Wolves and Hired Hands

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Sermon for April 22nd, 2018

Readings:

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Sometimes a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish…

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Sermon for April 15th, 2018

Readings:

It’s November 1948, a U.S. diplomat and his wife land in Le Havre, France on their way to begin a new assignment in Paris. After collecting their luggage and heading down the road, on their way, they stopped for lunch in the city of Rouen. The lunch was a simple meal really; oysters, fish, salad, cheese and coffee. It may not have sounded very exciting, but this was France, and in France, the man explained to his wife, good cooking is part national sport and part high art.

 

The fish was sole meunière, a very simple dish really: just a fresh fish sautéed in butter with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of parsley. Not overly exotic; but with one bite, the woman realized that her life would forever be changed. She called it an epiphany and a revelation. She had eaten fish plenty of times, but this was the first time that she really experienced fish. One little bite of buttery fish and this woman realized how powerful and important food can be, not just as a fuel for our bodies, but as a thing of beauty and joy that gives life to our souls; she realized that sometimes a piece of fish isn’t just a piece of fish, but the symbol and the taste of something far greater. She would spend the rest of her life trying to help others understand that same thing.

 

The diplomat’s name was Paul Child, but no doubt you are more familiar with his wife: Julia Child. That little lunch in Rouen would be a moment that would change her life forever. It was a revelation, an epiphany, and now she had a mission to share with the rest of the world that sometimes a piece of fish, wasn’t just a piece of fish, but rather a taste of heaven. When Julia Child was writing her memoirs late in life, she ended by again urging her readers to put time and care into their food, because (and this is how she concludes her life’s story):

 

“A careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience. Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany. In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.”

 

The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…or at least they can be. That was Julia’s revelation. The joy of that piece of fish remained with her long after she had cleared her plate. It was a joy she held on to her entire life, all the way to the end…and maybe even beyond that.

 

I don’t know who is exactly listed among the saints in glory. The church has always held up some individuals as being exemplars of the faith, worthy of respect and admiration; there are people that we have good reason to believe stand before the throne of God, but the precise list of names, well that is known to God alone. I’m not here to say that Julia Child was a saint; I don’t really know anything about her faith or her relationship with God (although, I must admit, a few years ago I found a tall votive candle with her picture on it in a kitchen store in Manhattan that says “Saint Julia, pray for us” I keep it in my kitchen next to my collection of cookbooks). What she believed about Jesus I can’t say, but knowingly or unknowingly, I do think that her life’s work was in some sense a ministry of his.

 

When Jesus was being tempted in the desert, he very famously quoted the book of Deuteronomy saying: “Man does not live by bread alone.” True enough. Jesus would never advocate putting one earthly pleasure or joy in the place of God, the source of all joy. We still get into trouble if we allow a fleshly urge or impulse to reign supreme. But Jesus cared a lot about food. I think he loved food and took great joy in it, and I think he also understood how powerful it is for people to sit down and enjoy good food together. I think he understood that food isn’t just something that provides fuel for our mortal bodies; it is a foretaste of the kingdom; it is an experience of joy and connection. Food doesn’t just connect us to the chef in the kitchen or the person sitting across the table. It connects us to people long dead.

 

The author Marcel Proust in his novel Remembrance of Things Past, famously took a bite out of a little Madeleine tea cake and was transported back to his childhood. In the Disney movie Ratatoullie, Chef Remy the rat, wins over critic Anton Ego by serving him ratatoullie that reminds him of his mother. I know that anytime I sit down with a baked potato or a serving of corn casserole, the taste brings back to me the joy of sitting and eating with my grandmother. Food is not God, but make no mistake, God uses it. God uses it to give us joy and to bind us together.

 

Think about Jesus’s life for a minute. His first miracle was at a wedding feast, turning water into wine. Although he was the son of a carpenter, his first followers were all fishermen, men that worked at gathering food. When 5,000 people gathered to hear him preach, he told his disciples to give them something to eat, and then famously multiplied then loaves of bread and the fishes. His parables and stories were full of references to food and feasts, and of course he often told them when he was sitting at the dinner table. His great prayer, the Our Father, includes of course a petition for daily bread. He even cursed a fig tree that didn’t have any fruit on it when he was hungry. This is a man who loves food and understands its power. No doubt that is why he would choose a meal, food, to be the means by which he would convey his life to his followers down through the ages. Communion with God, for Christians, happens primarily through a meal; communion; bread and wine that is really so much more than bread and wine. Food matters a lot to Jesus; it is the primary means by which he unites his followers with each other…and it is how he unites them with God. Food is so much more than just a cure for hunger.

 

So remembering how important food was to Jesus as he lived and taught during his earthly life, I find the stories of his resurrection appearances fascinating. In this morning’s gospel, a couple disciples had just run back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, a village a few miles away. They had been telling the story of Jesus’s resurrection to a stranger on the road. They invited the stranger to dine with them, and as he broke the bread at the table they suddenly realized that it was Jesus, there dining with them. Then he disappeared. As they are telling this story to the other disciples, Jesus appears again. Assuring them that he is not a vision or a ghost, but flesh and blood. They can touch him if they want. And then what does the resurrected Lord ask them? What do you have to eat?!

 

What do you have to eat? We are talking about a man that was crucified and died and buried, come back to life, defeated death and that is what he says to his disciples! What’s for supper? So they bring him a piece of fish, which obviously Jesus must be very fond of, and he eats it. Was he just trying to prove a point? Was he actually hungry? Or is there more going on here? Might this be a case where a piece of fish is more than just a piece of fish, but a symbol of pleasure, life and joy that doesn’t get left behind after the resurrection? Joy that isn’t left in the tomb but is a part of the resurrected life? Could it be that Jesus is trying to show us that the next world will not be some cold, spiritual sterile place, filled only with thoughts and ideas, but rather a lively world of redeemed creation with sights, sounds and even tastes that are all familiar to us from this world, but now fully reflect the true and infinite joy that comes from God?

This wouldn’t be the only time that the resurrected Jesus would be seen eating. In the Gospel of John, after the resurrection Jesus actually cooks for his disciples (again fish) and then leaves Peter with the parting words: “Do you love me…then feed me sheep.” Is Jesus only concerned with filling the holes in people’s stomachs or is food about more than that? Maybe Jesus and Julia understand that food, when treated with respect and care, can be a thing of infinite joy and beauty; a powerful agent that draws and binds people together, across continents and across time, and gives them a glimpse, a foretaste, of what heaven is all about. Maybe a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish.

 

What the women know…

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

Jesus is dead. That is what the three women headed to the tomb knew when they woke up this morning. Jesus their friend, Jesus their teacher, Jesus their Lord. He is dead. They may not be sure of many things, but that they are sure of. They don’t know what is going to happen to his followers now, most of them had already scattered or were in hiding. They don’t know what is going to happen to themselves: they had followed Jesus here from Galilee and had tried to support him in his ministry. Now what? Jesus is dead. They don’t even know how they are going to move the stone so they can anoint his body properly, but they know where is body is and they know it is dead. They were there when it happened. They witnessed it.

 

Those women didn’t miss Good Friday. When all of the other disciples had run away, afraid to see the man they loved die, afraid, perhaps of their own deaths, these women remained faithful. They were there until the very end.

 

We are blessed here this morning because we woke up this morning knowing something that these women didn’t know when they woke up. You and I know something that these women don’t know yet. We know how this story ends. We already know that when they get to that tomb it is going to be empty. The stone is going to be rolled away and the body that knew was dead is going to be missing.

 

Of course they were terrified! Of course they were afraid to say anything! Of course they fled! Who wouldn’t? The one thing they thought they knew for sure when they woke up was the Jesus was dead and now his body is missing and some guy in a white robe is saying something crazy. Risen? What on earth could that mean? That is crazy talk! Dead bodies don’t come back to life! These women knew that. Something terrible must have happened. Maybe someone stole his body. Maybe someone moved it. Risen? What is that crazy man in white talking about? Who could believe such a thing?

 

We are blessed here this morning, because we know that this story doesn’t end with a missing body. We know that the man in white that met them in the tomb isn’t a lunatic, but an angel. We are blessed because we know that what he said was true. Jesus is risen. In a little while Mary Magdalene will see him herself. Later on he will appear to Peter and the other disciples. They will touch him, they will eat with him again and they will even see him in Galilee, just as the crazy man, no the angel, in white had predicted. Pretty soon the women will overcome their fear and they will tell the story of what they saw. They will tell the other disciples and they will share with the world the word that the man in white said to them in the tomb: risen. He is risen! They knew that he was dead, but pretty soon they will also know that he is alive. They will eventually share that knowledge with anyone that will listen. We are blessed because we already know the good news, but we only know it because a few women had the courage to overcome their fears and share what they knew: Jesus was dead, but now he is alive.

 

These were courageous women. Don’t be distracted by their moment of fear when their world is turned upside down, because in their hearts these are brave women. They had the courage to watch Jesus die. They hadn’t run away like most of the other disciples; they were there for him. And even after the Sabbath was over, they would continue to be there. They would be faithful to taking care of his body; they didn’t know how they would move the stone, but they would find a way. These were brave women, make no mistake about that.

 

I find it interesting that Jesus revealed his risen body first to his disciples that could most reliably testify to his death. The women who stood by him on Good Friday were the first to see him on Easter Sunday. It was only those that knew that he was truly dead, that could fully appreciate the power of knowing that he is truly risen.

 

The good news of Easter is not that Jesus of Nazareth cheated death; it’s not that his memory lives on in those that loved him; it’s not that he is resurrected in the form of a movement or an idea. And the good news of Easter has nothing to do with spring, which lovely though it is, happens every year. Those women knew that; they also knew that dead bodies don’t rise again…and then they saw something that turned everything they thought they knew upside down. The man who they knew to be dead, they now know to be alive again.

 

Knowing that one thing changes everything. It changes how we look at life and death. It changes how we approach everything else in life that we think is final. It changes how sure we are of everything we think we know about the world around us. It changes how we look at everything that Jesus ever said or did. Knowing that Jesus died and rose again: that changes everything. That proclamation is at the very center of Christianity. Easter Sunday is not the happy ending that is tacked on to the end of Jesus’s story. It is the story. Witnessing that resurrection is what gave all of the disciples the courage to finally face death, because now, they knew, they knew that there was more for them waiting on the other side of it. Jesus had shown them that.

 

I am often amused and frustrated at people (usually preachers) that think they need to make Jesus relevant. Jesus is and always will be relevant. As long as people die, the man who conquered death through his resurrection is relevant.  As long as people truly die, they need to hear about the man who is truly risen. As long as he is risen he is relevant.

 

We are blessed because when we woke up this morning, we already knew that he was risen. That’s why we got dressed to come here, but just remember when you go back out those doors, remember those three women headed to the tomb. Remember how they must have felt before they saw that stoned rolled away. Remember their sorrow, their sense of hopelessness and being lost, remember how they must have felt on Good Friday, not knowing the end of the story, not knowing what we are blessed to know. Now remember that there is still a world of people out there that woke up this morning believing that Jesus is dead. See if you can find the courage to share with them how the story really ends.