Hebrews wandering in the desert. They had been spared from the plagues in Egypt. They had crossed through the Red Sea. God fed them with bread from heaven. God gave them water from the rock. How many times has God proven himself to these people? How many miracles had they seen? By the time we get to this point in the Book of Numbers, this isn’t just a disorganized mob of refugees anymore. By now, God has given them commandments. The different tribes have been organized. The worship has been structured and there are set rituals. The community has order and the community has direction; they have a goal, the promised land. The beginning of the Book of Numbers can be kind of a dull read because so much time is spent describing the order and the structure of the tribes of Israel as they move through the desert. And they get to this point where they have to take the long way around to get somewhere. The people of Edom don’t want them passing through their land, so they have to go around, and the people get impatient. They get angry with Moses again; they say why have you brought us out of Egypt to die out here in the wilderness. They exaggerate and say there is no food and water…we know that’s not true, that’s a lie. We know they have food and water, but they don’t want to look at what God is giving them; they want to focus on what they left behind in Egypt. 

These people are starting to think that God can’t be trusted. They are starting to think that God is a liar. Well, who was it that first told humans that God can’t be trusted? Who was it that first made us question God’s power? Who first taught us to focus on what we didn’t have rather than what we have? 

The serpent. It was the serpent that fooled Adam and Even into thinking that God couldn’t be trusted. It was the serpent that taught mankind to focus more on what he lacked than on what he had. Adam and Eve decided to trust the voice of the serpent more than they trusted in the voice of God. That is the original story. The first time that humans take God’s order and turn it into chaos and suffer the consequences for it. 

So when the Israelites are wandering through the desert and decide that they no longer want to trust in God and that his promises are no longer good enough for them, what does God send them? Serpents! Because the Lord loves a good symbol, and what could be a better symbol of human pride, arrogance and sinfulness than a serpent? Of course, the serpents brought pain and death, that is what human sinfulness does. 

But God isn’t sending the serpents to be vindictive. God isn’t some sadist or angry tyrant that has to have his way, otherwise he punishes people. Humans may act that way, but not God. God is a loving parent. A loving parent doesn’t discipline a child because he or she takes some perverse joy in inflicting pain. A loving parent disciplines a child to protect that child, to keep him safe, to help her make good choices. 

Well, the people figured out very quickly that they had made a bad choice in not trusting God. They realized that no matter how strong, or how clever they were, they just couldn’t win with these snakes. They needed God again. Humans had messed things up again and suffered the consequences. Now it was time for God to start over. God had the antidote; he would give them a second chance, a new life. How would God do it? Well do you remember how I said the Lord loves a good symbol? Well our God loves symbols! Write that down. Our God loves symbols. Symbols have incredible power in this world our God created and ordered. Symbols have real power and God gives them to us for that power to work in our lives.

God gives Moses a symbol. The very thing people are most afraid of: a serpent. And this serpent wasn’t just a symbol of death to them, it was also a symbol of their failure. These serpents were a reminder of how they had turned away from God; how they had trusted the voice of the deceiver more than they trusted the promises of God. This isn’t just a bronze reptile on a stick; this was a visual reminder of death and human sinfulness. A visual reminder that on their own humans have no power over death. And yet, through the power of God this symbol of death, was the very thing that gave life. 

A symbol of death that gives life. If you read scripture often enough and closely enough, you will identify patterns and themes like the one I mentioned as I began: God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen. God starts over. You identify these patterns and these patterns, in turn, point you to deep truths. Truths about God and truths about ourselves. And one of the truths that we find in the cycle that I just mentioned is that there is a moment when human failure comes into direct contact with something new and miraculous that God is doing. There is a point right at the intersection of bad things happening and God starting over. In the story from Numbers that point is marked by the bronze serpent; the symbol of death that gives life. When our blessed Lord walked the earth, he saw that symbol of Moses as a sign that was pointing to an even deeper truth: his own cross. 

In our Lord’s day, the cross was a symbol of death. And not a natural death either. This is death at the hands of another human being. It was a symbol of political power. It was a symbol meant to strike fear into the hearts of all that saw it. The Romans used this as a symbol of their power and success, but can you think of a more potent symbol of our failure as human beings than this? Can you think of a more powerful depiction of human sin? Human beings, in their lust for power and control and possessions, will nail another human to a tree, and will call it justice. 

We will call it justice. This is human justice at work. What does God do to this symbol of human justice? How does God intervene once again with depraved humanity to start over and offer them life again? He dies on it. God meets us in the depths of our depravity and takes the suffering onto himself. This is the point where human failure comes into direct contact with a new thing that God is doing. This is the intersection of human sinfulness and God’s grace. This is where human justice meets divine justice. This is where condemnation meets salvation. And this point is forevermore marked in eternity by a symbol. It was a symbol of death, that now gives life. 

There is absolutely nothing in a cross for humans to brag about or be proud of. In fact, it is a vivid reminder of where human pride can lead. The glory and power of the cross is all in what God has done with it. God has taken a symbol of death and human misery, and he has used it, once again and here for all time, to give new life to the world.

As a living body will certainly breathe

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Sermon for March 7th, 2021.

Readings:

I want to begin with a little exercise this morning. Humor me for a moment if you will. I want you to take a few moments, before I begin my sermon, and hold your breath. Now I know that many of you wait with bated breath as I ascend the pulpit every week to hear what I have to say, so this will be nothing new. I jest of course. Just hold your breath for 15 or 20 seconds and pay attention to what you are feeling inside, don’t pass out on me though, if you have to take a breath, take one.

Now, I am willing to bet that towards the end there you were beginning to feel a growing sense of urgency inside. Your lungs probably started to send a clear signal to your brain: “hey, we need air!” Even if you have the lungs of an Olympic swimmer and can hold your breath for a long time, eventually you will find the need to breath uncontrollable, literally irresistible. Your body needs air to survive, and if you try to deny it that air, eventually you are going to have a struggle or a fight. This is why lifeguards have to be very carefully when trying to help someone that is drowning. A drowning man or woman will push you under the water in a heartbeat and think nothing of it, they won’t even do it intentionally, that is how desperate they are to breathe. It is a part of our instinct for survival. A living body needs to breathe, and so long as there is life within the body, the desire to breathe is going to be an overwhelming, irresistible desire. Hold on to that thought.

This week I was redelivering and recording a historical sermon. I have discovered lately how much I really love reading sermons from the 18th and 19thcenturies. I’m sure that doesn’t really sound engaging our exciting to most people, but what can I say, I am a bit of a church nerd. You might wonder what an old Anglican divine living in the 1700s with a wig and a robe and starched preaching bands around the neck could possibly have to say to me today, well…quite a lot actually. William Jones of Nayland, this preacher whose sermons I was reading, may not have ever imagined something like the internet, or even electricity, but he understood faith and human nature. He understood what it was like to live in an age of immense political upheaval and unrest in the world (he was preaching in England as revolutions happened in America and in France). And he also understood what it was like to deal with corruption, incompetence and a lack of faith within the church. There were leaders in the church at that time that desperately wanted to make Christianity reasonable and acceptable to the wisdom of the age. They wanted to strip Christianity of its doctrines and its miracles and its sacraments and make it all about mankind improving itself. Their faith was not in the works of God, their faith was in the works of men. And in this sermon I was reading, William Jones, hurls a huge insult to the church leaders of his day. He says: 

“’We preach Christ crucified,’ said the Apostle: too many of his successors, alas, might say, ‘we do not preach Christ crucified,’ we have more of the orator and of the philosopher than of the apostle, and have improved the obsolete Christian homily, into an essay upon virtue.” 

Now that may not sound like much of a wicked insult, but trust me, it is a wicked insult. Jones is going after the successors to the Apostle Paul who think they are better or more enlightened than Paul. Now Jones acknowledges that the religious fanaticism of a previous generation led many to seek a “more reasonable” form of Christianity, but he points out this has sadly only led to less faith, not more. The culture has abandoned the practice of devotion, in favor of spectacles and theatre and amusement. 

Do you still think people in the eighteenth century don’t have something to say to us? Do you still think they don’t have anything to say about the struggle to be faithful in a faithless generation? Oh they do. I might not say things exactly the way that Jones said them, but boy do I understand the feeling behind some of his words. At one point in his sermon Jones says: “If faith is alive in the heart, it will as certainly pray, as a living body will certainly breathe.”

If faith is alive in the heart it will as certainly pray as a living body will certainly breathe. 

In other words, if faith truly is alive in your heart; if God really is the source of your life and existence; if you really are a person of faith, and if all of this religion stuff is about your connection to God and not just feeling good about doing nice things, then prayer will be like breathing to you. You won’t be able to resist praying any more than any living creature can resist breathing. It will be so important to your life that it won’t even be a choice. If faith is in your heart then prayer will be as sacred to you as breath, and the act of praying will be irresistible. 

And if prayer is sacred, and vital to the life of faith, then the places where prayer is wont to be made are also sacred and vital to the life of faith. Why was Jesus angry with the money changers? Was it because they were breaking some arcane religious rule or law? Not really, they were there because the worshipers in the temple didn’t want to break the commandment about graven images; they didn’t want any pictures of the emperor on the money they used in the temple. But you know how humans are, we often will take one commandment and elevate it above the rest to the point where we ignore the others. Don’t get me wrong Jesus respected and obeyed the commandments, but is the real problem the money changer’s coins, or is it that they are turning a place where people make a sacred connection to God into a business? The temple is important to Jesus because it is a sacred place of prayer. It is supposed to be a house of prayer where people are changed by being reconnected to the life of their God, and instead what Jesus sees is a whole bunch a people that only care about change if it is in their pockets. 

But, I hear some objecting, can’t we pray anywhere? Do we need these expensive crumbling buildings? Why can’t we just meet on zoom indefinitely? It would be a lot cheaper. Well if this year has taught us anything it is, yes, of course, we can pray anywhere. We can pray everywhere, and we should. Jesus did. Jesus prayed at the dinner table. He prayed on the side of the road. He prayed in the wilderness. He prayed on the mountain, and on the plain, and on the boat and on the shore. Jesus prayed liked he breathed, and STILL, he was mightily offended when he saw a place of prayer being treated profanely. Because prayer is sacred. If you are a person of faith then prayer is as important to your life as the air you breathe. And yes, if you are a person of faith, you will pray no matter where you are; the powers of this world can burn down and tear down and lock up temples all they want, and God will not be easily hindered, but that does not mean that we don’t do harm to ourselves by not recognizing and respecting NOT only the power of prayer, BUT ALSO, the power and importance of sacred spaces where prayer is made. 

Jesus was God incarnate, in the flesh. The father dwelt in him more fully than anyplace else on earth, and still, and STILL, Jesus made a point to go to a sacred place to pray and to worship. Jesus was and is a living temple of divine life, but he still respected the temple that was made with human hands. 

These buildings we have. They are a pain. They are a huge, huge pain. There are plenty of days when I would just rather go have church down by the river and be done with it, God is everywhere after all. But then I think about the fact that Jesus is present here in a special and unique way in the sacrament on the altar. I think about how many times the rafters have vibrated with the praise of organ and song. I think about the number of sermons that must have been preached from this pulpit, or how many times the scriptures have been read from that lectern. How many candles have been lit in this space by people with broken hearts, or worshippers desperately seeking God’s intervention in their life? How much has the incense seeped into the paint and the wood? You see it isn’t just your prayers that fill this place with life, it is the prayers of everyone that ever prayed here before you, and the prayers of everyone that will pray here after you. That is why these buildings are important. This is not just a business we are running. We are not here to maximize profits, we are here to connect people to the life of God, and to sing God’s praises while we do it. 

I am reminded in scripture, in my study of old sermons and in my daily life, that there will always be people, both inside the church and outside it, that just don’t get what happens in here. There will always be people who look on faith as foolishness, and who see this as wasted space that could be put to better and more lucrative use. The world doesn’t understand, the impulse and the desire to pray, much less the importance of prayer in sacred spaces. It was that way in Jesus’s day; it was that way in Paul’s day; it was that way during the late 1700s with William Jones of Nayland; and it is that way in our own time. The powers of this world are never going to understand or fully accept what happens in here, and that is OK, as long as we do. Yes, there have been and will be times, like we have had this year, when it will be necessary to be outside of our sacred spaces, but it should never feel normal. Like holding your breath when you dive under water, refraining from public worship and prayer may be necessary for a short while, but it should never be comfortable. For a person of faith, it should be unbearably uncomfortable. For a person of deep faith, returning to public prayer and worship should feel like a diver returning to the surface of the water and taking that first breath. 

Because, as William Jones so eloquently pointed out, if faith is truly alive in our hearts we will as certainly pray, as a living body will certainly breathe. 

Historical Sermons Intro and Sermon 1

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This is a video project to redeliver and record historical sermons from the past. We have these sermons in print, but without audio and/or video recordings of them, many people will never encounter them and certainly will never hear them preached. Below, you will find my video introduction to this series:

Here is my first attempt at delivering a historical sermon:

The Age of Unbelief

Delivered by William Jones of Nayland. February 8th, 1795.