Power by God to proclaim the Power of God

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

Some churches will go to great lengths to try and capture, or recapture or portray the experience of the Apostles on that first Pentecost Sunday. Now first let me say that I am not here this morning to shake my finger at other churches or to make fun of the way that other people worship Jesus. It would be easy for me to do, because I am one of those people that sometimes has the audacity to think that there is a right way and a wrong way (or maybe I will try to be even nicer and say a right way and a less-right way) of doing things. I admit that I do have opinions about how things should be done. I am a great believer in tradition and I know that whenever I am trying to weigh in the balance doing one thing or the other, that tradition always has its thumb on the scale and I am totally ok with that. But as much as I love old worship traditions in particular, I also love worship in general, and I have worshipped in enough different churches and in enough different traditions and in enough different ways to know that even when things aren’t done exactly the way I like, or I the way that think they should be done, that God is still at work, Jesus is still being praised and that people can still be having legitimate experiences of the Holy Spirit. Anyways, I’m not sure that any souls were ever won for Jesus by being smug and self-righteous, and I know, as I am sure many of you know, just how it feels to have someone dismiss experiences of worship that I find deeply meaningful as being unspiritual, unscriptural or just plain wrong. So I’m not going to do that to others. I am going to endeavor this morning, to not pick on how other churches celebrate the feast of Pentecost or how they worship on any other Sunday for that matter.

 

But what I am going to say this morning is that I think very often when the church (and I mean the whole church, not just this church, but churches or Christians throughout the world) when the church talks about the experience of the Apostles on that Pentecost Sunday that we heard about in our scripture from the Book of Acts, and when we try to remember it in our liturgy, that we often have a tendency to focus on the wrong things.

 

The first thing we want to focus on is the mysterious experience that the disciples had in the upper room. It is fifty days after Jesus rose from the grave. Ten days earlier they saw his resurrected body ascend into heaven, and before he disappeared Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait until they received the Holy Spirit. And that is what they were doing: they were praying and they were waiting…and then things get weird: the sound of a rush of violent wind; this presence that seemed to fill the room, and then weirder still, these little flames or tongues of fire that seem to rest on each one of them. Now that is some weird stuff, and I know some churches have a lot of fun trying to recreate this story in symbol. Some churches may hang red balloons around the sanctuary to represent the little tongues of fire over the disciples; other churches may process in, waving red streamers over the congregation or they may have the children carry around paper doves flying on the end of a stick. Now don’t worry, I don’t plan to start doing any of those things here, not because I think they are necessarily wrong (although balloons in church is just asking for trouble), but mostly I don’t want to do it because I’m not sure that trying to recreate the mystical experience of little tongues of fire is where we should be focusing our energy this morning.

 

So then it must be about the languages right? After they received the Holy Spirit, they each discovered that they had the power to speak in different languages, and as they walk out of that upper room and out into the crowded streets of Jerusalem, they discover that they can speak to all of these other Jews from other countries and everyone can understand in their own language and it is a miracle. So some churches want to try and recreate that moment. The scriptures will be read in English and in Spanish, maybe French, Korean or Arabic. Some other churches will interpret this passage to be about the disciples having an ecstatic religious experience wherein the Spirit didn’t just give them the power to speak in known languages, but also in unknown languages (speaking in tongues, which is also known as glossolalia). Incidentally this is where the Pentecostal Church and the Pentecostal movement gets its name from. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for celebrating other cultures and languages and the fact that Christians are a diverse group, and I am all for having and celebrating religious (spiritual) experiences, but is that really what this passage is about?

 

Was it a miracle that these simple Galileans could all of a sudden speak in other languages? You bet. But is that the most amazing part of this story? Not at All! It was a miracle sure, but it was a small miracle as miracles go. For one thing, it was not all that uncommon in the ancient world for people to speak more than one language. Yes, the spirit was giving them this ability to speak Parthian or Elamite instantly (so it was a small miracle), but with a little time and effort they could have learned on their own. You don’t need the Holy Spirit to speak Spanish or any other language today; you need a Berlitz course. I even saw advertised this week a new electronic device; it’s a stick that you speak into that can instantly translate into about 30 different languages. So if the Holy Spirit is just a trick God uses to make us multilingual, I guess we don’t need him anymore. Or could it be that we might be getting just a little bit too distracted by the other languages in this passage and are missing what the spirit is really up to?

 

So if it’s not about tongues of fire or about speaking in other languages, then what are we really celebrating today? Well before our Lord Ascended into heaven his last words according to the Book of Acts were: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That is what the Lord said the Spirit would do: he would give us the power to be his witnesses. He would give us these little miracles so that we could proclaim his big miracle. That is what the Holy Spirit gave them power to do: to be proclaimers of the great miracle. Those devout Jews who heard the disciples speaking in other languages, what did they hear the disciples talking about? The weather? Sister Martha’s crumbcake recipe? The latest scandal overheard in the parking lot or shared on Facebook? No. They were talking about God’s deeds of power. They said: “…in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Speaking in our own languages is just the medium (it’s the little miracle), but it is the message of God’s power that is what is really important here (that’s the great miracle). The disciples were given power by God to proclaim the power of God. They didn’t have this mystical experience just so they could sit around in the upper room and feel special, nor did they have it just so they could show off to the rest of Jerusalem just how smart and sophisticated and multicultural they were. No. They were given power by God, to proclaim the power of God and to tell the world (anyone who would listen) what God has done in Jesus Christ.

 

We are here to witness to how God’s spirit can change us and use us to draw the world to himself. Let’s remember, the disciples had been huddled inside, unsure of themselves. They were in awe and amazement at what they had witnessed, they were waiting and they were blessing God, and they were praying, and they had joy, but they weren’t ready to talk about it just yet. They weren’t ready to tell anyone else about what they experienced, but then something changed in them. Others saw the change, and at first they thought “maybe these people have had a bit to drink.” These people seem to have a little more joy than they had before and a little less fear than they had before, so something must be up. And it was Peter who stood up and said to the crowd: this isn’t the fruit of the vine you see at work here; this is the fruit of the spirit. God has poured out his spirit on these people, not for their own glorification, but so that others will see and know the power of God. If you see a change, it is because God changed them, and if God can change the stubborn hearts of men and women, what can’t he do? He might even be able to turn death into life. A God that actually changes people…that is a powerful God. That is a God worth worshipping.

 

We live in New York and I don’t have to tell you that to walk down the street and to hear someone talking in a different language, that is no miracle. You know what is a miracle? Walking down the street and hearing someone talk about God or talking about God’s deeds of power. That is the miracle today. With all of our technology and all of the talking heads that fill our lives reminding us daily of our own power and propensity to destroy ourselves, it is a miracle when we encounter someone that is willing to testify to God’s power to save us; someone not only willing to testify with their lips to God’s deeds of power, but even more than that, that also able to show through their lives just what that power can do.

 

Today we are baptizing a new Christian. If this child is going to grow into a disciple of Jesus; if she is going to grow in this faith then she needs to hear people talk about God’s deeds of power. She needs to hear about who Jesus was, and what he did and what he said and she needs to hear it from someone other than just me and her Sunday School teacher. She needs to hear it from all of you. She needs to know what the Holy Spirit has done in your lives. She needs to know about the power of God and what God has done to save her…what God has done to save all of us. Everyone in here has probably experienced the power of God in some way and maybe you are just afraid to talk about it. Please get over it. The Holy Spirit will give you the power to overcome that fear, if you let it. But then don’t just tell her about God’s power, show her. Show her through your life that you have been changed. Don’t let her doubt for a minute the power that we come here week after week to worship. If you open your prayer books you will see that we ask in our morning prayer service everyday that we may show forth God’s praise “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” God has given us the grace and power to do that through the Holy Spirit, not for our own glorification, not to make us feel spiritual or special but for his honor and glory; to draw the world to him, because the world is watching and the world still needs to hear about God’s great miracle. The world knows that humans can kill, but does it know that God can save? We were given power by God to proclaim the power of God. That is what Pentecost is all about. That is what we need to focus on; That is what we are here to celebrate. That is what we as the whole church are all called to be about, no matter our style, our language or which side of the altar we stand on; whether we do it with balloons and streamers or candles and incense; high church or low church; English, Spanish or whatever: we are called to be people that know we worship a powerful God and that aren’t afraid to share that God with the world. If we really want to recreate the experience of Pentecost, all we really need to do is start talking about Jesus, because if we are proclaiming God’s deeds of power with our lips and with our lives, it doesn’t matter what language we say it in, or how we choose to say it, people will hear it.

To be with God, with the people on our heart.

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Sermon for May 13th, 2018

Readings:

The late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, once gave an address to a number of candidates about to be ordained as priests. In his speech he said that part of our role, as priests, is “to be with God, with the people on our heart.” That, he said, is what they were going to be committing themselves to when they vowed in the service to be “diligent in prayers.” They were promising to be daily with God, with the people on their hearts. I think that is one of the most beautiful and helpful images of what intercessory prayer is all about; it isn’t just mechanically reading down the list of thanksgivings and petitions, telling God stuff he already knows; it is a much deeper act of love. It is intentionally placing oneself in the presence of God and in that moment sharing in the love and concern that he has for his people. Prayer, especially intercessory prayer, praying for others, isn’t an action of the mind as much as it is an action of the heart: holding people in your heart, and then holding your heart up to God.

 

Archbishop Ramsey was speaking to a group about to enter the priestly life, but so much of what he had to say could have been addressed to any Christian anywhere; prayer isn’t just the domain of the ordained clergy, it is a ministry we are all called too. Here is a little fact that we often forget in the church: there really is only one true priest. There is only one priest in this church, and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ. He is our great high priest; he is the one who consecrates, blesses, absolves and more than anyone else, he is the one who lives in the presence of God with the people on his heart. Those of us who wander around in fancy vestments: our priesthood is really just a share in his eternal priesthood. We are set aside in a special way to teach, preach and bless, but not for ourselves…for him. We are stand-ins for him.

 

But it is not just the ordained clergy that are called to share in the priesthood of Christ: all Christians are. All of us here are called on some level to share in the ministry of this man Jesus. That is why when you are baptized in our tradition, one of the promises you make is to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.” You too are committed to be people of prayer: to be with God with the people on your heart. And after you are baptized the congregation says: “we receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” Share with us in his eternal priesthood. That is what we are all charged to do as Christians in this world: to share in his eternal priesthood. You too are called to be with God with the people on your heart.

 

Part of that is very easy: to have people on your heart. To love and care for others; to worry about them and to want what is best for them; that, I think, comes naturally with love. If you love someone they are on your heart. Just ask any parent. Just ask any mother. Worrying is a natural by-product of love. What does takes intention and effort though, is taking that worry and that love and holding it up to God. Taking the time to be in the presence of God with the people that are on our hearts, that is where we all start sharing in the priesthood of Christ. And in that act of sharing our hearts with God, we aren’t informing him of things he doesn’t know; of course he knows, what we are doing is sharing in the love that he has for his people and sharing our burdens with the one who truly has the strength to bear them. Because when we sit with God with someone on our heart, we know that they are on his heart too. That is a powerful ministry. That is bringing people to Jesus. Yes, we want to bring people to the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ, but evangelism begins with prayer. It begins with the knowledge that the people that are on your heart, are also on God’s heart. There is more than one way to get people to church you know: if you can’t bring them in your car, you can bring them in your heart. It might seem like a rather small thing, but I have it on good authority that holding God’s people in your heart is one of the most powerful things that any priest: lay or ordained can do. I’ve seen it at work.

 

Our gospel passage this morning from John’s gospel is what is know by us ordained types as Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer.” It is a private prayer between Jesus and his father that he prayed after his last supper, and right before his crucifixion. There are a lot of times when I think we preachers should just present the gospel and then just get out of the way. This might be one of those times. Maybe, instead of always trying too hard to be clever or smart, we should just let Jesus speak for himself, and I don’t just say that as clergy, I say that as a Christian. It is after all his ministry; it’s his priesthood that we all share in. So if you want to understand this man who is our one, great high priest, and if you want others to understand him, then listen to what is on his heart when he prays. There is no better way to learn how to share in his eternal priesthood, than to learn from the master. So hear his prayer again:

 

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

 

That is what it looks like to be with God with the people on your heart, and that is a ministry, that is a priesthood that we are all called to.

Under His Feet

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Ascension Day Sermon 2018

Readings:

If you look on the front of your service bulletin this evening you will see the seal of The Church of the Ascension. Do not be ashamed if your first response is to laugh at it. Two nail-scarred feet flying up into a cloud. I think you have to admit that there is a certain cartoon-like quality here that just seems a bit absurd, and I know that the first time I saw it I laughed and thought to myself: “really?” “Is that the best they could do to depict the Ascension of our Lord?”

 

Of course, what I have discovered through time and a little research, is that we are not alone in having a somewhat whimsical representation of the Ascension attached to our church.

 

Some of you may know that our statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was actually brought back from the shrine in Walsingham, England by a group of Ascension parishioners in 2015. While we were exploring the shrine church, some of us naturally took the time to OLW_56421.jpg.htmlvisit its chapel of the Ascension. Well if you go into the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, what most stands out (and I know I have a picture of this somewhere) is a couple of feet dangling down from the ceiling over the altar. At first glance it looks kind of absurd, and quite funny; like Jesus took off into the sky and got stuck in the ceiling. My first inclination was to laugh and think “I’m not sure that’s what Paul meant when he said “he hath put all things under his feet.” The shrine church in Walsingham isn’t terribly old, but it was built with an eye to ancient tradition, and there is a very old tradition of depicting the Ascension by showing Jesus’s feet going into a cloud. So we are not alone; in fact, we are in good company.

 

From medieval manuscripts, to the chapel in Walsingham, to our seal, to even Salvador Dali, artists throughout the ages have often decided that the best way to depict this mystery in the life of Jesus, his ascension into heaven, is by focusing on his feet. His head and body have passed into the clouds; entered into the realm of the unknown, and what we are left with is the image of his feet: nail-scarred to remind us that this is a body that has overcome the pains of death; very human, real flesh, and yet entering into a mystery that we can neither see nor fully comprehend.

 

The more that I reflect upon the Ascension, the more I realize that maybe the artists that first depicted it by showing only Jesus’s feet were onto something, because the truth is, we can’t see what Jesus sees now. Our scriptures give us some images of heaven, but the realm that our lord’s body has entered into…we can’t fully know. We can’t get our heads into that cloud. We can’t see it. No, I don’t think that Jesus’s body is floating around on a cloud somewhere, but I do believe that he has taken our human flesh, redeemed it, and united it with God. He has passed through the veil that we long to pass through. He is living out our hope; he is preparing the way for us to live fully in the kingdom of God with him.

 

If Jesus only came to fix our world, then the Ascension would make no sense, but if he didn’t care intimately about the world we live in, then his incarnation would make no sense. We have both. In Jesus, God takes on our human flesh, living, breathing, and eating and teaching in this world, but in the end he unites us with a reality that is beyond this world. Yes, heaven is our hope; we long to be with Christ wherever he is, that is after all a promise that he made us, but how we live that hope in this world matters. Jesus gave us promises, but he also gave us commandments. We can’t just take one and not the other.

 

So I think that showing Jesus’s feet to depict the Ascension might just be a brilliant way of teaching us not just about our destiny of being raised up with Christ on the last day, but also how we are supposed to live until that day comes: always holding on and looking to the feet of Jesus. Following in his footsteps.

Let’s think about the scriptures for a minute, and we will recall that feet actually played a pretty important role in Jesus’s ministry and in the ministry of those who followed him and I’m not just talking about the fact that they walked everywhere, although that in itself is significant.

 

What did John the Baptist say before Jesus was baptized? “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” In other words, I am not worthy to even touch his feet.

 

And what about Martha and Mary of Bethany? You may recall Martha complaining to our lord that her sister Mary wasn’t helping with dinner because she was sitting at his feet, which he went on to say was the better choice. Mary would throw herself at Jesus’s feet again after her brother Lazarus died. She would cling to Jesus’s feet once more as she anointed them before his own death.

 

At his last supper, our Lord washed his disciples feet and he said to them:

“Do you know what I have done to you? 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 should do as I have done to you.”

 

Feet aren’t always pretty things, but if we are to follow the example of our Lord then we can’t be afraid of them. We must remember our Lord’s words: “All those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we hope to share in his exaltation, then we must also share in his humility. We must be prepared to be perpetually at our Lord’s feet like Mary of Bethany: listening to his instruction, imploring his mercy, and expressing our love and devotion.

 

There is another church that famously depicts our Lord’s feet: on the Mount of Olives, near Bethany at a site that is traditionally claimed as the actual site of our Lord’s Ascension. There has been a chapel there since at least the time of Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena. There preserved in the stone in the center of the little chapel is what is supposed to be Jesus’s right footprint, left upon the stone as he ascended into heaven. Now I’m not here to claim that this impression in the stone is the authentic footprint of Jesus, but I kinda hope it is. It’s absurd and funny, just like our own seal, and just like the feet of Jesus in the chapel in Walsingham. But it would be the perfect artifact of the Ascension, maybe a perfect symbol of our faith, because it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about where Jesus is going; but it is a clear mark of where he has been.

And isn’t that just like our God?

The world doesn’t want you here

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Sermon for May 6th, 2018

Readings:

Note: This morning 4 of our youth were to receive their first communion during mass.

 

“And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”

 

Or so says John in his epistle this morning, then he goes on to say:

 

“Who is it that conquers the world, but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

 

Well, when I think of world conquerors I think of people like Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar, Ghengis Khan… Napoleon and Hitler certainly gave it a go, but I sure don’t think of myself as one. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but I don’t feel compelled to invade Poland, or any other country for that matter…so how am I supposed to be a conqueror?

 

And what about our faith? Is the Christian faith conquering the world? You could make the argument that there was a time when it seemed like Christianity was bound to take over the world. It certainly was a dominant force in the West for many centuries, but what about now? We all know that church attendance in the West, meaning Western Europe and North America, has been on the decline for many years now. How can we say that our faith conquers the world, when many of us can remember a time when churches were bursting at the seams?; when parishes had their own basketball teams, and great, grand buildings were planned and built? Instead of conquering the world, I know plenty of Christians that feel defeated by it; that feel as if the world has conquered us. Well if all I ever looked out and saw were empty places and empty pews, where people used to sit, then I might feel discouraged too, but that’s not what I see. I see the faces of the people that are here.

 

Yes, we are a growing parish and it is nice to see new faces all the time, but that’s not what I am talking about. When I come to church, I want to focus on and give thanks for the people that are here, not just lament the folks that aren’t. Even when it seems like only a few are gathered, I think it is important to remember what each one of those people had to overcome to get there. They don’t have to be there. Whether you realize it or not, you actually had to overcome a lot to be here today. You had to overcome or resist a lot of forces in this world to come to church this morning. Now let me be clear here: we do not live in a part of the world where people are being actively persecuted and killed for being a Christian. There are many people who risk their lives to worship the God we worship, and there are people who overcome unimaginable obstacles to serve Christ. I want to honor that; but I also don’t want to minimize the forces that were working against you this morning either. Because the world doesn’t want you to be here.

 

You all had to overcome some pretty powerful forces in the world to be here, including some pretty powerful drives within yourselves. You had to overcome the desire to stay in bed. You had to overcome the desire to spend a restful, leisurely day off at home (which for many of you I know is a rare treat), but instead you decided to get dressed and come here. You had to overcome the demands and needs of your children, and maybe of your spouse or other family members. You had to overcome traffic, which in Long Island is no minor accomplishment. You had to overcome the temptation to drive directly to the mall or to brunch. Maybe you had to overcome your own doubts about whether this resurrection we proclaim really happened, or doubts about the very existence of God. Maybe you aren’t sure how much of this you believe and you question if your time couldn’t be better spent elsewhere. That is no little thing to overcome. The world didn’t help you to get here this morning. The world doesn’t want you here. Even in a nation where we are free to practice our faith, the world will still put all sorts of obstacles in your way to prevent you from worshipping God. And even after you have managed to overcome all of that, and made it through the doors of the church, you are still going to encounter obstacles or individuals or dare I say sin, that is going to want to make you turn around and head back home. Believe it or not, there are faithful Christians that week after week even endure bad preaching and bad music for the sake of worshipping God. No one in this church obviously, but they are out there I assure you. So if you are in church today, then in some small way at least you have had to overcome the world, because the forces of the world don’t want you here.

 

Why? What gave you the strength to overcome those worldly desires? What led you to make this place a priority over your other needs and desires? What drove you here today?

 

Well, the answer, for me at least, is not a 2012 manual Mini Cooper. The answer, I think, is love. There is no other reason for you to be here. The world doesn’t care. Unless you are one of the few people that actually works for this parish I can assure you that your boss isn’t watching. There might have been a time when society expected you to attend church, but not anymore. You know, maybe that’s a good thing, because now the only reason for you to be here is love. But that is also the best reason, because there’s not a force in this world more powerful than love. Love will lead you to do all kinds of crazy things. Love will lead you to risk or even give up your life, for the sake of your beloved. When we talk about finding the courage to overcome obstacles, love’ll do it, and it only takes a little.

 

Whether you have thought about it or not, I am willing to bet that the driving force behind you being here today is love. Love for Jesus. Love for the God that he both worshipped and revealed to us. Love for the man that was willing to suffer and die rather than deny the truth. Love for the guidance, wisdom and insight revealed to us by God, wisdom that gives our life meaning and purpose and direction. Love for the man who’s resurrection from the dead gives us hope of a world to come, even when our minds can’t completely understand all the mysteries of the world we are in. You might not have thought about all that as you got in your car to come here today, but sometimes love works very quietly that way. And love is so powerful that it only takes a little bit to start changing you, but it grows if you let it. And the more that little seed or spark of love for Jesus grows, the more we are going to want to listen to what he said. And the more we listen to what he said, the more our love for him is going to push us to do what he said. The more we abide in that love of his, the more we will love what he loves until one day we discover ourselves obeying his commandments and not looking at them as burdens or restrictions, but a joyful sign of the love we have for our Lord and Saviour. You know, on the night before Jesus died, he commanded us to remember him whenever we partake of the bread and the cup of the Eucharist. We’re pretty good at that; but on the same night he also commanded us to love one another. That’s a bit harder. But if we can look in our brothers’ and sisters’ faces and see someone that Jesus loved enough to lay down his life for, it’ll get easier.

 

You know, sometimes I think the church puts the cart before the horse: trying to teach people to obey God before they have taught people to love him. But once you’ve got love, that obedience part takes care of itself. As Paul says, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant. Love doesn’t usually blow its own horn, so you may not realize just how powerful it is, but it can, does and will overcome the world. Look how far it has already gotten you. Look how far it has gotten us. We may not have millions of dollars in the bank, and every seat may not be taken, but if we have love for Jesus then we already have everything that we need. The world doesn’t want you to be here, but your presence here today is living proof, that our faith, and our love, can overcome the world.

 

 

 

 

Wolves and Hired Hands

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Sermon for April 22nd, 2018

Readings:

 

 

Wolves and Hired hands. If I wanted to, I could stand up here all day and talk about the wolves and the hired hands in the church and in our world, but what would be the point really? I am willing to bet that everyone in here could tell a story about a Foxy Loxy in your life. You all remember Foxy Loxy, who shows up at the end of the old folk tale to shepherd Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey right to his dinner table. The world has always been filled with characters like that, that are ready to use you and exploit you for their own gain: from politicians to the TV ad man to sadly even the preacher in the pulpit sometimes. The world is filled with examples of bad shepherds and every one of us has experienced a wolf or a hired hand at some point or another. In fact, it would be really easy to think that that is all there is; that there is no one and nothing that can be trusted; that everyone is simply looking out for number 1. It would be easy to think that, if all I did was watch the news or look at Facebook; it would be easy to become depressed, despondent and cynical if all I ever talked about or thought about were the bad shepherds and forgot that there is a Good Shepherd.

 

Everyone knows a bad shepherd, but not everyone knows the Good Shepherd. We are blessed because we are gathered here on Good Shepherd Sunday (as we are every Sunday) to remember and celebrate the man who said that he was the Good Shepherd. We are blessed because we are led by a man who, unlike wolves and hired hands, was willing to set aside his own self-interests, even to the point of death, so that he could save his sheep and lead them to green pastures and still waters. We are blessed because, although we know we know plenty of bad shepherds, we also know the good shepherd, and we know him to be our God, not everyone can say that.

 

I think it is easy to take for granted the comfort and peace that comes from being able to put your trust in something or someone greater than yourself. We live in a world where we are taught from an early age not to trust anything or anyone. As we get older, the more wolves, hired hands and bad shepherds we encounter, the less likely we are to trust; so we are left thinking that life is something we have to figure out on our own. it can all seem so hopeless, until at some point you experience or realize that there is a power in this world that can be trusted.

 

It comes in different ways to each of us. Some of us have an epiphany, or a moment of revelation, when for the first time we can identify a powerful unseen force working in our lives. Some of us witness great miracles. Some witness profound sacrificial love coming from another and wonder: “where could this type of love come from?” “What spirit or power could motivate a person to sacrifice their own needs, maybe even their own lives, for the love of another?” No matter how we experience it, the realization that there is a Good Shepherd and that he cares about you can change the way you look at the world.

 

I think that may be why the 23rd Psalm is such a beloved piece of scripture: it is an ancient revelation about the nature of God that touches us personally and gives us hope in a world that can sometimes feel very hopeless. I challenge anyone to find a more beautiful expression of faith and hope than you find in those few, simple lines of scripture. It is interesting to note, that if you look in the burial office of our prayer book, there is only one psalm that is printed in both the modern and the King James translation: Psalm 23. Even if you didn’t know any other scripture you probably knew that one. It is a word of comfort when we may feel lost or in danger. It is a reminder that the God we worship is not some distant, foreign being, but has a real personality: the personality of a loving shepherd. In a world full of dark valleys and enemies, we are being directed and guided by a force of kindness and mercy. Don’t take that comfort for granted. There are plenty of people in this world that don’t have it.

 

When Peter was questioned about how he had healed a man, through what power, he didn’t mince words: it was through the power of Jesus Christ. He didn’t try to take credit for it himself; he didn’t try to persuade the crowd that he had the power in his hands, or that he was the one who was trustworthy or faultless. No, he pointed them to Jesus. Jesus was the one and the only Good Shepherd. Jesus didn’t say that he was A good shepherd; he said that he was THE good shepherd. He didn’t say that he was A way…he said that he was THE way. Peter knew that he wasn’t the Good shepherd, he was probably so aware of his own shortcomings that he didn’t even think of himself as a shepherd at all, but as a leader of the church maybe he could hope to be a good sheepdog: always listening for the master’s commands, working joyfully to protect and guide the flock; that is how Peter saw himself, not as a shepherd in his own right, but as a devoted worker and follower of the one who is. Good priests and pastors know that they are not the shepherd, but hopefully they seek to obey him with a dog-like devotion. But all of us who are blessed to know the Good Shepherd have a ministry to a world filled with hired hands and wolves. We are called to show through our words and through our lives that there is a power in this world that is greater than us and worthy of our trust. There is a power that doesn’t see us as a number, or a commodity or something to be exploited, but as a beloved creature worthy saving, worth dying for. We are called to remind a broken, cynical world that there is reason for hope and there is reason for joy. Despite what our fairy tales may tell us, Foxy Loxy doesn’t win in the end; in a world filled with bad shepherds, there is one good one and we know his name is Jesus.

 

 

Sometimes a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish…

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Sermon for April 15th, 2018

Readings:

It’s November 1948, a U.S. diplomat and his wife land in Le Havre, France on their way to begin a new assignment in Paris. After collecting their luggage and heading down the road, on their way, they stopped for lunch in the city of Rouen. The lunch was a simple meal really; oysters, fish, salad, cheese and coffee. It may not have sounded very exciting, but this was France, and in France, the man explained to his wife, good cooking is part national sport and part high art.

 

The fish was sole meunière, a very simple dish really: just a fresh fish sautéed in butter with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of parsley. Not overly exotic; but with one bite, the woman realized that her life would forever be changed. She called it an epiphany and a revelation. She had eaten fish plenty of times, but this was the first time that she really experienced fish. One little bite of buttery fish and this woman realized how powerful and important food can be, not just as a fuel for our bodies, but as a thing of beauty and joy that gives life to our souls; she realized that sometimes a piece of fish isn’t just a piece of fish, but the symbol and the taste of something far greater. She would spend the rest of her life trying to help others understand that same thing.

 

The diplomat’s name was Paul Child, but no doubt you are more familiar with his wife: Julia Child. That little lunch in Rouen would be a moment that would change her life forever. It was a revelation, an epiphany, and now she had a mission to share with the rest of the world that sometimes a piece of fish, wasn’t just a piece of fish, but rather a taste of heaven. When Julia Child was writing her memoirs late in life, she ended by again urging her readers to put time and care into their food, because (and this is how she concludes her life’s story):

 

“A careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience. Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany. In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.”

 

The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…or at least they can be. That was Julia’s revelation. The joy of that piece of fish remained with her long after she had cleared her plate. It was a joy she held on to her entire life, all the way to the end…and maybe even beyond that.

 

I don’t know who is exactly listed among the saints in glory. The church has always held up some individuals as being exemplars of the faith, worthy of respect and admiration; there are people that we have good reason to believe stand before the throne of God, but the precise list of names, well that is known to God alone. I’m not here to say that Julia Child was a saint; I don’t really know anything about her faith or her relationship with God (although, I must admit, a few years ago I found a tall votive candle with her picture on it in a kitchen store in Manhattan that says “Saint Julia, pray for us” I keep it in my kitchen next to my collection of cookbooks). What she believed about Jesus I can’t say, but knowingly or unknowingly, I do think that her life’s work was in some sense a ministry of his.

 

When Jesus was being tempted in the desert, he very famously quoted the book of Deuteronomy saying: “Man does not live by bread alone.” True enough. Jesus would never advocate putting one earthly pleasure or joy in the place of God, the source of all joy. We still get into trouble if we allow a fleshly urge or impulse to reign supreme. But Jesus cared a lot about food. I think he loved food and took great joy in it, and I think he also understood how powerful it is for people to sit down and enjoy good food together. I think he understood that food isn’t just something that provides fuel for our mortal bodies; it is a foretaste of the kingdom; it is an experience of joy and connection. Food doesn’t just connect us to the chef in the kitchen or the person sitting across the table. It connects us to people long dead.

 

The author Marcel Proust in his novel Remembrance of Things Past, famously took a bite out of a little Madeleine tea cake and was transported back to his childhood. In the Disney movie Ratatoullie, Chef Remy the rat, wins over critic Anton Ego by serving him ratatoullie that reminds him of his mother. I know that anytime I sit down with a baked potato or a serving of corn casserole, the taste brings back to me the joy of sitting and eating with my grandmother. Food is not God, but make no mistake, God uses it. God uses it to give us joy and to bind us together.

 

Think about Jesus’s life for a minute. His first miracle was at a wedding feast, turning water into wine. Although he was the son of a carpenter, his first followers were all fishermen, men that worked at gathering food. When 5,000 people gathered to hear him preach, he told his disciples to give them something to eat, and then famously multiplied then loaves of bread and the fishes. His parables and stories were full of references to food and feasts, and of course he often told them when he was sitting at the dinner table. His great prayer, the Our Father, includes of course a petition for daily bread. He even cursed a fig tree that didn’t have any fruit on it when he was hungry. This is a man who loves food and understands its power. No doubt that is why he would choose a meal, food, to be the means by which he would convey his life to his followers down through the ages. Communion with God, for Christians, happens primarily through a meal; communion; bread and wine that is really so much more than bread and wine. Food matters a lot to Jesus; it is the primary means by which he unites his followers with each other…and it is how he unites them with God. Food is so much more than just a cure for hunger.

 

So remembering how important food was to Jesus as he lived and taught during his earthly life, I find the stories of his resurrection appearances fascinating. In this morning’s gospel, a couple disciples had just run back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, a village a few miles away. They had been telling the story of Jesus’s resurrection to a stranger on the road. They invited the stranger to dine with them, and as he broke the bread at the table they suddenly realized that it was Jesus, there dining with them. Then he disappeared. As they are telling this story to the other disciples, Jesus appears again. Assuring them that he is not a vision or a ghost, but flesh and blood. They can touch him if they want. And then what does the resurrected Lord ask them? What do you have to eat?!

 

What do you have to eat? We are talking about a man that was crucified and died and buried, come back to life, defeated death and that is what he says to his disciples! What’s for supper? So they bring him a piece of fish, which obviously Jesus must be very fond of, and he eats it. Was he just trying to prove a point? Was he actually hungry? Or is there more going on here? Might this be a case where a piece of fish is more than just a piece of fish, but a symbol of pleasure, life and joy that doesn’t get left behind after the resurrection? Joy that isn’t left in the tomb but is a part of the resurrected life? Could it be that Jesus is trying to show us that the next world will not be some cold, spiritual sterile place, filled only with thoughts and ideas, but rather a lively world of redeemed creation with sights, sounds and even tastes that are all familiar to us from this world, but now fully reflect the true and infinite joy that comes from God?

This wouldn’t be the only time that the resurrected Jesus would be seen eating. In the Gospel of John, after the resurrection Jesus actually cooks for his disciples (again fish) and then leaves Peter with the parting words: “Do you love me…then feed me sheep.” Is Jesus only concerned with filling the holes in people’s stomachs or is food about more than that? Maybe Jesus and Julia understand that food, when treated with respect and care, can be a thing of infinite joy and beauty; a powerful agent that draws and binds people together, across continents and across time, and gives them a glimpse, a foretaste, of what heaven is all about. Maybe a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish.

 

What the women know…

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

Jesus is dead. That is what the three women headed to the tomb knew when they woke up this morning. Jesus their friend, Jesus their teacher, Jesus their Lord. He is dead. They may not be sure of many things, but that they are sure of. They don’t know what is going to happen to his followers now, most of them had already scattered or were in hiding. They don’t know what is going to happen to themselves: they had followed Jesus here from Galilee and had tried to support him in his ministry. Now what? Jesus is dead. They don’t even know how they are going to move the stone so they can anoint his body properly, but they know where is body is and they know it is dead. They were there when it happened. They witnessed it.

 

Those women didn’t miss Good Friday. When all of the other disciples had run away, afraid to see the man they loved die, afraid, perhaps of their own deaths, these women remained faithful. They were there until the very end.

 

We are blessed here this morning because we woke up this morning knowing something that these women didn’t know when they woke up. You and I know something that these women don’t know yet. We know how this story ends. We already know that when they get to that tomb it is going to be empty. The stone is going to be rolled away and the body that knew was dead is going to be missing.

 

Of course they were terrified! Of course they were afraid to say anything! Of course they fled! Who wouldn’t? The one thing they thought they knew for sure when they woke up was the Jesus was dead and now his body is missing and some guy in a white robe is saying something crazy. Risen? What on earth could that mean? That is crazy talk! Dead bodies don’t come back to life! These women knew that. Something terrible must have happened. Maybe someone stole his body. Maybe someone moved it. Risen? What is that crazy man in white talking about? Who could believe such a thing?

 

We are blessed here this morning, because we know that this story doesn’t end with a missing body. We know that the man in white that met them in the tomb isn’t a lunatic, but an angel. We are blessed because we know that what he said was true. Jesus is risen. In a little while Mary Magdalene will see him herself. Later on he will appear to Peter and the other disciples. They will touch him, they will eat with him again and they will even see him in Galilee, just as the crazy man, no the angel, in white had predicted. Pretty soon the women will overcome their fear and they will tell the story of what they saw. They will tell the other disciples and they will share with the world the word that the man in white said to them in the tomb: risen. He is risen! They knew that he was dead, but pretty soon they will also know that he is alive. They will eventually share that knowledge with anyone that will listen. We are blessed because we already know the good news, but we only know it because a few women had the courage to overcome their fears and share what they knew: Jesus was dead, but now he is alive.

 

These were courageous women. Don’t be distracted by their moment of fear when their world is turned upside down, because in their hearts these are brave women. They had the courage to watch Jesus die. They hadn’t run away like most of the other disciples; they were there for him. And even after the Sabbath was over, they would continue to be there. They would be faithful to taking care of his body; they didn’t know how they would move the stone, but they would find a way. These were brave women, make no mistake about that.

 

I find it interesting that Jesus revealed his risen body first to his disciples that could most reliably testify to his death. The women who stood by him on Good Friday were the first to see him on Easter Sunday. It was only those that knew that he was truly dead, that could fully appreciate the power of knowing that he is truly risen.

 

The good news of Easter is not that Jesus of Nazareth cheated death; it’s not that his memory lives on in those that loved him; it’s not that he is resurrected in the form of a movement or an idea. And the good news of Easter has nothing to do with spring, which lovely though it is, happens every year. Those women knew that; they also knew that dead bodies don’t rise again…and then they saw something that turned everything they thought they knew upside down. The man who they knew to be dead, they now know to be alive again.

 

Knowing that one thing changes everything. It changes how we look at life and death. It changes how we approach everything else in life that we think is final. It changes how sure we are of everything we think we know about the world around us. It changes how we look at everything that Jesus ever said or did. Knowing that Jesus died and rose again: that changes everything. That proclamation is at the very center of Christianity. Easter Sunday is not the happy ending that is tacked on to the end of Jesus’s story. It is the story. Witnessing that resurrection is what gave all of the disciples the courage to finally face death, because now, they knew, they knew that there was more for them waiting on the other side of it. Jesus had shown them that.

 

I am often amused and frustrated at people (usually preachers) that think they need to make Jesus relevant. Jesus is and always will be relevant. As long as people die, the man who conquered death through his resurrection is relevant.  As long as people truly die, they need to hear about the man who is truly risen. As long as he is risen he is relevant.

 

We are blessed because when we woke up this morning, we already knew that he was risen. That’s why we got dressed to come here, but just remember when you go back out those doors, remember those three women headed to the tomb. Remember how they must have felt before they saw that stoned rolled away. Remember their sorrow, their sense of hopelessness and being lost, remember how they must have felt on Good Friday, not knowing the end of the story, not knowing what we are blessed to know. Now remember that there is still a world of people out there that woke up this morning believing that Jesus is dead. See if you can find the courage to share with them how the story really ends.