Accept No Substitutes

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Sermon for September 16th, 2018

Readings:

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

My apologies, but there is no audio file this week due to a technical problem.

I was skimming through my regular online news magazines this week when I came across an article that had a headline that was just too good; I had to read it:

Goat yoga is a poor substitute for religious observance.

Who wouldn’t want to read that? Well as it turns out, the author, who is Jewish, was lamenting the fact that many reformed or liberal synagogues, in an attempt to lure young people to worship, had begun promoting these “non-traditional” services. Many of these services were shaped around one or more political themes or incorporated elements of ritual such as glow sticks or goat yoga (whatever that is) into their celebration of the high holy days. The author, who I hasten to point out is very young, younger than me probably, was responding to an article that he saw in the Wall Street Journal describing these synagogues. He also very rightly pointed that many liberal churches have resorted to similar tactics to try and draw in new members.

Well as soon as I clicked away from that article to take a scroll through my Facebook feed, I saw an online video posted by a friend of an interfaith service at an Episcopal Cathedral in another diocese, with giant tree people processing down the aisle (if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy, they all looked like Groot). I thought to myself: “Oh Lord, Have mercy.” But I wasn’t surprised. It’s the kind of stunt I have come to expect from some of our churches, and I understand why some churches do it. It’s because actual religious observance can be a really hard sell sometimes. Stunts are more exciting than regular prayer and scripture study, and they usually get you more free publicity.

It isn’t always easy to get the average person on the street excited about fasting, or daily prayer, prayer that is about giving honor to God and not just petitioning him for something. It is so much easier to get people worked up over the latest political buzzword or scandal than it is to get them to be actually in love with God. People will use Jesus’s name to try to promote their own agendas; they will follow him if they are convinced that he is headed in the direction that they already want to go, but convincing people to listen to him simply because he is he Messiah, the son of God, that’s a lot harder.

But here is what the author of the goat yoga article points out: those churches and synagogues that are resorting to stunts and that only find purpose in political activism, they are in fact struggling to survive. Many of these publicity stunts and liturgical theatrics are being done as an act of desperation; they are being done because those communities desperately want to seem relevant to the world outside; they desperately want to be the cool kids on the block.

Well, here is what I remember from school: the cool kids were never the ones that desperately wanted to be your friend no matter what; the real cool kids, the ones people really did want to be friends with were the ones who had this quiet confidence in themselves; they were the ones who did their own thing and didn’t feel the need to be popular. Desperation to be popular is never a good look on anybody. It’s not a good look on a religious community either. Stunts may attract attention, but it is actual religious devotion and observance that gains followers.

It is easy to appeal to people’s worldly interests in an attempt to bring them in to church, but in the end if the church isn’t directing their thoughts and their devotion toward God, then what do people need it for? People may show up to a stunt out of curiosity, and they may get worked up over one particular cause or another, but we humans, we can’t stay angry or excited all the time. When the stunt is over and we have moved on to the next crisis or cause, where is the room for God in our lives then?

There was a professor of Jewish Mysticism, Abraham Heschel, who said: “religion is an answer to ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.” If you just want to hang out with people that vote the way you do, you don’t need to come to church. If you just want to make a difference in this world, I could direct you to any number of institutions that do a better job than we do; but, if what you desire is to live in relationship with the creator of this world; if it is the answers to ultimate questions that you seek, that is when religion has the answer; that is when the Church has the answer.

Peter had the answer.

When Jesus asked him “who do you say that I am?” Peter had the right answer.

“You are the messiah,” he said. And he was right. But the moment Peter heard that this would mean Jesus’s suffering and rejection, he didn’t want to hear anymore. Peter wanted Jesus to be a solution to his problems, he didn’t want him to add to them. Peter didn’t want to see Jesus die, and he certainly didn’t want to face death himself. Peter rebukes Jesus; he pulls him aside and he probably said to him: “look Jesus, nobody is going to want to follow us if you keep on talking this way. You need to change your message and focus on the issues that they are concerned about.”

Jesus’s response to Peter stings: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Had anyone else said those words to Peter, he probably would have just walked away; he could have gone home and gone on pursuing his own interests and causes, but because those words came from Jesus, he couldn’t. As strong as Jesus’s rebuke was, Peter can’t just turn and leave. He stays and he follows, because he recognizes that this man is the messiah. Maybe this messiah isn’t telling him what he wants to hear, but his devotion and love for him won’t let him walk away. He has a relationship with the son of God, and that in the end means more to him than a simple solution to any of his problems. It means more to him than just being right about one issue or another.

Peter would go on to do amazing things in this world. He heals the sick, is a powerful preacher, he helps to organize the early Christian communities and founds probably the most powerful organization in the history of the world; he is able to do all of this because he was willing to put his devotion to Jesus, before his own sense of self-righteousness. He was able to hear Jesus’s rebuke and not turn away. He was able to let Jesus change him and his way of thinking.

Devotion to God should absolutely affect the way we look at and treat the world he created. Our love for God should absolutely influence our love for our neighbors. The Epistle of James was spot on last week when he questioned if the community was really devoted to Jesus if they were willing to ignore what he said and taught, but the ability to recognize that Jesus has the answers to the small questions, the ability to recognize his authority, comes from recognizing, like Peter, that he is the answer to the big question; the ultimate question.

Causes and stunts can never and will never be a substitute for genuine religious observance and devotion, because genuine religious observance and devotion are an answer to the ultimate question. They are what allow God to change us and shape us and to live in relationship with us. You can go and feel self-righteous anywhere, but here, in church, our challenge is to know and appreciate the righteousness of God. Our challenge is to follow Jesus so closely, and with such respect, that when he inevitably rebukes us for setting our mind not on divine things, but on human things, our love for him will not let us walk away.

Stunts and gimmicks may get you attention, but when it comes to making followers of Jesus Christ, there is no substitute for genuine devotion.

 

Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

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Sermon for September 9th, 2018

Readings:

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

Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

 

There is a reason why the man that Jesus heals in the Gospel this morning is both deaf and mute: it is because our ability to speak and our sense of hearing are tied together. We learn how to speak by listening and by mimicking, repeating the things we hear. Children that are born deaf often have great difficulty learning how to speak. They can learn, but it isn’t easy because we learn how to speak by listening to others and repeating the sounds they make. That is why we have regional accents; we repeat sounds and we pronounce words the way that we hear others speaking. Before we know how to speak we must first know how to listen.

 

When Jesus heals the man in today’s gospel, first he touches his ears, then he touches his tongue. And Jesus says: “be opened,” and his ears are opened, and then his tongue is released.

 

Before the man is able to speak, he must first be able to listen.

 

That’s the way we are designed, but isn’t it interesting how often we try to make it work the other way? As babies we listen first and then we speak, but at some point along that journey to adulthood we decide that we no longer need to listen anymore. If we are polite we might wait for our turn to speak, but how often are we actually actively listening to what others say? How often are we just waiting for someone to finish talking so we can say what we want to say? Sometimes we do listen, in our finer moments, I will grant you that, but I think it’s a dying art. And if we can’t listen or don’t listen, or can’t hear, how can we expect to have our own words understood? How can we expect to know what to say? How can we expect to be heard even when we do speak? We need to learn how to listen first.

 

You may be wondering about the end of our gospel passage today: when Jesus tells the disciples that witnessed this miracle not to speak. That might seem odd to you, because didn’t this same Jesus send his disciples out into the world, commanding them to make disciples of all nations and to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth? Aren’t we supposed to be evangelists; sharing the news of Jesus with the world? Why would Jesus tell them to be silent?

 

Well it’s true, eventually Jesus does commission his disciples to be evangelists to the world, but early on in his ministry, time and time again he tells them not to start preaching yet; not to tell others what they have seen. Christians have scratched their heads at those comments for years, but I think Jesus recognizes something very important: that his disciples are human with very human flaws, one of which is that the moment we start talking we stop listening. Jesus has more to share with his disciples; he has more to teach them; there is so much more about God that they need to learn and understand. If they start running around telling the world about the one thing they saw Jesus do, they are likely to miss everything else that he is saying and doing. There will come a day when Jesus will send them out into the world to preach and proclaim, but first they must listen. When Jesus was teaching his disciples, he repeatedly says to them: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” and “pay attention to what you hear!”

 

Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

 

Of course, they don’t listen to him. They are so intent on sharing this great story, that they can’t even hear his command not to tell. And while what they say is true, he does make the deaf to hear and the mute to speak, that is not the beginning and end of his ministry. Jesus’s life was about so much more than just a few miracles and healings. But the disciples weren’t ready to listen, or they thought that they were done listening.

 

Part of being a person of faith, part of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, is sharing that faith with others. It is not just the clergy that are charged with sharing the Good News, all of us are, but that is incredibly intimidating for some people. Talking about God or talking about our faith can be a very scary thing, so we shy away from it. We find ways to avoid it. We don’t know what to say; but I think we learn to talk about our faith the same way we learn to talk period, by listening.

 

Yes, I may spend a few (and it really is only a few) minutes each week talking about God, but if I didn’t spend a considerable amount of time listening to God every day, I don’t think I would have much to say. I couldn’t do this. Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

 

And there are many ways in which we may listen to God; it can’t just be an hour on Sunday morning, it needs to be all the time. Most importantly we listen to God through daily prayer and scripture reading; but there are other important ways as well: through spending quiet time alone; through observing nature; through listening, actually listening to the stories of others; through reading the profound thoughts of the saints and sages through the ages that have spent their lives listening to God. We need to be willing to listen to God first, even if what he has to say to us is hard to hear.

 

And that means learning to hear, to listen to the tough words of God too. If we close our ears when we hear Jesus say something that makes us uncomfortable, like his initial refusal to the woman in today’s gospel, then we will also miss him saying “the demon has left your daughter.” If we close our bibles when we read something like the Epistle of James that convicts us all of sin, then we will also miss the message that our sins have been forgiven. If we stop praying when we encounter the words “we are not worthy” then we will also fail to proclaim that our Lord’s property is “always to have mercy.” When we learn to listen to all that God has to say to us, the good and the bad, what a story we will have to tell.

 

God will not tell you that you are always deserving; he will not tell you that you are always good; he will not tell you that you are always right.

But here’s what he will tell you: he’ll tell you that you are healed; he’ll tell you that you are forgiven; he’ll tell you that you are loved. But in order to hear that, we must be willing to listen to him, even when he challenges us.

 

There is a world out there that needs to hear about the faith we have, and we need to learn how to tell it, but before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

Lord, lay your hands upon us and open our ears before you release our tongues, so that when we do speak, we actually have something to say.

We do not lose heart – Beverly Lewis Memorial

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Sermon delivered at the funeral of longtime Ascension parishioner Beverly Lewis

We do not lose heart.

That is what Saint Paul said to the Corinthians. In moments of pain, in times of suffering, when we groan under our burdens, when the world presses us down, when we are afflicted, when our bodies fail us and we struggle for every breath…we do not lose heart.

We do not lose heart, because as Christians we know that God has planted something within our hearts that cannot be destroyed. There is something within us that is not completely at home here in the world. There is something within us that is more powerful than death. We do not lose heart because God’s love is within our hearts and God’s love never fails; God’s love is never broken. God’s love never gets tired.

Paul goes on to say in his letter that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” To be in Christ, to invite Christ into your heart and to unite yourself to his body, is to be eternally new; reborn with a life that belongs to God; redeemed with a heart that is restless, as Saint Augustine says, until it rests in him.

 

We do not lose heart, even when we must say goodbye to someone we love so dearly, but our hearts do ache. Even when we know and have faith that we are only saying goodbye for a season; even when we are confident that this person has been made new in Christ and is going from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in God’s heavenly kingdom…our hearts still ache.

 

It is on days like today when I am reminded of how important hymns are to our life of faith. Beverly was a great lover of music and I think she would have understood how music can speak to our souls in ways that the spoken word just can’t. In particular the hymns of our faith, many of which I would argue are divinely inspired, they can give us the words to express the hope and the sorrow that we feel on days like today. Sometimes they give us an image, a glimpse into heaven, where we can imagine the glory that awaits us there.

 

In a few minutes you are going to be asked to open your hymnals and sing one such hymn: at the offertory we will stand to sing hymn number 657, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. It is one of the triumphs of Charles Wesley first published in 1747. But I want you to really hear the words that you will be singing. I want you to see the image that Charles Wesley is painting.

 

First he begins by asking that love of God which comes from heaven; that love which was incarnate in Jesus Christ to enter into our hearts:

 

Love Divine, all love excelling,
Joy of heav’n, to earth come down;
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

 

Then Charles invites us to look up and to long for that day when Christ will return, when he will raise the dead to life, set the world right, and where we will join the heavenly host in a life of unending praise:

 

Come, Almighty, to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
suddenly return, and never
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

 

But it is the last verse in this hymn that really gets me. It asks God to finish the new creation that he began when he first entered our hearts:

 

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

 

What an image. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. Where we will cast our crowns down at the feet of God; where our earthly riches and accomplishments will mean nothing to us, compared to an eternity of basking in wonder, love and praise. As family and friends and loved ones, we mourn today for Beverly, but our faith reminds us that Christ has placed a new life within us, a life that death cannot conquer, and that someday we too can join Beverly in that heavenly choir, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Such a wonderful hymn, but there is an extra verse that isn’t in our hymnal. I discovered it this past week as I was reviewing this hymn and I instantly thought: “ah! That’s Beverly!”

 

You see, on my last few visits with Beverly, she struggled to breathe. Her illness made her short of breath and dependent on oxygen, but still even with the struggle she had such a light within her. She always had that wonderful smile. In the time that I have known Beverly, even through her struggles to care for Rodger, she always had this spirit within her. Looking at some of her old pictures, I still see that spirit, that light in her smile. And then I think of what obstacles she must have encountered in her life. How much did she have to overcome? How far did she come and bring her family with her? Where did she find that strength? Now I should add that if you followed Beverly on Facebook then you know that she wasn’t always upbeat about politics, but still she had strength and determination. When I read this missing verse, I thought “yes, this is a prayer for Beverly,” maybe it is a prayer for all of us.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

 

Whom shall we serve?

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Sermon for August 26th, 2018

Readings:

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

The first five books in our Bible, as many of you know, are known as the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (they are also known as the Torah or the Pentateuch). Although Leviticus and Numbers can be something of a tough read, I’m willing to bet that most of you have some familiarity with the stories in Genesis and Exodus. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, and of course Moses leading the Children of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land; these stories are a familiar part of our faith and even our Western culture. Movies, musicals and countless works of priceless art have been crafted around these stories.

 

The Book of Joshua, which we read today, is a continuation of the story after the death of Moses. It details the events that happened to the Children of Israel once they arrived in the Promised Land. It is the “now what?” book, if you will. In other words: now that you have witnessed God’s salvation, now that you have been delivered from slavery and death, now that you have reached the promised land…now what? How are you going to live from this point forward? That is really the question that Joshua wants to ask the assembly in the part that we just heard this morning that comes from the very end of the Book of Joshua.

 

And just before Joshua asks this all-important question (in the part of the story that we didn’t read today), Joshua retells almost the entire story of the Children of Israel’s deliverance. Beginning the Abraham, Joshua reminds them how every step of the way God was with them. Joshua reminds them of how God sent Moses and Aaron and the plagues, and how he had delivered them from the Egyptians, through the Red Sea, fed them in the desert, led them through the Jordan, and allowed them to take possession of the Promised Land. Joshua reminds them of what God had done for them, and then he asks them: whom are you going to serve?

 

Well of course the people say: we will serve the Lord! How could we not?! They were just reminded of what God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had done for them; how could they possibly even consider serving any other gods? Well this sounds great; They made a good good decision; now on to living a blessed life in the Promised Land, right? Public affirmation of faith made, now on with their lives.

 

Well Joshua was smart, because after the whole community promised that they would follow the God of Israel and no other, after they promised that they would serve the Lord, he not only wrote it down, he also set up a large stone in that place as an ongoing reminder, or memorial, of the promise they had made. Joshua was justifiably a bit skeptical of how capable these people were going to be of keeping and remembering this promise. No doubt, because Joshua remembered just how easy it was for the Children of Israel to forget what God had done for them. Think back to the Exodus story for a moment. How many wonders had the Hebrews seen by the time they reached the Red Sea? And still the Children of Israel complained against Moses and wanted to turn back. Then after they had been led safely to the other shore, been miraculously fed in the desert, and made it to the foot of Mount Sinai, how long did it take them to grow impatient, forget the miracles they had just witnessed and turn to worshipping other Gods? Not very long. Joshua knew that these people would need to be reminded, and reminded frequently, of what God had done for them, because he knew that the temptation to turn to other gods is always present. And we are always liable to succumb to it. At some point we are bound to, and we will always be in need of something to draw us back to the worship of the true God.

 

I don’t think human nature has really changed one bit since Joshua’s time. We are still always being tempted to serve other gods. We still forget what our God has done for us; we grow impatient and before we know it we start looking to other gods for answers; we start serving other gods. It’s easy for us to do too, because we don’t call our gods by proper names anymore, we don’t even think of them as gods, so we don’t realize that we are worshipping or serving an idol; we don’t think that we have turned away from our God, we might even convince ourselves that we are serving the true God when we serve one of these idols, but I wonder sometimes, I really do.

 

Think of all the –isms in our world that people are attached to (or have been attached to): nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, liberalism, conservatism, capitalism…some of these start out as great ideas or good things, but once they move from being an idea to an ideology; once they become something we are devoted to; when they are no longer a means to an end but the end itself…that is when they become a false idol. They become another god that we are serving. We gradually forget the true God. We forget what he has done for us. We forget the promises that were made. We all do it. All the time. These other gods have a very sneaky way of distracting us, dividing us, and drawing us further and further away from the God that actually has the power to save us.

 

We humans are weak. Our God is a jealous God; he wants us to love and serve him only; but he knows that we are weak. He knows that we are constantly being tempted to forget his mercies and strength; we are constantly being tempted to serve other gods. So time and time again, God establishes rituals and prayers and he sends leaders and prophets like Joshua to remind the community and to build physical reminders of God’s presence in our midst. There is a reason why Jesus in his Last Supper commanded his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” It is because God knows how easy it is for us to forget. He knows that we need constant, daily reminders of what he has done. That is why the creed is so important, and the scriptures are so important; That is why many of our prayers, including the prayers we say at the altar, don’t just ask God to do things, but also retell the story of what he has already done; We need these reminders. We need them because each and every day we are faced with the same question that Joshua put to the Children of Israel; each day, each moment we have to decide whom we shall serve.

When God shows us who he is, will we believe him?

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Sermon for August 19th, 2018

Readings:

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

There is a great quote that I love from Dr. Maya Angelou where she says: “If someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

 

What she meant, I think, was that people (intentionally or unintentionally) people reveal themselves to you. People show you their character; sometimes people own up to their own personality flaws, but in different ways, people show you who they are. You should believe them. You should believe them the first time they show you.

 

How many times have we gotten a glimpse of someone’s character and said to ourselves: “Oh, No! This person can’t really be that way. I must have just caught them on a bad day. She can’t really be that negative; He can’t really be abusive?” How many times do we try to justify someone else’s behavior, just so that we don’t have to believe what they have just shown us? We try to convince ourselves that this little character flaw was just an anomaly. How many times have people told us something about themselves and we just dismissed it, thinking that we know them better than they do?

 

Dr. Angelou’s advice is: don’t do that. You don’t have to figure everything out the hard way. Some things are revealed to you from the beginning. You don’t have to suffer or struggle for the information, it’s right there. You just have to decide to believe it, or not. You just have to decide what you are going to do with that piece of knowledge. It doesn’t mean that you are unforgiving to people, or that you head for the door the first time you see something in someone’s character that you don’t like. What it means is that you keep your eyes open. It means that you do not ignore or forget the information that has been revealed to you.

 

That, I think, is wisdom. I’m willing to bet that it was wisdom she learned the hard way, but it’s wisdom nonetheless. I am grateful to her for sharing that bit of wisdom with the world, because for those who have the power to receive it, and to believe it, that little piece of wisdom could spare them a lot of grief and heartache. That’s what wisdom does: wisdom wants to help us; to save us from suffering and pain and from making the same mistakes over and over again. Wisdom wants to bless our lives by giving us directions and insights. They can be simple, mundane things, or they can be incredibly profound. Wisdom is all around us, but how often do we ignore it?

 

How many times do we say to ourselves: that can’t be right…I think I know better? Why is it that we insist on going through life learning things the hard way?

 

Our Old Testament passage today comes from the Book of Proverbs. We don’t get readings from Proverbs all that often in our Sunday Lectionary and it’s a shame really, because Proverbs is full of wisdom. In fact, in our passage today, wisdom is personified very creatively as a woman. What kind of woman is she, you may ask? Well she is the kind of woman that after doing all the work herself: building her house, slaughtering her animals, making her wine and cooking her meal, she is the kind of woman that after doing all of that says to the simple people outside: “come.” She says: “Come in here and rest. Sit here and eat and drink, because I’ve already done all the work for you.” She doesn’t say: “No! This is mine. I worked for this and you can’t have it!” She says: “Don’t toil and struggle to do it all yourself: look! My table is already set, you just have to stop trying to do it your own way, and you can dine with me.” That is what kind of woman wisdom is. She wants others to benefit from the work that she has done.

 

And yet, people still reject her offer. People don’t like believing or trusting in things that are revealed to them. For some reason, it’s like we want to learn things the hard way or not at all. We seem to think that the only truths that are really true are the ones that we have discovered, or fought for, or suffered to find out ourselves. But here right in the middle of our Bible is this image of God, divine wisdom saying: “this doesn’t have to be as hard as you are making it. Let me tell you some things about life, and now that you’re listening, let me tell you some things about myself.”

 

It occurs to me that just as we are inclined to ignore the bad things that people reveal to us, we are also inclined to ignore the good things that God reveals to us. We don’t believe people when they show us who they are, that is why Maya Angelou’s advice is so important: because we should. But I also think that many times we don’t believe God, when he has shown us who he is. We think the only things worth believing are the things we found out ourselves, but that’s not wisdom.

 

Do you remember the Greek myth about Prometheus? He was the great hero of humanity that had to sneak up to Mount Olympus to steal fire from the Gods, and was punished severely for taking this divine light and bringing it down to mankind. He suffered but was celebrated as the great hero, because he had done it, he had found the precious fire of the Gods and brought it down to Man. That was the Greek myth.

 

Now look at what our scriptures are saying: our God, the true God, he’s not coveting, our hiding his fire; he’s not keeping his divine light away from humanity; he’s giving it to us…freely. We don’t have to climb up the mountain, he has already come down to us, and what he brought us, it wasn’t just light, or fire, or insight or wisdom…he brought us his own life and offers it to us. That’s a very different story.

 

We Christians are people who believe in revelation. Our God reveals himself to us; we don’t have to find him. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in every generation. We don’t have to discover God on our own, because he has been revealing himself since the beginning of time. He reveals himself in the wonders of nature, and in miracles that defy nature; he reveals himself in the prophets and sages that were inspired to write and compile our scriptures; he reveals himself in tradition; he reveals himself most supremely and fully in the life of Jesus Christ; a life that was first revealed to a little Jewish girl saying her prayers; a life that we all partake in when he again reveals himself in the breaking of bread, and in our prayers.

 

We do not have to find God. He has already found us. His wisdom is inviting us into her house. Are we prepared to take Dr. Angelou’s advice to the next level?

 

When God shows us who he is, will we believe him?

Beautiful, useless things…

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There is a beautiful little box that sits on my desk. It was a birthday gift from my husband. On the lid is a painting of the church where I was ordained and on the inside there is a lovely photograph of the altar. It is a work of art and it is precious, but it is just big enough to hold my rosary. For all intents and purposes, it is completely useless, and that is exactly why I wanted it.

I think it is time that we started defending and treasuring beautiful, useless things.

I learned so much from the rector of this parish during my brief time there as a young priest, but of all the things he taught me, the lesson that has endured the most is that beautiful things are to be treasured, simply because they are beautiful.

Little painted ceramic boxes, baroque vestments, ornate reliquaries, classical mass settings…these things have value simply because they are beautiful. God delights in beauty…after all, he invented it.

We live in a world where usefulness is an idol. We are taught to value things, even people, by their usefulness. What can I DO with this? Is this thing or person good FOR something?

I do it to myself all the time. I am never happier than when I have had a productive day. I love to feel useful and when I don’t, my self-worth suffers greatly. I regularly fall into the trap of making usefulness my greatest good. I think we all do from time to time.

Even the Church is guilty. I can’t tell you how many Diocesan functions I have been to where a parish’s value has been directly tied to how useful it is to the local community. We are taught over and over again that if we don’t provide some sort of service to society (whether it is a food pantry, a day school, or a shelter) then we don’t really have a reason to exist. We are told that our buildings are only valuable if they are useful.

But look at the world that is created when use means more to us than beauty:

We look at the mountains, and only see resources to be mined.

We look at empty land, and imagine how we might develop it.

We look at another person, and think of what they can do for us.

This is a world that has no use for the young or the elderly. This is a world that has no use for art and poetry. It’s a world that has no use for love. It’s a world that has no use for God.

I don’t want to live in that world.

This little box sits here on my desk as a constant reminder that I don’t have to live in that world.

I can live in a world filled with beautiful things that have value simply because they are beautiful, and for no other reason. I can live in world created by a God that delights in beauty. I can worship a God that creates beautiful things.

Maybe then I will be able to value myself, not for my usefulness, but simply because I am another beautiful thing that God created. Maybe I will be able to start seeing others that way too.

This little box and the little church painted on its lid remind me that there is something very holy about beauty. It cannot be used, only admired. It can only be loved, and nothing else. I wonder if God looks at us that way, like so many little beautifully painted boxes: something he has no actual use for, but delights in, simply because we are beautiful.

This little box also reminds me of the little alabaster jar that held the ointment Mary of Bethany used to anoint the feet of Jesus. The room was filled with the beautiful fragrance of that oil, but not all of the disciples appreciated it. “Couldn’t that costly ointment have been put to better use?” Judas asked. But Jesus defended the beautiful thing that she did for him. He could see the beauty in her devotion and she could see the beauty in his love.

Of course, as Christians we are called to care for God’s children in the world, but I do wonder sometimes if we are engaging in ministry because we recognize the beauty in others, a beauty we first saw in God; or are we simply trying to keep busy so that we feel useful? Are we worshiping the idol of usefulness and failing to raise our voices in praise of the God that loves beautiful, useless things?

In a world where ultimate sacrifices are made to the God of use and utility, don’t we have a calling to proclaim another way? Maybe a part of our calling as the Church, is treasuring the beautiful things that the world has no use for.

I think it is time that we started defending and treasuring beautiful, useless things.

The Voice in the Desert

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Sermon for August 12th, 2018

Readings:

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Elijah was one of the greatest prophets that the Israelites had ever known. Throughout the ages he has been revered by the Jewish people. Even today if you attend a Jewish Seder on Passover, you will likely find a chair and a cup reserved for Elijah. Elijah was so famous and important in Jesus’s day, that many people thought that Jesus was Elijah come again; some others thought that John the Baptist was Elijah come again. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, when Jesus’s appearance miraculously changes before the eye of Peter, James and John, It is Moses and Elijah that appear on either side of our Lord. So I don’t think that we can underestimate how important Elijah is to the history of our faith.

 

In the first Book of Kings, Elijah bursts onto the scene. We know very little about where he comes from or his background. What we know is that at that time the Kingdom of David had been split into two rival kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the North, where Elijah is working, and the Kingdom of Judah in the South. And the Kingdom of Israel, where Elijah is, was being led by a King named Ahab. Ahab had married a foreign princess named Jezebel, and instead of being faithful to his own God, the God of Israel, he had started to worship her God Baal. The prophets and priests of Baal were brought into the kingdom. Altars and shrines to Baal were setup, and the people began turning away from the God of Israel.

 

This troubles Elijah greatly, so he challenges the prophets of Baal to a public duel. He invites them to make a sacrifice to their God, Baal, to lay an animal on a pile of wood, but not to set fire to it. They should then call upon their God to ignite the offering. Elijah would do the same with his God, the God of Israel. The God that was able to send fire down upon the offering would indeed be the true God. Just to make sure there was no accusation of trickery, Elijah had water poured all over his sacrifice. The prophets of Baal tried their hardest, but alas, nothing happened to their offering. Elijah then cried out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and his sacrifice burst into flames. His God was proven to be the true God. The people were amazed and the prophets of Baal were put to death.

 

You could say that Elijah was amazingly successful. He had done a great thing for his God. He had made a name for himself as well, but his success would be short lived. Because Elijah had also made for himself a very powerful enemy. The Queen Jezebel did not take kindly to her prophets being bested and killed. She vowed to have Elijah killed. So Elijah has to go on the run. And this is where we find him in our reading this morning.

 

After a day’s journey in the wilderness, Elijah, who had just experienced a powerful miracle; saw the power of his God; had his ministry publicly affirmed, this same Elijah succumbs to one of the most painful human emotions: despair. Elijah is experiencing a setback. He had been victorious, now he is on the run. Perhaps he thought that his victory over the prophets of Baal would move him up the corporate ladder. Perhaps he thought that King Ahab would be grateful for his correction and would promote him to chief prophet. Perhaps he thought that once people witnessed the power of the God of Israel that they would be unlikely to backslide again. But now all of these dreams of Elijah came crashing down around him. His brief moment of victory had turned into a failure. He wants to die.

 

He says to God: “take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Think about what Elijah is really saying there: “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” In order for life to have meaning for Elijah, he needs to be better, or better off, than those that came before him; Elijah wants to be making continual, uninterrupted progress in his life. He wants to see his fame, and his ministry, and his 401k grow. He should be moving up the ladder, not running for his life. He shouldn’t be worse off than his ancestors. Elijah sees God’s blessing in progress. If he is not progressing, then he just doesn’t want to go on. God might as well take away his life.

 

And then an angel visits him, touches him and simply says: “Get up and eat.” And there was food. Elijah ate and went back to sleep. The angel touched him again: “Get up and eat. You are going to need food for this journey.” So Elijah eats again. And the food gives him the strength to keep wandering in the desert for forty days. And eventually Elijah comes to Mount Horeb, the mount of God, and he hears God speak to him: “What are you doing here Elijah?”

 

And Elijah says to God: “I have tried to serve you, but I have failed. The people just won’t listen, and now they are seeking my life.” And God says to him: “Go, stand on the mountain, and wait for me to pass by.” And Elijah goes and stands on the mountain. First there comes a great wind, but God was not in the wind. Then there was a great earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there came a great fire, but God was not in the fire. Then after the fire, a still small voice, almost like a profound silence. And Elijah knew that God was in that small voice, that silence, and he covered his face. And God asked him again: What are you doing here Elijah?”

 

And Elijah again said: “I have failed. I have tried to get your people to serve you, but they won’t listen and now they want to kill me.” And God says to him: “Go. Go back to the work you have been called to do, and on your way you are going to anoint new kings, and you are going to anoint a prophet to take your place when your time is over. I will take care of the rest.”

 

So Elijah goes back to his ministry, and back to calling people to faithfulness to the God of Israel, until the day that the Lord takes him home in glory. Then his junior Prophet, Elisha, picks up his mantle and carries on his work.

 

I have so much sympathy for Elijah sitting under that broom tree. It is so easy to get caught up in the idea of progress. It’s a great idea: if we work hard and do the right things that our lives will just get better and better. For some people that is what hope is all about: things just getting continually better.

 

The 20thcentury loved the idea of progress. One of the most popular pavilions at the 1964 World’s Fair was Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, where you go from one decade to the next in the 20thcentury and see how much better things kept getting. In between each scene they sing the song: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” I admit I love that ride, it’s still at Disney World and it is a classic, but I would be lying if I told you that I thought that’s what the world is like: things just getting better all the time. Perhaps that ride would be better suited to Fantasyland than Tomorrowland. No one can look at the 20thcentury and claim that it was a time of continual and uninterrupted progress, and I doubt that many of us could look at our own lives that way either. Life comes with ups and downs; it comes with successes and failures; progress is often followed by setback. If we think that God is only present in progress, then we are setting ourselves up for despair. Where was God when Elijah was running for his life? He was there feeding him in the desert; giving him the strength to endure his temporary exile. When Elijah’s efforts resulted in failure, what did God instruct him to do? Start over and make arrangements for the work to go on when your time is through.

 

Elijah’s ministry began with a tremendous success, and God showing himself in a spectacular public display of fire, but Elijah quickly learned afterwards that God is also present in the still, small voice, in the silence that can be found in the desert of despair.

 

Our hope as people of faith; our hope as Christians, is not that things are just going to keep getting better all the time; our hope is that even when times are bad, that God will feed us and sustain us; our hope is that even when we feel like we have failed, God will give us the grace to start again.