Accept No Substitutes

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Sermon for September 16th, 2018

Readings:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

My apologies, but there is no audio file this week due to a technical problem.

I was skimming through my regular online news magazines this week when I came across an article that had a headline that was just too good; I had to read it:

Goat yoga is a poor substitute for religious observance.

Who wouldn’t want to read that? Well as it turns out, the author, who is Jewish, was lamenting the fact that many reformed or liberal synagogues, in an attempt to lure young people to worship, had begun promoting these “non-traditional” services. Many of these services were shaped around one or more political themes or incorporated elements of ritual such as glow sticks or goat yoga (whatever that is) into their celebration of the high holy days. The author, who I hasten to point out is very young, younger than me probably, was responding to an article that he saw in the Wall Street Journal describing these synagogues. He also very rightly pointed that many liberal churches have resorted to similar tactics to try and draw in new members.

Well as soon as I clicked away from that article to take a scroll through my Facebook feed, I saw an online video posted by a friend of an interfaith service at an Episcopal Cathedral in another diocese, with giant tree people processing down the aisle (if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy, they all looked like Groot). I thought to myself: “Oh Lord, Have mercy.” But I wasn’t surprised. It’s the kind of stunt I have come to expect from some of our churches, and I understand why some churches do it. It’s because actual religious observance can be a really hard sell sometimes. Stunts are more exciting than regular prayer and scripture study, and they usually get you more free publicity.

It isn’t always easy to get the average person on the street excited about fasting, or daily prayer, prayer that is about giving honor to God and not just petitioning him for something. It is so much easier to get people worked up over the latest political buzzword or scandal than it is to get them to be actually in love with God. People will use Jesus’s name to try to promote their own agendas; they will follow him if they are convinced that he is headed in the direction that they already want to go, but convincing people to listen to him simply because he is he Messiah, the son of God, that’s a lot harder.

But here is what the author of the goat yoga article points out: those churches and synagogues that are resorting to stunts and that only find purpose in political activism, they are in fact struggling to survive. Many of these publicity stunts and liturgical theatrics are being done as an act of desperation; they are being done because those communities desperately want to seem relevant to the world outside; they desperately want to be the cool kids on the block.

Well, here is what I remember from school: the cool kids were never the ones that desperately wanted to be your friend no matter what; the real cool kids, the ones people really did want to be friends with were the ones who had this quiet confidence in themselves; they were the ones who did their own thing and didn’t feel the need to be popular. Desperation to be popular is never a good look on anybody. It’s not a good look on a religious community either. Stunts may attract attention, but it is actual religious devotion and observance that gains followers.

It is easy to appeal to people’s worldly interests in an attempt to bring them in to church, but in the end if the church isn’t directing their thoughts and their devotion toward God, then what do people need it for? People may show up to a stunt out of curiosity, and they may get worked up over one particular cause or another, but we humans, we can’t stay angry or excited all the time. When the stunt is over and we have moved on to the next crisis or cause, where is the room for God in our lives then?

There was a professor of Jewish Mysticism, Abraham Heschel, who said: “religion is an answer to ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.” If you just want to hang out with people that vote the way you do, you don’t need to come to church. If you just want to make a difference in this world, I could direct you to any number of institutions that do a better job than we do; but, if what you desire is to live in relationship with the creator of this world; if it is the answers to ultimate questions that you seek, that is when religion has the answer; that is when the Church has the answer.

Peter had the answer.

When Jesus asked him “who do you say that I am?” Peter had the right answer.

“You are the messiah,” he said. And he was right. But the moment Peter heard that this would mean Jesus’s suffering and rejection, he didn’t want to hear anymore. Peter wanted Jesus to be a solution to his problems, he didn’t want him to add to them. Peter didn’t want to see Jesus die, and he certainly didn’t want to face death himself. Peter rebukes Jesus; he pulls him aside and he probably said to him: “look Jesus, nobody is going to want to follow us if you keep on talking this way. You need to change your message and focus on the issues that they are concerned about.”

Jesus’s response to Peter stings: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Had anyone else said those words to Peter, he probably would have just walked away; he could have gone home and gone on pursuing his own interests and causes, but because those words came from Jesus, he couldn’t. As strong as Jesus’s rebuke was, Peter can’t just turn and leave. He stays and he follows, because he recognizes that this man is the messiah. Maybe this messiah isn’t telling him what he wants to hear, but his devotion and love for him won’t let him walk away. He has a relationship with the son of God, and that in the end means more to him than a simple solution to any of his problems. It means more to him than just being right about one issue or another.

Peter would go on to do amazing things in this world. He heals the sick, is a powerful preacher, he helps to organize the early Christian communities and founds probably the most powerful organization in the history of the world; he is able to do all of this because he was willing to put his devotion to Jesus, before his own sense of self-righteousness. He was able to hear Jesus’s rebuke and not turn away. He was able to let Jesus change him and his way of thinking.

Devotion to God should absolutely affect the way we look at and treat the world he created. Our love for God should absolutely influence our love for our neighbors. The Epistle of James was spot on last week when he questioned if the community was really devoted to Jesus if they were willing to ignore what he said and taught, but the ability to recognize that Jesus has the answers to the small questions, the ability to recognize his authority, comes from recognizing, like Peter, that he is the answer to the big question; the ultimate question.

Causes and stunts can never and will never be a substitute for genuine religious observance and devotion, because genuine religious observance and devotion are an answer to the ultimate question. They are what allow God to change us and shape us and to live in relationship with us. You can go and feel self-righteous anywhere, but here, in church, our challenge is to know and appreciate the righteousness of God. Our challenge is to follow Jesus so closely, and with such respect, that when he inevitably rebukes us for setting our mind not on divine things, but on human things, our love for him will not let us walk away.

Stunts and gimmicks may get you attention, but when it comes to making followers of Jesus Christ, there is no substitute for genuine devotion.

 

Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

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Sermon for September 9th, 2018

Readings:

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

 

There is a reason why the man that Jesus heals in the Gospel this morning is both deaf and mute: it is because our ability to speak and our sense of hearing are tied together. We learn how to speak by listening and by mimicking, repeating the things we hear. Children that are born deaf often have great difficulty learning how to speak. They can learn, but it isn’t easy because we learn how to speak by listening to others and repeating the sounds they make. That is why we have regional accents; we repeat sounds and we pronounce words the way that we hear others speaking. Before we know how to speak we must first know how to listen.

 

When Jesus heals the man in today’s gospel, first he touches his ears, then he touches his tongue. And Jesus says: “be opened,” and his ears are opened, and then his tongue is released.

 

Before the man is able to speak, he must first be able to listen.

 

That’s the way we are designed, but isn’t it interesting how often we try to make it work the other way? As babies we listen first and then we speak, but at some point along that journey to adulthood we decide that we no longer need to listen anymore. If we are polite we might wait for our turn to speak, but how often are we actually actively listening to what others say? How often are we just waiting for someone to finish talking so we can say what we want to say? Sometimes we do listen, in our finer moments, I will grant you that, but I think it’s a dying art. And if we can’t listen or don’t listen, or can’t hear, how can we expect to have our own words understood? How can we expect to know what to say? How can we expect to be heard even when we do speak? We need to learn how to listen first.

 

You may be wondering about the end of our gospel passage today: when Jesus tells the disciples that witnessed this miracle not to speak. That might seem odd to you, because didn’t this same Jesus send his disciples out into the world, commanding them to make disciples of all nations and to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth? Aren’t we supposed to be evangelists; sharing the news of Jesus with the world? Why would Jesus tell them to be silent?

 

Well it’s true, eventually Jesus does commission his disciples to be evangelists to the world, but early on in his ministry, time and time again he tells them not to start preaching yet; not to tell others what they have seen. Christians have scratched their heads at those comments for years, but I think Jesus recognizes something very important: that his disciples are human with very human flaws, one of which is that the moment we start talking we stop listening. Jesus has more to share with his disciples; he has more to teach them; there is so much more about God that they need to learn and understand. If they start running around telling the world about the one thing they saw Jesus do, they are likely to miss everything else that he is saying and doing. There will come a day when Jesus will send them out into the world to preach and proclaim, but first they must listen. When Jesus was teaching his disciples, he repeatedly says to them: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” and “pay attention to what you hear!”

 

Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

 

Of course, they don’t listen to him. They are so intent on sharing this great story, that they can’t even hear his command not to tell. And while what they say is true, he does make the deaf to hear and the mute to speak, that is not the beginning and end of his ministry. Jesus’s life was about so much more than just a few miracles and healings. But the disciples weren’t ready to listen, or they thought that they were done listening.

 

Part of being a person of faith, part of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, is sharing that faith with others. It is not just the clergy that are charged with sharing the Good News, all of us are, but that is incredibly intimidating for some people. Talking about God or talking about our faith can be a very scary thing, so we shy away from it. We find ways to avoid it. We don’t know what to say; but I think we learn to talk about our faith the same way we learn to talk period, by listening.

 

Yes, I may spend a few (and it really is only a few) minutes each week talking about God, but if I didn’t spend a considerable amount of time listening to God every day, I don’t think I would have much to say. I couldn’t do this. Before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

 

And there are many ways in which we may listen to God; it can’t just be an hour on Sunday morning, it needs to be all the time. Most importantly we listen to God through daily prayer and scripture reading; but there are other important ways as well: through spending quiet time alone; through observing nature; through listening, actually listening to the stories of others; through reading the profound thoughts of the saints and sages through the ages that have spent their lives listening to God. We need to be willing to listen to God first, even if what he has to say to us is hard to hear.

 

And that means learning to hear, to listen to the tough words of God too. If we close our ears when we hear Jesus say something that makes us uncomfortable, like his initial refusal to the woman in today’s gospel, then we will also miss him saying “the demon has left your daughter.” If we close our bibles when we read something like the Epistle of James that convicts us all of sin, then we will also miss the message that our sins have been forgiven. If we stop praying when we encounter the words “we are not worthy” then we will also fail to proclaim that our Lord’s property is “always to have mercy.” When we learn to listen to all that God has to say to us, the good and the bad, what a story we will have to tell.

 

God will not tell you that you are always deserving; he will not tell you that you are always good; he will not tell you that you are always right.

But here’s what he will tell you: he’ll tell you that you are healed; he’ll tell you that you are forgiven; he’ll tell you that you are loved. But in order to hear that, we must be willing to listen to him, even when he challenges us.

 

There is a world out there that needs to hear about the faith we have, and we need to learn how to tell it, but before we know how to speak, we must first know how to listen.

Lord, lay your hands upon us and open our ears before you release our tongues, so that when we do speak, we actually have something to say.

We do not lose heart – Beverly Lewis Memorial

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Sermon delivered at the funeral of longtime Ascension parishioner Beverly Lewis

We do not lose heart.

That is what Saint Paul said to the Corinthians. In moments of pain, in times of suffering, when we groan under our burdens, when the world presses us down, when we are afflicted, when our bodies fail us and we struggle for every breath…we do not lose heart.

We do not lose heart, because as Christians we know that God has planted something within our hearts that cannot be destroyed. There is something within us that is not completely at home here in the world. There is something within us that is more powerful than death. We do not lose heart because God’s love is within our hearts and God’s love never fails; God’s love is never broken. God’s love never gets tired.

Paul goes on to say in his letter that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” To be in Christ, to invite Christ into your heart and to unite yourself to his body, is to be eternally new; reborn with a life that belongs to God; redeemed with a heart that is restless, as Saint Augustine says, until it rests in him.

 

We do not lose heart, even when we must say goodbye to someone we love so dearly, but our hearts do ache. Even when we know and have faith that we are only saying goodbye for a season; even when we are confident that this person has been made new in Christ and is going from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in God’s heavenly kingdom…our hearts still ache.

 

It is on days like today when I am reminded of how important hymns are to our life of faith. Beverly was a great lover of music and I think she would have understood how music can speak to our souls in ways that the spoken word just can’t. In particular the hymns of our faith, many of which I would argue are divinely inspired, they can give us the words to express the hope and the sorrow that we feel on days like today. Sometimes they give us an image, a glimpse into heaven, where we can imagine the glory that awaits us there.

 

In a few minutes you are going to be asked to open your hymnals and sing one such hymn: at the offertory we will stand to sing hymn number 657, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. It is one of the triumphs of Charles Wesley first published in 1747. But I want you to really hear the words that you will be singing. I want you to see the image that Charles Wesley is painting.

 

First he begins by asking that love of God which comes from heaven; that love which was incarnate in Jesus Christ to enter into our hearts:

 

Love Divine, all love excelling,
Joy of heav’n, to earth come down;
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

 

Then Charles invites us to look up and to long for that day when Christ will return, when he will raise the dead to life, set the world right, and where we will join the heavenly host in a life of unending praise:

 

Come, Almighty, to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
suddenly return, and never
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

 

But it is the last verse in this hymn that really gets me. It asks God to finish the new creation that he began when he first entered our hearts:

 

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

 

What an image. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. Where we will cast our crowns down at the feet of God; where our earthly riches and accomplishments will mean nothing to us, compared to an eternity of basking in wonder, love and praise. As family and friends and loved ones, we mourn today for Beverly, but our faith reminds us that Christ has placed a new life within us, a life that death cannot conquer, and that someday we too can join Beverly in that heavenly choir, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Such a wonderful hymn, but there is an extra verse that isn’t in our hymnal. I discovered it this past week as I was reviewing this hymn and I instantly thought: “ah! That’s Beverly!”

 

You see, on my last few visits with Beverly, she struggled to breathe. Her illness made her short of breath and dependent on oxygen, but still even with the struggle she had such a light within her. She always had that wonderful smile. In the time that I have known Beverly, even through her struggles to care for Rodger, she always had this spirit within her. Looking at some of her old pictures, I still see that spirit, that light in her smile. And then I think of what obstacles she must have encountered in her life. How much did she have to overcome? How far did she come and bring her family with her? Where did she find that strength? Now I should add that if you followed Beverly on Facebook then you know that she wasn’t always upbeat about politics, but still she had strength and determination. When I read this missing verse, I thought “yes, this is a prayer for Beverly,” maybe it is a prayer for all of us.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.