Suffered under Pontius Pilate


Sermon for Good Friday 2018


Poor, poor Pilate! I almost feel sorry for him. Pilate is stuck in a situation that he doesn’t want to be in. Here he is in the midst of a religious dispute, and it isn’t even his religion. I am sure that when Pilate accepted this position as governor or procurator of Judea that he had grander things in mind. No doubt he wanted to make a name for himself by skillfully ruling this quarrelsome province. Judea has always been a thorn in the side of every empire that ever possessed it. If he can bring it into line and create peace here, then surely the emperor would take greater notice of him; promote him to a better position, perhaps relocate him to a more hospitable part of the world. All he has to do is keep these Judeans in line. He could care less if this man Jesus said something that offended the temple authorities; it’s not his religion, it’s not his God. He doesn’t care about that. He just wants to make sure that this man isn’t plotting some rebellion. If he is a threat to Rome, dispose of him quickly. If not, then stop disturbing his Friday morning. He just wants to keep the peace until he can move on to greener pastures.


He questions this man that is brought before him and doesn’t find any signs of someone about to lead an insurrection. He talks about a kingdom not of this world, but that doesn’t concern Pilate. The kingdom of the emperor is his only concern. Pilate finds no fault in him; he says so. But some rabble-rousers in the crowd are unrelenting. They keep demanding that this Jesus be crucified. If the religious argument doesn’t work with Pilate, then perhaps the political argument will. “If you release this man then you are no friend of the emperor.” Ah…there’s the key. They threaten to disturb the peace that Pilate is trying to maintain. That he can’t have.


So Pilate decides to have the man crucified, and during all this I am almost persuaded to feel sorry for Pilate until he utters the biggest lie in the entire Gospel.


In Matthew’s account of the passion, Pilate stands before the crowd, washes his hands and says: “See I am innocent of this man’s blood!” As Pilate is condemning Jesus to be crucified he has the audacity to say that “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Pilate would become the first in what would be a very long line of gentiles that would try to shift the blame for Jesus’s death onto the Jews, but he is the one who actually has the power to set Jesus free, he says so. And yet, he doesn’t do it. Make no mistake, he has Jesus’s blood on his hands.


It is there in that moment that Pilate turns from being an almost sympathetic character into a despicable one. Pilate is the most despicable character in this entire scene, because he actually knows the truth, and doesn’t care. He famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?” But we know that he knows the truth, or at least some of it. Pilate knows the Jesus is innocent of the charges against him, and still has him crucified anyways. He knows the truth and it has no affect on his actions; he knows the truth and doesn’t care.


Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priests? Well, they may have lied about what Jesus said about the temple, they may have misunderstood him and many of his teachings, but they do think he is guilty. They do see him as a threat and I think they honestly believe that they are doing the right thing. Even Judas, Jesus’s friend that betrayed him probably thought that he was doing the right thing. We can look back now and see that they were misguided or mistaken, but at least they were sincere. And Judas certainly felt sincere remorse when he realized that he was wrong. But not Pilate.


In Pilate’s greatest moment in the spotlight on history’s stage he knows what is true and has the power to act on it, and chooses not to. He crucifies the truth and because of that his name is forever recorded in history and is spoken daily throughout the world, but not in the way he wanted.


In the creeds of our church, there are only two names mentioned after that of our Lord: one who is honored by bringing him into this world, and one who is condemned for sending him out of it. The Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. When we recite the creed we say that our Lord suffered…not by the hands of Annas, not by the hands of Caiaphas, not by the hands of Herod or Judas, and not by the hands of the Jews…no, we say that Our Lord suffered under Pontius Pilate. His name is the one name that we must forever associate with the death of Jesus.


Pilate thought that the truth didn’t matter. What difference does it make really if this guy is guilty or innocent? As long as I can maintain the peace…who will care really? Oh, but Pilate was wrong. The truth does matter. We may occasionally mistake a falsehood for a truth, that is only human. There are truths that we do not yet know, that is understandable. But it is something we should always be in pursuit of, even if we so do imperfectly.


Pilate isn’t condemned because he didn’t know the truth. He isn’t condemned because he made a mistake. He is condemned because he did know the truth and didn’t care. Pilate’s knowledge of the truth and indifference to it is a greater insult to our Lord, than those that called him a blasphemer and genuinely believed it. We may not always know the truth, but we must always care about it.


It is one thing for Pilate to get the truth wrong, but to not care what it is, well that is a different matter. Our creed forever reminds us that it is by Pilate that Jesus suffered.

The Courage to Sing


Sermon for Maundy Thursday


In the story of Our Lord’s passion in the Gospel of Mark, which we heard read on Sunday, there is a curious line which you may easily have missed. After the last supper was concluded and before Jesus goes to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that he and his disciples sang a hymn. It is the only time in all of our scriptures that we are told that Our Lord sang. Now it is likely that there was a song that was a part of the Passover meal ritual. We don’t know exactly what happened at Passover meals in Jesus’s time, the modern Passover seder developed later, but we do know some of the things that were eaten, we know that there were some rituals with cups of wine, and it is very likely that a portion of the psalms would have been sung as well (remembering, of course, that the psalms were always written to be sung). So it is entirely possible that Jesus would have sung many times in his life, but this is the only time that we are told about it explicitly, at this meal.


Think about the timing here. Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed. He knows that he is about to be arrested and tortured. He knows that his death is coming quickly, and yet here he is singing. He has predicted that he would die and rise again, but that hasn’t happened yet. That is a matter of faith at this point. What lies ahead for him is suffering and struggle, when he leaves the Passover celebration he is going to his agony in the garden, but still he finds the courage to sing. That’s a pretty remarkable thing if you stop and think about it. How many of us can claim to have such faith in God’s saving power that we would have the courage to sing as we approached death? How many of us can celebrate salvation before we witness it?


When we think of Passover or Our Lord’s Supper, we often think of them as something we do to remember God’s saving work and that is very true. God says to Moses: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.” Jesus says to his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembering is important, but think for a moment about that first Passover meal. When did the first Passover meal happen? On the night before the Children of Israel were freed from slavery. Moses and the Israelites were commanded to celebrate their salvation before they witnessed it. That first Passover wasn’t just a feast of thanksgiving, it was an act of faith; faith that God would fulfill his promises.


What about the Eucharist? For Christians the Eucharist, the Holy Thanksgiving, is the ultimate remembrance of Our Lord’s death and resurrection. Paul said that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But when did the first Eucharist happen? During Our Lord’s last supper, the Passover meal that he was celebrating before his death and resurrection. That feast wasn’t just an act of remembrance; it was also an act of faith, a celebration of what God was about to do. Maybe that is why Jesus could walk away from it singing: the feast called him to look beyond the pain of the present moment, to remember how God had saved his people in the past and to trust that he would do so again.


Maundy Thursday is a rather odd service traditionally. We have just come through Lent and all that time we never sang the Gloria, the song of celebration that is usually at the beginning of mass. We don’t sing it in Advent and Lent, but here in the midst of Holy Week, the night before we remember Our Lord’s death, we do sing it. We not only sing it, we ring bells. The vestments tonight are white, a color that we reserve for great feasts of celebration. You would think that we would wait to wear white until Easter Sunday (I’m sure it would make the altar guild a lot happier), but we don’t. On this night before we remember our Lord’s passion, we feast and we sing and we celebrate, not just what God has done in the past but what he is about to do. We celebrate God’s salvation before we witness it.


That is what every Eucharist is in some sense about, not just giving thanks to God for what he has already done in Christ Jesus, but praising and thanking God for what he is about to do in us. We are here to thank God for mercies that we haven’t seen yet. We are here to celebrate an eternal life that we haven’t entered into yet. We are here to sing about a salvation that is to come. That is an act of faith. That is an act of courage. That is how our Lord spends his last night here on earth. What does Jesus say after supper in tonight’s gospel?: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” His last supper on earth was about giving glory to God, not just for what he did, but for what he was about to do, and one of the ways that God was glorified was in song.


You might wonder what exactly Our Lord was singing as he walked off to dark Gethsemane. Actually, we think we might know. There is a collection of six psalms that are grouped together and were sung on the major Jewish festivals from very ancient times. They form a prayer called Hallel, and they are sung even to this day. They are psalms 113 to 118. I’m sure that it is no accident that Psalm 116 is the psalm assigned for this feast tonight, and sung by our choir:


“What reward shall I give unto the Lord, for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?

I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”


They are words our savior himself may have been singing on his last night. And what would have been his last song that he courageously sang as he walked into the garden to confront the agony of human sinfulness? Listen to the end of that song of prayer, Psalm 118:

1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

4Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

5Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.

6With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?

7The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.

8It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.

9It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.

13I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.

14The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

16the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”

17I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

19Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.

21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.

28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

And with those words, Our Lord leaves the feast and walks into the dark garden. May we, like Moses, feast on God’s promises before we taste his freedom. May we, like Christ, have the courage to sing praises to the Lord, even before we witness his salvation.

Ask the Centurion


Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018



I love Bible movies. I have quite a collection of movies based on stories from the scriptures, and I have no problem watching them over and over again. The movies, and the stories never get old to me. I guess that is because the Bible itself is a part of my daily life. It isn’t something that I turn to now and then looking for advice or justification; it is a world of texts and stories and individuals that I live with. I try to keep myself immersed in scripture, regularly swimming around in it, not because I am a priest, but because I am a person of faith. I want to remain connected to my ancestors in the faith, and scripture is one of the most important ways that we do that.


So I like to see how others interpret or imagine these biblical stories and scenes and since I love movies, what better way than watching an epic (and sometimes junky) bible movie now and then? Of course, Hollywood is in the business of entertainment, not education and certainly not worship, so one must always be careful of confusing a director’s vision or an actor’s performance, with the actual gospel; but even a failure on film can teach us something if it encourages us to look deeper or pay closer attention to what is happening. Even a bad bible movie can be good, if it draws us further into the story.


The best example of that that I can think of comes from the movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Very expensive and very long with a somewhat dull Jesus portrayed by Max Von Sydow, and a cameo role for just about every available actor in Hollywood at the time, but the worst failure of the movie (and in my opinion the number one bible movie fail of all time) comes near the end with Jesus’s death on Calvary. The movie famously employed John Wayne to play the centurion at the foot of the cross. He has one line to deliver: “Surely this man was the son of God” and he totally butchers it. I’m not exactly sure how that line should have been delivered, but I know that’s not it. There is no emotion or life in his words; no sense of the importance of what it is that he is saying. I like John Wayne, but this has to be a low point in his movie career: 4 seconds in a 4 hour movie, only seven words to say and he totally flops. But he does succeed in doing one thing: he makes me want to know more about this character that he is portraying.


The centurion at the foot of the cross is one of the oddest moments in the gospel story. In this whole story that we just heard, the one character that actually recognizes Jesus as the Son of God is this unnamed centurion watching Jesus die. How strange. What was it that this centurion saw or witnessed that led him to this belief? He wasn’t Jewish, so Jewish expectations about who the messiah was, or what he should or shouldn’t do or say would have been irrelevant to him. He wasn’t one of Jesus’s followers, so he hadn’t heard him preach, hadn’t seen any of his miracles. That wasn’t what convinced him. He certainly would have seen crucifixions before, so the brutality of the scene wouldn’t have shocked him. So what was it? Was it the manner in which he accepted his death? Was it the darkness in the sky or the ground shaking beneath his feet? We don’t know. It is a mystery to us, what exactly changed his heart, but here is what we do know:


In Mark’s Gospel, the individual that most profoundly recognizes who Jesus is, is also the individual most responsible for his death. The person who truly recognizes what is happening on the cross, is also the person who most has to take responsibility for it.


From the moment that Jesus predicts his own betrayal, his disciples began saying: “Surely, not I?” I couldn’t be the one responsible for your death. I would never do such a thing.


The religious authorities that tried him and mocked him as a prophet, they think he is deserving of death. They condemn him, but they don’t want to pull the trigger. Let the secular governor, Pilate, take care of that dirty deed.


Pilate has the power to set Jesus free, but he doesn’t. Instead of taking responsibility though, he makes sure that he can blame the crowd…after all, he was just fulfilling the will of the people wasn’t he? Surely Jesus’s blood wasn’t on his hands.


Nobody wants to take responsibility for the death of this man, but the buck has to stop somewhere. The executioner, the man closest to the action, the last person with any authority in our story and the person who might very well have had Jesus’s actual blood on his hands is this lonely centurion. Did he tell himself he was just following orders? Did he try to justify that his actions would save lives by somehow keeping the peace? Who knows what thoughts crossed his heart, but no accusation or blame crossed his lips. The truth is, the centurion cannot deny his role in the death of this man, and that is what makes his statement so much more powerful.


The words “truly this man was God’s son” are being uttered by the man who might very well have held the hammer and the nail. The man who truly recognized who Jesus was, also had to recognize the role that he played in his death. Jesus was judged and condemned for offending God and threatening the peace, but who was the guilty one?


Maybe the centurion walked away from Calvary recognizing a profound truth: humans are always putting God on trial for their own sins. How many times have I heard people say: “where is God with all of the suffering and evil in the world? How can you believe in a God that stands by while innocent people are killed? How can a loving God allow such pain to exist?” I wonder sometimes if all these questions aren’t just another way of saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Maybe we don’t want to acknowledge the role that we all have had to play in making the world as it is. But God has not ignored our suffering, even the suffering brought about by our own hands. He hears the cries of his children, he enters into our human flesh, feels our pain, experiences our fear, and offers us the promise of forgiveness and the promise of a new life. Christianity’s answer to what God is doing about the evil in the world is to point to the cross. In that one symbol we are forced to acknowledge both the consequences of our own actions, and the power of God’s love.


Where is God in a world filled with suffering?

Ask the centurion.

Renewing His Covenant


Sermon for Sunday, March 18th



Last week I began my sermon talking about good King Hezekiah. Well good King Hezekiah was followed by his son, bad King Manasseh. Manasseh went out undoing all of his father’s reforms, and again worshiping foreign Gods. Well bad king Manasseh died and was followed by his son, good King Josiah. Josiah was only eight years old when he came to the throne, but by the time he was eighteen, he had already begun to reform the worship in his kingdom that his father had corrupted. Once again, the pagan altars and shrines were taken down and he set about refurbishing and restoring the temple in Jerusalem.


Josiah told the high priest, a man named Hilkiah, to go into the temple treasury and get money to pay the workers there. I guess some aspects of religious life never change…we are always looking for money to fix God’s house. Well, while Hilkiah was rummaging around in the temple treasury he found a scroll and as he opened it and began to read it he realized: this was God’s law, his Torah, his commandments. This was the story of how he had saved his chosen people and brought them to this land. But it wasn’t being processed around and celebrated. It wasn’t in a grand ark in the temple in a place of dignity and honor. Here it was, in the basement, unused and unread. Hilkiah can’t believe what he is reading. So he takes the book to the king and when King Josiah hears the words of the scroll, he tears his clothes. How far have his people strayed from God’s ways! How could they have forgotten God’s law! How could they have forgotten the story of their own salvation?!


Josiah has the entire community gathered at the temple: all the priests, all the prophets, big people, small people, everyone from the least to the greatest…and he has the book read. And the people hear how God had saved them. They hear how time and time again God made a covenant with their ancestors: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. They hear the commandments and the law that was given to Moses. And they also hear how time and time again, God’s people broke his covenant. But each time God’s people proved to be unfaithful, there was God, ever faithful. Each time the covenant was broken, there was God, ready to renew it. Ready to forgive, ready to start over. It isn’t that the people never had to suffer for their own sinfulness, they did, but God always fulfilled his end of the bargain. He never forsook his people. All of those covenants that he made were everlasting. God would not fail, even if his people did.


Inspired by this proclamation and reclamation of God’s Torah, his law, his divine story, Josiah declares there in front of all of Jerusalem that he and his people would renew this covenant. They would follow God’s commands with all their heart and all their soul. They would observe the Passover, which had not been celebrated in generations. They would tell their children about the greatness of their God and they would teach them to walk in his ways. And when Josiah was finished speaking the people stood and cheered. Yes, they would keep this covenant.


Standing there in the temple courtyard was the High Priest’s, son. He was a young prophet in his own right, just beginning his career of serving God. He wouldn’t forget this scene. Perhaps he was a bit skeptical as young people often are. Perhaps he doubted that all these people gathered here would really keep this covenant. So many times before God’s people would prove faithless…why would this time be any different? And yet…he found Josiah’s words inspiring; he loved the idea that God’s commands should be taken into our heart and soul, and not just be letters on a scroll that can be rolled up and forgotten. Wouldn’t it be great if God’s covenant was always met with the love and enthusiasm that it was on that morning? Well maybe this young man was unsure about God’s people, but he was sure about God. God would be faithful.


The young man’s name was Jeremiah. And he didn’t forget that morning. The image of people rejoicing in the love of God, celebrating his word, committing themselves to his law in heart and soul, that moment must have imprinted itself upon his soul, because it was a vision of hope that he would cling to for the rest of his life.


The prophet Jeremiah can be a tough read for most people. He predicted and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and he wrote about it vividly. Most of his prophecy seems dire, negative, painful, because the people of his land did stray from God again; again they broke his covenant, and he knew that they would continue to do so. I can only imagine that he lived with a broken heart; broken by witnessing how far people have strayed from the love of God. And yet…right there in the middle of Jeremiah’s book is this little group of verses, interrupting the death and destruction to shine a light of hope. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” Jeremiah said that God would renew his covenant with his people again. Despite their failures, despite their faithlessness, God would be faithful. But if you only read those few happy verses and ignored the difficult ones that come before and after you might miss an important detail: when Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, the House (or the Kingdom) of Israel is already dead. The people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel have already been massacred and hauled off into exile by the Assyrians. When Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, he is talking about a Kingdom that is about to die at the hands of the Babylonians. So, God is going to make a renewed commitment or a renewed covenant with people that are either dead or dying. Jeremiah says that the death of his people, even death as a result of their own sins, will not cut them off from God forever. God says that the sun and the moon will pass away before he would reject his people. No, God will restore his people, he will reestablish the Kingdom of David, he will forgive their sins. That is a supernatural hope. There is a reason why we say in our creed that God through the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets; there is a reason why we honor them: because to be able to see what Jeremiah saw (all of the sin, the pain and the suffering) and still to hold on to even a seed of hope, well that is a profound grace. To stare death in the face and see the potential for rebirth and new life, that power, that message, comes from God.


Try to see in your mind, try to envision this renewed commitment and covenant that Jeremiah is talking about. What would it look like for someone’s heart to be so united to God, so in love with God, that observing God’s commandments are as much a part of their life as breathing in and breathing out? What would it look like for someone to be such a person of prayer that day and night their attention was turned toward God and that those who witnessed that prayer would have no question that God had heard them? What would it look like for someone to be so obedient to God that even their own suffering and death would not turn them away from following after God? What would it look like to be a part of a kingdom that no ruler of this world could destroy? What would it look like for God’s covenant to so shine in your life that even foreigners, people who worship others gods, are drawn to you and want to know your Lord? Have we ever seen someone whose union with God was so strong that even death could not break it? Have we ever seen a glimpse of this new covenant that God has promised us?


Maybe we have…



Symbol or Idol?


Sermon for March 11th, 2018



Around the year 715BC, a new king came to the throne of the Kingdom of Judah. The King’s name was Hezekiah; a young man, a reformer, and by the account of our scripture, a good king. Hezekiah could see how his people had over time drifted away from the right worship of God. They had slipped into various forms of idolatry and they were worshipping in various high places around the country in ways that maybe resembled their pagan neighbors a bit too much…at least too much for Hezekiah. So he went about tearing down these other altars; he encouraged his people to worship only the God of their ancestors, to obey his commandments, to trust in him, and to make their sacrifices at his temple in Jerusalem. But there is an interesting footnote to Hezekiah’s reform is this little half verse that we find in the Second Book of Kings:


“He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”


He broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses made. We can’t really date Moses in the same way that we date Hezekiah. We don’t have the same historic artifacts, but what we can be sure of is that he would have lived a long time before Hezekiah. So this bronze serpent would have been at least 500 years old. Think about this: this was an artifact of the great prophet Moses; something he actually touched and made; still there, in the same place. It is the kind of thing that Indiana Jones would have risked his life for, but Hezekiah has it destroyed and broken into pieces. That should have shocked people; it should be shocking to us; you would think that the scribes would have condemned Hezekiah for this bit of destruction but they don’t; they applaud him for it. Why? Why was Hezekiah so intent on destroying this sacred relic?


The clue is there within the verse: “…the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” Because it had become an idol. It wasn’t an idol when Moses made it; God told him to make it, it was a powerful symbol. But now people were bowing down to it and serving it; they were breaking God’s second commandment and treating this piece of metal as if it were a God itself: making offerings to it and treating the statue as if it had magical powers. The people no longer understood where the true power of the bronze serpent came from, so as far as Hezekiah was concerned, it had to go.


If the bronze serpent didn’t have magical powers, if it didn’t have power in itself, surging up and down the metal, then where did its power come from? How did it save the children of Israel? Why did Moses make it?


Well let’s review for a moment what is happening in our passage from the Book of Numbers today. The children of Israel have been freed from bondage in Egypt, they have received God’s commandments on Mount Sinai, and now they find themselves wandering in the desert for 40 years. And almost every step along the way is another complaint: it’s hot, why did you bring us here, where are we going, we’re thirsty, we don’t like this food. It doesn’t seem to matter how many miracles Moses performs, his followers are never happy for very long. You would think that with all they have seen that they would trust God by now, but No. “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’”


Well, yes, people that are hungry and thirsty can get a bit cranky, but I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here. In the first place they do have food (by their own admission) they just aren’t satisfied with it. God has been feeding them with manna from heaven since they have been in the desert, and they don’t even have to work for it. They just have to pick it up. So they aren’t starving. And if you look in the last chapter you will find that when the people were thirsty Moses was able to make water come from the stone, so they have had water. Still these people just don’t seem to be satisfied with anything that God has done for them. They don’t trust in God’s promises, they have a loose adherence to his commandments, and worst of all they don’t like his food. How insulting!


There is another biblical story that comes to mind when God’s children didn’t trust him, didn’t obey his commandments and weren’t satisfied with his food. It seems to me that Adam and Eve had a pretty good thing going: all the food they wanted that they didn’t have to work for, comfort, security, God’s protection and only ONE commandment. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. And who was it that convinced them that their food wasn’t good enough? Who did Adam and Eve decide to trust more than they trusted God? Oh yeah….a serpent.


The serpent’s punishment for his deception is to forever eat the dust of the earth and to live in enmity with the children of Eve. “He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” Adam’s punishment was that he shall now have to work for his food.


So here we are gathered in the desert, the children of Israel are not trusting in God and they are complaining about God’s food that they didn’t even have to work for. So I imagine God looking down upon the children of Israel, who also happened to be children of Adam and Eve, and saying: “so if you would rather trust in the serpent and where he is leading you, then so be it. Let the serpent feed you.” Sometimes you have to let people make their own choices, even if they are the wrong ones. And the people quickly discovered the mistake they had made: the age old curse was still true; the serpent did bruise their heels and instead of offering them food, feasted on the children of Israel instead.


So what is God’s solution? He is, after all, a God of mercy and surely doesn’t wasn’t his children to suffer. If that were the case he could have just left them in Egypt. How does he get these people to recognize the destructiveness of their own behavior? How does he remind them of his own faithfulness and their own propensity to ignore his promises and become impatient and ungrateful? He tells Moses to make a symbol. Put it up high where everyone can see it. And what should that symbol be? Something glorious and beautiful? No. Something grotesque. Make it a symbol of death. The very thing that is attacking them, the symbol of their own sin, the serpent. Put that on a pole and when they are suffering from that serpent’s sting, let them look on that symbol and they will be saved.


Was there some kind of magic in that bronze pole? I don’t think so. Hezekiah didn’t seem to think so either. The real power of the bronze serpent was that it forced people to confront their own failure. The Israelites had been untrusting of God, impatient, ungrateful; they listened to their own desires more than they listened to God’s promises and the ultimate symbol of that was this snake. In gazing upon the snake they realized, inside, how much they still needed God. The power of the snake was not in the metal, it was in the change of heart that it caused inside those that looked upon it. Symbols have great power, not by magic, but by how they direct our souls to truth and reality that we often ignore or simply cannot see. When the symbol stops causing us to look within, and becomes an object of devotion in itself, then its true power has been lost. That’s why Hezekiah tore it down.


Even though that statue was long gone by the time that Jesus walked the earth, its fame lived on. The people still needed a symbol. People still needed to be confronted with the reality of their own sin; humanity still needed to look its own failure square in the face, and individuals still needed to turn their hearts back toward God and his promises. Jesus predicted that there would be a new symbol. It would take its place high on a hill like the last one, it would be held up for all to see, but this time it wouldn’t be a bronze serpent on the pole, it would be his own flesh. The grotesque image of death would be his own, but the message would be the same: turn your hearts back to God. Don’t hide from God like Adam and Eve, cowering in the darkness, unable to face the reality of sin, but look it in the face; come into the light and trust that the God in the garden, the God in the desert, and the God on the cross have all come not to condemn, but to save. Eat the food that God has given you, and trust in where he is leading you. The symbol may be different, but the effect within us can be the same. It still has the power to give life to those that are dying.


What do you see when you look at a cross? Do you see a magical talisman? A good luck charm? Protection against vampires and evil spirits? Do you see a reminder of someone else’s sin? A relic of Roman oppression or religious hypocrisy? An innocent man put to death? Is this symbol only about someone else, or is it also about you? Does the symbol force you to confront something within yourself that you would rather not look at? Do you see your failures, your sins? Do you see God’s mercies? Is anything happening within your heart? Does the symbol change something within you? Does it have power and if so where does that power come from? What do you see when you look at a cross?





Written on our hearts


Sermon for March 4th, 2018


We began our service today with the Decalogue, or the recitation of the Ten Commandments. In olden times that was done a lot more often. In the old prayer book the priest was instructed that the ten commandments had to be recited at least once a month, now that is optional. We do it once a year here, which is still more than many churches, but most masses begin with Our Lord’s summary of the Law:


You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.


Critically important words. And of course, if you look at the commandments you will see the truth in that statement: God’s Ten Commandments are focused on either our love for him or our love for each other, that’s true. But maybe sometimes it is better for us to see what that looks like in action.  Maybe we need it spelled out for us. I do wonder if we hear these laws enough for them to be truly written on our hearts.


I like that phrase from the end of the Decalogue: “write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.” Make adherence to these laws a vital part of who we are. Have them reside in our hearts where we hold everything that is most dear to us.


I have to admit that I am not crazy about the response “incline our hearts to keep this law.” It’s traditional, but it doesn’t seem strong enough to me. “Incline” is just too weak a word here. Maybe it is just a language issue; perhaps it is meant to have a stronger connotation, but when I hear incline or inclined I think preference. I am inclined to have a cup of coffee in the morning. I am inclined to have fries with my hamburger. I don’t want to be inclined to keep God’s commandments, as if they were about my pleasure or convenience; I want them to be something that I am compelled to do even when they are difficult or inconvenient, because my love for God won’t allow me to conceive of anything else. I want them to be such a part of who I am, that even when I break them because of my own weakness that my heart cries out for me to repent and turn back to God. I want to be appalled at the idea of breaking God’s Commandments, not resigned to it.


Let’s be honest, I think most people, if they care about the commandments at all, are only really appalled or horrified when one of them is broken. Lying, adultery, theft, we may disapprove of those things but they are common enough that they don’t really trouble us or disturb us. It is murder that we find truly appalling, so much so that we judge other sins in comparison to it: “I’m not perfect but I’m no murderer.” Or “He may have done a few bad things but he’s no murderer.” It seems like that is where we are setting the bar for being a decent human being…not being a murderer. I may have ignored most of the other commandments but at least I haven’t done that, so I must be ok…I wonder if that is what we tell ourselves sometimes.


I am all the time listening to great preachers and just recently I heard a sermon by Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of the last 40 years. He was preaching on the Epistle of James and he quoted an English essayist and satirist that I had not read before: Thomas De Quincy. Thomas de Quincy wrote a satirical essay in 1827 called “On Murder Considered as one of the fine arts.” Well you know some people never appreciate satire and he must have received some accusation of actually approving of or condoning murder, so he wrote a follow up essay in which he said he was completely against murder because…in his words:

“For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta …that’s my rule.”

In other words: “Nip it in the bud” before it becomes serious.

Thomas de Quincy was joking of course, but when you hear it put like that you realize how inclined we are to make light of some sins or commandments and focus intensely upon others. We weigh sins according to what we think is more serious and we judge others by whether we think their sins are more serious than ours. We can focus so much on one commandment that we lose sight of all the other ones we might be breaking and we don’t take them as seriously. This is a shame, but it’s nothing new.

When Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he saw the money changers there in the outer court, exchanging Roman money for the temple currency. They didn’t want to have any graven image in the temple, which of course the Roman currency had, so they exchanged it. Trying to keep that second commandment sacred, which is admirable enough, but I have to think that their focus on one commandment must have blinded them to others. Were they charging a bit too much interest? Were the scales a little off? Did they maybe take a little more from the faithful pilgrims than they should have? In their attempt to preserve the sanctity of God’s temple, were they in fact defiling it with behavior and attitudes that were not fit for this holy place? Jesus seemed to think so. He famously drove the money changers out, but that wasn’t the first time that something like that happened.

More than 600 years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God into the Temple with a message for those gathered there:

“Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

The temple periodically needed to be cleansed. People regularly needed to be called to a renewed awareness of all of God’s commandments, not just their favorite ones. The temple was very sacred for Jesus, but protecting that sanctity meant more than just avoiding having a graven image in your pocket; it meant having God’s laws and the love of God engraved upon your heart.

Saint Paul would later say to the Church in Corinth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” I for one believe that the temple in Jerusalem is still sacred and holy, but I also believe that we Christians are called to be travelling temples of the Holy Spirit. If people could look into our hearts they should see a place where God is worshipped and adored. A place where God’s commandments are written, not as pious ideas or suggestions, but as truths at the core of our being. But like any temple, our hearts need periodic cleansing as well. Our eyes need to be opened, not just to the sins of others or to our own favorite sins, but to the other commandments that we violate by not taking them seriously or by forgetting them altogether. Maybe there are a few commandments I haven’t broken, but there are others I have. Maybe there aren’t any murderers here (maybe), but we all know that’s not the only commandment. It is fitting that in our Decalogue we ask for mercy after each commandment. We need God’s mercy and we need to be merciful with one another, but we also need to take God’s commands seriously. If Jesus were to look into our own temples, I wonder what he would find?