The Tree of Life

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Sermon for May 22, 2022

First Communion Sunday

Readings:

You know, when you wake up from a dream or a vision, it is often very difficult to explain to others what you saw or what you experienced, because dreams are full of images and symbols and they don’t always make sense. That is part of the struggle that people have with the book of Revelation. John has a miraculous vision, and in that vision God speaks to John about some things that are going on in his own day, so many of the symbols have to do with the persecution that Christians were experiencing in the Roman empire, but God also speaks to John and shows him visions of the distant future, so we get these glimpses of the heavenly kingdom.

You know, the Bible doesn’t give us a detailed explanation of heaven. What we get are images here and there that reveal little bits of heaven to us. I guess God knows that we could never comprehend or appreciate the true beauty of God’s kingdom, so what we get are postcards from the other side. Maybe postcards isn’t the best analogy, since I’m not sure people actually send postcards anymore. Maybe we will call them Instagram shots. Pictures that are sent to us from someone far away. But pictures, no matter how good, never fully capture just how beautiful something is in real life. So while the images in John’s book about his vision do reveal glimpses of heaven to us, that’s why we call his book the book of Revelation, it doesn’t show us everything; heaven will always be more glorious than we can imagine and we won’t truly know it until we see it ourselves.

But John’s vision is very important, not just because of what it reveals about heaven, but because of what it reveals about the God of heaven. We are going to be giving the kids that are graduating from their communion class today a Bible later. Now kids, you might think: “well, why is this old book important? What difference is this going to make to my life?” Here is why it is important: because the God of this book is still God. The God who interacts with people in all of the stories in this book is the God that is still alive and active in the world today. So if we want to understand the God who is at work in our lives right now, it helps to understand who God is, and how God acts, and the best way to do that is to study the record of how God has revealed himself to people in history. That is why studying the bible is so important to us. It doesn’t just tell us what God did in the past; it helps us to understand what God is doing now. 

This morning we just heard a reading from the Book of Revelation; John’s vision that I was just talking about. In that reading John talks about the heavenly Jerusalem, the Holy City. And what does he see? Well, he sees a river that flows from the throne where people can drink from the water of life; God quenches their thirst. What else does John see? He sees a tree of life that produces fruit that feeds people. Right in the middle of heaven people eat and drink; they are given food from God. There is another place in the Bible where we find a tree of life. It is all the way on the other end. Revelation is the last book in the Bible, but all the way back in Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden when God first created the world there was another tree of life. God always planned to feed us. But in Genesis we learn that humans, boys and girls, men and women just like us, we disobeyed God, we turned away from God, we hid ourselves from God, so we couldn’t eat from the tree of life anymore. But God still wants to feed us. So God sends us his son, who is a human who does not disobey God, that’s Jesus. And he invites us to be a part of his life, first by being baptized like he was, and then he feeds us by offering us his body and blood, his life, in Holy Communion. 

In John’s vision of heaven, what is one of the most prominent images that he sees in the middle of the city? It is a tree that feeds people AND that offers them healing. John says that the leaves of this tree heal people’s wounds and hurts. I want you all to take a moment and look around this church. Symbols are very important in scripture, and symbols are very important in church as well. Symbols tell us things about God. What is everything in this church directed towards? What is right in the center? Some might say this big candle, which we call a paschal candle, but this is only here during Easter season. What is always the highest place and most prominent symbol in the church? It isn’t this pulpit, I’m tucked off to the side over here. The most important thing in this church is the altar. Where we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember Jesus’s last supper there and we pray special prayers over the bread and the wine. Then what happens? People come forward and eat. People are fed, and you know what, people are also healed.

That is what you will do today. You will come forward and you will be fed, not by me, but by God. I will hand you a little wafer of bread, but it isn’t really me that gives it to you; it is God. Holy Communion is NOT just about remembering something that God did a long time ago. I will say that again: Holy Communion is NOT just about remembering something that God did a long time ago. It is about what God is doing for us now. He feeds us, and he heals us. Likewise, the Bible is NOT just about what God did for people a long time ago. It helps us to see what God is doing for us now. John saw a glimpse of heaven and what he saw was God feeding his children. When you come to church what you see is God feeding his children. This is a glimpse of heaven too. This is a vision and it is a vision that you are invited to share in and to participate in. Remember that. Every time you come forward for communion, I want you to remember that what we are doing around the altar is never as important as what God is doing. God feeds us here and now with spiritual food. God is present with us, and offers us his life in the bread and the wine. Even when we have turned away from God, even when we have disobeyed him, God keeps feeding us.

You will see this throughout the Bible and you will see it again when you come into church: we worship a God who feeds us…not just in the past, not just now, but forever.

Finding Jesus’s Body

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2022

Readings:

Mary Magdalene is looking for the body of Jesus. 

She assumes that it must be buried in the tomb. That is where she left it on Friday. Broken, bloody, and completely lifeless, she had helped his mother Mary, and his dearest friend John and a couple good men named Joseph and Nicodemus, she helped them wrap his body in linen cloths, and they had left him there on the cold stone. She saw it. Now she had come back to that spot. 

She had some fragrant spices and flowers that she wanted to leave there. Of course, the truth is, she also wasn’t ready to let go just yet. Love never lets us off the hook so easily. She still wanted to be with Jesus for a while, even though she knew he was dead. Even though the light that had filled his eyes had now gone out, still she wanted to be with him. Even if just for a few more minutes. 

So she went to where she assumed he must be. Everybody assumed that Jesus was in the tomb. Who could think otherwise? He was dead, wasn’t he?

But she didn’t find him. What she found instead was an open grave. She ran to tell Peter and John. Jesus isn’t in the tomb; someone has stolen his body. His body is missing. They run to the tomb and verify that his body isn’t there. Just the linen shrouds lying on the ground. Mary was telling the truth, but what did it mean? Where is Jesus’s body if it isn’t here? Peter and John go back home confused. Jesus isn’t where they thought he was. But Mary lingers. 

And after wiping some bewildered tears from her eyes, she looks into the tomb again, and this time she sees two men, or at first she thought they were men; Two figures sitting nearby in garments of white that just seemed to sparkle and shine. Didn’t make sense how their clothes could be so white. If these men had been moving the gravestone or touching Jesus’s body they would have gotten dirty or bloody. But these clothes were white. Really white. If they hadn’t moved Jesus, somebody else must have.

Why are you weeping? They ask. 

Who are you looking for? 

I am looking for my Lord, but he is not here. Someone must have taken him away. I don’t know where he is. I need to find him. Can you help me find him?

And then behind her comes a voice from just outside the door. She assumes it’s the gardener. Why are you weeping? The man says. Who are you looking for? 

I am looking for Jesus she says. Please tell me where I can find him. 

“Mary,” the man says. And her world turned upside down. Here he was, standing right in front of her. She found the body of her Lord, only it wasn’t in the tomb it was outside it; and Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive. She had been looking for Jesus in the tomb. But that isn’t where he said he would be. Do you remember Mary? Do you remember where he said he would be? Do you remember where he said you would find his body? 

She was stunned at first. Terrified. But Jesus’s words started coming back to her like a flood. She started to remember the words that Jesus had said. Jesus had told her and all the disciples where his body would be found, but they were all looking in the wrong place.

They were looking in the wrong place. Mary and Peter and John can’t find Jesus because they are looking in the wrong place. At least they ARE looking, some of the disciples aren’t even doing that. But they were looking for Jesus where the world assumed he would be. They were looking where all the disciples assumed he was. They were looking for Jesus where Pilate put him. But they weren’t looking for Jesus where HE said he would be. 

He said he would rise again. He said he would rise again. He even said he would meet his disciples in Galilee. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his disciples a number of places where his body would be found, and could be found, and not one of them was the grave. And now Mary had found his body, but it wasn’t in the grave. It was outside it. Don’t hold on to me here, Jesus tells Mary. My work isn’t done here. You can’t keep my body in one place. Go and tell my disciples what you have seen. And she does. For forty days people see Jesus. They see his body, just like Mary did. They touch him. They eat with him. Mary and the other disciples, they find Jesus’s body alright, but it wasn’t in the tomb. It was in the places where he said it would be. 

So maybe, and this is just a suggestion, maybe if you are looking for Jesus, if you are looking for the power of God in your life, if you are looking for peace and forgiveness, and grace and eternal life and hope, if you are looking for Jesus, you might save yourself some time by starting your search in the places where Jesus promised that he would be. Seriously, where did Jesus promise that he would be? Where did he say that we would find his body? Where did Jesus promise us that we would meet him?

In Baptism. We actually become a part of Christ’s body when we are baptized.

In fellowship. Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. Jesus is with us when we come together with other Christians in his name.

In service. Truly I tell you that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sister of mine, you did for me. Jesus is present with us when we serve others. 

In Communion. Take Eat. This is my Body. We meet Jesus here in the blessed sacrament. 

Jesus’s body is in the bread. Jesus’s body is in the baptized. That’s where he told us his body would be. So look for his body here. Look to meet Jesus here. If you are struggling to find Jesus in your life, you might be looking for him in the wrong places. You might be looking for the living among the dead. You might be weeping and perplexed outside an empty tomb. But his body’s not in the grave. It doesn’t belong there. Not for long. And you see that is a part of our hope as Christians. Jesus said he was ascending to the Father, but he also said that he would come again so that we can be where he is. He said that he would lose nothing that belonged to him but would raise it up on the last day. We believe that Jesus is going to come some day to raise our bodies up just like his, because they are his body too. Our bodies are a part of Jesus’s body and Jesus isn’t going to let any part of his body rest in the tomb for very long. That’s not where it belongs. 

Yes, Jesus is God, and if he can climb down into the grave to find you, he can find you anywhere. He can find you weeping outside the tomb, just like he found Mary. The Lord and his angels can find you where you are. The Lord can show up out of the blue, and no locked door or tombstone is gonna keep him away. But if YOU are looking for him. If you are the one who is searching for God and trying to find the Lord in your life, if you are looking for peace and grace, and guidance and strength, and hope, if you are looking for Jesus then start looking for him where he promised he would be. Jesus never said he would be in the tomb, but he did say he would be in the church. 

A Sign of God’s Power

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Sermon for Good Friday 2022

Readings:

It would be easy to look at the cross, and to listen to the story that we tell today, and to think of it as just another example of man’s inhumanity to man. Humans, after all, have a long history of brutalizing other humans. In that sense, Jesus’s crucifixion wasn’t a unique event in history. Despite the fact that the cross is now universally recognized as a symbol of Jesus Christ and his followers, Jesus wasn’t the only person to be put to death by being nailed to a wooden beam on a post. He wasn’t even the only person to be tortured that way on Good Friday. There were others right beside him. People had been crucified before Jesus; People were crucified after him. It would be easy then to look at Jesus’s cross as a symbol of human cruelty. A reminder of how we often treat each other. A sign of our sinfulness.

Here is an innocent man that is put to death. And not just put to death; he is killed in this way, so that he will experience the maximum amount of pain and humiliation. A crucifixion isn’t just an execution of a criminal, you know. It isn’t just about maintaining peace and order. It is a warning. It is a demonstration of power. The Roman authorities can do what they want, when they want, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is what this is meant to say. That is power. Humans love to have power. Not just the Romans, all humans love to have power. There are two types of people in the world: those who have power and those who want power. You might think that sounds very cynical, but I’m not so sure. We aren’t half as enlightened and reasonable as we like to think we are. We all have untaught desires and emotions. And the thing we probably desire most is power. It might be our worst addiction. We want power more than sex, money, or food. Why waste your time chasing after those little pleasures, when you can have them all if you just pursue power? Think about how the devil tempted Jesus: all of those temptations in the desert were about power.  Oh and when we get it, if we get it, we want to make sure that other people know that we have it. What good is it to have power if nobody knows you have it? 

Do you not know, Pilate asks Jesus, do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?

This is about power. Humans do these things to each other to demonstrate and assert their power. It’s not always this extreme though. It’s not always about death and torture. Sometimes it can seem totally benign. We build huge skyscrapers, buy fancy cars, tell juicy bits of gossip, and we also invade other countries, wave around guns and shoot innocent people, flex our muscles, threaten, lie, shame, accuse. How much death, how much suffering, how much sin can we directly attribute to our thirst as human beings for power; to our addiction to having and demonstrating power?

So as I said, it would be easy to look at the cross and see it as a reminder of our propensity as humans to brutalize others all in the name of power. Part of me wonders if we really should need such a reminder: we have the news after all. And most of the world don’t even need the news to remind them of suffering, they just have this thing called life. Still, somehow we all keep forgetting that humans have a lust for power, so maybe we do need a reminder, but I’m not sure that that is all that is going on here on the cross.

I could stand up here all day and give you one example after another of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s not exactly what is happening here. Or at least, its not all that is happening. That’s not the full story. Because the story that we retell today, the story of the cross, isn’t just about a Roman governor demonstrating his power over a Jewish preacher. That may be what it looks like on the surface, and maybe that is what some of the bystanders on that day thought was going on, but we know better. This story isn’t about a contest for power between two men. This is a story about humanity, all humans and God. We didn’t just try to put to death some itinerant Jewish preacher. We tried to kill God. The Lord of all creation was born and lived among us, and we put him on trial and sentenced him to death. Pilate didn’t know who was really standing before him, he thought he had power over him. 

Pilate thought he had power, because he couldn’t see God’s power.

Pilate had the power to put Jesus to death. Jesus had the power to overcome death. Pilate had the power to condemn; Jesus had the power to forgive. Pilate had the power to wound. Jesus had the power to heal. Pilate had the power of the greatest empire on earth; Jesus had the power of the kingdom of heaven. 

Pilate would like nothing more than for you to look at a cross and think of his power, and of what he did. It seems like even today, there is a tendency to want to tell this story in such a way that it is entirely focused on what we as humans do. We are so impressed and enamored with our own power, that even when it is sinful and brutal and cruel, that is what we want to focus on. We want to turn the spotlight back onto ourselves. But the cross isn’t just about what we do, or what we have done. That is not where this story ends. The cross is about what God does. The cross is about God’s power, and God’s faithfulness. It isn’t just a story about human sinfulness; it is about human sinfulness AND what God has done about it. It isn’t just about inhumanity and death; it is about God taking on humanity and conquering death. The cross is a sign of power, but it didn’t quite work out the way that Pilate planned. 

Pilate thought that the cross would be a symbol of his power. But it’s not. It’s a symbol of God’s. 

The Lord comes to meet us

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Sermon for Palm Sunday 2022

Readings:

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Liturgy of the Word

As Jesus rides his donkey down the Mount of Olives, riding out to meet his people, there is this moment recorded in Luke’s gospel where Jesus stops for a minute, he looks at the Holy City just across from him, and he cries. He weeps. It is a glorious moment. There is a crowd of people that is following him down the mountain and they are waving palm branches and even throwing their cloaks down on the road, and they are hailing him as a king. They call him Son of David. The successor to the great king. It is a triumphant moment, but before Jesus crosses over the valley and enters the Eastern gate of the Temple, he stops and he weeps. There is a little chapel on the side of the Mount of Olives today called the Dominus Flevit, the Lord Wept, and it is in the shape of a teardrop. It is meant to mark this moment.

And Jesus says to his beloved city in that moment: “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes. You are going to be crushed by your enemies; your glorious stones will be cast to the ground, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” You did not recognize God’s presence in your midst. Not only were people unable to identify and appreciate the presence of God, but they could no longer recognize the ways of God. 

Now some people surely did. There were righteous and holy people in Jerusalem and Jesus even points some of them out, but as a society there was a problem. People had gotten so used to the Temple in all of its external glory and grandeur that they were beginning to lose sight of what it signified: God’s presence in their midst. What happens when we lose sight of God’s presence? What happens when God’s existence is no longer a reality to us? Well, in short order we stop recognizing the ways of God. Right and wrong. Moral and Immoral. If you think Christian cultures have a long history of doing bad things, take a good look at some of the horrors that atheistic cultures or pagan cultures have wrought on the world. We Christians, we may sin and do bad things, but our God calls us out on it. Our own tradition calls us to repentance. We still make mistakes, but at least we recognize that they are, in fact, mistakes. But what happens when we stop recognizing that? What happens when all things become relative or subjective and we lose the ability to recognize truth and goodness and God? 

Our enemies will crush us. That is Jesus’s harrowing prediction. Jerusalem will be destroyed because it has lost sight of what has always saved it: God’s presence. The Temple and Jerusalem are so precious to Jesus, because they are a symbol of God’s relationship to his people. The Temple was a reminder that although God is omnipotent and the creator of the universe, that nonetheless he desires to live in relationship with us humans. It is an amazing, wild assertion if you think about it; the idea that the vast, boundless cosmos, cares about any one individual human being, much less all of them. That is a wild, crazy assertion. But here is this building that says God wants to live with people. And when you really think about what a wild claim that is, then it makes sense that if people believed that, that they would be treating the temple with the utmost care and respect. It would be the focal point of their lives. A place where they have communion, relationship with God. But here is what happens when you hold something holy in your hands for too long: you are very liable to forget and lose sight of just how holy it is. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he found in the holiest place on earth, a lot of people treating the temple more or less as a place of business. A market; a place of transactions. And not just everyday transactions, but even semi-divine transactions: I will do this thing for the God, if the God will do this thing for me. I will give this, sacrifice this, say this prayer, if this God will give me some material benefit that I desire. Things like growth, holiness, conversion, transformation, peace, communion, the simple presence of God in your midst…those things don’t matter when God becomes (when people believe in him at all) some kind of vending machine. 

This is what Jesus finds when he rides into Jerusalem. Not with everyone certainly, but with a lot of people. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The prophet Jeremiah had witnessed the same thing and Jesus uses Jeremiah’s words: “my house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” His words struck a nerve. Jesus has been saying challenging and difficult things throughout his ministry, but now as he comes to the end of it, both publicly and privately, Jesus says words that come to the heart of the matter: we do not recognize God’s presence when it is right in front of us. We fail to appreciate God’s saving power. God’s life, which is shared with his people, becomes something we turn to, not for daily strength and holiness, but something we turn to when everything else has failed. Like Samuel Johnson’s description of patriotism, it becomes the last refuge of a scoundrel. 

Our Lord, who promised paradise to the thief on the cross next to him, no doubt saves scoundrels too. But if we believe that the Jesus who offered such compassion and such hope to a man who was so unworthy of it, if we believe that that Jesus is encountered here in some way, whether it is in moments of silent prayer and reflection, in studying and hearing his words in the scriptures, in the grace that is given to us in the sacraments, most especially the sacrament of his body and blood, his real presence in the bread and the wine, if we believe that Jesus is present here, then shouldn’t that be reflected in our lives? In our priorities? 

Have we become so used to the idea of God dwelling among us, that we fail to see, fail to recognize, what a revolutionary belief that really is? I hope we don’t. We have come to the holiest week in the year for Christians. Every year we proclaim in spectacular ways a truth that changes everything. The God of all creation, the God of the universe, comes to meet you. Your salvation, your hope, your life is coming to meet you. You personally. This God is coming to meet you in sacred spaces like temples and churches, this God is coming to meet you in sacred texts and sacred rituals. This God is coming to meet you in bread and wine. This God is coming to meet you in the cross, not only in his cross and suffering, but in your cross and suffering to. This God is coming to meet you in moments of triumph and in moments of defeat; in moments of new life and in moments of death. Most of all this God is coming to meet you in a resurrected body that is going to turn everything you know or that you think you know about life and death upside down. The God of scripture, which is the God of Jesus Christ, this is a God which we encounter. This is a God who comes to meet us. Even though we ignore him. Ignore his house. Ignore his commandments. He still comes to meet us. We will misunderstand him. We will say that he said things he didn’t say. We will crucify him and kill him. And still he comes to meet us again. What a remarkable thing; we should never take it for granted. The Lord still comes to meet us, even when we aren’t looking for him or don’t recognize him. The Lord comes to meet us, even when he is hidden from our eyes.

Opposing Jesus

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Sermon for April 3rd, 2022

Readings:

The gallery of European Paintings from 1250 to 1800, and the Medieval Art gallery, are my two favorite galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love to wander through them, and I go back to them again and again, I think in part, because the subject matter of most of the artwork in those two galleries is the life of Christ. One moment in the life of Christ after another. One snapshot after another, and one artist’s impression of Jesus’s story after another. All hanging there on the wall in a series of images that we walk past and take in. Yes, there are the occasional nature scenes and portraits of fancy Lords and Ladies, but the majority of the paintings in those galleries depict various scenes from the life of Jesus or other famous stories from the Bible.

 Say what you will about life in the pre-modern world, many people may not have been able to read the words of the Bible, but Biblical literacy in terms of knowing the stories of the Bible, well that was probably better than it is now. The stories of the Bible surrounded people in the visual arts. There, in those galleries, is the proof.

So as I walk through those galleries, what I see are moments in the life of Jesus as each artist has depicted them. Impressions really. They are telling me a story through the use of images. The paintings point to and direct me to a fuller story of the life of Jesus Christ, but they each only tell a portion of the story. There are things that the artist wants me to see that are painted directly on the canvas, but then there are always many, many more details that the artist doesn’t paint. There is always more going on that just what is shown. The artist often assumes that I know some of the background to the story. Sometimes there are images or symbols painted within the scene that are there to direct me to another part of the story. And sometimes the artist relies upon me to fill in some details myself. Artists are crafty like that. 

The way I feel walking through a gallery of religious art at the Met, is very similar to how I feel when reading through the gospels: you get lots of snippets, scenes and vignettes, but you also realize that there is usually a lot more to the story than the artist has set before you. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they give us images or depictions of moments and stories in Jesus’s life. And like at the Met, I can go back to these images or depictions again and again, and very often I will discover something new. A detail that I hadn’t noticed before. 

Look at the image that John has painted in the gospel passage you heard this morning: Jesus is the guest of honor at a dinner. Martha is there in the background, serving up dinner as usual, but her sister Mary is doing something rather strange. She is at Jesus’s feet with a bottle of perfume. She has poured the perfume all over his feet and she is wiping them with her hair. Such an odd thing to do, that is almost uncomfortably intimate. And we are told that there is this smell that just wafts up from the perfume and fills the air. And as we are thinking about this sweet smell of perfume we notice that the person sitting next to Jesus is Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother. 

Suddenly our minds are transported back to the last scene, because the last time we saw Lazarus in the last chapter, HE needed that perfume. He was four days dead and people could smell him outside the tomb. That is why that perfume of Mary’s was so strong, it was meant to cover up the smell of death. That is what that anointing oil was for. But Mary isn’t using the perfume on Lazarus, he is sitting at the table next to Jesus. Hopefully he’s had a bath since they took the burial cloths off him, but there he is alive and well. No, Mary is using the perfume on Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense, because if you remember from the last scene, the last picture John painted, Jesus proved that he had power over death. He raised Lazarus back to life, and there Lazarus sits reminding us that Jesus has power over death…and yet, Mary is on her knees anointing Jesus’s body like it is about to be buried. It just doesn’t make any sense.

And standing next to Jesus, leaning in to his ear is Judas. There he is pointing down to Mary disapprovingly, and pointing to Jesus too and saying, “don’t let her do this.” Stop this Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense. This is wasteful. Maybe Judas’s motives weren’t pure, but he did have a point: why should we waste burial perfume on a man that has proven he has power over death? Judas seems reasonable to me. But Jesus insists.

It seems a bit strange. What other pictures does John paint in his gospel? Well let’s walk on to the next one. We are in chapter 12 now, but as we enter chapter 13 we find ourselves in another dining room, only this time Jesus is the one on the floor on his knees and he is washing his disciples’ feet. And as Jesus comes up to Peter, Peter pushes back and says “No! Stop this Jesus. You will never wash my feet. You are our Lord and Master, what are you doing groveling on the floor like a servant? This doesn’t make any sense. And you know, Peter seems very reasonable to me. I wouldn’t want Jesus to see the ugly and dirty parts of me either. But Jesus insists. 

Strange. You know it occurs to me as I look at these two episodes or scenes in John’s gospel side by side, that very often throughout this gospel, John is careful to include somewhere in each scene he paints, someone that is opposing Jesus. In just about every scene, there is someone saying: “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen!” Stop Jesus! You can’t talk to me, I’m a Samaritan woman. Stop Jesus! You can’t heal on the sabbath. Stop Jesus! We don’t have enough food or money to feed these people. Stop Jesus! Stop saying you came down from heaven. Stop talking about your flesh as if it were bread. Stop Jesus! Don’t go to Bethany. Lazarus is dead. There’s nothing you can do there. It’s too dangerous. Jesus, stop this woman from washing your feet. Jesus, stop trying to wash my feet. Stop Jesus! Don’t go away. Don’t leave us. Don’t go to the cross. Stop Jesus! Don’t die! You don’t have to die do you? 

In all of these scenes there is someone that is trying to stop Jesus. There seems to be this theme of resistance to Jesus. One of the things about John’s gospel that can be a problem is that in many scenes John simply labels Jesus’s opposition or resistance as “the Jews.” It’s a problem because we are quick to forget that Jesus was a Jew, all of the disciples were Jews. Facts like that don’t matter when you are looking for a scapegoat. Throughout history, Christians have used John’s use of the generic term “the Jews” as an excuse for horrid persecutions. We have used it to paint Jewish people as enemies of Christ, because we always want someone else to be opposing Jesus. For two thousand years we have been looking for someone to blame for his death. But what I see, as I pass by all these images that John has painted of Jesus’s story, is that it’s not that simple. You know, just about everyone in this gospel, at some point or another, has a conflict with Jesus. Just about everyone at some point or another, says “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen. This doesn’t make sense.” And you know, sometimes they seem pretty reasonable.  Even his best friends. Peter, Judas, Martha, Jesus’s brothers, Thomas, all of the disciples resist Jesus. It would be so easy to just look at today’s scene from the gospel, and think, “ah, there’s Judas, he’s the bad guy.” But what I notice as I pass from one scene in John’s gospel to another, looking at the pictures he has painted, is that the people who are opposing Jesus, whether John calls them “the Jews,” or the Pharisees, or the disciples, or Peter, or Judas…I notice that in the right light, they look an awful lot like me. 

Just Like Us

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Sermon for March 20th, 2022

Readings:

The Bible has more to say about human nature than it does Divine nature. We learn more about mankind by reading the Bible, than we do about God. 

Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me here. I do believe the scriptures to be divinely inspired books, and I do believe that God reveals himself to us in them. They are a record of God many revelations of himself to us, and for us Christians, the supreme revelation of God was in the person of Jesus Christ, who we encounter in scripture. God is revealed to us in the Bible, but there is, as I suppose there should be, always an element of mystery surrounding God’s self-revelation. 

When Moses encounters the voice of God in the burning bush, he can’t wrap his head around it or figure it out. It is a mysterious thing to him, and he can only get so close. And when Moses asks God who he is, the response that he gets is “I am who I am.” Moses is told that this “I am” is the God of his ancestors, and Moses is told what this God is going to do for him, and Moses is eventually told what this God expects of him, but there is much about who this “I am” really is that remains shrouded in mystery. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who reveals so much to us about God’s nature, and who often refers to himself as “I am,” well much of our Lord’s life, particularly his interior life, remains shrouded in mystery as well. This is of course to be expected when encountering a being so much greater than ourselves, God is bound to be mysterious to us. So God is revealed to us in scripture, but it is always in a cloud of mystery.

What the scriptures are far less mysterious about, and what they have even more to say about, is human beings. The Bible has a lot to say about human beings and human nature. I’m sure there are plenty of atheists and unbelievers out there that think they have no use for the Bible because they question God’s existence, but let me tell you, the Bible has even more to say about who we are than it does who God is. And in case you don’t already know, human beings are a mess. 

We are a mess and we always have been. Now it would be easy to read the scriptures from a point of extreme condescension, looking at all the characters and going tsk, tsk, tsk, look at all these silly people making the same mistakes over and over again. All these Israelites are petty and argumentative, and God saves them and they forget, and God saves them again and they forget, and God tells them to do things and they don’t do it, and God saves them again and they forget again. It would be easy to sit back and be real self-satisfied and be all proud of ourselves that we are so much superior than them, more enlightened, more educated, more progressive, that is, until the moment comes, and it can come quite suddenly, when our illusions and delusions are shattered and we realize that all this time when we were looking down on our ancestors in the scriptures, we were actually looking in a mirror. 

You realize that you are the same mess that they were. You are not better than your ancestors. Please get that. You may think that you are more enlightened or more educated, or less superstitious, but the truth is that you are the same mess that they were, only worse because now you have this layer of arrogance poured on top that makes you think you are superior. I think this has gotten worse in modern times, because we like to think that ancient people were extremely ignorant and primitive and lived in a completely different world than we do, but human beings have always been prone to thinking that we are somehow superior to those that came before us. 

In the gospel today, there is this discussion between Jesus and his followers about two terrible tragedies that were fairly recent history: one a brutal massacre of some Galileans by Pilate and the other a building collapse that killed a number of people. And Jesus asks his followers: do you think you are better than these people? Do you think that you have so figured things out that these same things can’t happen to you? And his response is, NO! You are not better than these people. 

Paul says something similar in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul talks about the Israelites travelling through the desert and the mistakes that they made. Now here is something that Christians often do when reading the Old Testament, we like to think that we are inherently superior to the ancient Israelites or the Jews, we like to think that we are more faithful and that we have figured life out in a way that they haven’t, and Paul’s advice to some folks that are thinking that way is: watch out! If you think you are standing, mighty and proud, watch out! You might be about to stumble and fall yourself. Don’t put God to the test by thinking that you are superior to your ancestors.

The answer that both Paul and Jesus give, the solution to this dilemma, is that we are to live lives of continual repentance, always remembering that our salvation comes from God, not from ourselves. We may learn from our ancestors mistakes, but we can only truly do that when we remember that we are not superior to them. The Bible becomes so much more meaningful to read when you finally realize that the stories it contains aren’t about some mythical God dealing with a primitive and foreign people, they are about a living mystery that has a long history of saving people just like us. 

Peace is something worth fighting for.

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Sermon for March 13th, 2022

The Second Sunday in Lent

Readings:

Jesus is going about doing what he is supposed to be doing. He is casting out demons. He is healing the sick. He is preaching. He is calling people to repentance, to live differently, to adjust their values, and to prepare for God’s kingdom, because God’s kingdom IS coming, and when it does come the world is going to be in for a major sorting out. Jesus has a purpose and a mission. Jesus knows who he is and he knows what he’s about. 

It is a powerful thing to know who you are and to know what you are about.

There is a great scene from the TV show Parks and Recreation, where the character Ron Swanson, who is a notorious conservative and a die-hard meat-eater, is sitting in a restaurant looking at the menu and tells the waiter he will have a number 8. The waiter replies:

That is a party platter, Sir. It serves 12 people.

And Ron says: I know what I’m about son!

It’s a great scene, and it is very funny, but it highlights how that character knows who he is and what he is about, even in ridiculous ways. It is a great thing to know what you’re about. It isn’t just funny, it’s powerful. Jesus knows what he’s about.

So when the Pharisees come up to Jesus and tell him that he needs to watch out for Herod and run away, Jesus basically thumbs his nose and says: you go tell Herod this. I have work to do. I am going to be casting out demons and curing people today. I will be casting out demons and curing people tomorrow. I will be casting out demons and curing people three days from now. I am going to do the work that I need to do as long as I need to do it. And when I am done, then I will move on because I know I have other work to do too. Jesus knows what he’s about and he isn’t going to let some petty tyrant keep him from his work and mission. Not even if that tyrant threatens to kill him. 

Jesus knows that what he is doing is dangerous and risky, but he also knows that the real danger isn’t Herod, it is what is waiting for him in Jerusalem. The real showdown isn’t between Jesus and some earthly King. It isn’t between Jesus and Herod; it isn’t between Jesus and Pilate; and it isn’t between Jesus and the temple authorities. The real showdown is between Jesus and the devil. Satan, darkness and the power of death…that is the real enemy and ground zero for that fight is going to be on a cross just outside of the gates of Jerusalem. That is where Jesus is headed and he knows it. He wants to go and gather up the children of Jerusalem like a mother hen with her chicks, to protect them from foxes like Herod, but it’s hard, because you know the devil likes to divide us and scatter us and that makes it easier for foxes and other predators to pick us off. It is a hard and dangerous thing that Jesus is about to do, trying to save people, especially saving them from themselves. What should he do? Should he run and hide himself in a cave somewhere until all the Herods have gone? When will that be?

Should Jesus make peace with the devil so that he doesn’t have to go to the cross? It seems to me that if Jesus wanted to make peace with the devil he would have done it last weekend. You know, when we read about Jesus in the desert being tempted. Jesus could have avoided hunger and privation, he could have had ultimate political and financial security, and he could have lived with this fantasy of never getting hurt and never dying. Jesus could have had all those things if he had just listened to the devil and made a deal with him. But he chose not to do that. Making peace with evil was not what Jesus was about. 

You know when a lot of people talk about peace, and use the word peace, I think most of the time what they really mean is “not fighting.” Can’t we all just put down our weapons and walk away from conflict? Hey that sounds good to me, I’m not a huge fan of conflict. I like it when people get along, and for that matter I like being comfortable and I like not worrying about people trying to kill me. But is that really peace? Living in a world where nothing is worth fighting for and evil always gets what it wants? It seems to me that if that was the sort of peace Jesus wanted, that when the Pharisees told him that Herod wanted him dead he would have turned tail and headed in the other direction. But Jesus didn’t do that. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace, but I wonder if his peace is a lot different than the peace that politicians often promise us. Jesus said he would give us his peace, but he also said it isn’t peace as the world gives it. Jesus also told us he would bring a sword and division. 

People throw the word peace around as if it is some sort of magical incantation or talisman. Peace, peace, peace. We are praying for peace, and we should always pray for peace, and we should always pray for our enemies, but praying for our enemies does not suddenly make them not our enemies. And praying for peace does not mean that some things are not worth fighting for. The war in Europe could end tomorrow if the Ukraine would just give Russian their land, but is that peace? What is the best way to spread peace in the world, by ignoring evil, giving in to it, or by confronting it? 

We all know that when Jesus finally rode into Jerusalem and rode his donkey up to the temple mount that he had a few things to say to the money changers there before he drove them out, well many hundreds of years before Jesus another prophet, the prophet Jeremiah had some harsh words for the people in Jerusalem too, especially the prophets and priests. Jeremiah said: “from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Another translation of that passage has it: “They offer healing offhand for the wounds of my people, saying ‘all is well, all is well,’ when nothing is well.”

Praying for peace, desiring peace, does not mean that we are called to ignore evil when it is right in front of us. Praying for peace does not mean that we sit back and imagine that it is just going to fall out of the sky, or we nurse some wild fantasy that human beings are going to wake up someday and just start getting along and holding hands and acting completely rationally. Peace doesn’t come from doing nothing. Peace, true peace, comes from knowing who you are and what you are about. Peace doesn’t come from ignoring evil, peace can only really come when it is confronted. Yes, it is dangerous and risky and may involve suffering and even death. Jesus knows about that more than any of us do, but peace is something worth fighting for. Peace is something worth fighting for. We have had relative peace in our country for a long time. But it didn’t just happen to us. It didn’t fall out of the sky. We have had peace because people fought for it. And not just the soldiers on the field, especially them, but also people at home who delt with rations and gas shortages, and welded ships and bought war bonds and the list goes on and on and on. People did whatever they had to do. They made drastic changes to their lives, and they did so quickly, because they understood what was at stake. The struggle for peace involves everyone being able to see the bigger picture, to make sacrifices and do their duty for the common good. The struggle for peace involves knowing who you are and what you are about, and having the courage to stand up for that. Yes, we can and should pray for peace, but there are other things we need to pray for as well: courage, fortitude, strength, determination, wisdom, and an understanding and respect for right and wrong. We need to pray that God will remind us of who we are and what we are about and that we will have the courage to follow where he leads, and confront evil when we are called to do so, because without that we will never have peace, not true peace.

Yes, it would be wonderful if there were no Herods in the world. But there are Herods in the world. And until God’s kingdom is fulfilled and the world gets sorted out by the one true judge, there always will be Herods in the world. We can let them intimidate us with threats of suffering and death, or we can be confident in who we are and what we are about, and get on with being who God has called us to be and doing the work that God has called us to do. That is where true peace comes from. 

Before I end, let us turn back to the Psalm for a moment this morning. The psalms always have a word for us, in just about every situation, and today is no different. Let’s say the first four verses together again shall we?

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

2 When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, *
it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who 
stumbled and fell.

3 Though an army should encamp against me, *
yet my heart shall not be afraid;

4 And though war should rise up against me, *
yet will I put my trust in him.

You will become the very thing you hate

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Sermon for February 20th, 2022

Readings:

So first this morning a little bible refresher course:

Joseph was the son of the patriarch Jacob. He had eleven brothers who were extremely jealous of his relationship with their father. So jealous in fact, that they decided to get rid of him. First by throwing him down into a pit, and then by selling him as a slave to some traders headed down into Egypt. They didn’t exactly kill him, but they might as well have. They turned their backs on him and basically left him for dead. That is what they told their father, that he was dead. 

But Joseph doesn’t die. Through a number of circumstances he actually manages to prosper in Egypt. His ability to interpret dreams and look to what they may mean for the future eventually puts him in a position of great influence with Pharoah. Despite the horrible thing that happened to him in the past, Joseph is a very future-oriented person. And this orientation actually leads him to help save Egypt from famine.

And now Joseph is in a very unique position. He is a powerful man in Egypt. Egypt, through his own leadership, has stores of food set by. His brothers, the very brothers that abandoned him to slavery and death, have shown up on his doorstep begging for food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he knows who they are. It is a scene right out of a prime-time television drama or a soap-opera. It would make a great musical. 

How many people who have been really hurt would love to be in Joseph’s position? He is in the prime position to get revenge on his brothers for what they did to him. They sold him into slavery. They left him for dead. Nobody would fault Joseph if he told his brothers to go to hell. It would seem like justice served. And you know, maybe it is a human instinct, but we all like to see people get what is coming to them from time to time. If we didn’t, television programs and movies would tend to end a whole lot differently. We like to see justice served. We want the bad guys to get it in the end. But that’s not what happens here. 

Why? Why does Joseph feed his brothers, reconcile with them and forgive them? Well I think it is because Joseph recognizes a few key things: the first is God’s power to turn any bad thing into a good thing. Human beings do terrible things all the time, and while God may never approve of the bad things we do, God always has the power to take that bad thing and make it work to serve some positive good. We see this happen all the time. In the wake of an immense tragedy or disaster, people band together and help one another and care for one another. In life we make bad decisions and wrong turns, but sometimes those wrong turns lead us to places where good things happen. Joseph’s brothers did a terrible thing to him, but God managed to make something wonderful come out of it. Joseph recognizes God’s power to transform our circumstances and to turn bad things into good things. 

The second thing that Joseph recognizes is that the future matters more than the past. He hasn’t forgotten what happened to him by any means. He hasn’t forgotten the past, but he isn’t living there. He is living in the future and focusing on the relationship that he could have with his brothers and their families. 

The third thing that Joseph recognizes is that if he turns his back on his brothers now that the circumstances have changed and he is in the position of power, if Joseph takes his revenge and abandons his brothers for dead, then he becomes just like them. Joseph has a choice to make: he can choose to be like his brothers, or he can choose to be different. He chooses to be different.

Here is a divine law: you can write this down and there is plenty of scripture to back this up. I could also stand here for days and give you one historical example of this law in action after another. If you allow yourself to hate someone or something, you condemn yourself to become them. You will become the very thing you hate. Be careful about who and what you hate in this world. If you let that emotion fester and grown within you, if you let hatred control your thoughts and actions, you are destined to become just like the thing you are reacting against. Watch for it. Abused people very often turn into abusers. Political extremists from the left and the right are sometimes very hard to tell apart, because they talk and act just like each other even though they are supposed to be polar opposites. Their mutual hatred turns them into the very thing they are reacting against. British historian David Starkey has what he calls “Starkey’s law of revolutions” and it is this: Revolutions reproduce the worst aspects of the regime they replace. Revolutions reproduce the worst aspects of the regime they replace. Hatred that is nursed over past wrongs and the thirst for revenge upon the wrong-doers leads to this perpetual cycle of people becoming the very thing that they supposedly hated. Political parties and regimes do this all the time. Individuals do it too. And when you point out a wrong that is being committed, the response you often get is: “well so-and-so did it to me first.” It’s only fair! They did it first. That is a child’s argument. That is essentially saying that if somebody did a bad thing to me, then I am free to do what I like in response. I am exempt from having to consider the moral implications of my own actions. It is a child’s argument, but it is very seductive. How often do we see supposed adults making that very same argument?

A number of us are reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book on morality right now. It is a superb book, and one of the chapters we discussed this week was on the idea of victimhood. Rabbi Sacks discusses how a number of people managed to survive the holocaust and rebuild their lives afterwards. One survivor comments that “there is a difference between victimization and victimhood. All of us are likely to be victimized at some stage. We will suffer abuse, injury, ill fortune or failure. We live exposed to forces beyond our control. Victimization comes from the outside. But victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We develop a particular kind of mindset, a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors.”

Rabbi Sacks adds that “there is a fateful difference between the two. I can’t change the past. But I can change the future. Looking only back, I will see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I eventually want to be.”

You cannot control what other people do to you. You cannot choose how other people behave. You can however, choose how to respond to them. You have control over your response. You can choose to love your enemies. You can choose to do good to those that hate you. You can bless those who curse you. You can pray for those who abuse you. These aren’t just nice things to do for others. They are key to not becoming the very thing you hate. If you want a better future, then don’t let the past and past hurts dictate your thoughts and actions. Joseph has not forgotten the past, but he isn’t letting it control him or dictate his future. He has a choice to make. Does he want to be like his brothers or not?

From people who need something into people who have something.

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Sermon for February 6th, 2022. Annual Meeting Sunday

Readings:

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” 

This is how Simon Peter first responds to Jesus when Jesus tells him to go fishing again. He basically says: “well, what do you think I have been doing all this time?” Peter is tired, hungry, probably cold, and then the man who has been telling the crowds “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” that same man is now telling him that he needs to row out from shore, go back to work, and drop his nets again. So much for rest.

You know, I think it is important when we are talking about Andrew and Peter and James and John to remember that when we talk about them as fishermen, we aren’t talking about a bunch of weekend anglers that just want to have some beers on the lake with their buddies in their free time. This is their livelihood. Empty nets mean empty pockets. Those fish didn’t just represent something to toss in the frying pan for supper. The fish was food, but it was also their security. It was their healthcare, it was their retirement, it was the mortgage, it was their children’s tuition. That empty net means more to Peter than you think. Peter needs fish. 

And maybe it is because Peter so desperately needs fish that he is willing to go out again when Jesus tells him to. Maybe he figures what else does he have to lose. He’s tired now, he’ll be more tired in a couple hours. Maybe it’s worth trusting Jesus, or at least giving him a chance. So Peter says, “alright, if you say so, I will do it. Let’s give it a shot.” They row out from shore, let down their nets, and well…you know what happens. They catch more fish than they know what to do with. Peter needs help getting the net full of fish into the boat. 

And Peter is so stunned. He can’t imagine why this is happening to him. He’s just an average working man. He’s not special. And he knows that he’s a sinner. He’s not some holy roller that sits in the synagogue all day reading the holy books. He doesn’t deserve this blessing. He’s not worthy of it. But Jesus blesses him anyways and it completely changes his life. Completely changes it. There is a transformation that happens in Peter in this gospel passage and I want you to watch for it because it would be easy to miss it. It’s critically important though.

In the beginning of this gospel passage Peter is a man who needs something. He needs fish, that is his pressing concern. Actually Peter probably needs many things, he needs fish, but he also needs rest, he needs food, he’s aware that he’s a sinner so he also needs forgiveness, he needs some sense of holiness or righteousness or relationship with God, he knows that that is missing in his life too. Peter is a man in need. He starts out as a man who needs something, and then he has this encounter with Jesus. He takes a chance on Jesus even though he is tired and worn out. He decides to trust him and not only is he blessed with the fish that he had spent all night looking for, watch what happens when he gets to shore: when Peter and James and John get to shore they leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Everything, the fish, the boats, the nets, they leave all that behind to become fishers of men. After Peter has this encounter with Jesus, suddenly those things that he thought he needed don’t seem so important anymore. Peter started out as a man who needs something, but he has been transformed into a man who has something. He has Jesus. He has a relationship with God. He has grace. He has forgiveness. He has a message about God’s miraculous power, and Peter hasn’t even seen the empty tomb yet. The really stunning earth-shaking miracles haven’t even happened yet, but Peter has already been transformed by meeting Jesus and trusting him. 

He has been transformed from a man who needs something to a man who has something. That is the difference between being a fisher of fish and a fisher of men. When you are a fisher of fish, you are catching something to keep. It is for your own profit or your own empty stomach. It is something you need. But when you are a fisher of men, you don’t do it for your own benefit, you do it for theirs. You aren’t getting something, you are giving something away. You have something they need. You are giving people Jesus. You are giving them a relationship with God and forgiveness and grace and everything that comes with that relationship, including the promise and hope of eternal life. To be a fisher of men is not about catching something that you need, it is about knowing that you have something that others need and being willing to share it with them. That is why Peter can walk away from his boat and all the fish at the end of this gospel: Jesus has changed him from a man who needs something into a man who has something, and what Peter has now is more precious than all the fish in the lake, because Peter will never have less of Jesus by sharing him with others. God’s grace works differently than human economies: with God’s grace the more you give it away, the more you get back in return. 

That is the transformative power of meeting Jesus. It isn’t just that Jesus can fill your nets with fish. Obviously, Jesus has the power to do that. Jesus can and will see to your needs, but the more amazing thing is his power to completely reprioritize your life to the point where the things you thought you needed now seem insignificant and you can walk away from them or not focus on them. Jesus can transform us from people who need something, to people who have something. People who know they have something of immense value that the world needs. People who have something that has the power to change, and yes even save, lives. That is what happens when you really meet Jesus.

Every week we come here to meet Jesus. We meet Jesus in baptism, we meet Jesus in the proclamation of Holy Scripture and in listening to his teachings, and we meet Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion where we are regularly fed and nourished by his divine life. We meet Jesus in the place in so many ways, through the sacraments most fully, but also in music, in prayer, in art, and even (as hard as it may be to believe) we meet Jesus in each other. And you know what, that meeting should change us. We come here every week as a people who need something: people who need guidance, people who need forgiveness, people who need courage or hope. And when we walk back out those doors, we should be walking out as people who have something. We should be walking out as people who have met Jesus once again. As people who know that we have something, and have something that the rest of the world needs. And the best thing of all, it is something we can give away and never have less of. That is what it means to be a fisher of men. It is having something of immeasurable value that you can give to others.

So often when we talk about Church growth and evangelism and “catching” new Christians or new parishioners, we think about it in terms of the benefit that it will be to us, or our needs as a parish community. We think about it like we think about catching fish for supper. It’s human. We all do it. Every parish does it. You’re here five minutes and we are already measuring you for a cassock and trying to convince you to serve on the vestry. It is so easy for us to become so focused on what we need, or what we think we need, that we forget or lose sight of what we have. And that is never more true than when we are talking about parish finances. You’ve probably already seen our budget for 2022, if not you will at the meeting later. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a little scary. Not so much for this year, but five or ten years down the road and the loss of five or ten tithers or faithful givers and we could eventually be faced with some very hard decisions, as many, many churches already have. Do I worry about that? Of course I do. I have a lot of sympathy with Peter at the beginning of this gospel; sometimes it feels like we fish and fish and fish and at the end of the day still have an empty net. It is so easy when you have needs that you become so focused on them that that is all that you see. And then evangelism becomes about balancing the budget, you worry about getting new people to help us pay the bills and you start to think that we need new people, more than they need what we have. And that is where we fail. Peter and James and John, they knew what a treasure they had. They knew just how transformative an encounter with Jesus can be, and if we don’t know it we will never really grow this church. Certainly not the way that they did. 

Because the truth is that we have something that other people need. We have grace; we have hope; we have an intimate relationship with God; we have Jesus. We need to know that and know it deep down. Now I’m not suggesting that you need to walk up to every person on the street and say “you need Jesus” although some days I am tempted, but I am suggesting that when you leave here every week you should do so as someone who has just been given something that the world needs and is ready to share it with them. People need Jesus and we’ve got him. We may not have a monopoly on him, other churches may have him too, but we’ve got him. He is in the boat with us. We’ve got a lot of things going for us as a church and I could stand up here and brag all morning about the choir or the kids, or any number of things that we do well, but at the end of the day what matters most is that this is a place where people meet Jesus. That is the most precious thing on earth. That is more important than anything we might need, or think that we need. Because Jesus has the power to transform us from people who need something into people who have something. So let’s let him do that. We have something that the world needs; we have a blessing to share with others. That is the real difference between fishing for fish and fishing for me: When you are fishing for fish it is the one who is fishing that has the most to gain, but when you are fishing for men, the one who stands to get the biggest blessing is the one who is caught.

Be a blessing from God

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Sermon for January 30th, 2022

Readings:

In this morning’s gospel passage Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. He was just baptized by John in the river Jordan, and you may recall that immediately after his baptism he spent forty days in the desert being tempted by Satan. Jesus has now returned from the desert, and he has come back to his hometown of Nazareth to begin his ministry in earnest. It is a sabbath day, and Jesus is in the synagogue and he chooses to read a passage of scripture and comment on it. But Jesus quickly encounters a problem that many of us preachers face: his words make people want to kill him. 

In order to really understand this morning’s gospel passage though, and why people get so mad at Jesus, we need to back up a few verses and hear the text that Jesus was preaching from. 

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22

Now you may wonder, what’s the big deal about that scripture? It’s a lovely scripture and we often hear it read at funerals. Why do people get so angry?

Well at first they don’t. At first when Jesus says that this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, people smile and nod their heads and say “oh, well isn’t that nice, God is going to send us someone who is going to fix all our problems.” They are all very pleased with what Jesus has to say until he explains it a bit more. You see, despite the fact that Jesus is just beginning his ministry, apparently he has already performed some miracles, because people have heard that he has done some amazing things at Capernaum, which is the lakeside town down the road. People are no doubt hoping that he will work a few miracles there. Afterall, he is their hometown boy, why shouldn’t he favor them with some miracles? 

But Jesus crushes their expectations. He reminds them of two other prophets Elijah and Elisha, who both performed miracles, not for their own people, but for foreigners. Jesus talked about the fact that God wants to bless other people, and people were so filled with rage, that they tried to kill him. Now Jesus was able to slip away, so this isn’t the end of his story, but had it been up to the mob it would have been. 

Here is the thing: people really love it when you tell them that God wants to bless them. People eat that up. I could stand here and talk about Jesus wanting us to have life and have it in abundance; I could talk about all the blessings of heaven; I could talk about answered prayers; I could talk about the amazing grace that God gives us every day through the forgiveness of sins, and through sharing in his life through baptism and communion; I could talk about all that and you will all nod in agreement and smile. You won’t shout out “amens” because we aren’t that kind of church, but you would approve of my words nonetheless. 

But when a preacher gets up and starts talking about how God wants to bless other folks…well that’s a different story. Especially if the preacher has the audacity to say that God wants YOU to go and bless someone else. To be fair, you might not try to kill me, but you probably won’t be sending me a muffin basket to congratulate me on delivering such a fine sermon. Now part of this is human nature. Pretty much all of us have some pain and misery in our lives. It doesn’t matter if you are dirt poor or rich as Croesus; everybody suffers in some way in this life. Physical pain, emotional pain, anxiety, fear….we all have it. It may come in different forms depending on our circumstances, but we all have it. And all of us, every one of us are in need of God’s grace. We all want to be blessed by God in some way. If you didn’t want to have a relationship with God, I would venture to say that you wouldn’t be here this morning, or wouldn’t be watching. 

But this is where human nature rubs up against divine nature. Because divine nature is self-giving. God’s nature is to love and to bless; to give willingly and freely. That is the love that Paul is talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. So often we hear that passage read at weddings, but the love Paul is talking about isn’t romantic love or even lust. The word for love that Paul is using here is caritas, which is where our word charity comes from. In fact in the King James Version this word is translated as charity. And it doesn’t mean slipping a few dollars begrudgingly into the poor box, it means having a love for others that is self-giving and that is focused on their well-being and not your own. As Paul says, even if he gave away all his money and possessions, if he is doing it so that he may boast, and not actually for the love of someone else, then it really doesn’t mean the same thing. 

Now we are all sinners, and we are all going to be a bit self-centered from time to time. That is a part of our problem as a human race; that is a part of why there is so much suffering and strife in the world. But we are also called by Jesus to share in his divine life, which we know to be a life of self-giving love. So here is my advice: if you are suffering, or in pain, or have stuff going on in your life; if you are in need of a blessing from God…well first off pray for it, make your needs known to God because God can fix things that you can’t, and then go out and be a blessing to someone else. Go and bless someone else. Bless someone who can’t pay you back or do anything for you. Bless someone who you think doesn’t deserve it. Get your mind off of your own needs for a while and serve someone else. God can and will bless you, but you need to let God use you, like God used the prophets of old to be a blessing to others. If you really want to get a blessing from God, learn how to be a blessing from God.