Keep your mouth shut

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Sermon for June 20th, 2021

Readings:

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

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Job has been severely tested. 

Job was a good man. Righteous, honest, worshipped God, did all the right things. Followed the rules, obeyed the laws. Job did everything right, and yet what we find in scripture is a man suffering beyond belief. Job has lost his wealth, his health and his family. The only thing that Job has left are three friends, and you know the old saying that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Well that pretty much describes Job’s friends. Because at first when Job is suffering they just sit with him and mourn with him, and if they could have just left it at that they would have been good friends indeed, but they don’t. They can’t keep their mouths shut.

Incidentally, as an aside, I spent years in hospice and hospital chaplaincy, and I have spent a lot of time doing what we call Clinical Pastoral Education, reflecting and learning about ministry to the sick and dying, and I think I can sum up all the wisdom I gained from that experience and those years in ministry in four words: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. When you encounter someone who is in pain, who is sick, suffering or grieving, the best thing that you can do is just be there with them. Stand beside them, sit beside them, bring them a casserole if you want, but just be with them. Obviously, if their suffering is something simple, and you have the power to do something to help them you do that. But a lot of the time suffering isn’t simple, and helping them isn’t as simple as fetching someone a pill or a glass of water. There is no pill that will make the pain of death or grief go away. And sometimes sickness isn’t easily diagnosed or treated either. Some things are chronic, and some pain, especially emotional pain, goes deep. The best thing you can do is just be with people that are suffering. Be with them. Don’t let them suffer alone. Listen to their cries; listen to their story. If you try to explain or explain away someone’s suffering you are likely just to cause more pain. There are not magic words in ministry, but there is presence. You can just be with people, and that is a powerful thing.

If Job’s friends had just sat with this poor, suffering man, listened to his cries and his stories, and witnessed his pain, they would have done a good job. That would have helped him. But they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They had to come up with or explain a reason for his pain. So one by one, Job’s friends each suggest that Job must have done something wrong. If God is a God of justice, if God is fair, then you Job must have done something along the way to deserve this. Some friends right?

Job knows that he is innocent of all that his friends accuse him of, but their constant prodding, and their constant insistence that God is a just God and that therefore Job must be guilty of something, this leads Job to the point of despair and he starts to question God and God’s goodness, and that is when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and that is where our first reading begins this morning. And God begins by saying that all of this talk is “words without knowledge.” Words without knowledge. And maybe Job hoped in that moment that God would lay the knowledge on him and answer his questions, but God doesn’t do that. Instead God asks Job a question:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you Job, when I created the world? 

The response stings a little bit, but maybe it needs to. Because we should never approach God with anything but humility. God certainly isn’t threatened by our anger and he isn’t hurt by our questions, but we need to remember, whenever we approach God, whether it is in joy, or in suffering and anger, we need to remember that God is God and we are not. We NEVER, never know the whole story. We are prone to using words without knowledge. If that phrase doesn’t sum up the age we are living in right now, I don’t know what does. Words without knowledge. Talking without listening. 

God doesn’t give Job a simple answer. We may wish that he had. We might want God to give us simple answers about all the suffering in the world, but God doesn’t do that for Job, and he doesn’t do it for us either. Instead, God shows Job the whole majestic world: he shows him mountains and oceans and clouds and stars and little goats and deer giving birth and giant creatures in the sea. And God says, I made all that. I run this. 

And Job says, you’re right. I spoke too soon. I don’t understand how all this works. 

And then God says to him: oh and by the way, your friends are stupid and they don’t know what they are talking about. God isn’t nearly as upset by Job’s complaint as he is by the nonsense Job’s friends have been spouting. And Job’s health and wealth and family are restored, and Job lived to see his grand-children and he died old and full of days. 

You know the Book of Job is one of the oldest books of the Bible. We actually have no real idea when it was written, and maybe that is as it should be, because it is a reminder that there are real limits to human knowledge, and that is a truth in every age. There is so much about this world we live in that we just don’t know. The Book of Job asks the quintessential human question: why do bad things happen to good people? It asks God the big question, and God doesn’t give a simple answer. The reality of the universe is just too much for us to grasp. The Book of Job doesn’t give us a simple answer to a complex question, but the story of Job presents us with a difficult question instead: when you encounter a suffering person, when you see someone who is grieving or in pain or sick or down on their luck, when you encounter a suffering person how do you respond? Are you quick to look for someone to blame? Do you shell out cheap advice to the suffering person? Do you try and help them figure out where they went wrong or what mistakes they must have made? Are you quick to open your mouth or can you just sit and listen? Can you listen to someone cry and just let them cry? Can you sit in dust and ashes with someone? 

The lesson that I take from the Book of Job is that it is not up to us lowly humans to determine who deserves what in this life. That question is way above our paygrade. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that anyone deserves anything. At least, not in the way that we often use that word. Deserve is a loaded word. Justice is another word that I think we misuse. Human justice and divine justice are very different things, and we need to remember that whenever we start throwing the word Justice around.  Maybe it isn’t possible for us to know who deserves what in this life, but what we can do, what we have the power to do is to identify the people that are suffering and to go and be with them. Just do that: when you encounter someone that is suffering, go and be with them. Listen to them. Cry with them. Hear their story.  

The Book of Job is 42 chapters long, and most of that is taken up with Job’s friends trying to convince him that he must have done something wrong, but in chapter 2 we read that: “when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home. They met together to go and comfort and console him…..

They should have just left it there. They should have just kept their mouths shut.

Everything

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Sermon for June 13th, 2021

Readings:

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4,11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
Mark 4:26-34

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

Everything. Those words of Saint Paul from his letter to the Corinthians paint a slightly different picture of Christianity than the one we often see.

Being a part of Christ. Being in Christ. Being baptized into his body; being redeemed by his blood; being saved by the son of God who died and rose again, that should change everything for you. Everything. 

How you live and how you die and everything in between. Everything in your life from the way you spend your money to the way you spend your time, everything should be influenced, everything should be touched by being in Christ. 

Jesus didn’t die and rise again just to redeem an hour of your life every Sunday morning. Christianity is not a hobby to be pursued alongside all your other hobbies, and it’s not a form of do-gooderism either. Do-gooderism, I don’t know if that’s a word, but it is now. You know what I mean. We aren’t here to just be a club of nice people that like to do nice things once in a while. It is easy to fall into thinking that way though, because that is very much the story we are told by society all the time. It is the picture of Christianity that the world shows us.

We live in a secular, and pluralistic society, as does a large portion of the modern Western world, and don’t get me wrong, there are some great benefits to that, but one of the downfalls is that in these modern times, we have all been taught to compartmentalize our lives. So you have your public life and your private life, your professional life and your home life, and we’re all supposed to keep everything in its own little box, including our religious life. Religion, for the rapidly decreasing number of people that find it significant at all, is now just another compartment of our private lives. Religion is about what we think happens to us when we die; Religion is about what holidays we celebrate with our families a few times a year; Religion is about a culture that we identify with; at best it is a part of our identity among many other parts of our identity. And of course there is a huge segment of society that doesn’t even want that level of commitment, so a lot of people call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’, and while a part of me wants to be critical of that mindset, there is another part that recognizes that those folks are longing for a better story than materialist western society is giving them, they recognize that atheism and modernism are insufficient stories to make sense and meaning out of the world they live in, BUT they haven’t yet found in Christianity (in any of its forms, or in any other religion) a better story. Well, that is on us, it’s not on them. We haven’t been good at telling them a better story. We have also bought into this modernist, secular worldview that your faith is supposed to be this one little compartment of your life, among so many other compartments, and so often that is what we sell people when we talk about our faith (if we talk about it at all): it is another thing to do, another club to belong to, another bill to pay and if that is what Christianity is all about then I really can’t blame people for not wanting to be a part of it. But is that really the Christian story?

Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says: 

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Paul is not talking about Sunday morning religion folks. What Paul is talking about is a way of looking at the world that changes everything. Everything. The conviction that Jesus died for all, even for someone like him, changes the way that Paul looks at every other human being. It changes the way he looks at himself. The death and resurrection of Jesus isn’t just some historical event, it is something that touches the life and death of every single human being. A Christian, therefore, someone who is in Christ and united to the man on the cross, a Christian isn’t meant to be just the same old human with a bit of window dressing added on. A Christian isn’t supposed to be someone with just another box to tick on a census form, or something else to do on the weekends. A Christian is supposed to be someone who is radically reoriented to the world around them. We have a completely different story to tell about the universe than the modernist, materialist story the world is telling. The power behind the universe, and the source of all life, for us, is not some meaningless, purposeless, shapeless force, for us the power behind the universe has a name and a face. We have witnessed, in Jesus, the god of all creation. We have been invited to live our lives as a part of his life. All of our lives. God isn’t asking to be the Lord of your Sunday morning. God doesn’t need your free time. Christianity isn’t a hobby, it is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a different story, that we are invited to be a part of.

Should Christians be doing good things in the world? Absolutely! You bet! Faith without works is dead. But the church isn’t a club for nice people that like to do good things. We are meant to be a community of believers that have a story to tell. It is a different story than the one the world tells. The world likes to tell the story about what humans have done. Human beings are the heroes of the secular, modern world. In that story, we congratulate ourselves for all of the progress in the world. In that story, we become convinced that through our own intellect and ingenuity, we are just going to keep making the world better and better. There isn’t a higher power or deeper meaning in that story, just more and more stuff. There is a lot of stuff in the world’s story and the more of it you have, the more blessed you will be. Although, blessed is probably the wrong word, isn’t it?, because there is no blessing in that story. There is no unmerited grace, just chance. Just luck. If there is any salvation in that story, it will come at our own hands. But salvation is a pretty meaningless concept in that story, because what is being saved but a just a heap of swirling chemicals and molecules? If you follow that story to its logical conclusion, our deepest emotions and attachments in this world, become nothing more than illusion created by a bunch of hormones and chemicals in our brains. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are being told that story by the modern world all the time. 

But the Christian story is different. We have a story to tell about what God has done, and what God is doing in the world. God is planting the seeds of his kingdom all around us. It may be invisible to us at first. It may be hard to see, but it grows. The story we tell isn’t just about something that happened once upon a time, it is a story about here and now too. God is alive here and now. Jesus didn’t die for your Sunday morning; he died for your every morning. He died so that every time you open your eyes, you look out on a world that was created not as some cosmic accident, but as an act of love. The Christian story doesn’t have to be opposed to science; that is a false dichotomy. Christians just see, behind the workings of science, deeper meaning and significance. Science is good at explaining how things happen; but it isn’t good at explaining why? The Christian story is about why. The Christian story isn’t just a few set answers to questions about what happens after we die, the Christian story is a completely different way of looking at the world, and when that story becomes our story, when we become a part of that story as Jesus invites us to, that should change everything for us. Everything.

The atheist, modernist, materialist story about salvation through human progress…it’s a weak story. I think a lot of the world knows that it’s a weak story, they just haven’t found something better yet. That, my friends, is where we come in. We have a better story to tell. We have a story, that when told properly, should change everything. The Christian story is not meant to be just one compartment among many in our lives; it is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a different way of life.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

Everything.

The grass isn’t blue

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Sermon for June 6th, 2021

Readings:

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

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Early in Jesus’s ministry he went to Capernaum, a little fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. When the Sabbath came he went into the synagogue and began to teach. And people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught “as one with authority.” He taught the scriptures like he really knew them. And if that wasn’t enough, while he was teaching, a man came up to him that had been struggling with an unclean spirit, a demon. We don’t talk a lot about unclean spirits or demons anymore. We like to dismiss these things as primitive superstitions or misunderstandings. I’m not so sure. I think demons are real. We all probably deal with demons more than we care to admit. But anyways, through this man the unclean spirit or demon cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And just then, Jesus says “be silent and come out of him!” And the man convulses and the demon come out of him. The demon is destroyed, but not the man. The man is saved. And people start to wonder.

Jesus walks out of the synagogue and heads just a few steps down the block to Peter’s house where his mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her hand and the fever is gone. People start bringing other folks to Jesus that are sick or struggling with demons and Jesus heals them all. The demons know who Jesus is, they know he is coming for them, so Jesus won’t even let them speak anymore, because demons are liars. Then Jesus takes the show on the road and starts casting out demons in other villages. 

A leper comes to him. Jesus touches him and makes him clean. People start to flock to Jesus. They bring him a paralyzed man and Jesus not only makes him walk again, but very curiously the first thing that Jesus said to this man was “your sins are forgiven,” sort of like that was the most pressing issue and the greatest gift that he had to offer. Jesus is getting very famous and starts calling more people to follow him, and then one day, he heals a man on the Sabbath. Jesus does a good thing; he brings health and wholeness back to someone, but he does it on the Sabbath, and there are some people who have such a restricted view of what God allows on the Sabbath, that they completely turn on Jesus. This is just a bridge too far. Because he has broken one of their rules, or perhaps more accurately, because Jesus is questioning how some people are interpreting God’s rules, he has created some enemies. But he keeps going. He keeps healing the sick. He keeps teaching people and casting out demons. 

Some of Jesus’s critics, even some members of his family, start to suggest that he is the one that is possessed by the demons. People start saying that Jesus is doing all of these good and miraculous works through the power of Satan. And Jesus points out how ridiculous this is: How can Satan cast out Satan? Satan doesn’t cast out demons and heal people. Satan doesn’t set people free, Satan binds people; Satan enslaves people. But Jesus is healing people and setting people free. Jesus is actually binding Satan up. Jesus uses this fun little analogy of tying up a strong man to plunder his property. Well Jesus is tying up Satan so he can take God’s property, that is you and me, back. Jesus is plundering Satan’s house and stealing us back for God. But you know, as much as that is good news, some people just don’t want to hear that; don’t want to believe it. Because if that is really true, then that means that we are really going to have to start taking what Jesus says seriously.

Jesus teaches with authority. And Jesus challenges some of the prevailing interpretations of God’s law. And Jesus is demonstrating such actual divine power that people are distressed and shocked and conflicted and maybe a little terrified, because if the power that is in this man’s hands is also in his words and in his teaching, if what he is saying is actually true, well that is going to re-order their world, and that’s scary. So we find ways of not believing the truth when we are confronted with it. We look for reasons not to believe God when God is speaking to us. Sometimes we will even go so far as to cling to the exact opposite thing because doing so keeps us in our fantasies; It keeps us from having to confront a truth we don’t want to confront. That is what is happening in the gospel today. People don’t want to accept that Jesus is teaching and acting with the power of God, because if they did that then that would mean their lives would have to change. So instead they try to convince themselves that the exact opposite is true, and that Jesus is, in fact, using demonic power to cast out demons. It’s ridiculous, but that doesn’t matter. Humans are good are believing ridiculous things if it keeps them from having to confront the truth.

I think that one of the most brilliant Dolly Parton songs ever, and this is really a difficult judgement, because most of them are brilliant, but one of the most brilliant at least in terms of lyrics is “The Grass is Blue.”

I’ve had to think up a way to survive
Since you said it’s over
Told me goodbye
I just can’t make it one day without you
Unless I pretend that the opposite’s true

Rivers flow backwards
Valleys are high
Mountains are level
Truth is a lie
I’m perfectly fine
And I don’t miss you
The sky is green
And the grass is blue

There’s snow in the tropics
There’s ice on the sun
It’s hot in the Arctic
And crying is fun
And I’m happy now
And I’m glad we’re through
And the sky is green
And the grass is blue

I mean, that’s not scripture but it might as well be, and not just because St. Dolly wrote it, but because it really speaks to a truth in the human condition. If there is a truth that we are confronted with that we really, really don’t want to accept, well sometimes it is easier to just turn the rest of the world upside down; sometimes it is easier to just hold on to the opposite of what is true, so that we don’t have to let go of our delusions. Dolly would sooner believe that the grass is blue rather than accept that her lover is gone. The Pharisees would rather believe that Jesus is using the power of the devil rather than accept that his authority comes from God. Adam and Eve would rather believe the serpent than trust in God’s goodness. Lies go down real smooth and easy. It is the truth that is usually hard to swallow. 

But deep down I think a lot of times we know we are fooling ourselves. The sky isn’t green and the grass isn’t blue. And the devil never sets us free. Only Jesus can do that.

In the year that King Uzziah died…

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

Readings:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty…”

That is how the prophet Isaiah begins telling the story of his wondrous vision of God and God’s heavenly throne room. In the year that King Uzziah died. Those words have been rattling around in my head all week. I want to just jump into talking about what Isaiah saw and what it might mean, but for some reason the part of this text that keeps jumping out at me this week and getting stuck in my brain is the first line: In the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah is kind of a fun name to say. Who was Uzziah? Well, Uzziah was a king of the Southern kingdom of Judah, back when there were two kingdoms of Hebrews. 

One of the fun things about the Bible, is that sometimes you will read details in scripture and they will seem completely meaningless, and then other times you will read those exact same words again and all of a sudden they will contain a major clue to the meaning of the whole passage. “In the year that King Uzziah died” is one of those passages for me. The first few times I read it, I just saw it as a more or less meaningless date marker: like “in the year 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I just thought Isaiah was pointing to a significant event to set his story in time, and it does that, but it also does so much more if you take a closer look at who Uzziah was and then reflect on why his death might actually be an important detail in the story Isaiah is trying to tell. You see, you have to be careful when you are dismissing details in scripture as being unimportant. Somebody thought they were important enough to write down, back when the written word really meant something and writings were really sacred, so don’t be too quick to dismiss minor details…like King Uzziah. 

Here’s what you should know about King Uzziah: in the first place he was king over Judah for over 50 years. That’s a long time now, it was an especially long time back then. There would have been plenty of people living that would have never known another king, most people actually. Uzziah would have been a sign of stability and security. When your country loses that great symbol of continuity and strength and power, well that is bound to be upsetting. But here is the other thing you need to know about Uzziah: he started off as a good king. He was capable and successful and faithful, but, as often happens, his success led to his downfall. He got a little full of himself and decided that he should be the one to go into God’s temple and burn the incense and not God’s priests as the Lord had ordained. He tried that once and while the censer was still in his hand, his skin burst out with leprosy. You have to tread lightly around God’s throne; it’s a lesson that Uzziah learned the hard way. 

So while the nation is mourning the death of this great king, who was just a little too full of himself, that is when Isaiah has this powerful vision. And what is his vision? A throne! In the year that the great king dies, Isaiah sees a throne, a throne high and lofty, and this throne isn’t empty. The great king Uzziah might be dead, but that doesn’t matter, because the only throne that really matters isn’t empty at all. Human thrones can be vacant, but God’s throne is always occupied. And God’s throne isn’t occupied by the sort of petty tyrants we get on this earth. Even our best, most noble and greatest rulers can’t compare with this majestic king, the very hem of whose garment seems to fill the whole temple. And more than that, Isaiah sees creatures that are almost impossible to describe or fathom, seraphs will all sorts of wings that fly around singing this song of praise which ought to sound familiar to you, since we sing it ourselves every week: “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah knows that he’s not worthy to be there or to see these sights, he says I am unclean and I have unclean lips. And then one of the seraphs purifies his lips with a live coal. The voice of the Lord says: “whom shall I send?” And Isaiah replies, send me. And God gives Isaiah a message: he says “go and say this: keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand.” God goes on to say to Isaiah that he doesn’t want people to think that they have figured everything thing out on their own; he wants them to turn and be healed. Keep listening, keep looking. Do not comprehend; do not understand; turn and be healed. 

Isaiah cannot comprehend this Lord sitting upon the heavenly throne; he can’t fully understand him. But he can worship him. He can join his voice with the voices of those seraphs proclaiming God’s greatness and majesty. Isaiah can be cleansed by this God; Isaiah can turn and be healed. That is what this glorious Lord wants Isaiah to understand. That is why God sends Isaiah out to share this vision with the world. We worship a God who reveals himself to us. We have a king that now and then gives us a glimpse of the kingdom, not so that we can strut around all arrogant and proud thinking that we have figured things out, but so that we can actually fall down before the true king and lord of life who has the power to heal us, and who wants to live in relationship with us. Isaiah didn’t volunteer to tell the world about God because he had figured God out. Isaiah was so moved by God’s glory and mercy that he felt compelled to tell the world about a vision of the Lord that was beyond comprehension. In the year that King Uzziah died, what Isaiah witnessed was a king, but a king unlike Uzziah. Earthly kings come and go. Earthly kings don’t have half the power and might that they think they have. But the true king is eternal, almighty, glorious beyond all comprehension, and most important: merciful. 

I’m sure that when Isaiah told people about what he had seen, that some people immediately sat down and tried to figure out how the hem of the Lord’s garment could fill the whole temple, or they might have tried to figure out how exactly those seraphs were flying around with wings over here, and wings over there, and no doubt some people would have gotten so caught up in figuring out exactly what Isaiah saw, that they might have missed the fact that Isaiah was healed. His sin was blotted out. It is so typical of us humans, we get so caught up in our own understanding and our own pride, that we miss God’s grace when it is being held out to us, simply because we don’t understand it. But what if we could push our understanding off to the side for a bit and just said: I’m not going to try to figure things out for a minute. I’m just going to simply worship, love and adore. What would that look like?

Well it might look like how we are going to end our service today. This morning we are going to end mass with a solemn te deum. I don’t think it is something that we have done, at least not during my time here, but it is a very ancient Christian prayer or song that glorifies God and testifies to how we have witnessed God’s glory. Most of you know that today is Trinity Sunday, a day of infamy every year when preachers across the world dive headlong into heresy by trying to oversimplify and explain the very essence of who we believe God is. But the Holy Trinity is not a doctrine that we are meant to truly understand, anymore than Isaiah was meant to understand the vision he had. It is a revelation. It is a revelation of who God is. It isn’t something that we sat down and came up with one day; it is a testimony to the God that we have witnessed in the world. We have witnessed God as the great creator and king seated upon the throne, as Isaiah saw; we have seen the fullness of God in God’s only son, Jesus Christ; and we have experienced the power of that same God through the Holy Spirit. What has been revealed to us is that these three are all in fact the same God, reaching out to us and offering us grace and forgiveness. In each one of those persons of the Trinity, God offers us grace. That’s what really matters. We could sit around beating our heads trying to figure God out, or we could just fall down and worship and accept the grace that has been offered to us. That’s what a te deum is all about: simply giving thanks to God for the wonders that we have been shown, for the grace that we have been given. 

The goose doesn’t give up.

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2021

Readings:

Jesus said “when the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” 

I don’t think I want that. Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the comforter, no? But truth isn’t always comforting. Truth can be disturbing as hell. Sometimes the truth hurts. Delusions, now they are comforting. Self-righteousness is comforting. Self-confidence is comforting. Fantasy, that is comforting. But truth can be anything BUT comforting. Truth is disturbing. As Jack Nicholson said in a Few Good Men: You can’t handle the truth. And sometimes we can’t, or at least, we don’t want to.

But when Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, he calls it the spirit of truth, and this spirit of truth is not only going to testify to Jesus and the things he did and said, but this spirit will also declare to us things that are to come. But Jesus also calls this spirit the advocate. Our advocate. A force that is on our side. The spirit is there to help us, even when we don’t want it to.

Saint Paul says that the spirit helps us in our weakness; that the spirit intercedes for us. But I think we sometimes have a very sanitized view of what God’s help looks like. We want God to gently nudge us in the right direction. But if we are to believe the witness of scripture and the witness of tradition, then we are bound to realize that while sometimes God or God’s spirit can be subtle and gentle, sometimes, many times, the spirit is decidedly less so. Sometimes God can be very heavy handed in getting his message across. Think about Saint Paul getting blinded and knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus. Or think about the Spirit of the Lord snatching Philip away after he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Or think about the passage you just heard, with the spirit of the Lord bursting into the upper room like the sound of a violent wind, and compelling the disciples to do something which they were all terrified to do: to preach the good news; to talk about Jesus. The Holy Spirit led them into truth all right, and I’ll bet that it was terrifying. 

There is an ancient song of the church called veni sancte spiritus, “come holy spirit,” we sing it at ordinations: come Holy spirit, from heaven shine down. Well you have got to be careful what you ask for, because God just might do it. God just might send you the Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you, only it may not look like those sweet little doves we have in our stained glass windows. God’s fire may not look like the little flickering flame of your soy scented vanilla candle. God’s fire may come at you like a bonfire or a wildfire: something you don’t have control over. Something that compels you to go places you would rather not go.

There was this viral video that was shared online earlier this year of a woman getting attacked in a parking lot by a mad goose.

It was a security camera video, and you see that the goose chases her one way, then the goose chases her another way, the goose flies at her head and several times she tries to swing her handbag at the goose to scare it away, but oh no, the goose isn’t having it. Finally, the woman’s rescuer shows up in a car, and the woman drops her handbag and jumps into the passenger side door, only the goose flies right into the car after her continuing his ruthless attack. It’s hysterical. But one of my priest friends shared the video and she commented: hey look, it’s me and the Holy Ghost. And I thought: YES! That is perfect. We are forevermore painting the Holy Spirit as a white dove, based upon the passage from scripture where the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism like a dove, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t always been that subtle and that sweet in my life. The Holy Spirit isn’t all that gentle in scripture either. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has been more like that goose: relentlessly chasing me, pecking at me, ignoring my feeble attempts to push it away, making me go places I don’t want to go, and basically scaring the hell out of me in the process. You need to be careful when you ask for God’s Holy Spirit to come down on you or to guide you. Because sometimes God has to apply a little pressure to lead us into truth. Truth is a scary place. Truth can be uncomfortable and if given the choice, I probably would rather live in a fantasy land of delusions and dove kites rather than have to deal with the real holy spirit. 

When you are confirmed in the church, one of the things the bishop prays for when he lays hands on you, is for God to send you his Holy Spirit, and there used to be this tradition of giving the confirmand a little slap on the face right then. It dates back to the middle ages and was symbolic of the need for the mature Christian to face and stand up to the adversity or the “blows” of the world. It has military symbolism like a new knight being tapped by his king on the shoulder with a sword. It isn’t always done anymore, although I was slapped at my confirmation and some of you were probably slapped at yours. But that slap doesn’t really hurt. When the bishop slaps you, that is a tap on the cheek. When the holy spirit actually slaps you, that is another thing entirely. 

Because while the Holy Spirit can be comforting and encouraging, the Holy Spirit can nudge you, God knows that his beloved human beings are also sinful, stubborn creatures, and that we would just as soon sit comfortable in our fantasies and delusions than actually be led by the spirit of truth. Now I don’t want to contradict that great Ferlin Husky song that says “On the wings of a snow white dove, God sends his pure sweet love.” God may indeed send down his love on the wings of a dove, but God’s love might also come in the form of a mad goose too, chasing us in directions we don’t really want to go and biting us in the backside alone the way. Do y’all really think that those disciples on Pentecost Sunday really wanted to be out in the streets preaching to all those foreigners? Of course not. I imagine that they were perfectly fine, just gathered together in one place with like-minded people that looked like them and talked like them. But the Holy Spirit wasn’t having any of that. The Holy Spirit had to push them out into the world. It chased them out there and said “go and talk to these people. I will be with you. I will help you, but you have to open your mouth.” 

And yeah, people sneered at them and made fun of them, but so what? People will find a reason to make fun of you, no matter what you do. If they can’t find a reason they will make one up. You can spend your entire life trying to be comfortable and safe, but it won’t necessarily make you happy, or popular, or successful; that is like imagining that you can get healthier by avoiding exercise. The Holy Spirit’s mission is to testify to Jesus and to guide us into truth. That is how the Holy Spirit advocates for us; that is how the Holy Spirit helps us. Only sometimes the spirit has to push us pretty hard to get us to cooperate. But thank God it does. I give thanks to God for those times when the Spirit is not subtle, when God seems to come at you like a violent wind or a mad goose. We need to thank God, for not giving up on us the first time we swing our handbag to shoo his spirit away. Because if the Holy Spirit hadn’t pushed those disciples out of that upper room and into the street to proclaim the Good News to every nation, would we know anything about Jesus and the love God has for us?

Our only mediator and advocate

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Sermon for Ascension Thursday May 13th, 2021

Readings:

I spend a lot of time giving lawyers grief from the pulpit, so I figured I should probably take a moment and show them a little love for a change. They aren’t all bad you know. In fact, as I said a few weeks ago, if you find yourself in trouble, you want a good lawyer on your side. They are there to help you get out of the mess that you have gotten yourself into. They are your advocate. In French the word for lawyer, avocat, makes this very clear. It’s also the exact same word for avocado though, so you do need to be careful. There is something very powerful, very special about being an advocate for someone else. Anyone can plead for themselves, or advocate for themselves, but to intercede on someone else’s behalf, well there is something special about that act. It is an act of love. And likewise, to have someone intercede for you or advocate for you, that is a special feeling, it is like feeling loved. 

So if we push the jokes aside for just a moment; if we stop thinking of lawyers as just those people that make everyone’s lives more difficult, and think of them instead as advocates, then we may begin to see how God could have a use for them. In fact, when lawyers are living into their calling as advocates, it is in those moments, however rare they may be, it is in those moments that lawyers are almost as good as priests. Because advocating for others or interceding for others is a fundamental part of a priest’s job too. It is just a different judge that we stand before to make our plea.

One of my jobs as a priest, one of the most important parts of my job, is intercessory prayer: holding before God the needs, and fears and hopes of this congregation and this community. Now other than the little bit you witness on Sunday mornings, it is a part of my job that most people don’t see. But it isn’t like an optional extra part of the job that I do if I get around to it, or if I have time after sorting everything else out, it is the job. Praying for, or advocating for God’s people is a main part of the job of being a priest. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer who’s afraid of talking to a judge; you shouldn’t hire a priest that’s afraid of talking to God. 

Now imagine, if you can, imagine having a really good priest. I don’t mean some poor slob that you pay to mumble incoherently in the front of the church from time to time. Imagine that you have a priest that not only knows your name, but also knows your greatest fears, your weaknesses, your loves, your struggles. Imagine a priest that knows all your sins and still forgives you. Imagine a priest, who like a good lawyer, knows you are guilty, and still asks the judge to let you off. Imagine a priest who is never impatient and never incompetent, who never gets tired. Imagine a priest who is praying for things for you that you never asked for. Imagine a priest who’s entire life is one of constant prayer and intercession and advocacy, and now imagine that this priest isn’t just praying in a pew, or in an office, or in an armchair, but is actually praying and pleading for you in the very presence of God. 

What if this priest actually held up to God your broken aching body, or even your broken heart, and pleaded for you before God? 

We don’t have to imagine having this priest. This is the priest we have. Today is the Feast of the Ascension, our feast of title as a parish, and the day when we remember Jesus, our great high priest, ascending into heaven, entering into the very presence of God. Jesus isn’t flying into a cloud to escape from his disciples, he isn’t going on vacation. He’s going to work. Jesus is entering into God’s throne room to be an eternal advocate for his people; to constantly intercede for them in ways that no earthly priest could ever do. 

Jesus doesn’t leave us today. He takes our case to God. Jesus goes to the father to plead our case and when he goes, he goes in the flesh. Our flesh. He doesn’t leave his body behind like some empty vessel, he carries it to God too. The disciples rejoiced when Jesus ascended to the father, they rejoiced, because now they knew they had an advocate with the father, standing right before the throne. The author of the book of Hebrews writes: 

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Basically, the author of Hebrews is saying that with Jesus on our side we can walk into the courtroom like we have the best lawyer in the place. We can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence. And not just confidence, but thankfulness, because unlike most lawyers, Jesus isn’t going to send you a bill when it’s all over. As the old hymn goes…Jesus paid it all.

We have an advocate in heaven. Jesus, our great high priest, our only mediator and advocate; that is why we can rejoice today. That is why the disciples rejoiced. Long ago we humans got ourselves into trouble, the evidence of that is all around us. But the Son of God has come to get us out of it. God’s only son is advocating for us, he is doing it directly before the throne of God, and he is doing it in the very human flesh that his mother gave him. That is what the Ascension is really about; not flying off into clouds and heaven over our heads. The Feast of the Ascension is about recognizing Jesus’s eternal role as our advocate in God’s holy realm. That is reason to rejoice.

So we give praise to God tonight for our Lord’s ascension, and we also remember that advocating for others is a part of our Christian duty. It is imitating the behaviour of Christ himself. You don’t need to be a lawyer or a priest to do this. Part of our belief in the priesthood of all believers is that we all, as Christians, have a calling to intercede for, and advocate for, others. Not just before the powers and principalities of this world, but also before the throne of God. We are called, day in and day out, to be people who intercede for the world; who pray for the needs and concerns of others. That is a part of our job as Christians, not just those of us who do this for a living, but all of us. We are all called, in big ways and in small ways, to be advocates. 

And we can do this with boldness as Christians. You can’t always trust the lawyers and the priests in this world, sometimes they are crooked, they might overcharge you and they don’t always win; but we can have supreme faith and confidence in our advocate in heaven. Why? Because we know something else. We know that when that gavel comes down and the verdict and the sentence are read out, we know that when that day comes, the man that has spent his life advocating for us and pleading our case at his own great expense, we know that that man, Jesus, isn’t just going to be our advocate, he’s also going to be the judge. 

One Job

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Sermon for May 2nd, 2021

Readings:

My favorite story in the entire Book of Acts is the one we get this morning: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. It is such a brief little passage, and it is such a brief encounter between Philip, one of the first deacons of the church, and this unnamed Ethiopian, but I could spend days talking about it because there is just so much going on here. There are so many implications that can be drawn from this passage for how we, as disciples of Jesus, should be evangelizing and proclaiming the good news to the world; how we should be sharing the faith with all people and baptizing them into the body of Christ. We could draw all sorts of conclusions from this passage about what we as Christians need to be doing to grow the church, but I want to point you in a different direction first this morning. I want to draw your attention to something else. First, I want you to pay attention this morning to what God is doing to grow his church. 

Take a closer look at that passage from Acts. It was an angel of the Lord that said to Philip “go down this road.” And when Philip had gone down the road that the angel had told him to go down, the Spirit of the Lord told him to “go over to this chariot and join it.” And after Philip and the Eunuch have their encounter, and the Eunuch is baptized, it is the Spirit of the Lord that snatches Philip away and sends him off to preach somewhere else. You know, it’s almost like God has something to do with this! Like maybe God has his thumb on the scale with helping the Church out.

It was God who told Philip to go down this road. It was God who told Philip to go and talk to this person. And eventually it is God that tells Philip that it is time to move on and preach to other people. God is directing the action here. Yes, Philip has a role to play. Philip needs to be obedient to God. Philip needs to go where the angel or the spirit direct him to go, and Philip needs to have the courage to speak when it is time for him to speak, but I doubt that Philip woke up that morning with a grand plan to evangelize the Ethiopians. This encounter was a part of God’s plan, not Philip’s. Philip wouldn’t have imagined it. God is directing Philip here and Philip’s success comes directly from his ability and willingness to listen to God. 

Philip wasn’t a biblical scholar. There is no evidence here to suggest that he was rich, or that he was a charismatic speaker; we don’t know what he looked like: if he was handsome or charming…we don’t know any of that. What we know is that God said go, and Philip went. Philip didn’t have all the answers, but there was one thing that he had supreme confidence in, and that was that Jesus was the messiah. As far as Philip was concerned that is the only answer that matters. Philip doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows who does…Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just have the answers; he is the answer. Philip knows that Jesus is the answer, not just to the Eunuch’s question about scripture, but to all of the Eunuch’s questions; all of his struggles and pains and hopes; Philip knows that the answer to all of that is the man who died and rose again. The man who forgives sins and defeats death. Philip knows that Jesus can change this man’s life. Philip knows that Jesus can give him a new life, a life that is about more than just guarding other people’s riches; a life where you aren’t forced into slavery and mutilated along the way. Philip doesn’t have much power to help this man, but he knows that Jesus has unending power. So Philip, as a follower of Jesus, has one job. One Job. And unlike all those other people in the world that have one job and can’t seem to do it, Philip does his job. Philip’s job, Philip’s one job, is to connect people to Jesus. That’s it. Philip’s one job in his encounter with the Eunuch is to connect him to Christ, and he does his job. And you’ll notice that the moment Philip does his job, God moves him on and basically says, OK, I’ll take it from here. 

And the Eunuch goes his way rejoicing and Philip is moved by the spirit off to preach the gospel somewhere else. All Philip needed to do was to point this man to Jesus. Philip needed to connect him to Jesus; once that relationship was made, the Eunuch is going to get his nourishment and sustenance from Jesus. Jesus will answer his questions.

You know, Episcopalians are notoriously bad at evangelism, or sharing our faith, and I think that one of the reasons why, is because we are afraid that someone might ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to. What does this scripture mean? Why do you cross yourself here? Why do some Christians do this and some Christians do that? We don’t want someone to ask us a question that we don’t have the answer to, so we avoid the situation by not talking about our faith at all. 

But we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to know every scripture by heart or know every answer to every question about our faith, as long as we know that the ultimate answer, to all of it, is Jesus. We just have to connect people to Jesus. That is our job. He will help them find the answers. He is the answer. Our problem is not lacking knowledge, it is lacking courage. Lacking courage to go when God says go and to speak when God says speak. We get so caught up in our plans and in our strategies for growth and in trying to figure out how we are going to grow the church and draw in new members and attract new families, and on and on and on, and we forget that God is playing an active role in all this, and God may not care one bit about your plans. Listen to God; go where he sends you, share your faith with those you meet along the way, and most importantly, connect people to Jesus! Do not forget that God has his thumb on the scale and he is trying to help us, we just have to be willing to listen and to know that even if we don’t have all the answers, we know the one who does. 

Over the past two thousand years, some of the most brilliant minds in history have written some deep, powerful, mystical, complicated stuff about Christianity, and Christian theology, and scriptural interpretation. The reality of God and the mystery of what Christ did on the cross and the implications of his resurrection, all these things are probably far more profound than what you learned in Sunday School as a kid. The Christian faith is not a simple religion and I am not at all in favor of dumbing it down. I think we still need to use our greatest minds to grapple with the truths that God has revealed to us, just like we always have. But you don’t need a Master’s degree to start your Christian journey. You shouldn’t have to have a diploma in theology or scripture to become a baptized part of the body of Christ. As far as I am concerned, if you can come to me and in good faith make the responses in our prayer book that are a part of the baptismal service, if you can reject Satan and the evil forces of this world and if you can affirm to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and saviour and if you can affirm a belief in the Church’s faith as the creed states it (even if you don’t completely understand every word just yet), well as far as I am concerned, that’s good enough, let’s find some water and get you baptized. We don’t need to make joining Christ’s body needlessly hard for people. Now following Jesus, that is a life-long endeavor. And I would expect that if you are a sincere follower of Jesus that prayer, and serious study, and scripture reading, and acts of charity and mercy will feature prominently in your life, but God didn’t wait for us to love him before he loved us. If we are waiting for people to become expert Christians before we encourage them to join the fold, then our churches are going to be very empty indeed. God is already at work in people’s lives, leading and directing them to his son long before they figure it out and respond. God wanted that Eunuch in his church, that is why he leaned on Philip and tipped the scales to make that encounter happen. God wants people in his church and we can either facilitate that process or we can be a barrier to it. 

You don’t need a master’s degree to become a baptized Christian, and guess what, you don’t need a master’s degree to become an evangelist either. You don’t need every answer to every question about theology and scripture. You just need the conviction that Jesus is the answer and the conviction that he wants people that are outside the church to be inside it. Don’t worry about knowing what to do or what to say. The truth is, it may not be your job to bring someone to the beatific vision of the heavenly throne. It may not be your job to bring them to a complete understanding of God and Holy Scripture. Your job might be just a momentary encounter with someone, planting a seed, redirecting someone, setting them down a path, telling them that I think the answer is this way, this is where I found God, this is who the messiah is. That may be all that God wants you to do. You have to trust that God has a hand in this too. 

What do you need to make a new Christian? What you need is some clean water and a person with a desire to follow Jesus. That is what you need. That is when you graft a new shoot onto the vine that will give them life. What do you need to be an evangelist? You need faith that Jesus is the answer and you need the courage to listen to the Holy Spirit. That’s it. 

Friends, we as the church, are all called to be evangelists, not all in exactly the same way, but every one of us is called to connect and direct other people to Jesus Christ. We, the church, have one job to do, and we had better get busy doing it.

Not in word or speech

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Sermon for April 25th, 2021

Readings:

 

 

 

There are 4 people in the world that you never want to trust, or at least I should say, you don’t want to trust them completely. Not really people actually, but professions. There are 4 professions that you would be wise to be very cautious around and I’ll explain why. Here they are: politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists. I’ll say that again for those of you who are taking notes: politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists. You have to be very careful with these people. It’s NOT that you can’t trust ANY of them, there are good, honest people working in all 4 of those professions that do amazing things, it’s just that you have to be very careful because the potential for abuse is so high. As we are sitting here right now, you can probably think of multiple scumbags in every category I just mentioned. Please don’t embarrass anyone by saying them out loud though.

 

Why are those 4 professions so tricky? Why are we rightly suspicious of politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists? It’s quite simple really: all 4 of those people get paid to use words. Words are their raw materials, their product and their currency. Politicians, preachers, lawyers, and journalists all make their living by using and manipulating words. They aren’t the only ones, most professions use words to some degree, but those 4 especially do. And your success in one of those 4 professions is quite often linked to how cleverly or how skillfully you use words. People in these jobs become masters of word use. We know which words will make you laugh; we know which words will make you cry. We know which words are going to make you angry. We know how to make you feel proud of yourselves. We have an arsenal of words, because that is how we make our living. If we don’t have the right word, rest assured we will make one up. And just so that you don’t forget that we are masters of words, every now and then we will throw in a Latin word just to remind everyone that we know more words than they do. And you know what, sometimes, a lot of times, knowing lots of words is not a bad thing.

 

When politicians use the wrong words, they can cause great harm, but a politician that uses words effectively can make good trade agreements, settle shaky markets, calm public emotions, pass good laws and create peace treaties. When a preacher uses the wrong words, he or she can get people hoping or believing in the wrong things, but when a preacher uses the right words, to direct people to God and to Jesus Christ, well that has the power to save peoples’ lives as well as their souls. Those words have the power to give meaning to a meaningless world. Lawyers? Well we all love to pick on lawyers, and it’s all fun and games until you need one. In a world where people do NOT always have the best intentions, a good lawyer can protect you and defend you with their carefully chosen words. And yes, we all know how manipulative journalists can be with the information that they convey and how they convey it, and yet we also know that some journalists go to extreme lengths and take huge personal risks to share important information with us. The words of a good journalist have the power to reveal truth and connect us to the rest of the world.

 

There are good and trustworthy people in all of these professions, but whenever you encounter someone who uses words for a living you need to be very careful. Because words are so cheap and easy to use. It is so easy to manipulate people just by using words. You know, there once was a time when the printed word was quite costly. Certainly in the ancient world and the medieval world, not everyone could read or write, paper, parchment, vellum and papyrus were all expensive, so writings, the written word, that was a precious thing. Our word scripture, comes from the Latin word for writing. (See what I did there, I used a Latin word. I am earning my money this morning).

 

But even long after the invention of the printing press, the written word was still highly regarded and trusted. So was the spoken word on radio and television. Words, themselves, have always been cheap, but broadcasting those words to people who aren’t standing within earshot of you, well up until very recently that has been very expensive. But not so anymore. Think about this: this service is being broadcast on the internet this morning, we have been doing this for over a year now. Lots of churches have had to do this over this past year. We had to make an initial investment in the equipment, but beyond that it doesn’t cost us a whole lot to do this. My words can be heard anywhere on earth by anyone with internet access and a computer or phone. That should kinda scare you. Because what if I were a crackpot? What if the words I used up here had no relationship to reality or truth? Words are cheaper now than they ever were, not just for politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists, but for everyone.

 

You have in your pocket or in your purse, or if you are watching at home, in your hands, a device capable of sending words around the world. You can put words in print and you can broadcast them in ways that even our grandparents never would have imagined. Now everyone is discovering what politicians and preachers and lawyers and journalists have known for a long time, everyone is learning just how easy it is to use and manipulate words and how cheap they really are. Anybody can go online and say anything they want. A teenager can create graphics and memes and webpages that say anything. Doesn’t have to be true. Words are cheap. The internet is cheap. Why shouldn’t I share my opinions about molecular biology, epidemiology, or economics? Does it matter that I am in no way qualified to talk about those things? Doesn’t everyone want to know my opinion on everything? Does it matter if the things I say and share, either in person or online, are in any way connected to the truth? If I type in the right words to form the correct opinion that is sure to gain approval from my very carefully cultivated group of friends, can I go home and congratulate myself for a hard day’s work?

 

Some people are so courageous these days…some people will even go to the length of changing their Facebook profile photo, adding a few words to show the world that they support a particular cause. I mean, if I don’t go out of my way to tell people that I think something is wrong on my Facebook page, then how would anyone possibly know what I stand for? And if I do that, and if you do that, and if we all just agree to use the right words and say the right things, then we can solve all of our nation’s problems overnight right? Does it matter if the words we say are true? Does it matter if we ever back them up with action? It is so much easier to take moral stands on issues when all it involves is issuing a public statement with a few carefully chosen words. So there will always be this temptation to just use words.

 

Well for the average online pundit, words may be enough, but they are NOT enough for a committed Christian. Manipulating words might make you successful as a politician, a preacher, a lawyer or a journalist, they might even make you socially popular in person and online, but words alone will not make you a follower of Jesus Christ, because Jesus taught us using more than words.

 

 “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, NOT in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

 

 Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

 

Words are great. Words are wonderful. Words are powerful. I love words; I’m a preacher and I get paid to use them, just like politicians, lawyers and journalists, but words need to be connected to truth and action. Not just for those of us in these sketchy professions, but for all of us, especially for those of us who bear the name Christian, because our words and our lives need to bear witness to the truth of the gospel. All of our words. The words we say in person, the words we share online or in print. People need to be able to trust that when we are talking about the love of God, we really mean it. People need to know that we aren’t just using words to manipulate them, but are actually sharing truth that is reflected in our actions and in our lives. In John’s epistle he’s talking about the word love, and he says how can you go around saying that you love people or using the word love if that word doesn’t seem to have any relation to truth or action in your life? If someone says that they love you with their lips but then mistreats you with their hands, where is the truth? It’s great for someone to say they love you, but if you have to choose between someone that says it and someone that shows it. Pick the person that shows it, because words are cheap, and they are getting cheaper all the time, not just for politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists, but for everybody. Christians have no business using love, or any other word, unless those words are connected to truth and action. Before you post something or share something or say something, online or in person, ask yourself “is this true?” “Do I know this for a fact to be true” AND “am I willing to actually DO anything about it?” “Am I willing to put my money, my time or my life on the line for this?” Am I using my words to spread actual truth, not just uninformed opinions? Am I using my words to inspire real action, and not just self-righteousness? Because words are cheap. The word “love” is cheap, but true love, the love God shows us in the gospel, well that can cost you everything.

 

 

 

The Resurrection of the Body

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Sermon for April 18th, 2021

Readings:

Picture it: Jerusalem, the year 33AD. 

Jesus had been crucified, and three days later rose from the dead. Forty days later his disciples witness him ascend into heaven. Ten days after that was the Feast of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and they are given the power and the ability to preach the gospel in every language. Jesus’s followers are being transformed into the early church right before our eyes; that is the story that we are told in the beginning of the Book of Acts. And one day, during these early days of the church, Peter and John were going up to the temple to pray. Remember that even though Peter and John were followers of Jesus and were believers in his resurrection, they were also still faithful Jews. They had no problem worshipping God in the temple; after all, the God that was worshipped there: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, they believed that that very God had shown his glory in the person of Jesus Christ, so they were headed up to the temple to praise the God that raised Jesus from the dead. 

And as they are headed into the temple a man who was born lame stops them. He asks them for alms; some spare change…anything. And Peter stopped and looked him in the eye, so did John. And Peter says to him “look at us.” Now this is kind of a strange moment, because how often do we avoid making eye contact with people, especially if we think they are going to ask us for money? I’ve done it and you probably have too. But here Peter and John look this man in the eye and they invite him to do the same; it is a very intimate moment between strangers. 

And Peter says to the man “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Now let me say that I am willing to believe Peter here that he didn’t have any money. I’m sure that the lame man had been told hundreds of times by people rushing into the temple, people that wouldn’t look him in the eye, that they had no money, but Peter doesn’t do that. Peter and John stop, they look him in the eye, Peter takes the man’s hand, and offers him something more precious than gold…the name of Jesus. Peter says “in the name of Jesus, stand up and walk” and he helps him up. And not only does the man stand up, he jumps up, leaps and walks and goes into the temple with them to praise God. And people saw it and were amazed.

Incidentally, this episode is represented in this stained-glass window over here. Anyways, after all this happens a crowd gathers around and Peter begins to address them, and that is where our first reading from Acts begins this morning. And Peter says to the crowd: “hey folks, don’t look at us. We didn’t do this through our own power. This man isn’t walking again because John and I have magic words or superpowers, or because we are especially holy. This man is walking again, because we called on the name of Jesus. Do you remember Jesus? You know, the man that you rejected as a blasphemer; the man that you had killed so that a murderer could walk free. Do you remember that man? Well guess what, God has raised him from the dead. The God that is worshipped here in this temple, that God has raised a man you killed from the dead. This God raised up something that you rejected, and guess what…he just did it again. That is why this man is walking: through the name of Jesus, God has restored his health.”

And Peter goes on to say: “look, I know you didn’t do this on purpose. You didn’t know that this man was the lord of life; you didn’t know that this was Emmanuel, God with us, you didn’t know that this was the Messiah; it’s ok because all of that was predicted in the scriptures.” Peter says, “it is OK if you rejected Jesus in the past…you can turn to him now. Turn to him, listen to him, and he will wipe away your sins and refresh you. The man that you rejected will raise you up too.” 

And before Peter and John can even finish their address to the crowd, they are arrested. Why are they arrested? What did they say that was so controversial? Well, the scripture tells us: “they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” You see, Peter didn’t just say that God raised up Jesus, Peter also said that through Jesus God would raise us up too, and the temple authorities they didn’t like that one bit. 

You may recall that in Jesus’s day, there were different groups of Jews that didn’t always agree with each other and didn’t really get along, and the two biggest groups were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Well, the Pharisees believe that the prophets foretold of a future day when God would raise the dead back to life and make his whole creation new. So, you get images of God restoring Jerusalem and images of dead bodies coming back to life like Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones. The Pharisees were longing for and hoping for that day of Resurrection. That is why in the Gospel of John when Jesus meets Martha outside the tomb of her dead brother Lazarus, she says that she believes that her brother will rise again on the last day. The Pharisees believe that there will be a last day when God will raise the dead back to life. 

The other group, the Sadducees, don’t believe that at all. The Sadducees worship God and obey the commandments, they are even in charge of running the temple, but for the Sadducees when you’re dead you’re dead; there’s no coming back; there’s no resurrection.  So when the temple authorities, all Sadducees, hear Peter talking about a man that came back from the dead, a man that he says will return at a future date that he calls “a time of universal restoration,” they are upset with him because he is teaching the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which they don’t believe. That is why Peter and John are arrested. This isn’t a case of Jews persecuting Christians; this is a case of Jews persecuting other Jews and Peter and John get caught in the middle of it. Peter and John get caught in this fight between the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they have witnessed something that convinced them that on this particular issue the Pharisees were right. They have seen the resurrection of Jesus.

You know, when Jesus met Martha outside of Lazarus’s tomb, he said something rather strange. When Martha said something about her brother being raised again on the last day, Jesus said to her “I am the Resurrection.” Even though Martha said that she believed him, I’m sure that she must have wondered what that really meant, but then when Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified, his disciples began to understand that Jesus was the embodiment of the hope of resurrection that the prophets talked about. That future day of resurrection when God would make all things news…they were getting a foretaste, a glimpse of that in Jesus. Jesus was, what they called, the first fruit. His resurrection would be their resurrection. Peter and John had witnessed in Jesus’s resurrected body a vision of God’s salvation and they felt compelled to share that with anyone that would listen. 

When Christians stand up and affirm our belief in the “resurrection of the body” as we do in our creeds, we are essentially saying that we stand with the ancient Pharisees in believing that there will be a future day, at the end of time, when God will raise the dead to life and make all things new, including our bodies. But for us Christians, this isn’t just a theory, because we have witnessed it. We have witnessed in Jesus Christ the resurrection from the dead. He actually was the resurrection, just as he said. This was the Lord of life, the God who creates and recreates the world, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses, the God of the Prophets, the God who forgives sins, the God who has the power to take broken, rejected and dead lives and make them new again…we have witnessed that God walking among us, and he has a powerful name: Jesus.

It is a name more precious than gold, Peter and John knew that, because it is a name that has the power to give us new life, not just in some distant future day, but here and now. Only I wonder if we call on it quite as much as we should. I wonder if we really appreciate, as Christians, the power of calling on the name of Jesus. I don’t think we do. I think we all, from time to time at least, get lured into the trap of focusing on what we have to offer the world, and not on what he has to offer. Even when you are bragging about your church to others, especially folks that don’t go to church, how often do we end up saying things like: well, the people are really nice, the music is exceptional, the building is charming, the preacher doesn’t preach too long, there are some great outreach programs…and all of that may be true, but in the end how much does any of that really matter? 

There are nice folks everywhere, there is good music in the concert hall, I can find beautiful art and beautiful buildings at the Metropolitan Museum, If you want a motivational speaker you can find one on YouTube to suit your tastes whenever you want, and you can even mute him or fast forward if he or she gets too boring, and maybe you like to give back to others and make a difference in your community, but you could just volunteer at the local soup kitchen and do that. If those things are all that church is really about then I really don’t blame your non-religious friends for choosing brunch with bottomless mimosas on Sunday morning rather than coming to mass. 

When Peter and John met a stranger on their way into the temple, they didn’t tell him how great the potluck suppers are back in the upper room, nor did they pretend to be a social service agency. They offered him the most valuable thing they had, which was the name and the power of Jesus. His forgiveness, his renewal, his hope, his power was the most precious thing Peter and John had, and they knew it, and that is why people started following them by the thousands. 

Do you meet Jesus here? Does God’s power touch or transform your life through the ministry of this church? Does this church connect you to the Lord of life? Those are the important questions, and they are the only ones that really matter. We don’t need to try and explain to people why our church is better than some other church. We need to talk about what Jesus has done for our lives and how his power and his name give us new life and hope. If people truly see and believe that Jesus has changed and saved your life, they will follow you to where you found him.

I shall know him

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Sermon for April 11th, 2021

Readings:

I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
And redeemed by His side, I shall stand.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the print of the nails in His hand.

Those words are from a great Fanny Crosby hymn called “My Saviour First of All” and they kept ringing through my head as I was rereading today’s gospel this week. I shall know him, I shall know him, by the print of the nails in His hand. 

First of all, you need to understand that Fanny Crosby, the author of this hymn, was blind her whole life. She never saw any paintings of Jesus. She never looked on his face in a statue or a stained-glass window. She never watched a movie with Jesus played by some hunky Hollywood actor. The ridiculous debates some enlightened church folks have about what Jesus’s skin tone would have been precisely, would have been meaningless to her, because she never saw him represented anywhere in any way. We, who have good vision, have all these pre-conceived notions about what Jesus looks like. These ideas are culturally transmitted; they aren’t from scripture, not most of them. It’s just that we have been depicting Jesus in art for so long now, that we expect Jesus to look a certain way: he wears a white robe, with a cloak, has longish hair, a beard. We think we know what he is going to look like. 

We had a dear family friend when I was younger, who swore that she could see the face of Jesus in the popcorn ceiling over the bed in her guestroom. Now I’m not saying that the face wasn’t there, and who knows, maybe God was trying to comfort her by giving her a sign, but she had no doubts that it wasn’t just a face; it was the face of Jesus. I think it shows just how confident we can be that we think we know what Jesus looks like. We have expectations. We think we know. 

But Fanny didn’t know. She was blind. She knew she didn’t know what Jesus would look like. Fanny longed to see Jesus though. Fanny longed like Job to see her redeemer. There is a line from the Book of Job that we say as a part of the burial office: 

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold,
and not as a stranger.

Fanny longed for her eyes to be opened and to see Jesus, and to recognize hymn, but how would she recognize him? By the print of the nails in his hand. That is how she would know him. 

When you heard about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb last week, you may recall that when she went to the tomb, she saw Jesus, but she didn’t know that it was him until he calls her name. In the Gospel of Luke after the resurrection, two disciples go walking to the village of Emmaus, and Jesus comes and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him until he breaks the bread at dinner. The resurrected face of Jesus isn’t the first thing people recognize: it is his voice, his actions, and perhaps most of all his wounds. 

The first thing that Jesus shows his disciples on that first resurrection day, the first thing he does after entering their home and greeting them, is show them his wounds. He shows them his hands and his side. Before they even ask. Before Thomas says anything about wanting to touch Jesus’s wounds, Jesus shows his wounds to his disciples as the unmistakable, irrefutable proof of his identity. And they rejoice. 

Does it seem odd to you that the resurrected body of Christ would still have the nail marks where the Romans crucified him? It isn’t what I would expect. I would expect that a resurrected body wouldn’t bear any of the scars or wounds that it received in life. Afterall we are talking about a miraculous resurrection, not just a resuscitation. Jesus wasn’t just really sick you know and got better. He was dead. If God is giving new life to a dead body, why isn’t he patching those scars up on his hands and side? 

It’s true the scars don’t hurt him anymore, but why are they there at all? The resurrected Jesus is so mysterious. He can pass through locked doors, but he has a body that you can touch and feel. He has the ability, and the desire to eat, just like a regular person, but he also just appears and disappears. Sometimes people recognize him as Jesus, sometimes they don’t. There are so many mysteries about this resurrected body of Jesus that we just can’t comprehend and one of the greatest has to be the fact that he still bears the scars of his sacrifice. He still has the print of the nails in his hands. 

 Why? Is it just so that the disciples will recognize him as the man on the cross three days earlier? That could be part of the reason, but I imagine there may be more. Maybe these wounds aren’t some accident of history, but are actually a part of who Jesus is. The wounds that represent Christ being nailed to the cross and his life being poured out, they weren’t just injuries done to Jesus, they are a part of his very identity. Our God bears eternally in the body of his son, wounds that are the ultimate symbol of his love. Thomas’s didn’t say “my Lord and my God” when he saw Jesus’s face. He said it when he saw his wounds. We, who have good vision and are used to seeing Jesus, we think we will know what he looks like, and so often we miss him when he is right in front of us. Fanny couldn’t see, so she knew she wouldn’t recognize him that way. Fanny expected to know her saviour, by the print of the nails in his hands.