God is way ahead of you

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Sermon for December 9th, 2018

Readings:

None of the gospels begin with the birth of Jesus. You would think that the gospels, being the primary records we have of Jesus’s life and teachings would begin with his birth, but they don’t really…not exactly. So if you decide one day that you are going to sit down and open up your New Testament and learn all about this Jesus character that everyone keeps talking about, well 1, good for you, but 2, I want you to be prepared for what you are going to encounter before you get to the good stuff.

 

Let’s start from the beginning. The first book you will come to is Matthew. And Matthew begins by giving us Jesus’s family tree all the way back to Abraham.  That is just as exciting as it sounds. So-and-so begat so-and-so, one unpronounceable name after another, this is about as dry as it gets, and for many people who can’t get past the first 17 verses or so, they think that’s what the whole Bible is like. One unpronounceable name after another strung together like the lights on your Christmas tree. So maybe you decide not to give up, but you decide to move on, and see if the next guy has a catchier opening.

 

So you turn to Mark:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

And you think: “finally, and author who gets straight to the point! Now I am going to learn about Jesus.”

 

“As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, see I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…”

 

What is with this crazy John character? I want to read about what Jesus did and said, not this guy. He’s hardly respectable. His message isn’t that compelling. Jesus is supposed to be all about love, so why do we need to talk about all these people jumping into a river with this crazy man talking about all their sins? Do you mean to tell me in all of Israel these folks couldn’t find one good psychotherapist? That’s hardly believable! That’s what they need isn’t it? Just someone to tell them that they are OK just the way they are? So you think, I’m going to move on to the next guy and see if he gets to the point any faster..

 

So you turn to Luke.

 

Yada, yada, orderly account…in the days of King Herod of Judea (I know who he is) there was a priest named Zechariah…his wife was a descendant of Aaron. Wait, what is this about? I want to get to the bit where Linus talks about shepherds and angels and a manger. What is all this about a priest in the temple and his barren wife? Then you keep reading and think: wait a second this whole bit is about the birth of John the Baptist. Him again! Why can’t these authors just get to Christmas where Jesus is born and we all recognize him as the messiah, decide to start loving each other and live happily ever after? This book needs a better editor, because all this stuff about sin is never gonna sell.

 

What if I flip ahead a little…oh here is the birth of Jesus in chapter two. I’ll pick it up from chapter three, it should be good from here on out.

 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius pilate, names, names, names, the word of God came to JOHN son of Zechariah in the wilderness…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness….

 

This again! What was Luke just copying from the last guy? He must know that we want to read about Jesus, supposedly that’s why he wrote this gospel, so why is he talking about John and all this sin stuff? And why on earth do these guys keep dragging all that Old Testament stuff into this? Surely Jesus came to release us from all that?

 

So you give it one last try….the Gospel of John.

 

In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (A little fancy, but I will press on). There was a man sent from God whose name was JOHN!

Here we go again! I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord as the prophet Isaiah said.

 

They just won’t quit. These gospel writers keep insisting on talking about what God was doing before Jesus came into the picture, as if that was a part of the story. Why do Matthew, Mark and Luke and John keep talking about ancient history? Is that relevant?

 

Then John the Baptist, in John’s gospel says a very curious thing: “the one who comes after me, ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.” In other words the one whom I have been preparing the way for, has been a part of the story all along. He isn’t just following me. He came before me too. He has been a part of everything that came before…all of the preparation. The folks John is ministering to, they don’t know Jesus yet, but they know they need help. John knows that Jesus is getting them ready to meet him, and he has been since the beginning of time.

 

Maybe I can’t ignore what came before. Maybe God has always been in the preparation to meet him, as well as in the encounter. Part of that preparation is tedious. Part of it is painful. Part of that preparation involves looking at the ways and the places in our lives where we have failed. Part of it means accepting that we are not, have not been and will not be good enough. Part of the preparation to meet God, is first accepting that we need him. That on some level, we are helpless, like a little child. No matter where I turn in this book, the preparation is always a part of the story. Every author wants to show how God was preparing his people to meet him.

 

I must admit that whenever I hear “prepare the way of the Lord” my first thought is usually: “what must I do to prepare to meet God?” What must I do. And my mind starts to think: if I can just get my stuff together, if I can just pray the right prayers, or attend the right church, or give to the right cause, then then I will be prepared to meet God. Then God will come into my life. Then I will meet Jesus. Then I will know who he is.

 

But there is just one problem with thinking that way: it is built on the assumption that God is coming after me, or that God is waiting for me to make space for him before he comes into my life. But what if he’s not waiting. What if he is not following after me, but is way out in front? What if he is the one who is filling the valleys and making the mountains and hills low, so that the way is clear for him to come to me? What if I owe my salvation to a decision that God made, and not to one that I made? Maybe God is a part of the preparation.

 

Perhaps I need to start paying attention to what God has done to prepare me. Maybe I should look back on my past life and look at the ways that God used my bad decisions and my sinfulness and my brokenness and my helplessness to clear the way into my heart. Maybe I should look to the people whose lives and witness to God’s grace continually redirected me to a savior who loved me before I ever knew him.

 

This morning we are baptizing a child into this Christian faith. Cosette, whose name in French means ‘little thing,’ this little thing, this little child does not yet know who Jesus is. She doesn’t know the creed, she can’t say the Our Father, and she probably has not had any great epiphanies yet. She doesn’t even know what it means to sin, so how can she understand forgiveness? All that may be true. And part of your role as parents and god parents and family and friends and fellow Christians and members of the church is to make sure that she does know what God has done for her. You are to live lives and speak words that witness to God’s grace and God’s love, but part of the that message is that God isn’t waiting for her to get things right before he welcomes her into his family and into his kingdom.

 

The one thing little Cosette probably is aware of right now is that she is helpless. There is not much in this world that she can do for herself. She needs the help to come from outside. She needs love that comes from above. Maybe that is all that she really needs to know right now. Maybe knowing that we can’t do this on our own is all the preparation any of us really needs.

Stand up, Stand up for Jesus…

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Sermon for December 2nd, 2018

Readings:

 

 

I had a wonderful 5thgrade teacher named Mr. Boggs. Like most good teachers, Mr. Boggs could be a tad eccentric, and one of the things that he insisted on in his classroom, was that whenever an adult entered the room, the entire class was to stand at attention. Now I understand that this may have been common in an earlier age, but when I was in grade school, it was not. He is the only teacher I ever had that insisted upon this. We were the only class that did it.

 

It was a pretty simple rule actually. It didn’t matter what we were doing, what lesson was being taught, what story was being read, or what project or assignment we were working on; if an adult walked into the room, we were to stop, stand, and listen. And it didn’t matter if it was the principal, or the janitor; both were offered the same respect.

 

It was a quaint practice even at the time; I wonder if anyone still practices it. I suppose if you have served in the military, that it is rather the equivalent of your commanding officer entering the room and someone calling out “Attention!” You stop what you are doing, you stand, lift your head, look up and listen. Armies throughout the world and throughout history have taught their soldiers that practice. It makes sense for soldiers to be taught that kind of obedience. In a battlefield situation, things can change very quickly; you need soldiers that can refocus their attention and their priorities at a moment’s notice. Soldiers need to be able to respect authority and to take commands.

 

It may seem like an odd thing to ask of a bunch of 5thgraders though, but my teacher wanted us to learn respect and one of the most old-fashioned ways to show respect to someone is to stop what you are doing and stand. If you watch an old movie, you may notice that the gentlemen rise whenever a lady approaches or leaves the dinner table. During mass, when the gospel is proclaimed, the congregation stands. For us, it is a recognition that as Christians, our commanding officer has entered the room and is about to speak to us, so we stand at attention. If you attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah this holiday season, during the Halleluiah Chorus it is very traditional for people to stand. The story goes, that King George the Second, when hearing this performed for the first time was so moved by the piece and by his desire to show respect to the ‘King of Kings’ that the choir was singing about, that he stood. Of course, when the king stands, everyone else stands, and so a tradition was born. We stand to show respect.

 

Mr. Boggs was a great teacher and we loved and respected him. So we went along with his little rule. When an adult entered the room, we stood up. We became known as the class that stands when someone enters. It was a part of our identity. We were the class that showed respect. We were the class that took notice when you walked into the room. It was a bit odd at first. We were all so used to just focusing on whatever our assignment was, whatever it was that we were doing, that it was a real change for us to be constantly aware of what was going on around us: who was coming and going, who was in the room. Before, we could just tune all that out, but now we all had the classroom door in our side view, just in case someone were to walk in. After all, no one wanted to be the last one to stand up. That would be embarrassing. And if you saw someone coming, you made sure that your friends knew it. You got their attention.

 

That was a long time ago, but I thought about that class and that teacher this week when I read the gospel and heard Jesus telling his followers that when distressing things happen in the world to: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus says to them: “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap…be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

We have come to the First Sunday in Advent. Advent, is about the coming of Christ. Yes, in a few weeks we will remember God being born into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we do prepare for that. We need to prepare for that; but Advent is first and foremost about reminding us of the need to prepare for Jesus coming into our lives here and now. Today, tomorrow, next week, next year, or maybe even before I finish this sermon. Advent is a reminder that Christ has promised to be our future as well as our past. He is our end as well as our beginning. We remember at all times his promise to return; we say every week that we believe that “he shall come again, with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” But in Advent we are called to take special notice. In Advent we are called to look for his approach, and maybe think about how he will find us when he does come. In Advent we are called to stop, stand and listen to the one who is coming into the room.

 

There is the old joke: Jesus is coming! Look Busy!

 

As if busyness is what Jesus is going to be looking for when he returns. As if Jesus is going to be impressed by my slavish devotion to mundane tasks when he comes in glory to create a new heaven and a new earth. Keeping our heads down, staying on task, getting stuff done, making our lists, checking them twice, that might make us feel important and productive (and the Lord knows I love to feel productive, but then again, so does the devil). But when our redemption comes, Jesus didn’t say that he would show up in our email inbox, or on our shopping lists, or on our laptops. As a matter of fact, all of that stuff can just distract us, we can be so consumed and weighed down by it, that when Jesus does come into our lives, we don’t even notice. We don’t even look up from our work.

 

Jesus tells us that if we want to see him when he comes, we need to stand up and raise our heads.

 

Thinking back to my 5thgrade class, I always knew that nothing I was working on was so important, that I couldn’t at any moment be asked to stop what I was doing, stand and raise my head. Finishing your homework is important, but one thing Mr. Boggs taught me, is that it is never as important as showing respect to the one who is coming into the room. Perhaps it’s not a bad way to live your life.

My kingdom is not from this world

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Sermon for Sunday, November 25th, 2018

The Feast of Christ the King

Readings:

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

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

 

If we claim to belong to Jesus, if he truly is our king, as we boldly proclaim today, then whenever he speaks, we must listen.

 

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

 

Whenever Jesus speaks we must listen, but when he repeats himself, we need to pay close attention. In our gospel today, Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate. Some of y’all know this passage very well, because this passage is sung here every Good Friday. And you will recall that when Jesus is on trial, he doesn’t offer many words in his defense. He doesn’t have much to stay standing there before Pilate, so when he does speak we need to listen. And when Pilate questions him about being a king and about his kingdom, listen to what Jesus says:

 

My Kingdom is not from this world.

 

He doesn’t say my kingdom is not in this world; he says my kingdom is not FROM this world. He repeats himself. He says:

 

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting…But as it is my kingdom is not from here.

 

Well by my count that is three times declaring or implying that his kingdom is not from this world. And when Pilate asks: “So you are a king?” Jesus replies:

 

You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

 

In other words, Jesus is saying that you may call me a king, but don’t be confused. I am not a king like the kings you know. My kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. My kingdom is not from this world, but I was born to bring a kingdom into it. I was born to testify to the truth. I was born to bring something into this world that is not from this world. My kingdom is not from this world, but my kingdom is in it. And those that belong to my kingdom, well they belong to something that is true and everlasting. They belong to something that is stronger than the forces of this world.

 

Naturally Pilate was confused. The kings of this world don’t act like this man. The kings of this world would raise an army. The kings of this world would raise taxes. The kings of this world would do anything in their power to protect themselves or their subjects, and what is this man doing? Nothing. He will barely even open his mouth in his own defense. If this man is a king, then he’s not like any king that Pilate has ever seen. And this kingdom of his is going to come to a swift end unless this man starts to use the tools that the kings of this world have always used to hold on to power. Pilate will see to it that Jesus’s kingdom comes to an end, because Pilate knows how to behave like a king of this world. Pilate knows how a strong king can effectively control people. There are three main tools: Lust, fantasy and fear. An effective king will control his followers by filling their beds, their bellies and their bank accounts, through lust; or he will keep them entertained with mysterious rituals and diversions and displays of power or delusions of grandeur, through fantasy; or he will appeal to authority, his own authority, and the dire consequences of disobeying him, or through fear. Lust, fantasy and fear; if Jesus were a real king of this world he would know how to use those to his advantage. But he doesn’t, he just stands there before Pilate and then before the crowd, barely offering a word in his own defense. And even when the nails are piercing his hands, the only words he offers are words of love.

 

This past week our Presiding Bishop was talking to a group of clergy here, and he brought up a piece of literature that I haven’t thought of in a long time. Some of y’all may have read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Well even if you didn’t read the entire book; even if in college you just used the massive thing as a doorstop, you probably read or at least heard of the section called the Grand Inquisitor. It’s the most famous section of the book. I had to go back and reread it this week, because the image of Jesus on trial before Pilate is similar to this scene in Dostoevsky’s book.

 

In this section of the book, one of the characters is telling the story of a dream or vision he had of Jesus that he is turning into a poem. In his dream, Jesus returns to earth, not for the final judgement, but just because he wants to visit his followers. And he is reborn in Spain, in Seville, during the Inquisition. And Jesus walks about the town performing miracles, just as he had done in Galilee; healing the sick, and raising the dead. And the people of the town, they know exactly who he is. And the cardinal of the Church, having just come from a bonfire of burning heretics, orders him to be arrested. And before he has Jesus burned as a heretic, the Grand Inquisitor walks into Jesus’s lonely prison cell and questions him, just like Pilate.

 

And what the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus is: don’t come here interfering with our work Jesus. You got it wrong and the Church has spent centuries trying to correct your mistake. Three times you were given the chance to control the hearts of men and three times you rejected the opportunity. He says, in the desert you were offered three tools that would have made saving mankind so much easier. Turning stones into bread; you could have satisfied men’s hunger. If you had just provided your followers with material comfort; if you had just continued to feed people, you would have had their hearts as well. But no, you had to insist that man is not fed by bread alone. You refused to promise material comfort to your followers, so it is no wonder they turned against you.

 

And then, he goes on, you had the chance to amaze people through miracles and wonders. You could have jumped off the temple and had angels break your fall. You could have captured their imaginations and their sense of mystery and wonder, you could have entertained them with dazzling and breathtaking displays, but you did nothing. You preferred to show a quiet confidence in God rather than to display his miraculous power. You bored them, so they found someone else to keep them entertained.

 

And finally, you were offered absolute authority over all the kings and kingdoms of the earth. You could have had temporal power that would have made the world fear turning away from you, and you refused it, for what? So that mankind can freely worship God? Don’t you realize that if man is free, he will freely turn against you?

 

So the Inquisitor goes on to explain that the Church has decided that if it is to be successful in this world, it must behave like a kingdom of this world. It must use lust, and fantasy and fear to control men; respecting their freedom is just too risky. Appealing to love and love alone, is not an efficient way to run a kingdom. Why didn’t Jesus understand that?

 

And Jesus stands there silent in front of the Grand Inquisitor; ready to accept his fate for the second time. And when the cardinal is done with his inquisition, Jesus simply offers him a kiss, and the stunned cardinal sets him free.

 

It’s a great story. It’s a story within a story actually. And while we know it is fiction, we can recognize that there is some truth there. The church has always been tempted to turn Jesus’s kingdom, into a kingdom just like any other. We get frustrated with the fact that love is such an inefficient way to control people; it doesn’t really control them at all. They are always free to do the wrong thing or to turn against Jesus or to ignore him and what he has to say. So we are tempted to use those tools that the kings of this world use. We appeal to people’s desires; we keep them entertained and distracted; or, we appeal to fear or to temporal authority and power to enforce God’s will.

 

If you know any church history at all, then I don’t need to catalog the ways in which the Church has succumbed to the temptations that Jesus resisted. But it’s not just about our history, we are still being tempted every day to make Jesus’s kingdom look like any other kingdom and to make his church run just like any other organization. We think that our mission needs to be about feeding people’s bodies more than their souls; we think we need to keep the congregation entertained at all times, and we still long for the days when the Church could speak in the public sphere with the voice of authority. And you may think that we don’t like to burn people alive anymore, but spend any time on Facebook or Twitter or look at the comments section on anything whatsoever online and your illusions of moral progress will quickly fade away. This week I was looking up a bread recipe on youtube, and as I looked in the comments section for words of advice, people were being absolutely hateful to one another over how much salt was in the recipe. Oh we like to humiliate people in public now more than we ever did, and we will do it about the most trivial things, because now we have found a way to do it that doesn’t involve chopping wood.

 

And still Jesus’s response to us, when we try to make his kingdom look like a kingdom that is from this world, is to just keep loving us and forgiving us.

 

Whenever I am tempted to think that love doesn’t work and whenever I am frustrated with how inefficient love can be as a leadership tool, I think about all the kingdoms of this world that have come and gone; kingdoms that used lust, fantasy and fear to hold on to power; kings that have used every tool of the devil to stay alive, and still wound up dead. Then I remember that the king who rules with freedom and love is still alive and still reins. His kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. He may not have as much to say as the kings of this world, but when he speaks, I’m going to listen.

 

 

Temples rise and temples fall

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Sermon for November 18, 2018

Readings:

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

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is all that is left of the mighty Temple that Herod built. It isn’t even part of the temple, really, it’s just the retaining wall around the base, but it is still one of the few visible reminders that this was once the site of one of the greatest buildings in the ancient world: the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And some of those stones are the very stones that Jesus himself would have seen, and maybe touched.

 

Today in front of the Western Wall there is a little room where you can go in to get a glimpse of what the temple would have looked like in Jesus’s day. You walk in, sit in a swivel chair, and put on some fancy goggles, and through the wonders of virtual reality you can look around the temple as if it were still standing. They have tried to recreate the temple as they think it would have looked, using archeology, and biblical, historical and rabbinical accounts. And through computer graphics you get to see it. It’s a very touristy sort of thing to do, but the last time I was there I had a little spare time and I was curious, so I thought, what the heck?

 

Well it was interesting, and I have to say that if what they portrayed is even close to accurate, and I imagine that it is, then that temple was a sight to see.  Beautiful white stone, with pillars and golden details around the top; when the sun hit it, it must have looked like it was on fire. People living today would be awestruck by that building, not to mention people living in the ancient world; people that carved out a living in caves and small stone houses; people for whom roads were the latest in technology.  I can’t imagine what their amazement must have been like at seeing this thing for the first time.

 

But you know, I’m sure those people didn’t just feel awe and wonder when they looked at that building. I’m willing to bet they felt some pride. This building was a symbol of the greatness of their God. It was the God of Israel that was worshipped in this place. That was the God that inspired this building. But I’m sure that as people walked up to that majestic building to offer their sacrifices, they must have taken a moment and thought to themselves: we did that. We built that. And if we can build something like this, what can’t we do? We built our God the greatest temple in the East, maybe the greatest temple in the world. We have come so far. We escaped slavery in Egypt to build the first temple; and we escaped captivity in Babylon to build the second temple, and it is bigger and better than the first. We are getting better, we are getting stronger. This temple is a symbol of how far we have come. If we can build something like this, what can’t we do?

 

It’s gone now. Not long after Jesus was crucified, the Romans grew tired of rebellions in this troublesome province and decided to put an end to it. The temple, that splendid symbol of power and technology and wealth and progress, oh, and faith too, was completely and utterly destroyed. And of course, I’m just talking about the building; I haven’t even mentioned the countless souls brutally killed in the massacre; the blood spilled among the ruins. So much for progress. So much for getting better and stronger.

 

And the Romans, they marched away pretty proud of themselves. I’m sure they thought: well that’s the end of that! With our power and our superior weapons, we don’t need to worry about these Jews and their God anymore; we certainly don’t need to worry about that upstart Jew Jesus and his followers. We took care of him first and now with the temple gone and the Jews expelled, we are not going to have to worry about trouble and strife in this region anymore.  From now on there will be peace here, and we did it. We made it happen. Pax Romana. So the Romans march off, confident in their position in the world and in their future. But where is their empire now?

 

You know, sometimes I think we forget that when Jesus started his church, the one we all became a part of when we were baptized, the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire ruled much of the world. A lot has happened since then. A lot of things we started have come and gone since then.

 

The Roman empire fell and was replaced by lots of little kingdoms that fought each other all the time. Kingdoms start to consolidate and you start to get countries like England and France, that fought each other all the time. Then of course countries start expanding into empires, that fight each other all the time. Empires expand, then, guess what, they fall. Lather, rinse, repeat. The cycle goes on and on through history, and through it all humans go on behaving like humans to one another (and incidentally I don’t mean that as a good thing). There are wars, there is violence, there is strife.

 

First, we convince ourselves that we are on the cusp of a bright new tomorrow where with the proper leadership and technology we can solve all the world’s evils; our plans don’t work out, then we convince ourselves that the end is nigh and Armageddon is imminent. We either have all the answers or none of them. The future is either wine and roses or fire and brimstone. It is so easy to get caught up in that on both sides, and that is exactly what we do. False hope and false doom both cry out for our attention, and we give it to them both.

 

But if you read, mark, learn and inwardly digest our scriptures then you will know that our God is not the God of quick fixes or easy answers. Our God is not the God of one empire or another; our God is not the God of one age or another. Our God is not the God of false hope or false doom. God has shown that he is in this with us for the long haul. He knows what we are like. He knows that we are going to get full of ourselves; think we have the power and the skill to make the world right on our own, and he knows that we’re gonna fall down again and screw things up, and then in our failure despair that it is all for nothing. He knows that pain and strife are not over for us; he warned us about it, repeatedly. Jesus knows that we are going to go on being human, being hurtful to one another until the end of time, but still he keeps showing up. Wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he shows up. He promises us that he will not abandon us nor forsake us. “Lo I am with you until the end of the age,” he says. He keeps teaching us, he keeps blessing us and forgiving us. Despite our abject failure to ever be faithful to God or his commandments for very long, God is faithful to us. Empires come and go; kingdoms come and go, institutions come and go; still the church, Jesus’s church, keeps tottering on. How? I assure you it isn’t because we have capable leadership. The church has survived despite our best efforts, not because of them.

 

Jesus does not want us to get caught up in false hope, or false despair. He’s very clear: humans might be able to build some pretty impressive things, but they haven’t conquered sin yet. Only God can do that. Humans are going to go on being humans to each other, so we needn’t be surprised when people do evil things. There will be wars and destruction and deception. But these things are not a sign of the end times. They are not a cause for despair. God isn’t done with us yet, in fact, he’s just getting started. Birth pangs.

 

Temples rise and temples fall. Empires rise and empires fall. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Sometimes we humans will do the right thing, and sometimes we won’t. If you need everything to go right, or be right, in order to see God at work in the world, then let me tell you, you are missing God. Because while you were focused on whether those temple walls are standing in glory or lying in ruins, you might miss the fact that babies are still being born. Bread is still rising. Grape juice is still turning into wine. People are still falling in love. God’s grace is still bursting forth into this world each and every day. People are still hurting each other its true, they are still being human, but they are also still being forgiven. God is at work in the world, we just get so preoccupied with our own successes and failures, we get so preoccupied with the things that we build and destroy, that we can’t see him.

 

You know, I love the temple in Jerusalem.  I’m sure it was pretty in Jesus’s day, but I love it as it is now. An ugly, ruined heap of old stones. The site of some of the worst atrocities that humans have every committed against each other. A place where humans are still being humans to each other, still hurting each other. With our skill we built something beautiful there once, and with our sin we destroyed it. And yet, people gather among the ruins to pray and dance and sing God’s praises. The temple we built may be gone, but our God is alive and well.

The Power of Sacrifice

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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2018

Readings:

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

The high priest enters the holy place year after year, with blood that is not his own.

 

That is how the author of Hebrews described the sacrificial system in the temple in Jerusalem. In front of the holy place, the holy of holies, the high priest would offer regular sacrifices to God. The worship of God in the temple wasn’t just about prayer and song, it was a bloody affair. Because blood was sacred to the Jews. That is why Jewish dietary laws were very strict about consuming anything with blood in it. An animal’s blood, represents its life. Blood is life. I think that’s pretty easy for us to understand. But the blood that was being poured out before the holy place, was the blood of bulls, and sheep and goats. The high priest was sacrificing animals. And while the death of these animals would certainly have represented an economic loss to those who offered them, it was really the creature lying on the altar that was paying the highest price.

 

That, according to the author of Hebrews, is what makes Christ’s sacrifice so unique. Christ, as our great high priest, offers God his own blood. Christ sheds his ownblood for the protection and purification of his people. It is his ownlife, not the life of another, that is laid down on the cross. That is why Christ’s sacrifice, that is why his priesthood, is so powerful: because it reveals a love that is self-sacrificial; a love that defies reason. It demonstrates that love is more powerful than the instinct of survival. And that is something indeed.

 

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

 

It is one thing to be willing to kill for someone; but it is another thing entirely to be willing to die for them. There are all sorts of things that can motivate us to kill, but being willing to give up your own life in order to save the life of another, that comes from a place very deep within us. It comes from a love that I think comes very close to the love of God. Especially the God of Jesus Christ.

 

Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The armistice ended active fighting on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month, 100 years ago today. That may seem like a long time, but is it really? In the grand scheme of things it’s not that long at all. We have a parishioner that was born just a few days later. One of the bloodiest wars the world had ever seen had come to an end, and what was left? Fields soaked with blood, the life-blood of a generation, and nations reeling and wondering: what just happened? How did this happen? Who is to blame? How do we stop this from happening again?

 

We think that we live in dark times now, but the truth is we can’t fathom the loss of life that those living during the First World War encountered. We can’t even confidently count the casualties. Estimates range as high as 15 to 17 million. Staggering losses. How do you begin to process that? How do you honor the sacrifice of a generation of young men killed in the prime of their lives?

 

It would be easy to get caught up in a political or military debate about the war. It would be easy to have intellectual arguments about who is to blame and how it might have been different; how it might have been prevented. And there is a time for those debates. Our respect for life and our longing for peace should lead us to have powerful and important discussions on preserving life and peace, but days like today are not the time for such arguments. We need to take a moment and put our questions and our judgments of leadership aside, and we need to honor the sacrifice that was made by so many, in good faith, so that others might live, so that we might be safe, and free.

 

In our readings today we are reminded of the power of sacrifice. We are reminded that our God is not the God of self-preservation, but is the god of self-sacrifice. Our God is a God that would willingly give his own life, shed his own blood, so that his beloved children might live. I find that God inspiring. That is the God that I worship. We worship a giving and forgiving God, that personally knows the power of sacrifice. We worship a God that doesn’t just take the blood and the lives of others, but offers his own blood and his own life for us. That my friends, is NOT the way of the world, but it is the way of our God. And this God of ours has been inspiring his children to risk everything for a very long time.

 

Today we honor all those who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the love and welfare of another. We remember soldiers and veterans, naturally, but we also need to remember, as our readings would suggest, the sacrifices of those at home. The widows, that not only lost a beloved spouse, but also proved themselves capable of sacrificing everything they have to live on, even their own lives, for the sake of a greater good; for the sake of something they love more than life itself. We have so much to learn from their examples. Yes, our ancestors certainly made some mistakes, but they also got some things right too. They were willing to sacrifice their food, their money, their power, their comfort and even their lives for the sake of something greater. I wonder if we could do the same?

Putting God First

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Sermon for November 4th, 2018

Stewardship Sunday

Readings:

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

 

It is so hard to pay attention to any one thing for very long anymore. I used to think that I just had an attention span problem, or that I was easily distracted, like a dog seeing a squirrel, but I am beginning to realize that being constantly distracted has become a way of life for the society we live in, it’s not just me.

 

There is so much competing for my attention every moment of every day. I get regular messages from my body telling me: it’s time to eat; it’s time to go to bed; you’re getting older; the weather is getting colder; rain is on the way.

 

I have family and friends that need my attention: who is sick or in the hospital? who is having a baby? when is supper going to be ready?

 

And then there is work: who am I meeting with today? did the contractor for this project show up? when was that report due?

 

And there are so many things in the world that I should be paying attention to: who is on the ballot on Tuesday? How long is this coffee pod going to sit in a landfill? what countries are at war with each other? how many people were killed this week in another act of hatred and violence?

 

As I bounce from one issue to another, there are all these voices I must contend with: buy this and your problems will be solved! take this drug and your pain and troubles will be over! vote for me and I will fix the world!

 

Technology, which can be great, only makes this problem 1000 times worse. I don’t know what’s more frustrating anymore: not having internet access, or having it. I’m constantly having to check what is true and what is not. Is this supposed news article true, or is it all twisted and taken out of context? Should I share this meme? Should I be outraged over some nonsense issue that everyone else seems to be outraged over? This Facebook post says that if I don’t repost it, then I just don’t care and am a horrible human being, am I obliged to repost it?

 

So many things, so many people, so many issues and they all want my attention. They all want to be first in my life. What do I do? What really needs to come first? It is a question I have to ask myself countless times a day. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. In fact, I know I’m not alone.

 

In our gospel today, a scribe walks up to Jesus and asks him: which commandment is first? Jesus, with so many issues and causes and rules and laws and traditions, all vying for my attention at any one moment, how am I to choose between them? How do I know what comes first?

And Jesus answered him with a verse from scripture: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9. If there was ever any one verse of scripture that is the bedrock of faith for both Jews and Christians, it’s this verse. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That is the first and great commandment that Jesus is referring to in the Summary of the Law that I say at the beginning of almost every mass here. Jews recite it in their prayer services twice a day. If you enter a Jewish home, or even my home, you may see a little thing attached to the doorpost with some Hebrew letters on it. It’s called a mezuzah, and inside is a little scroll with that scripture verse written on it. “…write them on your doorposts and on your gates.” It is a physical reminder that as we go and come in this world, this world with all of its distractions and anxieties, one thing and only one thing should come first: God.

 

The God of Jesus and the God of Moses (they are the same God I assure you), that God has given us this commandment that nothing else in our lives should come before our relationship with him. Loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, that must always come first. Even before loving our neighbors as ourselves. That second command is like the first; it flows from it, but it still comes second. Hear this Episcopalians, because we have a bad habit of thinking that we can teach people to love their neighbors without first teaching them to love God. We love talking about virtues and values and justice and love, but we get real uncomfortable sometimes when we have to talk about the source of all those things. But God must come first. The love of God must always come first. It doesn’t work the other way around, at least not for very long.

 

There was a 20thcentury philosopher named Will Durant who wrote that: “conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death.”

 

If our society is to survive, it must have people who know and understand and are committed to putting first the source of all that is good. We need people in this world that can boldly say no to all the other voices and concerns trying to distract them. We need people that are willing to sacrifice power, and money, and maybe even some of the respect of their peers, because they recognize that nothing is more powerful than God, nothing is more valuable, and no one’s respect is worth more than his respect. It is a tough call, but thanks be to God, in every generation there have been people who have risen to the task.

 

People like the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, urging their people not to put their trust in anything other than the power of their God. People like John the Baptist who understood that there is no greater danger than being separated from God. People like a little Jewish girl named Mary, whose life was so focused and centered on and open to God that he would find a home not just in her thoughts, but also in her womb.

 

Our tradition is filled with the stories of people who have had the guts to put God first. We are here today because countless ancestors heard and responded to God’s word to Moses. In a world filled with individuals and causes and philosophies and stuff, all pretending to be God, all vying for our attention, all trying to be first in our lives, there have been people that have been bold enough to say NO, I only have one God in this world, and that is the Lord. Everything else comes second to him. Everything.

 

Where would we be today without those people? If Paul had decided to just focus on his tentmaking and building his business, would we have heard about the resurrection? If Augustine of Canterbury had decided that Britain was just too dangerous or too scary, would we have heard about the God of Israel? What if Saint Cuthbert said that Scotland was too cold? What if Charles Wesley had decided that there was more money in writing secular songs and who would know what a Herald Angel was anyways? What if Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham had both decided that television was too expensive a medium to tell people about the love of God? or what if Sylvester Gildersleve and Francis Wilson had decided that other things in their lives were more important than trying to start a church in some country village outside of New York called Rockville Centre?

 

In every generation we need people that can say to their children and anyone else that will listen: we have only one God, and he always comes first. That is what you are being invited to do right now. You are being invited to put God first. To give God the first fruits of your labors, not your leftovers. You are being invited to recognize that God is the true source of everything good in your life and everything good in the world. We fill out our pledge cards in church today, in mass, because doing so is an act of faith. Giving to God here will mean that we will have to say no to some other things in our lives. The amount we give, well that is between each of us and God. God knows our hearts and God also knows our finances and circumstances. We give to God based on what he asks of us, not on what someone else is giving, or what we think our fair share of the electric bill here should be. We must always remember the widow whose one coin, was worth more than all the large sums given by those with great wealth.

 

Regardless of what numbers you write on this slip of paper this morning, know this: the most powerful thing that any of us can do to transform this world we live in or to shape the lives of our children or our children’s children, is to learn how to say no to all those other voices and distractions in the world and to say yes to putting God first.

 

Keeping Up Appearances

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Sermon 10-21-18

Readings:

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

 

One of my favorite characters from all of British Television is Hyacinth Bucket. That’s spelled B-U-C-K-E-T, Bucket. Hyacinth is the star of a show called Keeping Up Appearances, and that title tells you almost everything you need to know about Hyacinth: her life is about appearances.

 

Hyacinth comes from a very humble background; she grew up poor and rather unsophisticated and her singular mission in life is to get as far away from her humble beginnings as she can get. Hyacinth wants to mingle and rub elbows with the aristocracy. She wants people to think that she is cultured and erudite and well bred. Most importantly Hyacinth wants people to think that she has money. Hyacinth has three sisters, but the only one she will speak of publicly is her sister Violet, the one with the swimming pool, sauna and room for a pony.

 

I was just watching an episode recently, where Hyacinth was excited that her husband gave her a home security system for their anniversary. She wasn’t excited because she was worried about her stuff being stolen; she was excited because now the neighbors might think she had stuff worth stealing. As the title implies, with Hyacinth, it’s all about appearances. If she can’t be rich, at least she wants to appear rich.

 

I love Hyacinth Bucket, but like the rest of the characters in the show, I wouldn’t want to live next to her. I love her, because I think I understand her, at least I understand the temptation to be her. I think it is great for people to want to improve themselves: to improve their education, their situation, their skills, their habits, their morals even. I share those desires. But the problem with Hyacinth is that appearances mean more to her than reality. She doesn’t understand that appearing great and actually being great are two very different things; and her obsession with appearing rich, sophisticated, well-connected, influential, virtuous and otherwise perfect is always drawing attention to just how far away from those ideals she really is.

 

Appearing great and being great are not the same thing. It’s a lesson that Hyacinth never learns.

It’s a lesson a lot of people never learn.

 

Two of Jesus’s followers, James and John, two brothers from a humble background, they have a special request for Jesus. You may remember that when Jesus first met James and John they were in the boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets. When Jesus called they quickly got up and followed him, leaving their father behind. Well now James and John they have a special request for Jesus. When Jesus finally comes into his kingdom, they want to be seen on either side of him, one on his left and one on his right. They want to be seen at the head table. They want people to see that they are close to Jesus. To be on either side of Jesus, that is the most visible place in the room. If they are seen there, then people will think that they are great, just like Jesus. There’s just one problem with their request: appearing great and being great are not the same thing.

 

In fact, in Jesus’s kingdom, appearances don’t count for much at all. Jesus didn’t come into this world to appear holy. He didn’t appear to pray; he didn’t appear to care for the sick or the poor; he didn’t appear to forgive sins; he didn’t appear to serve others. He didn’t appear to suffer and die; he didn’t appear to rise again. He didn’t appear to do any of those things, he did them. Jesus didn’t appear great, he was great.

Appearing great, and being great are not the same thing. Jesus was great.

We are not great. We can and should try to improve ourselves; we should seek to grow in wisdom and virtue; we should try to serve others as Jesus instructed us to do, but we must accept that we are not truly good or great, not like he was. Pretending to be otherwise only highlights how far we are from Jesus, not our closeness to him. Our lives are tainted with sin. All of our lives, even the most noble among us. We are not great. That is what makes Jesus’s willingness to bear our sins and burdens such an astounding thing: We are not great, we are ignorant and wayward, and yet our great high priest still deals gently with us. In the end, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross in his moment of ultimate sacrifice, the two individuals closest to him, the one on his right hand and the one on his left, were two sinners; criminals that Jesus died to save. And to the one that admits that he is not great and in need of Jesus’s mercy, that is the one that Jesus invites into paradise.

 

Jesus knew that James and John were a mess when he called them. Jesus knows what a mess all of us are when he calls us to follow him. He knows that we’re not that great. And yet he calls us, and is willing to die for us anyways. We are always going to be tempted with appearing great though. There will always be this voice in our heads saying: “If people see you sitting next to Jesus, maybe they won’t notice what a sinner you are. Maybe they will think you are great too.” We tell ourselves: as long as people think I’m great, they won’t realize what a mess I truly am. Maybe I’ll forget too.

 

It’s a dangerous temptation. Anytime the church as an institution, or we as individuals opt for keeping up appearances, rather than being real, and getting dirty with Jesus in the messy world of real service and sacrifice, we risk doing great damage. We have done great damage. Hyacinth is loveable and benign, but make no mistake, caring more about appearances than truth is a dangerous game. Wanting to be seen next to Jesus, without actually wanting to serve him, is the devil’s playground.

 

Jesus called two humble fishermen to follow him, he knew who James and John were when he called them. Getting prime seating at the banquet, or getting a good selfie with Jesus, is not going to change who they are. Their request to be seen next to Jesus, only highlights how far away from him they actually are. Jesus did not come into the world to create a phony public relations campaign; he came to offer himself as a true servant and a real sacrifice for real sinners. Appearances don’t count much for Jesus.

 

Hyacinth proves it over and over again: the more you try to keep up appearances, the more you prove how far you truly are from being the real thing.