Humans make bad choices

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Sermon for Christ the King, Sunday November 21st, 2021

Readings:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93 
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

When the people had a choice, they chose Barabbas.

Never forget that. In the very next few verses of this gospel, Pilate gives the people a choice, he lets them vote. The people may choose Jesus, the prophet and teacher that some people are hailing as the Messiah, or they may choose Barabbas, the murderer and bandit who was arrested for leading a riot against the Roman oppressors. Well, the choice is obvious, isn’t it? Obviously, the choice has to be Barabbas. He’s the stronger leader. Barabbas isn’t taking any prisoners or suffering any fools. Barabbas is a man of action. Barabbas is more popular.

What has Jesus done? Yeah, it is rumored that he has some magical powers, some people even say that they saw him bring a dead man back to life, but if that were really the case then why doesn’t he show his power now? But here Jesus stands all chained up and beaten, bloody, frail and weak, and mostly quiet. Does Pilate actually think that the people are going to vote for this man? I’m not so sure.

Pilate is a cynic, he’s not a fool. Despite his protestations of finding no fault with Jesus, he knows that this little vote isn’t about giving justice to this condemned man. This isn’t about right and wrong; this is a popularity contest, plain and simple. If Pilate were actually concerned about what is right, if he cared about true justice, and if he believed Jesus to be innocent, as he says, then he would set Jesus free; he has the power to do that. But what Pilate cares about is political expediency and popularity. I have a hard time believing that the man who asks that famous cynical question, “what is truth?” is actually surprised when the people choose Barabbas. No, he’s not surprised.

We should not be surprised either. 

Because truth is not always popular, in fact, truth is often deeply unpopular. The will of the majority, has very little to do with the will of God. Popularity is not justice, and popularity is not truth. 

Fulton Sheen, in his magnificent “Life of Christ” notes that:

 “Truth does not win when numbers alone become decisive. Numbers alone can decide a beauty queen, but not justice. Beauty is a matter of taste, but justice is tasteless. Right is still right if nobody is right, and wrong is still wrong if everybody is wrong. The first poll in the history of Christianity was wrong!”

The people had a choice, and the chose Barabbas. Don’t forget that. I know this may come as a shock to some people, it may even anger some of you, but it needs to be said: Democracy is NOT a biblical ideal. You will not find in the scriptures any endorsement of the idea that the will of the people is equal to the will of God, in fact, what you will find is ample evidence of the exact opposite. There are plenty of reminders in the scriptures that God does not see things the way we see things, and that the will of the majority is not in accord with God’s will: Moses wandering through the desert with the Children of Israel, who wanted to turn back at every step; Samuel who anointed David as King over Israel, the weakest of Jesse’s sons, the one nobody would have voted for; You can pick any one of the prophets, who each called out the masses for their perversion of God’s will; and of course, in the gospels people are given the choice to vote for Jesus, and the choice they make is Barabbas. Humans make bad choices. If you don’t get anything else out of reading or hearing scripture, if you don’t get anything else out of this sermon, please get that. Write it down on your palm; make yourself a note and stick it to the refrigerator. Humans make bad choices. We do it as individuals, and when you put us together in groups, we do it as groups. If human will were always in accordance with divine will, we wouldn’t need government, and we wouldn’t need laws. But alas that is not, and never has been the case. Government and human law is our extremely imperfect way of mitigating the damage of human sinfulness. It can do some good things, but a lot of time it is just mitigating damage. It is at the same time a product of and subject to human sinfulness. It is a temporary solution to living in a world with humans that make bad choices. But because we are prone to making bad choices, we have discovered that some forms of government are better, or at least less cruel, than others.

Winston Churchill once famously said: 

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

Democracy, whether it is an American-style republic or the British-style constitutional monarchy, may be the least-worst form of government we have, but that doesn’t make it perfect. As we recall from our Remembrance Sunday service last week, democracy and freedom may be something worth fighting for, and dying for. It is definitely something worth praying for; but we must never assume that the free choices we make are righteous based solely upon the number of people that are voting with us. Righteousness doesn’t work that way. As Bishop Sheen said: “Truth does not win when numbers alone become decisive.” 

Democracy may be our form of government, but it is not God’s form of government, not in his kingdom. Because democracy is about public opinion and popularity; democracy is about the numbers. What do the poll numbers say today? But God doesn’t need to know the will of the majority, because the only will that is going to matter in the kingdom of God is his will. Numbers matter in this world, but Jesus reminds us in the gospel today that his kingdom is not of this world. The numbers don’t matter to God. Popular opinion doesn’t matter to God. What matters to God is truth. That is what Jesus’s kingdom is about, truth, and guess what, truth is NOT something that you get to vote on. It just is.

This has become an increasingly hard pill to swallow nowadays, because we are all told on a daily basis how much our opinions and how much our feelings matter. Every phone call wants me to take a survey afterwards. Everytime I take my car to the shop, I am sent a survey afterwards and God forbid I don’t fill it out with all 10s or all 5s or whatever. Facebook is a giant altar to your personal feelings and opinions, wherein you may worship them night and day. The news you read, that is all shaded to conform to your already held opinions. Even Stew Leonard’s has a big sign out front that says, “the customer is always right.” As someone who has worked in retail, I can tell you with authority that that is an absolute lie. The customer is most certainly NOT always right. NO ONE IS. Humans are not always right. And humans make bad choices, even in the best democracies. 

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and I want to make something very clear here: this service has nothing to do with the politics of THIS world. I am NOT asking you to vote for Jesus today. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should vote, should exercise their right and duty as citizens of this democracy to make it as strong and as good as it can be. I wish people would vote wisely, although I usually keep my expectations pretty low on that one. But the United States of America, no matter how good it is, is NOT the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of this world. We aren’t here to celebrate a kingdom of this world today. We are here to recognize that there is another kingdom that is coming, we can see it on the horizon. We can see it breaking through in the most unlikely places. Jesus’s kingdom is IN this world, but it is not OF this world. Big difference. We may have a place in that kingdom, but we don’t have a vote. God might want you to vote here, in this kingdom, but he doesn’t need your vote in his. We are not here today to campaign for Jesus or to poll your opinions. We are here to proclaim a truth. The truth. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. Jesus will be judge and ruler over all. Your opinion about that doesn’t really matter. It does not matter how that makes you feel. There will be no referendum on the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount there; you won’t have a vote on what is true.

Jesus is not putting his kingship up to a vote. That is Pilate’s job and we know how that voted ended. We know what choice we made.

Whether or not Jesus is going to be King is not a choice you get to make, so let’s stop worrying about that. The choice that is before you is: how are you going to respond to this king? How are you going to serve him? Are you going to serve him? Now, humans are not known for doing this, but I am begging you and urging you, please, when it comes to this decision, make a good choice.

Some things are worth fighting for

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Sermon for Sunday, November 14th, 2021

Remembrance Sunday

Readings:

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16 
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Who told you that life was going to be fair?

Please tell me where it is written in scripture that God has proclaimed that all things will continually improve. When and where did God promise you that your life would be easy? Where did he say that you wouldn’t suffer? When did he say that you wouldn’t have to fight?

When did Jesus promise you that humans would one day figure out how to not sin, or fight, or struggle, or even kill one another?

That’s right. He didn’t. 

You can call Jesus a lot of things, but don’t dare call him a liar. He told us it was going to be this way. Jesus told us that religious folks can be hypocritical; we don’t need to act surprised. Jesus told us that no one is good but God alone, so we don’t need to weep and wail every time we discover anew that humans are sinners. He told us that following him would be hard. He told us that there would be false prophets, coming in his name. He told his disciples that they would fail him and betray him, and they did. He said that the temple would be torn down, and it was. He said that there would be natural disasters, and there are. And he said…that there would be wars.

Jesus told us that there would be war. He didn’t say he ordains it. He didn’t say he desires it. We don’t ever have to call it a good thing. But please, can we stop pretending that he promised it wouldn’t happen? Can we stop pretending that Jesus predicted that someday the world will have some grand epiphany or get tired of fighting? Jesus and John Lennon are not the same! I know this is going to upset some of you terribly who just love imagining that humans are going to wake up one day and just start getting along. Pop culture might promise you that, politicians might promise you that, but Jesus does NOT promise you that. 

Quite the opposite. Jesus promises us that there WILL be war and suffering, but he adds that the suffering is NOT the end. The suffering is NOT the end. Jesus actually describes all this suffering as birth pangs. That’s the word he used: Birth pangs. Suffering that is a prelude to something else. A pain that signifies the beginning of something new. 

Of course, we are always impatient. We want that new day to happen now. We don’t want to wait on God. We think that we can fix the world with just a little more education. Well guess what, people now have a little device that fits in their hands that has access to all the knowledge in the world, and most of them are as dumb as they ever were. Maybe dumber. 

We have not fixed sin, and as long as there is sin, there will be conflict. We don’t need to be surprised about that. If we are surprised that humans are still sinful after all these years, if we are surprised that people are still fighting, then we haven’t been paying attention. Or we have been listening to the deceiver, not to God. The deceiver wants you to think that God is failing and breaking his promises, but God is doing no such thing. We are the ones who fail. We are the ones who sin. And we have proven, if there is anything that has ever been proven, we have proven that we just don’t have the power to stop. The human race does not learn its lessons, not for very long at least. Every generation seems to discover anew just how corrupt and broken humanity really is. Sin is something that every generation has to learn to deal with and to do battle with.

We honor today the countless individuals who lost their lives in battle, especially in the two great wars of the last century, but also in the many conflicts that there have been since then. We are still fighting wars. We fight wars because humans are sinful it’s, but it should be noted, that we also fight wars because humans are more than sinful. We can be noble. We can defend, we can protect, we can love, we can even sacrifice everything for someone else. We fight, in part because we recognize that some things are worth fighting for. I don’t want to live in a world where people are fighting. What could be worse than living in a world of constant fighting? How about living in a world where nothing is worth fighting for? Yeah, I think that would be worse. Should we fight over every spit of land or every economic interest or petty insult? No, we should not. We need to pick our battles carefully. But should we fight sin, tyranny, hatred, injustice, evil and lies? Yes, because some things are worth fighting for. We need to fight those things, not only when we encounter them in the world, but most especially when we encounter them in ourselves. We need to call upon Michael the Archangel, our defender in battle, to stand beside us everyday of our lives and assist us in our daily struggle against evil. And there is evil in the world, and if you aren’t careful, if you aren’t continually on your guard, that evil will march right into your heart. Some things in this world are worth fighting for. Some enemies need to be resisted. And the people we remember today knew that. Thank God they knew that.

My faith is not built on the false hope that humans are one day gonna wake up and start being nice to each other. My hope is not that we will someday put an end to suffering. My hope is that the suffering and conflict that we experience in this world, is a prelude to something else. A prelude to something that God is doing. The birth pangs of a new kingdom that is coming. My hope is not that we humans have fought the last battle; my hope is that God has fought the last battle, and won it. It turns out that God looked at this broken awful world and decided that something in it was worth fighting for: us.  

She needs this bread

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Sermon for November 7th, 2021

Readings:

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

The widow in Zarephath, the old woman that Elijah encounters in the Old Testament passage from Kings this morning, she needed that little bit of meal and oil that she had left.

Is there anyone here that would argue with that? Is there anyone here that would say that she had more than enough?

Now granted, we don’t know this woman’s backstory; we don’t know much about her. But we do know this, all that she has is just a little flour and a little oil, that she expects will be the last meal for her and her son. This woman cannot afford to be generous. She needs that flour and oil. Even if she doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from, is there anyone here that would want to take this meal away from her?

And you know, I’d be willing to bet that most of this meal would be going to her child anyways. This is a mother, she probably only eating barely enough to keep herself going. If this is the last bit of meal that she has, then the truth is she has probably been going hungry and going without for a long time. She needs this bread that she is going to make. She can’t afford to give it away.

And the prophet Elijah has the nerve to go to this woman and to say: “give me a piece of bread.” Is there anyone here that would fault this woman for saying “buzz off” or worse?

No, of course not. Nobody would fault this woman for wanting to hold on to this little bit of meal, because nobody is going to deny that she really did need it. And when she very politely explains to Elijah her situation, does he back down and say “oh, I’m sorry, I’ll go ask someone else?” No. What he says to her is “don’t be afraid.” Who tells a hungry mother about to have her last meal, don’t be afraid? But that’s what Elijah says. He says “don’t be afraid,” and then he says “God will not let the meal and the oil run out, at least not until better times come, and this drought is over and there is abundance in the land again, God is not going to let you starve now.”

And for some reason, the woman decides to believe him. Why? Is Elijah that persuasive? Or charming? Or slick? No. The clue is in the text. When God first sends Elijah to Zarephath, he says to him, “Go there, live there, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” You see, God had already been talking to this widow long before Elijah got there. She had a relationship with God and she had been hearing God speak to her. It was God that first told her that she should share what she had with Elijah. What exactly did God say to her? Well we don’t know, the scripture doesn’t say, but I have a theory.

You notice, when Elijah first asks the widow for bread, she’s reluctant. She explains that it’s all she has and will be the last meal for her and her son, but then Elijah responds with “Do not be afraid.” Be not afraid. That is when she becomes convinced that she needs to feed him. Do you ever notice how angels usually greet people in the Bible?

Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard.

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.

And the angel said unto them, fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.

When God sends his messengers to greet us, one of the first things they usually say is “do not be afraid.” Maybe that was a part of God’s encounter with this widow. Maybe God’s message to her began with “do not be afraid,” so when she hears those words come out of Elijah’s mouth it just clicks for her and she realizes, this is the man that God was speaking of. This is the man that I am supposed to feed. But even then, even if God had commanded her to feed Elijah, and she was convinced that this man had indeed been sent to her by God, even then that doesn’t change the fact that she didn’t have enough to do what God told her to do. If she fed this man, if she listened to God and followed God’s command she was going to be risking her life and the life of her son. She needed that bread, and she decided to give it away anyways. What an extraordinary act of faith. What an act of courage.

A couple weeks ago, at the fair, I saw this trivet or spoon rest (I don’t remember which) out on the table in the midst of all the yard-sale stuff, and it had a little saying on it that stuck in my mind. It said something like: True generosity is giving away what you can use yourself.

I thought of that when I was reflecting on the two widows in our readings today. One widow in the Book of Kings and the other in Mark’s gospel, and they both gave away something they needed. They both gave away something they could use. Did they do it because they were stupid or foolish? No. They trusted that God would provide. They obeyed what God commanded. They allowed God to save them, rather than feebly try to save themselves. It takes a lot of faith to be able to do that; to trust God more than we trust ourselves. Maybe that is why God’s angels are always telling us “do not be afraid,” because faith can be a scary thing. It is so hard to let go of something that you can use, or that you need. But that is where faith and generosity actually start to mean something. When they are a little risky, or a little scary. When you actually have to give something up.

But there is this funny thing that happens when you give something up for God. It comes back to you and you get back more than you gave. Watch for it in scripture, but more importantly, watch for it in your life. The widow of Zarephath gave Elijah a piece of bread that she needed. And they ate for days and days.

A wise person of faith

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Funeral Mass and Commendation of Ruth Dubas.

October 30, 2021

There are some things that ONLY Jesus can do and there are some things that WE can do WITH Jesus. There are some things that only Jesus, as the Son of God has the power to do: miraculously heal the sick, forgive sins on behalf of God, raise the dead to life, change people’s hearts, offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins, resurrect from the dead on his own mighty power, promise eternal life, and judge with righteousness; only Jesus can do those things. But then there are things that we, as Jesus’s followers, can do WITH Jesus: we can pray, we can care for the sick, we can give to the poor, we can be willing to suffer for the sake of others, we can lead by example, we can teach, we can choose to love, even when it is terribly difficult and inconvenient. We can do these things with Jesus, in fact, Jesus commands us to do them. A wise person of faith will always be mindful of the difference between the things that Jesus does for us as our great high priest, for which we may only offer our thanks and praise, and the things that we do as people who are called to share in his eternal priesthood. A wise person of faith will be mindful of the difference between these things. And Ruth Dubas was a wise person of faith.

The first time I ever had a conversation with Ruth, she was sitting in my chair in my office. That should have been my first clue as to who I was dealing with. I had been called as rector here, but hadn’t officially started yet, and I don’t remember why I was stopping by to see the office, but when I came in Ruth was on the phone at my desk, and I scared the hell out of her. A long-time Ascension parishioner, Doris Moore had just died, and Ruth was coordinating the plans around the funeral from the rector’s desk. Now Ruth offered to get up, but I told her to sit back down, I sat in the chair across from her and we just started chatting. Ruth filled me in on Doris and then she talked about some of the other parishioners that she regularly visited and took communion to. It was becoming clear to me in that first visit, that Ruth had a powerful call to serve and to minister, and if I didn’t know it before, I knew it then, that my ministry, in this place, would be a shared ministry. That woman sitting in my chair was little, but she was also a giant.

That was over 9 years ago now. It some ways, it seems like a lot longer because in that time there have been so many amazing moments of shared ministry with Ruth. Quiet times every week at morning prayer in the chapel. Driving around town taking communion to parishioners. Visiting the dying in the hospital. One Ash Wednesday, Ruth and I took ashes to Alice Mary Roggenkamp, said prayers with her, and by the time we got back to the office we got the news that she had died. That was what Alice was waiting for. It was a real moment of grace. There were a lot of those moments working with Ruth. She was a remarkable woman of faith and above all else she was a prayer warrior.

Now it isn’t my habit to canonize people from the pulpit. Ruth was a real person and she would be the first to admit that she wasn’t perfect. She was here faithfully a couple mornings every week to lead morning prayer, as I said, but she often jumbled the words because she insisted on using this prayerbook with tiny font that she couldn’t see very well. On more than one occasion while out visiting parishioners Ruth tripped and fell, long before she had the accident in Scotland, and the first time it happened I learned the hard way, like many of you, what happens when you try and help Ruth. She was feisty and she had a temper. If you wanted to experience the wrath of Ruth, just try and help her with something that she didn’t want help with. She had a lot of pride, and yes, it did get in the way sometimes. The woman who lived to help others, often had a real hard time accepting help herself. She needed to be independent; she needed to be useful. If you are here today and if Ruth ever let you help her with something, then you are special, because she did not like to be babied. She wanted to be the helper, not the helpee.

In some practical, day to day, ways Ruth had a little trouble accepting her limitations, but when it came to the big things, Ruth knew that she both needed and had a saviour. Ruth might have been reluctant to accept that she couldn’t reach the candlesticks on the altar on her own, but she definitely knew that she wasn’t going to reach heaven on her own. She knew that she needed Jesus, and her desire to serve others, well that was mostly a response to the love and grace that she found in Jesus. She knew that there were some things that she could do for Jesus, but there were some things that only Jesus could do for her. A wise person of faith knows the difference.

This service today is dripping with Ruth, because she had a heavy hand in planning it. That passage from Isaiah about being anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort all who mourn. Jesus quoted those words in his first sermon. Part of his ministry on earth was to do just that, to comfort and to care and to encourage, and that is a part of his ministry that he shares with us. Ruth felt called to do those things. She wanted to exercise her own priesthood as a believer in Jesus by doing those things. But Ruth also requested the reading from John’s Gospel, where Jesus, right before he raises Lazarus from the dead, says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” There are some things that Jesus does and our response is to follow his example, and there are some things that Jesus does and our response can only be praise and thanksgiving. Ruth understood that. There are things we can do and there are things we can’t do, but even on Ruth’s death bed she was looking for things that she could do, and in this service Ruth wanted to do something. She is at work in this room this morning. How could she testify to her faith one last time? How could she both serve Jesus AND witness to what only Jesus can do?

Did any of y’all wonder why we had Ruth’s viewing here yesterday instead of at the funeral home? It’s because Ruth said she wanted to see y’all in church one last time. She didn’t just want you to see her here, which would have been fitting since she was here almost more than she was anywhere else and she loved this place with all her heart, but she said she wanted to see you here. She laughed about that. She wanted “Because he lives” sung; it was one of her favorite hymns and it’s all about the fact that Jesus can do what she can’t; her hope was in him. His resurrection is what gave her hope to live each day. That was the motivation behind everything that Ruth did here. That was the motivation behind what Ruth did wherever she went or served, whether it was in her other churches, whether it was Cursillo, or working for Hospice, or in her career as a nurse or in her life with her family. Ruth’s desire to be near the man who rose from the grave inspired her to travel to the Holy Land multiple times, that’s why she went on every pilgrimage and spiritual retreat, and conference. Everything was a response to the hope that Jesus’s resurrection gave her. Everything was an act of thanksgiving for the future glory that she was promised as a believer in Jesus Christ. 

During one of my last visits with Ruth, when she was convinced that she was dying, and I still thought that she might be a bit confused, she made it very clear to me, and it was important that I got this right, she wanted the theme of her funeral to be “glory.” She wanted a glorious funeral with glory as it’s theme. That’s why we are marching out to the battle hymn of the republic. Not only was it played at her beloved husband Andy’s funeral, but the opening line is “Mine eyes have seen the glory.” She wanted to hear “glory, glory halleluiah.” And the last verse of Because he lives is “as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know he lives.” Our entrance hymn: “O what their joy and their glory must be, those endless sabbaths the blessed ones see.” or “O Jesus thou hast promised to all who follow thee, that where thou art in glory, there shall thy servant be.” “To the old rugged cross I will ever be true, it’s shame and reproach gladly bear; then he’ll call me someday to my home far away, where his glory forever I’ll share.” “Thy saints are crowned with glory great; they see God face to face; they triumph still, they still rejoice in that most happy place.” This service is covered in glory. Ruth wanted it to be a vision, or at least a testimony to where she was headed. Because Ruth is covered in glory now too.

During my last visit with Ruth, which was on the Friday of the Friendship Fair, we knew that her situation was serious, but none of us expected things to go as quickly as they did. Ruth was pretty confused during the first part of our conversation. She was having a hard time separating dreams from reality, but the moment I opened the prayer book to pray with her, it’s like all that confusion vanished. Here was a familiar rock that she could stand on, that she knew so well from years of daily use. Every prayer I offered, she said right along with me, word for word. She didn’t jumble any words or make any mistake because she wasn’t trying to read along with me, she wasn’t trying to use her eyes, she was using the words that had found a permanent home in her heart. Of course, I anointed her and gave her communion, for which she was very thankful, but here is a curious thing Ruth kept doing: she kept interrupting me. She kept stopping me so that she could add her own prayers and her own intentions to this little service. She wasn’t confused, she knew exactly what she was doing. This little anointing and communion may have been intended for her, but she was not going to settle for that; she wasn’t going to let those prayers be over until I was prayed for, and you were prayed for. All of you. It was perfect actually. One thing I neglected to mention earlier, was that when Ruth and I went to go and visit parishioners together, most of the time, she drove. Well here she was in the driver’s seat again. She was in the rector’s chair once more, just like when we first met, doing what she loved best: ministering. Serving. Praying. She spent more time praying for me during that visit than I did praying for her, because that is the way she wanted it. Even at the gates of glory, Ruth still knew that she had work to do. 

Ruth knew that there are some things only Jesus can do, and she knew that there are things that she could do with Jesus. She was a wise person of faith. Only God could promise Ruth eternal glory, but as long as she had a breath in her body, Ruth could respond to that promise. 

All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Lord AND Saviour

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Sermon for October 10th, 2021

Readings:

Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

My singular goal, as your priest and pastor, and as the rector of this church, is for each and every one of you to have a living relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord AND Savior. My only mission, my only agenda, the thing that I actually, really care about is that the people in this parish are given the space, the resources and the guidance that they need to meet Jesus and to develop a relationship with him as Lord and savior. Maybe that sounds very churchy and pious, but it’s true. Now naturally I can’t force this relationship to happen, you can only lead a horse to water, and it’s not that I don’t get distracted sometimes, like anybody, but that’s what I really care about and everything else needs to serve that goal.

Do I love this building and want to preserve it and improve it and keep it as beautiful as possible? You bet, but only because this is a sacred space where people meet Jesus. I have no interest in being the curator of a museum. We have pretty things here, and I love pretty things, but they are not idols to be worshiped in and of themselves. Their real value is in their ability to point us to God. And that is the value of this building; if this building ever stops pointing people to God and serving as a sacred space where people meet Jesus, then it will be worth no more than the land it is sitting on. 

Do I love this community of misfits and want the parish to grow and expand and gain new members? Yes! But we aren’t here to run a fancy private club, nor are we here to run a senior center, a commercial enterprise, a social service agency or a daycare. Church has to be about more than that. There needs to be a deeper connection here, more than just hanging out with some friends once a week, or just doing nice things in the neighborhood. People don’t need the church for that. They can do that on their own.

There needs to be a connection to Jesus Christ; to God. We need to be teaching people to follow him as Lord and Savior, and I say we very intentionally, because it’s not just my job; it’s our job. Helping people to meet and walk with Jesus should be our shared mission and agenda, not just something I am trying to sneak in on you. And I am also saying follow him as Lord and Savior very intentionally, because these are two distinct ways of living in relationship with Jesus and we need them both. We need a Lord and we need a savior.

If Jesus is Lord, then that means when he says to do something, you do it. You take it as a legitimate command that has authority behind it. That means understanding that you are accountable to him. The Book of Hebrews tells us that “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” The true word of God, the word made flesh, Jesus, is living and active. He is a Lord that has authority and power. He cuts right through all your garbage. Nothing is hidden from him, and before him, one day you will give an account. Jesus, as Lord, gives commands that he expects you to respond to; he cares about how you live your life. He cares about what you do with your money.

Gasp. Money

What did you think I wasn’t going to talk about the gospel reading this morning? Jesus is approached by a man who thinks he’s doing pretty good commandment-wise, thinks he is obeying God’s laws, thinks he is a good person, he’s a nice guy, but he asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus has the audacity to tell him to sell his stuff, give the money away and follow him and the man can’t do it. There are limits to his commitment and to his obedience. You know in the gospels, Jesus calls all sorts of people to follow him, and they usually do it; they leave behind family and jobs and security and they follow Jesus because they see in him something that is just so compelling, but NOT this man. Something is holding him back. He can’t commit to Jesus. Not fully. Now do I think that Jesus is some peace love and dope hippie that is trying to push a communist economic agenda? No I don’t, but Jesus is very clear that money and possessions can be a barrier between us and God. With money comes a little power and security. I like to have power and security. I like having money in my wallet, but here’s the thing if you’ve got your fist clenched around a dollar bill, then it will be closed to everyone else in this world, including Jesus. It is so easy to substitute the power that comes from money, for the power that comes from knowing and following Jesus. People settle for money power every day. Jesus doesn’t want you to settle. He wants you to have a connection with real power and real security, and that can only come from putting your hand in his hand, not putting your hand in your wallet. So yeah, Jesus cares about how you live your life, how you follow his commandments, and how you follow and serve him in this world as your Lord, with the resources that God has entrusted to you. Jesus cares about that.

But Jesus isn’t just a Lord, he’s also a savior. He knows that there are some things that you just can’t do. We need more than just a good teacher in this world; we need a God that can do what we can’t. Thing is, no matter how hard you try to live a good life, assuming that you are trying, no matter how good you are at following Jesus’s commandments, you are going to fail somewhere. You are missing something. You lack something. You are not as good as you think you are. Jesus said no one is good, BUT God. In the Book of Hebrews this morning, we are told that we will be accountable for our actions and that the secrets of our hearts will be revealed, that’s the bad news, BUT we are also told that those secrets are being revealed to a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tested just like we are, that’s the good news. Because of this we can approach the throne of God with boldness, because we are assured that there is mercy and grace there. Jesus is not just a Lord that gives commandments, he is also a Savior that forgives us when we break them. We need both, and Jesus is both. That is what a relationship with him is all about.

Yeah, Jesus cares about how you treat people, how you obey the commandments, what your priorities are and yeah one way of evaluating your priorities is looking at what you do with your money, that is just a fact, but no amount of money is going to buy you a ticket to eternal life, and no amount of correctness or doing the right thing or being nice is going to earn you salvation. It doesn’t work that way. We are sinners and we are mortals and for mortals, eternal life is impossible, but not for God. Everything we have as Christians: our hope, our security, our power, our righteousness and our promise of eternal life all of it comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Nothing is more important than that. So that has to influence everything we do here. I can’t fix any of you and we cannot fix the world, but Jesus can. Jesus can fix you. Jesus can change minds and hearts in ways that you can’t even imagine. So my goal, our goal, in this place, in this church with all of the resources that God has entrusted us with, with every Fair we organize or worship service we conduct, is just to help people meet Jesus and follow him as Lord and Savior. We have to try and trust him to do the real heavy lifting.

Don’t be a jerk

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Sermon for September 26th, 2021

Readings:

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Your words and your actions are either drawing people closer to Christ or they are pushing people further away.

Now maybe that seems a little heavy or harsh; maybe you don’t want to feel responsible for someone else’s relationship with God or Christ, but the fact is, you will have an effect of someone else’s walk with God whether you like it or not. The question that you have to ask yourself is: what kind of effect am I going to make? Are my words AND actions going to draw people closer to Christ, or are they going to drive them further away? Am I bringing people to the faith, or am I a stumbling block?

Here is a pro tip from Jesus in our gospel passage this morning: you don’t want to be a stumbling block. 

You don’t want to be the barrier that is keeping people from a life in Christ. You don’t want to be the person that pushes someone away from Jesus and his church. You don’t want to be the stumbling block. That will not end well for you. Yes, we are all humans, we are all sinners who make mistakes, and we believe in a merciful and forgiving God, but that does not mean that what we do and what we say doesn’t matter. We may believe, as Paul says, that “there is, therefore, no condemnation for those which are in Christ Jesus,” and that may be well and true, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t someday going to have to stand before the Lord and explain ourselves and give an account for the effect that our words and actions have had on the lives and on the faith-lives of others. 

Jesus uses some strong language and some extreme examples in the gospel today to really get his point across. Jesus likes to do that sometimes. His point is not to get you to go out and start amputating your appendages. What Jesus wants to make clear is that he does not want there to be barriers or stumbling blocks between him and his people. If there is something in your life that is interfering with your walk with God, then do something about it. You can’t just give up on faith in God because someone was mean to you at church once, or because you don’t like the minister. If there is a stumbling block in your way, then do something about it. You have some responsibility over your own faith life and you have the responsibility of getting around or over whatever stumbling blocks or barriers stand between you and Jesus, but you also have a responsibility to make sure that your words and actions aren’t turning you into a stumbling block in someone else’s life. We have a responsibility toward each other too.

And I could actually summarize that responsibility in four words, that Jesus doesn’t exactly use, but I think they are four words that really summarize a lot of his practical teachings: Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t be a jerk. You don’t have to be artificially nice or phony with people. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend. You don’t have to like everyone or agree with everyone, but don’t be a jerk. Believe it or not, it is possible to think that someone is completely wrong and still not be a jerk to them. You can pray for and pray with, people you disagree with. You can even be nice to them. How you respond to someone who is wrong or who has gone a little off course will say as much about your walk with Jesus as it does about theirs. In the gospel today some of the disciples are all up in arms because someone is using Jesus’s name, doing some kind of ministry, and they are all worked up because this person isn’t a part of their group. Maybe he isn’t doing things exactly the way that they were taught. Maybe he has some wrong opinions or is just a little different. In any event, they wanted to put a stop to him. And Jesus said No, don’t stop him. If he is doing good things in my name, then he is drawing people to me. If his words and actions aren’t pushing people away from us or working against us, then ultimately they are drawing people to us. Jesus’s disciples were well intentioned, but they kinda wanted to be jerks to this man casting out demons in Jesus’s name, and Jesus knew that that wouldn’t work, in fact what it would create is a stumbling block. 

You know, us followers of Jesus, the churches, we are so concerned sometimes with making sure that things are done this way or that way, or that we all have this correct opinion or that correct opinion; we are so concerned that other people follow Jesus the way that we follow Jesus, that we often end up being real jerks to one another, whenever we encounter folks doing things differently. And whenever we Christians act like jerks to other Christians, we end up becoming great big stumbling blocks for people outside the church who look in and wonder if there is any truth to this message that we proclaim. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. I believe that there is truth and error, I believe that there is orthodoxy and heresy. What I don’t believe in is being a jerk. If you think that someone is on the wrong path, you can guide them to the right one without being a jerk. Pray for them. Show them love and compassion and kindness. Show them a better way, and show some humility while you are at it, because the truth is, they might not be the ones that are wrong; but when you become a jerk, you become a stumbling block. Jesus tells us what he thinks about stumbling blocks. 

Jesus ends this little discourse with “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In other words, make sure that there is some substance to your faith life. Make sure that there are no barriers in your walk with God. Make sure that your words and your actions have the flavor of God in them, and don’t be a jerk to those who may be a little different or who might even be wrong about something. Pay attention to what you do or say, especially when you are disagreeing with other Christians, because your words and your actions are either drawing people closer to Christ or they are pushing people further away. 

What can you do for me?

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Sermon for Sept 19th, 2021

Readings:

 Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Children are useless. I think I may have said that before, but it bears repeating. Children are useless. They scream and cry and mess things up. They want attention all the time. They want food. Most of them have a real hard time holding down a steady job, so they don’t contribute much to society. They don’t pay taxes. They are always looking for some sort of handout. They don’t have a lot of skills. I keep thinking of Karen Walker from the TV show Will and Grace, when a button comes off her fur coat she says: “Children can’t do anything right!” 

Children may look cute, but they take way more than they give. They aren’t really useful, not when they are little. You have to serve them for a long time before they are even capable of serving you, and even then there’s no guarantee. Now maybe I am jesting a bit; you recognize that it is ridiculous to look at a child and wonder “What can you do for me?” But how often do we look at other adults that way? 

We know that it is absurd to look at little children and to value them based on what they can do or produce or give. They can’t do much at all, not at first. Children need more help and assistance than they can immediately repay. And as far as I can tell, most parents are really OK with that. The bonds of love are so strong that a parent can give and give without getting an immediate payback. Children don’t need to be useful to be loveable or to have value. Naturally you want them to grow into adults that are responsible and healthy with a sense of purpose and the capacity and inclination to give of themselves, but they don’t start out that way. They start out needing more from you than they can give back. We are OK with that with little children, most of the time, but when it comes to adults….that’s another story.

This is an unfortunate truth but it needs to be told: a lot of times, maybe not all of the time, but a lot of the time, when we meet another adult, one of the first things that starts to go through our minds is “how can you serve me?” How can you help me? What can you do for me? Now maybe that seems cynical, but don’t get defensive just yet, because I think it is just part of our human nature. Until we get to know and love people as individuals we often deal with people as objects. Something we can use. That’s what networking is all about. You know this person that I want to know. You’re a good lawyer, well that’s convenient because I need a new will. You’re good with computers, that’s great because I need a new website. We do this all the time with each other, and it isn’t always sinister, or meant to be nasty or mean, but we look at people and we wonder how they can serve us. 

Can you advance my career? 

Will you publish my book?

Will you vote for me?

Will you become a regular patron of my establishment?

Will you buy this thing that I want to sell?

Can you help my kids get into the right school?

Will people have more respect for me because they know I know you? 

Welcome to our church! We are so glad you are here! Would you like to serve on a committee? Oh don’t think for a second that us good church folks don’t do the same thing. It’s tough, because there are only so many people that volunteer to do things, and there are all these essential things that have to get done, I can’t do this by myself, so it is very tempting to look at every new person that walks through the door as someone who might be useful. You can serve on the altar guild. You can be a lay eucharistic minister. You can teach Sunday School. It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember your name yet, here’s the key to the building, please lock up when you leave. And this isn’t me pointing fingers, this is confession. I do this too. All churches do this, we always have. 

Think about the passage from James a couple weeks ago when he talks about showing favoritism to rich folks. That is all that is about: looking at people and wondering how useful they might be, or how useful their money might be. Humans do it all the time, it is a part of our nature, but there is a giant problem with looking at people this way: it’s not how God looks at people. God doesn’t look at us the way we look at each other. God doesn’t value us the way we often value each other.

The creator of the universe doesn’t need you for anything. Jesus didn’t need his disciples to help him up on Easter Sunday or to roll away the stone. God has more power than you can ever imagine. So, God’s love for you is not based in any way on how useful you are. God does not see us the way we see each other, that is all over the scriptures. So if you want to understand the mind of God and if you want to try to see the world the way that God sees it, which as followers of Jesus I hope you do, then you need to at least try to look at other people and see them as beloved before you see them as useful. You need to see someone that you are called to serve, without trying to figure out how you are going to benefit from this relationship in the long run. In other words, you need to look at them the way that a parent looks at their little child. It is hard to do that though. Old habits don’t go easy.

Some of Jesus’s disciples were arguing with one another along the way about which among them was the greatest. Basically, they were all trying to figure out how they were going to get the others to serve them. That’s what jockeying to be the greatest is all about: figuring out how to get others to work for you. Maybe Jesus got frustrated and wondered: is there ever a time when you people can just love something and serve something without expecting an immediate payback? Is there ever a time when you can just love someone and know that there’s gonna be a whole lotta work before they can ever do much for you? Is there ever a time when humans see each other the way that God sees them? I imagine that it was just about that time that a baby in the room started fussing and screaming. Now the gospel doesn’t say this, it just says that Jesus took a child in his arms, you probably imagined when you heard that that the little child was cute and asleep and precious, but I’d be willing to bet (or at least I hope) that he or she was screaming his or her little head off, because that would really have driven Jesus’s point home. Jesus takes this precious, beloved, and useless, child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” It is one thing to love someone when they can serve you; but it is another thing entirely when you have to serve them. It is also one thing to follow Jesus when you have much to gain; and quite another thing to follow him when you have much to lose.

Distractions

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Sermon for September 12th, 2021

Readings:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

When we hear Jesus rebuke Peter in this familiar passage from the gospel story, I think that we are often inclined to focus on the first thing that Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!” It is a stinging slap in the face. Peter makes a mistake by trying to tell Jesus that he is wrong. Now, as an aside, please don’t make the same mistake. If you disagree with the Son of God about something, it’s because you’re wrong, not him. 

Anyways, at least Peter tries to correct Jesus privately, but Jesus responds by very publicly by saying “get behind me Satan.” I’m sure that Peter was a little shaken up by this. It would grab your attention too. But the real meat of what Jesus has to say is in the second part there. This isn’t just about name calling, Jesus has a point to make. “For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” That is what Satan does. He doesn’t run around with a pitchfork playing pranks on people, making children levitate and spit pea soup. That’s Hollywood. The real Satan is usually much more subtle, and all he needs to do is just refocus your attention. He sets out minds solely on human things. He doesn’t want us to stop and recognize that God is all around us. There are divine things all around us, only we often don’t see them because other things are taking up all our attention. Jesus needs to get Peter’s attention to make him see that.

Now we don’t need to pick on Peter too much here, because the truth is, he is just a human like any one of us. We all make the same mistakes every day. We can claim Jesus to be the Messiah and then turn right around and try to avoid actually following him, at least if we think it means we are going to have to suffer a little. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not terribly fond of suffering. I like to avoid it if I can. And you know what, it is also really, really easy to get completely distracted by human things. Air conditioners break, refrigerators break, maybe your boss is being a jerk, maybe you have screaming kids, bills to pay, the Long Island Railroad is late again, some relation of yours is saying something stupid on Facebook, this beloved child of God in the car in front of you is looking at their phone while the light has turned green…don’t get too mad at Peter for getting distracted from God, because it is something we all do, even the most devoted among us. All these human things scream for our attention. The media will do or say anything to get or keep your attention. Billions of dollars are spent by companies every year to get your attention, that is how much your attention is worth. Our attention it is one of the most precious things we have, and yet how often do we just give it away to things that aren’t worthy of it? How much time and energy do we spend focused on things that aren’t going to matter six months from now? The Son of God wants to get Peter’s attention, so he has to make it very clear to him just how distracting these human things can be, and he needs to make it clear who those distractions serve. Distractions don’t serve God.

We are beginning a new program year today; we are bringing back the choir; we are bringing back the Sunday School; we are having a party for the first time in almost two years. We are trying to move on with our communal life, despite the fact that we are still dealing with covid. So I have been reflecting on what our mission is here as a parish. All churches are called to spread the good news, to share the Gospel story of Jesus Christ, to worship God and to serve God’s people in their community, but not all churches and not all communities are the same. What do the people in this community need? Yes, there certainly are people in our community that need food or other assistance and we do try to address that, at least in a small way, through grocery store gift cards, or through the food that is donated to the Mary Brenan INN. We do that, and I thank all of you who generously give to support that, those outreaches are necessary, but I wouldn’t say that is the greatest need of this whole community. This isn’t an urban area or an area with great poverty. It exists here, but it isn’t the thing I see most when I look at the activity right outside our doors. Yes, there is physical poverty in our community, but the bigger issue that I see is spiritual poverty. Distraction.

How many people every day walk right past our doors? They couldn’t find time to pray this morning, but somehow managed to wait 20 minutes to get a coffee next door. On the train, off the train, on the train, off the train…day in, day out. Redecorate the house, try to get that promotion, or that car, maybe find some time to gather with friends at a local watering hole, but mostly just chasing after something, although they’re just not sure what. Distraction, distraction, distraction. Well to quote the great Peggy Lee song: Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life? Just one never-ending stream of distractions and frustrations and acquisitions until you die? 

Well, no. That is not all there is. In the midst of all these distractions, in the midst of all these human things, there is God. God’s kingdom is in this world too, only most people are just too distracted to see it. Even those of us who are prepared to call Jesus the Messiah, we are still prone to getting distracted too. We all need to have our attention redirected back to divine things. So what do the people in this community need? They need someone to get their attention and to show them that there is more to life than all of these distractions. How do we do that? Well frankly I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think standing on the corner with a big sign that reads: “Get behind me Satan!” would be very productive, so we may need to be a bit more subtle than that, but we can’t be so discrete that people walk by and wonder if this is some kind of private club or secret society. We know that that isn’t what we are, but not everyone else does. We are people that have a story to tell. We are people that believe in the power of love and forgiveness, and we are people that believe in the resurrection of the dead. We are people that believe that in a world full of distractions, God wants our attention too. So we have a mission, here on this street corner, and it may not be exactly the same mission as it would be for a church in the inner city, or for that matter a church on a hill out in the country, but it is still the same Jesus that we are called to follow. It is the same God that wants our attention. He does not promise us that this will be an easy path following him, but he does promise that the rewards are eternal.

To live more nearly as we pray

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Sermon for September 5th, 2021

Readings:

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Some of you know that part of the focus of my doctoral work has been on the writings of a priest from the 19th century named John Keble. In addition to being a priest he was actually quite an accomplished poet in his day. One of his poems is a hymn in our hymnal, hymn number 10, New every morning is the love. The hymn ends with what I might call a burn. You know what a burn is; a burn is when you cleverly or subtly, or maybe not so subtly, call someone out on their behaviour, usually pointing out their hypocrisy, but do so in a way that is not mean spirited but loving. The words kinda burn a little. Now Keble was a Victorian, so he’s very subtle, but I think he makes a point if you are paying attention.

The hymn ends:

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Those words should sting just a little bit because of what they imply: we don’t always live as we pray. What we say we believe, or what we pray with our mouths does not always line up exactly with how we live our lives or what we demonstrate with our actions. Basically, Keble is saying that we are hypocrites, and his prayer in this line is “Lord, help us to be a little less hypocritical today.” Help us this day to live more nearly as we pray. 

Keble was not the first person to realize that Christians don’t always do a good job of living the faith that they proclaim. If you ever get frustrated with Church, the best thing you can do is go and read or study some of the epistles. You’ll learn really quickly that hypocrisy is nothing new. 

James does not mince words in his epistle this morning. 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

James throws the sermon on the mount right in people’s faces: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Did you believe Jesus when he said that? Is basically what James is asking. When Jesus says forgive, when he says love, when he says judge not…do you believe him? James is pointing out to folks that they aren’t living the way they pray. Their beliefs and their actions are not lining up. 

James finally comes to the ultimate question: if your faith doesn’t change your life and the way you live, then what good is it? What good is it to say that you follow Jesus if you never pay any attention to what he actually says? What good is it to say that you believe in a God of mercy if you never actually show mercy yourself? 

There is a difference for James between living faith and dead faith. A living faith is one that is truly aware of just how much grace and mercy we have received from God and is always prepared to show that grace and mercy to others, even if imperfectly. A living faith always seeks to draw nearer to Christ, each and every day. A living faith is a faith the desires to respond to what God has done. And dead faith? Well a dead faith is a lot like an honorary degree: it is a title without necessarily having the knowledge that should go along with it. Christians need to have a living faith, not just a title, a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. 

We Christians, we have some powerful beliefs and prayers, we have a high calling as followers of Jesus Christ, but we are also always at least a little prone to being hypocrites, every one of us. It is a part of the human condition and it has always been a part of life in the church. Don’t worry…if you keep reading scripture I promise you, Jesus or one of his apostles will call you out on it. Sooner or later, God will have a little burn for you, a loving reminder that you still need work too. We all need a lot of help in our day to day lives to actually follow Jesus and not just give lip service to being Christians. 

So Lord, 

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Dressed for battle

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Sermon for August 22nd, 2021

Readings:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

It is important to remember when you hear St. Paul speaking in his letter to the Ephesians, it is important to remember, that he is in prison. Paul got into trouble with some of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem for his preaching, he was arrested, and because he was a Roman citizen he requested and got a change of venue to Rome where he spent the last two years of his life imprisoned. So this man who fought with the Jewish authorities and was kept in chains by the Roman authorities, this man who we know suffered in his body, writes to the Christians in Ephesus and says:  

“our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Wait a sec…Paul, who is being physically held captive by the Romans, says that the struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh? You mean to tell me that Paul thinks that the real enemy is NOT the Romans or the Jews? Yes, I think that is precisely what Paul is saying. Our struggle, as Christians, as people who have allied ourselves with the son of God, is really against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, as Paul says, or the spiritual forces of evil. That is the real enemy: the powers of darkness and the forces of evil. Our struggle as Christians is with them. We may have physical enemies in this world, we may suffer and be oppressed, but those struggles are secondary to the spiritual struggle. We are easily distracted sometimes by the enemies of blood and flesh, but the bigger and more important battle is the spiritual one. Essentially what Paul is saying is that we should not get so distracted by these little side battles that we lose focus on the real war that is actually going on. But it is easy for us to get distracted, even for people of faith.

You know, there have been a lot of arguments in the past, especially among some historical and critical scholars of the bible over whether it was really the Romans or the Jewish Temple authorities that are really responsible for having Jesus crucified. But don’t you see, no matter which side of that argument you come down on, you are missing the real conflict that is happening here! This isn’t about a struggle between Jews and Romans. This is about the fight between good and evil. This is about the struggle between God and the forces of darkness. This is a spiritual battle that involves flesh and blood, but is about so much more than one man’s life. You know, when Jesus was arrested he said to those who were putting him in chains: “this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” The powers of darkness were responsible for having Jesus crucified, and yes it was darkness working with and through human beings, but don’t go thinking that you can just blame Pontius Pilate or Caiphas for this and let it go, like they are the only ones who ever leant the powers of darkness a helping hand. The spiritual battle that is happening on the cross affects all of us; we are all a part of it.

The crucifixion is a historical event, but the cross represents a battle that transcends place and time as we know it. The cross is about the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, good and Evil, or God and Satan that is taking place in every age, in every country and society, and even within every person. The cross is about a struggle that is happening right now in all of our lives, and I will let you in on a little secret or insight…if you look at the cross…without the eyes of faith or the knowledge of God’s power, if you look at this symbol and don’t know what happened three days later, if you don’t know about Easter, then it is always going to look like the darkness is winning. Always. 

But what if you do know how the story ends? What if you knew that this man was victorious in this fight? What if this is a reminder to you that in this cosmic battle between light and darkness that evil only ever appears to have the upper hand, but in the end is always defeated and thrown down and trampled underfoot by God? Could that change how you live? Could that give you some perspective on who the real enemy is in this world and which battles are more important? Would that change how you look at suffering?

Well it did for Paul. Paul could sit in prison and realize that his real struggle wasn’t with his captors. His real struggle was with darkness. The powers of darkness. That is how Paul, earlier in his ministry when he had found himself in jail was able to minister to and even convert his jailor. As much as he was being oppressed by this man, Paul knew that he wasn’t the real enemy. And here’s the other thing Paul knew, Paul knew that you don’t have to be sitting in a jail cell to be struggling with those forces of evil. Everyone is assaulted by them. It may come in different forms, but man or woman, young or old, rich or slave, we are all going to have to struggle with evil in some form. So what is the best way to fight it? What is the best way to defend ourselves against the real enemy in this world? Well, first off, make sure you are dressed for battle. Paul gives the Christians in Ephesus some very practical advice by way of a metaphor: put on the whole armor of God. Paul encourages these Christians to think about spiritual weapons like pieces of a soldier’s armor:

He says fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Lies only serve the devil. Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus said I am the truth. Remember that the person in the gospel that questions the importance of truth is Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus to be executed. Truth is a spiritual weapon.

And the next is righteousness. Paul says “put on the breastplate of righteousness.” Now I hasten to add here that Paul is not talking about self-righteousness; he’s not talking about being puffed up and conceited and arrogant. Paul is talking about guarding your hearts, like a breastplate, with the motivation of goodness. Are you seeking righteousness? Not have you lived perfectly, but are you trying to do the right thing in all your actions? Are you seeking to live a moral life? Do you believe that right and wrong truly exist? That is righteousness.

The next thing Paul says is you need shoes that will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Telling other people about the peace that only comes from knowing God; telling the gospel story, telling people how this really ends, that is a powerful weapon.

But of course, Christians need to be prepared for the resistance that the darkness is going to throw back at them. The devil isn’t going quietly, so you need a shield of faith, a helmet of the knowledge of your salvation, and a sword that is the word of God. Knowing the word, reading the word, listening to God speak through the word that is your best defense against the powers of darkness in this world. Just be sure that you have a good grip on it and aren’t just dabbling in verses here and there, because you know, the devil can quote scripture too.

Finally, Paul adds, pray. Pray at all times. Yes, there is real physical work to be done, but it must always be accompanied before and behind with prayer. Prayer is a powerful reminder that no matter what our circumstances are, the real battle that we are fighting is a spiritual one, and therefore we need to make sure that we are properly equipped with spiritual weapons. 

Now maybe you don’t like Paul’s militaristic metaphor and imagery, maybe it makes you a little uncomfortable, but when I look at the world around me, when I reflect on what is going on in the lives of the people I know, and when I think of what has happened in my own life, the only conclusion that I can come to is that spiritual warfare is real. Yeah, we all have some material and physical problems from time to time, maybe even all the time, but our real problems are the spiritual problems. Yes, the enemies of flesh and blood can hurt us, but that kind of pain and oppression is nothing compared to despair, or hopelessness, or anger, or hatred. So fight the spiritual battles first. 

Every day there is a spiritual victory to be had. Every day there is joy to be had, and hope and grace and love to be shared. Every day there is a reason to give thanks to God. If you know how this story ends, then you have a reason to rejoice today, no matter what enemies of flesh and blood you may have. But remember that there is nothing the devil wants more than to so consume you and distract you with what he is doing, that you lose all sight of what God is doing. Satan wants you to be so obsessed with all the pain and suffering in this world that you feel guilty for even being happy. The devil wants you to be so overwhelmed by all the junk you see that you just want to give up and give in. That is the spiritual battle that we are fighting every day in our world and in ourselves. But as our final hymn today confidently proclaims: “Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise.” Nothing threatens the devil more than joyful, thankful Christians. We are not phony or blind to the suffering in the world, but we know that there is victory beyond it. We can be joyful, even when getting dressed for daily spiritual battles, because we already know how the war ends.

Onward, then, ye people,
join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices
in the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor,
unto Christ the King;
This thro’ countless ages
we with angels sing.