Food is love that you can taste


I needed to make a couple cakes for my church fair a few weeks ago. I don’t know why, but for some reason I just knew that it had to be Cousin Joyce’s Strawberry Cake. No other cake recipe would do. It was my Grandma’s favorite cake. Grandma loved all sweets but she loved strawberry the best, so if Joyce was in town visiting you could put money on the fact that at some point a strawberry cake would appear in the kitchen. Joyce was good like that. She knew that food was just love that you could taste. That cake wasn’t just dessert, it was a symbol of the bond between them.


I pulled out Joyce’s recipe and started baking. The smell of that warm cake coming out of the oven took me right back to Grandma’s kitchen. I could almost hear Joyce in her thick South Georgia accent telling stories about all the goin’s on in Cairo. Joyce didn’t just work for the Cairo Messenger, she was the Cairo messenger. She knew current events; she knew about stuff going on with family members that I had neither met nor heard of; but mostly she knew those good old funny stories about real folks and real mishaps that made you laugh till you cried, and when they were over you appreciated life just a little bit more. At least I did. The rest of the world had Cousin Minnie Pearl from Grinders Switch; we had Cousin Joyce from Cairo, Georgia. I think we got the better deal.


Joyce came from a long line of storytellers and she always had a story. I will never forget the story that Joyce loved to tell about Uncle Guyett mixing up his and Aunt Ollie’s false teeth, or the time that Aunt Ollie drove her scooter too close to the catfish pond and dumped herself in. Joyce was the person you always wanted your Yankee friends to sit next to, because you knew that they were only going to pick up about half of what she said, but in the half they understood they would come to know pretty quickly what it means to be a part of this family.

They would learn that we cherish the tales of bygone days and loved ones that have long since gone to glory.

They would learn that we have this uncanny ability to laugh at ourselves and each other, and that our humor often comes out in unexpected ways.

They would learn that we take caring for each other seriously.

They would learn that we are far more sophisticated and wise than people give us credit for being.

They would learn that we get mad, but then eventually get over it.

They would learn that family ties run deep, but friends can be quickly adopted and treated the same as blood.

All this could be learned just by listening to Joyce for a few minutes. If you wanted to give someone a baptism by fire into this family, introduce them to Joyce. She was our ambassador.


I guess it is fitting that in our family cookbook on page one is a picture of Joyce sneaking into my Grandma’s refrigerator right over a story she told about her husband Lewis and his cousins travelling around in the backwoods of North Florida. Feeding people and telling stories with and about family, that is what Joyce was all about; that is how she lived her life, right up until the end. Feeding people, caring for people, looking after people, or telling stories about people. You could be sure that wherever Joyce was, she was doing one of those things.


I know someone else that loved to feed people, care for people and tell stories. Joyce knew him too. He liked to tell a story about a king inviting people who were unworthy to a great banquet. The guests didn’t need to be rich or famous or important, they didn’t even have to be good; they just had to accept the invitation. You didn’t become a part of this king’s family by being born of his blood; you became a part of his family by being washed in the blood of his Son. When the Apostle John had a vision of the heavenly throne in the Book of Revelation he saw that it was surrounded by people who had come through much, but stood robed in white before the throne of God. They had been made clean, not by their own efforts, but by being washed and made new in the blood of the Lamb. They had accepted the invitation to the feast, and there at that throne and at that banquet they hunger no more, they thirst no more and they suffer no more. The Lamb is their shepherd and he guides them to the water of life, and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.


Joyce wasn’t perfect, but she knew the Lord Jesus who was, and is. I know that she tried to model her life after his example, and that even though she was going to stumble and fall, as we all do, she trusted him to pick her back up again. Because that’s what a loving parent does, and that is the God that she worshiped: a loving parent.


Yesterday when I heard that Joyce had unexpectedly died and been taken home to the Lord, I stopped in church to light a candle and say a prayer for her. There on the kneeler in the chapel where I was praying was a prayer book opened to Psalm 84:

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!


It was as if Joyce was pointing me to that Psalm herself. Maybe she was. The sparrow has found her a house, and I have no doubt she is happy there.



This cookbook that Joyce was responsible for getting printed is one of my treasured possessions, and not just because it contains the recipe for her strawberry cake. When I look through these pages I see the names and faces of so many people that are waiting at that feast on the other side; including some we never dreamed we would lose so soon and so suddenly. I open this book and all of a sudden standing next to me is Uncle Sandy making his beef stew, Grandma making her cornbread dressing, Aunt Bebe stirring up a squash casserole, Butch throwing a red cockaded woodpecker into his ham hock and lima beans, Ollie frying hushpuppies. There are so many others gathered around the kitchen table like saints around God’s throne: Ralph, Dale, Aunt Ella Ruth, Gene, Jerry, Danielle, Uncle Guyett and now…Joyce. More than anyone else, Joyce is all over this book. Her recipes fill its pages, just like her food and her love filled our lives. I am heartbroken like the rest of the family, but I have a strong faith that I will be at a family reunion with her again, and I’m willing to bet that there’s gonna be cake there too.


One thing I always knew, was that if Joyce was around there was gonna be food and there was gonna be laughing and if that doesn’t sound like heaven I don’t know what does. I love you cousin. Save me some cake.



A Royal Invitation


Sermon for Sunday, October 15th, 2017


Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

I love it whenever we get a scripture that describes God’s kingdom as a banquet and this morning we are doubly blessed because we get two: both Isaiah and Matthew talk about God preparing a feast or compare the Kingdom of heaven to a banquet. As I am always thinking about my next meal, I find the idea of heaven as some sort of eternal buffet very gratifying.


It was a few Friendship Fairs ago that a couple of our industrious parishioners decided to edit and publish a new parish cookbook. Incidentally, we still have plenty of copies, so if you are new to our parish come and see me after mass and I would be glad to give you one as a gift. As a part of this project, one of our editors decided to send a request for recipes to Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Now of course, nobody here imagines that her majesty spends much time in the kitchen, but it seemed like a clever idea and who knows, maybe one of the palace chefs would take pity on us and send us a recipe. This was during the height of the Downton Abbey series, and Highclere Castle came through with a couple recipes, so you never know. Well Jane, who was responsible for this idea did get a response from one of the Queen’s secretaries very politely declining to submit any recipes. Now you must understand that in addition to being a foodie I am something of a rabid monarchist. Yes, I am an American citizen, but I happen to think that constitutional monarchy is a perfectly good form of government and I am a huge fan of the royal family and her majesty. I am the sort of person who would stand on the street corner for hours just to see her drive by (I Haven’t had the opportunity to do it but I would). So I was endlessly amused by the fact that we actually got a response from the palace. It didn’t matter that it was a stock response from a volunteer secretary, what mattered was that it came from the palace on official letterhead. If you turn to the front of the cookbook, you will find there a scan of said letter, forever memorialized in the pages of our book.


Now I just want to point out here the subtle craziness of this: this is a REJECTION LETTER. This is a rejection letter from the palace and I still found it so meaningful that I thought it needed to be bound and included in the book. This isn’t an invitation to tea. It isn’t a recipe for the Queen’s favorite scones. It’s a rejection letter from a secretary, a very sweet rejection letter, but a rejection letter nonetheless. Here it is though, right in the front of our cookbook, right where I think it belongs. That is how I respond to a rejection from the palace…can you imagine how I would respond to an invitation?


Let me tell you…it’s probably never going to happen (I’m not that crazy), but if it ever did, if for some reason the Queen decided that she needed a few more priests at her parties to balance out all the politicians and celebrities, and if I were to come home one day and discover a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s office slipped into my letterbox inviting me to any event whatsoever at the palace, I can promise you…I’m gonna go.


There isn’t much in this world that would keep me from going. I don’t care if I have to take a redeye flight and turn around and come right back. I’m going to go. I’d probably even buy a new suit, just so that I looked my best. It wouldn’t matter if I was sick, tired, busy, whatever…I would find a way, because it would be important to me. What an honor it would be. What a privilege it would be. How many people get invited to be the guest at a royal banquet? What would make it especially meaningful is that there is no reason for me to be invited: I’m not a celebrity, I’m not a politician, I haven’t made a significant contribution to British culture, I’m not even a citizen. I’m just your average admirer from across the pond. And maybe you all think I’m a bit eccentric, and maybe I am, but if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to put money on the fact that if any of you received a similar invitation, you’d do the same thing.


I don’t care what your citizenship is, what your politics are, or what you think about monarchy, I’m willing to bet that if you got an invitation to the Queen’s house for dinner, you’d take it seriously. If there was any way you could go, you would go. Who wouldn’t? And I’m also willing to bet that you would take it so seriously that when you showed up for dinner you’d look pretty sharp. Maybe you wouldn’t buy a new suit, but you’d probably wear the best one you had, because this would be a special occasion. Someone really important was taking notice of you. You would take the invitation seriously. I think that’s pretty much human nature. I may be a monarchist, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone would refuse the Queen’s invitation.


That is what makes the parable in this morning’s gospel such a ridiculous story. A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends out invitations, but the guests don’t come. He sends out messengers to the guests to invite them again, and this time they kill the messengers. Finally, he tells his servants to just invite anyone that will come, and even then someone has such little respect for the invitation that he can’t be bothered to change out of his street clothes. This is a ridiculous story. Jesus knows that it is a ridiculous story. His listeners understand that this is a ridiculous story, because for the most part, that’s not how people act toward kings and queens. If an invitation comes from a king or queen you take it seriously. You don’t ignore it, you certainly don’t kill the messenger, and when you show up you show the proper respect to your host by trying to be and look the best version of yourself that you can be. Jesus knows that the story is ridiculous and unbelievable and that I think is part of his point. We know that we wouldn’t treat an earthly king this way, but how do we treat the King of Heaven?


People get squirmy with this Gospel story because they don’t like the part about the guy getting thrown out in the end for wearing the wrong thing. But I don’t think the point of this story is the behavior of the king at all. Jesus isn’t trying to say that God is like this King; what he’s trying to say is that we are like those guests. His main point isn’t how God acts towards us; it’s how we act toward God. He tells this absurd story so that we will recognize the dramatic difference between how we treat God and how we treat the leaders of this world. We treat the heavenly King is ways that we would never dream of treating an earthly king. We ignore his invitation, we kill his messengers, and even if we openly accept his invitation, still we often prove ourselves unwilling to take it seriously, unwilling to change, literally or figuratively. We don’t take God and God’s invitation nearly as seriously as we would take the invitation from any earthly king or queen. That, I think, is Jesus’s main point.


In Jesus we know God to be a God of forgiveness and grace. We know God to be merciful. I don’t think that God is tossing people into the outer darkness for not being dressed appropriately. We know that the heavenly king is infinitely better, more just and more merciful than any earthly king. An earthly king or queen will reject you…here’s proof. Earthly rulers are fallible. They are human. They don’t share their recipes. Although I am a monarchist, I can understand why some people aren’t because if you look at history there have been plenty of inept and sometimes even wicked kings and queens. But we know that the King of Kings, the heavenly king is so much better. So if we are willing to take an invitation from an earthly king very seriously, shouldn’t we take an invitation from a heavenly king that much more seriously?


We all have been invited to the most amazing banquet. We have been invited to share not just in God’s table here, at this church, but we have been invited to partake of the heavenly banquet. I know that Holy Communion may not seem like a real meal. Just a small piece of bread and a tiny sip of wine, but consider for a minute what is truly happening here. The God and King of all creation has invited us poor sinners to a banquet. We don’t deserve to be here. There is no reason that God should welcome us here, but he does. We come together with other Christians, not just in this place, but across the world and across time. Those we have loved and see no longer, they are here. The saints of God throughout the ages, they are here. This is a foretaste of the eternal heavenly banquet that God, the King of Heaven, has invited us to, and the food that he offers us is his own life. No earthly king or queen could do that. The invitation to communion with God is the most important invitation we will ever receive. It is a royal invitation, so shouldn’t we treat it that way?


Let’s face it, even those of us who accept God’s invitation, often don’t do it with the true joy and enthusiasm that it deserves. Maybe we are willing to show up and eat, but do we care enough to change, to be better, not to be phony, but to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Are we coming to this feast reluctantly on our way to someplace else or is this where we really want to be? Are we excited to accept this invitation? Are we really taking the King of Heaven’s invitation seriously?


The truth is, I’m probably never going to get an invitation to dinner with the Queen. She’s a very important and busy person, and it’s no surprise that I’m not at the top of her guest list. Don’t get me wrong I still wanna go and I’d be thrilled to get one. But it’s ok. I have to remember that I have already received a royal invitation. A far greater and more important king has taken notice of me and invited me to dine at his table. Can I take his invitation just as seriously?



The fruit we were meant to cultivate


Sermon for October 8, 2017


Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom


He was known as the meanest, angriest man on his block. A nasty old cuss, he had a drinking problem, a sick wife, and he had made an enemy out of everyone in the neighborhood. He would chase the neighborhood kids out of his yard until one day he got so angry, he grabbed his shotgun, ran after the kid playing basketball across the street and fired right into his back. Then he got into his car and headed to Kmart and started shooting people in the parking lot randomly. Then he headed across the street to the Winn-Dixie, killed two rookie police officers, both in their 20s, then he went into the store. Those customers that couldn’t escape by the back door, or that didn’t hide in the freezer were held hostage. The siege lasted for 7 ½ hours, until under a fog of tear gas the police were able to creep into the store aisle by aisle until they captured him. He had killed 6 people and wounded 14 others. The man’s name was William Cruz and the town was Palm Bay, Florida, where I grew up. And although you may not know or remember his name or the incident, at the time it was international news. That was in 1987 when I was 8 years old. It is the first time I remember encountering that kind of random and senseless killing and violence. At the time we were shocked that that sort of thing could happen in our own town, and we couldn’t imagine something like that happening again. Who would have imagined that 30 years later, such acts would become almost common and the death toll rather minor?


I spent a fair amount of time being angry this week. I was angry on Monday morning when I heard the news of yet another act of senseless violence in our country. I was angry that this disgusting act was perpetrated not by some foreign power or terrorist cell, but by one of our own. Most of all I was angry that I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. Who wouldn’t be angry that such a thing keeps happening in our land with no solution in sight? A lot of people are angry. If you watch the news, read the paper or turn on your computers, you will find almost unlimited amounts of anger. The pro-gun lobby is angry at the anti-gun lobby. Democrats are angry at Republicans. It would be very easy for me to get caught up in one side of that anger. I could deploy facts and figures. I could march and protest and believe me, I have done it. Those things do serve a purpose. But what happens when anger becomes your go-to response for everything that challenges you? I was in a meeting this week with a very angry person. They weren’t angry with me, they weren’t angry about Las Vegas, the person was upset about something else entirely, but the anger in this person was palpable. The person just seemed angry at the world. I thought to myself: “gosh, it must be terrible to be that mad all the time. What must this person’s life be like if lurking around every corner is another opportunity to be outraged?”


I began to realize that maybe anger is the real problem here. Don’t get me wrong I think our country has some serious issues that we need to address. There are times when I think we should be outraged, but I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the emotional energy to be mad all the time at everything that is going on in the world that I don’t like. I am tired of society telling me that I need to be constantly offended and constantly mad all the time. I am not going to invest what little energy I have left at the end of the day into cultivating anger. I want us to be able to actually take some corrective action on some of the serious problems in our society, but we will never be able to address them or do anything constructive about them until we get over our obsession, our addiction to being angry and outraged all the time. This is the state of our country right now: we are addicted to being outraged. We will look for it. We will parse everything someone says to see if they might have possibly made a misstatement and then we will pounce on it, drag that person down, destroy them in any way that we can and then go on, proud of ourselves at doing a righteous deed. We are angry and we are proud of our anger because it makes us feel righteous. We don’t know how to find that righteous feeling anywhere else so we find it in anger. As long as we can keep feeling angry at someone or something, we can keep feeling righteous about ourselves and our way of life. We don’t have to really look at ourselves as long as we can stay focused on how wrong someone else is.


So you are either for me or against me. There is no room for compromise. And therefore we make no progress on creating a healthier and better society for all of us. There is just more division.  Everything is black and white; right or wrong. God forbid people with different viewpoints should actually talk to each other or listen to each other. God forbid we should actually move people by winning their hearts and minds rather than just overpowering them. No, we would rather encase ourselves in our anger. That feels more comfortable. That makes us feel righteous. The addiction has gotten worse in recent years, but don’t go looking for one person, or one party to blame, and it’s not the internet’s fault either. The anger in our country has been growing for decades and our response to the problem has just been to create more anger. If all our anger is producing is more anger, then maybe we might try sowing something else for a change. Now I’m not saying that it isn’t right to be angry sometimes, of course it is, but if that is all you ever are, then I think there is a serious problem there. Jesus felt anger too, but even in his most desperate hour he didn’t live in it. He didn’t feed it. Instead he showed us a better way.


God has given us so much. Christ has promised us so much. We have so much to be thankful for. God has given us so much, and given it to us freely. We didn’t have to earn it. But, that does not mean that God doesn’t expect our lives to produce fruit. Just because we have the promise of forgiveness and eternal salvation in Jesus does not mean that God no longer cares what kind of fruit our lives produce. Quite the contrary, because we have been given so much in Jesus, we should care so much more about how our lives are a testimony to God’s love. That’s why Paul said that he regarded “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”


For Paul, to be in Christ means that he no longer has to be concerned about his own righteousness. He doesn’t have to feel righteous all the time. His righteousness comes from Christ. He doesn’t have to find his righteousness in anger; his righteousness comes from God. That doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t get angry; he did, but Paul also recognized that anger was a product of the flesh; something that when left unrestrained will lead you away from the true righteousness that comes from God. In the Letter to the Galatians, what one might call Paul’s angriest letter, he says to his readers:


Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh…Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.


I know plenty of Christians that latch on to that word fornication and they get so excited that their minds must tune out and miss all those other works of the flesh, maybe they will tune back in for drunkenness and carousing, but they definitely miss anger.


Paul goes on to list the fruit of the Spirit. Now if you grew up Roman Catholic you might have been made to memorize the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit. Well Paul only lists nine. How y’all ended up with three extra is beyond me. Paul says:


By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.


That is the fruit of the kingdom. That is the fruit we are meant to cultivate. That is the fruit Our Lord is looking for. Those are the grapes he has sown in his vineyard, and those are the attributes that he expects to see in those that bear his name. If we are supposed to be working for the kingdom, then we need to be paying attention to the fruit our lives produce. Memorize those fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Do you see them when you look at your life, when you look in the mirror? Do other people see them in you? Are we seeking to cultivate those fruits in our children? Are we electing people that demonstrate those fruits in their lives? Can we use those powers to listen to people with whom we disagree and maybe find some common ground? Can we plant and nurture love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control and make this vineyard we live in a little more like the one God planted with choice vines in Isaiah 5, and a little less like the one that we have created with our wild grapes?


There is a John Mayer song that I love called Belief. It begins with the line:


Is there anyone who ever remembers changing their mind from the paint on a sign?

Is there anyone who really recalls ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?


I love those lines. And as I have watched our country descend into this constant state of anger and madness, I am aware that it’s natural to get angry when someone does something that hurts or offends you, or says something that you disagree with, but living in that anger doesn’t fix anything. We need to make our country a safer place for everyone, but we aren’t going to do it with anger. Anger is what has led to these horrendous acts of violence. There are moments when we should genuinely be outraged, but we can’t live in that space all the time. We can’t cultivate that wild grape.


One of the things that makes our parish so unique and strong is that we are mixed: different politics, different races, different sexual orientations. How is it that we are able to come together week after week in this community? It isn’t always easy. There are moments of anger I assure you, there are wild grapes, but we get past it. Love is so much stronger. If we Christians really want to make our country, our society and our world a better place we will do it by winning people’s hearts through love, not by shouting angry slogans. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I don’t find anger in that list. I guess it must be a part of the problem. Maybe anger isn’t a fruit we were meant to cultivate.

Words of Christ in Red


Sermon for October 1st, 2017


Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

As you can probably imagine, I have quite a few bibles in my collection. Different translations, different commentaries; some have been gifts, some have been ones that I have purchased. This one is actually one of my favorites: it is a King James Version that has a verse by verse commentary. I particularly love the fact that it has the little tabs that help you find the book in the bible you are looking for. This one also happens to be one of those bibles that prints the words of Christ in red. Are you familiar with those? They were pretty popular among Protestants, especially in the King James Version bibles. Any words that are directly spoken by Jesus are printed in red ink. I actually find it rather useful sometimes. It really drives home the importance of who is speaking, and the importance of those words in a very visual way. It’s like making you stand for the gospel reading in mass: you are aware that these words have special significance.


At my ordination I, like every priest in our church, had to affirm that I believe both the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God and to contain all things necessary for salvation. It’s an affirmation that I still maintain today. It’s all inspired. God can and does speak to you in even some of the most difficult books and passages. But I actually like having the words of Christ in red, because it is a recognition of the supreme authority with which he speaks. It’s not that Jesus sets out to negate other parts of the bible (he repeatedly claims that that is not his intention); it’s that he, through his life and teaching, gives us a lens through which we can properly view everything else. He clarifies; he interprets; he demonstrates. For Christians he is the supreme interpreter of the law.


I know that when many people think of Jesus they think of his teachings. They think of him as a teacher and they think of his primary contribution to faith as the words that he said, but if you actually flip through one of these red letter bibles and look through the New Testament what you will find is that there is a whole lot of black. His words may be printed in red, but his actions they are printed in black and they form the bulk of his ministry that we have recorded. The world thinks of Jesus as a man of profound words, but what you discover as you dig deeper is that actions mean so much more to Jesus than just words. Words are important, but actions are much more so. Words are cheap, but actions take real effort. That is, after all part of what he is getting at in the gospel this morning isn’t it? The son who actually worked in the vineyard, his actions meant more than the words of the son who said he would go and didn’t. The son who worked in the vineyard did the will of the father, not the one who just said he would. Words are important, but actions are much more so.


When we talk about the Word of God, we naturally think about the Bible and what God is saying, but the truth is much of our scripture is focused on what God is doing or on what God has done. The words of God are important, but the actions of God are much more so. As far as we have been able to track, the oldest parts of the New Testament, those that were written down first, were Paul’s letters. In Paul’s time there was plenty of preaching and telling the stories and teachings of Jesus, but Paul was writing before the gospels were completed, before there was a written record of everything Jesus said. And if you look in a red letter bible to Paul’s letters, one thing that you will quickly discover is that there isn’t much red. Paul wasn’t terribly concerned with sharing everything that Jesus said in his teaching, in his words. Paul is far more concerned that those hearing and reading his letters understand who Jesus was and what he did in the world. Who Christ was and what he accomplished in his death and resurrection and how we therefore ought to respond to Christ, that is Paul’s concern. He would leave it to others to record the teachings of Jesus. He wants us to know what the actions of Jesus reveal to us about the God that he is one with. In Paul’s letter to the Phillipians this morning we get a little passage that we think might have been an early Christian hymn. Just like I am sometimes fond of quoting hymns, Paul was probably quoting a hymn when he wrote:


 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.


It’s interesting to me that this ancient text doesn’t have any words of Jesus in it. There is no red ink here. This hymn is all about celebrating who Jesus is and what he did in the world. It doesn’t say anything about what he taught. It is his identity, his authority as one in the form of God and his actions, his willingness to suffer and die that were of greater importance to those early Christians and to Paul, than trying to remember everything he actually said and taught. Proclaiming his authority as the Son of God and proclaiming his actions in his death and resurrection, those came first; recording his teachings, that came later.


The world has known plenty of great teachers. There have been charismatic sages and prophets preaching and teaching since the beginning of time. What makes this one special? What authority does he have? It’s an important question. It’s a dangerous question. The temple priests were asking themselves that very same question when they saw Jesus teaching: who is this man, and where does he get his power from? They learned very quickly what a dangerous question that is. They asked him by what authority he was teaching and he agreed to answer only if they answered a question of his: by what authority did John the Baptist minister? Was it his own, or did it come from God?


As the priests tried to think of a response, they realized what a dangerous question they had been asking: to recognize John’s authority would be to recognize that they needed to respond to him. They weren’t ready to do that. They couldn’t come up with an answer that didn’t threaten to change their lives. So they couldn’t answer Jesus. “We don’t know” they said. So he doesn’t answer their question. The question doesn’t die though. I think it echoes throughout the ages. It gets asked again and again. Sooner or later it is a question we all have to answer: who is this man? By what authority does he speak? Ultimately I think we all face the same dilemma as those temple priests: to recognize a prophet’s authority, means that we have to be prepared to respond to what he says. Are we prepared to do that? I say it’s a dangerous question because answering it can dramatically change your life.


Two weeks ago I asked you all two important questions:


  1. Why Jesus? Why are you a Christian? What is it about Jesus or his story that makes you want to be a follower of his?
  2. Why Ascension? Why do you choose to be a follower of Jesus in this place? What is it about this community that draws you to worship Christ here week after week?


Some of you have already responded, and thank you. Some of you have commented to me on how easy the second question is to answer and how difficult the first one is. I’m not surprised. Of course the second question is easy! If someone has decided that going to church is important to them; if being a part of a Christian community is important to their life, who could blame them for wanting to do that here? We have a great choir, a great Sunday school, friendly people…we’ve got a lot to offer. It’s easy to see why someone would want to worship here and frankly I don’t think it is all that hard to convince people to choose this church. But I don’t think most people today are struggling with the question of should I go to this church or to that church. I think people want to know why they should go to church at all. That is a harder question to answer. That is why I asked you the first question. Why do you follow Jesus? What authority does he have in your life? Just be aware that it is a dangerous question…it always has been. Recognizing his authority means actually allowing his words to change you and call you to a different life.


Yes, what Jesus taught is critically important. His teachings have the power to change your life, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But his words mean so much more to be, because I understand who he is. It is what he does that reveals his true identity and the authority that lies behind his words. Here, I think, is the great irony of the red letter bible: you can’t just jump to the words in red; if you truly want to understand the power of those words in red, you need to first understand what the words in black have to say about the man who is speaking.