No Power or All Power: The Devil’s Two tricks.

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Sermon for Sunday, June 9th, 2018.

Readings:

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

 

Eve’s fateful words from the Book of Genesis. Eve is trying to ease her guilt; she is trying to shift the blame for her transgression, but nonetheless the words she says are true; the serpent did trick her. The serpent tricked Eve into thinking that God couldn’t be trusted; that God wasn’t true to his word; that God for some reason wanted to withhold good things from his children. The serpent tricked Eve into trusting him and while he was at it he tricked Adam too. Adam won’t take responsibility for listening to the serpent; he blames Eve and indirectly he even blames God for his downfall, saying: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” In other words: this is your fault God, says Adam.

 

Well I’m sorry Adam, I don’t buy it. You knew what you were doing when you ate of the fruit. The serpent duped you too. Because that’s what the serpent does. He is a trickster. Like any good trickster or con-man he goes by several names; he has several aliases: the serpent, the accuser, the devil, Satan, even Beelzebul, but no matter what name he goes by or which scripture you find him in, he is always up to the same no good: tricking God’s children into misplacing their trust.

 

That’s the root of it all you know. All the evil in the world. It all comes down to misplaced trust: humans putting their trust in the wrong things. The bible spends all of two chapters talking about how the almighty God created a beautiful world filled with good things, but then in chapter three of the Book of Genesis, it gets right to the meat of the issue: why the world doesn’t seem so good anymore. What’s the root of the problem? Well the problem begins with a character that the bible describes as shrewd, subtle or cunning. The root of the problem is a trickster and the people who are willing to trust him.

 

Now I must admit, that preaching on the devil makes me a little nervous. Not that I am overly worried about what he is going to do to me; I’m frankly a little more concerned about what y’all are going to do to me; because in my experience when it comes to the devil people frequently fall into one of two categories: there are those that don’t believe that he exists at all, and then there are the people that think that he reigns supreme. There are the people who don’t believe in him and then there are the people who are terrified of him, and I am here to wade in the water right in the middle this morning. You see, I think that the devil, who we know to be a trickster, has two main tricks up his sleeve: he will either convince us that he has no power, or he will convince us that he has all power. No power, or all power. If he can convince us of one of those two things, then he can draw us away from the trusting in the power of God.

 

In his preface to “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis wrote:

 

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

 

Equal and opposite errors: to either deny the devil or to become obsessed with him. I think that is just as true now as when Lewis wrote those words. People either want to dismiss all this as pre-scientific fable, or they want to watch movies like the Omen and the Exorcist, terrified at what the devil may do to them, but how often do people want to talk about or focus on the power that God has over the devil?

Isn’t it funny, if you stand up and say the devil doesn’t exist, people are with you. If you stand up and say that the world is going to hell and evil is running this world unchecked, people are with you. But if you stand up and say that God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit is at work in this world casting the devil out, that’s when people think you are crazy. When you stand up and say that God can be trusted, and that God’s power is greater than any other power in this world, that is when people wanna lock you up.

 

It seems to me, that that is what is happening to our Lord in the gospel today. People think that Jesus is either crazy or possessed. If they think that the devil doesn’t exist, then they are probably inclined to think that Jesus is out of his mind and needs to be restrained. If they think that the devil has great power, then they probably think that that demonic power is how Jesus is performing these miracles. Either way, many people around Jesus are missing what is really going on. They are so focused on the devil’s power that they can’t see God’s power at work. What they don’t see is that God is at work correcting the damage that was done when humans first misplaced their trust. God is casting Satan out and inviting his children back into relationship with him. God is proving that he is the one who is trustworthy; he is the one who is faithful; he is the one who is powerful. Jesus is no trickster; he is the anti-trickster.

 

I know that in some circles it is still fashionable to question the existence of the devil. Some people want to say that this serpent stuff is just a fable; that Satan and the devil are just mythical characters created to convey an idea. Well, at this point in my life and ministry I have seen enough and experienced enough that I am less inclined to fall for that trick of the devil. I believe he exists, although I doubt that he usually manifests himself in spinning heads and pea soup as popular drama would have us believe. As I read the gospels, I can also have no doubt that Jesus believed he was real. I must admit though, that I am sometimes susceptible to fall for that second trick of the devil; sometimes I am inclined to overestimate his power. I am inclined sometimes to look out at the world and wonder if evil has been given free rein. Sometimes my own cynicism about evil in the world prevents me from seeing God at work, at that is just as bad as believing that the devil doesn’t exist. In either case I am distracted from witnessing the true power of God at work in the world.

 

I need to be reminded that just as the gospels leave us no room to doubt that Jesus believes in the devil, they also leave us no room to doubt that Jesus has power over him. If we take the gospels seriously then we will realize that we need neither to succumb to denial on the one hand, nor fear on the other. Trying to figure out whether the devil has no power or all power; that is a trick the devil plays so that we won’t recognize the true power of God. We shouldn’t be drawn into that one way or the other. What we do need to take seriously is the power that God has over the devil. What we need to take seriously is the power of Jesus to silence the devil and his lies. What we need to take seriously is the power that God has demonstrated to cast the serpent out and to bring his children home. That is a power that is real. That is a power we can put our trust in. And after all deciding what power to put your trust in, well that’s what it’s all about.

 

 

Pooh and the Holy Trinity

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday in the church calendar when we remember and celebrate a fundamental Christian doctrine of God, that has also befuddled Christians and non-Christians alike for centuries. Since the Trinity can be such a hard concept to understand, I decided to turn to one of my favorite philosophers for advice and guidance this morning: Winnie the Pooh.

 

It is a very windy day and Pooh and Piglet are sitting in the Thoughtful Spot and wondering, when Pooh has an idea:

 

“Let’s go and see everybody,” said Pooh.

 

Piglet thought that they ought to have a reason for going to see everybody, like looking for small or organizing an expotition, if Pooh could think of something.

 

Pooh could.

 

“We’ll go because it’s Thursday,” he said, “and we’ll go to wish everybody a Very Happy Thursday. Come on, Piglet.”

 

So Pooh and Piglet go on their rounds visiting everyone in the Hundred Acre Wood. Eventually they come to the house of Rabbit.

“We’ve come to wish you a very Happy Thursday,” said Pooh.

“Why, what’s going to happen on Thursday?” asked Rabbit, and when Pooh had explained, and Rabbit, whose life was made up of important things, said “Oh, I thought you’d really come about something,”…they sat down for a little…and by-and-by Pooh and Piglet went on again.

 

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has brain.”

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has brain.”

There was a long silence.

“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

 

Pooh is brilliant. Pooh understands that sometimes the greatest barrier to understanding something is our own brain. Rabbit’s life is made up of so-called “important things.” Rabbit is clever and busy. Rabbit must constantly use logic, smarts, good sense. Rabbit likes to plant his vegetables neatly in rows, with everything labeled. Rabbit is very practical like that, which is why he is befuddled when Pooh and Piglet just show up on a random Thursday. Rabbit wants to understand what Pooh and Piglet are up to, but his brain just won’t let him. It’s a shame really, because if Rabbit could just stop trying to be clever for a bit, if he could try thinking with his heart instead of his brain, then he might just look up and see two dear friends that love him and want to share joy with him, for no reason at all. Just because it’s Thursday. That’s all that Pooh and Piglet were up to; they just wanted to spend time with their friends. They wanted to share joy, not for any particular reason, just for love. Love never needs a reason. Love is always its own reason. Rabbit is clever. Rabbit has brain. Rabbit can reason, but none of those things can help you understand love, and if you don’t understand love, you might as well not understand anything.

 

Children have this unique ability: children can think with both their hearts and their brains at the same time. Somewhere along the way we figure out that we are clever, that we have brains, and we start turning that heart off. We are taught that everything must be reasonable and rational; we are taught that our deepest and most profound thoughts happen up here in our heads and not down here in our hearts; but maybe Pooh is right; maybe some things can’t be understood with the brain.

 

Gallons of ink have been spilled by priests and theologians trying to explain the Holy Trinity, but we can’t get our heads around it. No matter how hard we try, we can’t fully understand it, it doesn’t make sense, but maybe that is because we are trying to be a little too much like Rabbit. Maybe we use our brains more than our hearts. This week, as I was sitting in my Thoughtful spot and wondering, I began to ponder how Pooh might approach the Holy Trinity.

 

Tapping his head saying: “think, think, think,” I think Pooh would quickly give up trying to make sense out of this idea with his head, being a bear of very little brain anyways, and he would look at it with his heart.

 

If he did, Pooh might see that:

 

All of the beauty of the Hundred Acre wood and everything in it, including every drop of honey, and every bee that makes honey, was created by God, for no reason at all, just for love.

 

That same God loved Christopher Robin so much, that when he (and all other boys and girls) was in trouble and in danger of being lost, he became a human just like him so that he could find him and save him, not for any reason,  just for love.

 

And that same God wasn’t content to just sit in one place, but moves about through all of creation just like the wind on a blustery day, inspiring his friends, guiding them and well, just wanting to be with them, not for any reason, just because he loves them.

 

I think Pooh wouldn’t worry too much about what he doesn’t understand, but would simply rejoice in what has been revealed to him. In fact, I know that is what he would do. At the end of The House at Pooh Corner, when Pooh learns that Christopher Robin is going to be leaving him and going off to this mysterious place called school, where he is going to learn about Europe and Kings and Queens and Knights and such things, Pooh asks Christopher Robin if he can be made a knight too. So Christopher Robin takes a stick and touches him on the shoulder and says: “Rise, Sir Pooh de Bear, most faithful of all my Knights.”

 

So Pooh rose and sat down and said “thank you,” which is the proper thing to say when you have been made a knight, and he went into a dream again, in which he and Sir Pomp and Sir Brazil and Factors lived together with a horse, and were faithful knights to Good King Christopher Robin…and every now and then he shook his head and said to himself “I’m not getting it right.” Then he began to think of all the things Christopher Robin would want to tell him when he came back from wherever he was going to, and how muddling it would be for a bear of very little brain to try and get them right in his mind. “So, perhaps,” he said sadly to himself, “Christopher Robin won’t tell me any more,” and he wondered if being a faithful knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things.

 

Being a faithful knight means that you just go on being faithful, without being told things; without understanding things. We adults are clever. We have brains, but brains are meant to understand earthly things. If you want to understand heavenly things, try thinking with your heart. Maybe that is why our Lord said that: “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe a part of being born again, means learning to approach God with the faith of a child again. Children, like Pooh Bear, can think with their hearts. If we could look at the Trinity with the eyes of a child, we just might see God in all his glory; we might see that the force at the center of the universe is a grand, mysterious and wonderful being of unreasonable love, and we might rejoice that that God loves us, and wants to be with us, for no reason at all, just for love. We adults may not be able to understand the Holy Trinity, but I’m willing to bet that Pooh does.

Power by God to proclaim the Power of God

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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Sermon for May 13th, 2018

Readings:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Under His Feet

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Ascension Day Sermon 2018

Readings:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

 

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

 

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

And isn’t that just like our God?

The world doesn’t want you here

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Sermon for May 6th, 2018

Readings:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Wolves and Hired Hands

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Sermon for April 22nd, 2018

Readings:

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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