So much for progress…

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Sermon for Good Friday 2019

Readings:

 

 

In one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which if you aren’t familiar with it is a somewhat crude, but very funny parody of movies about the life of Jesus, in this scene a band of Judean rebels are plotting to overthrow their Roman oppressors.

 

What have the Romans ever given us?, their leader shouts.

 

“The aqueduct”, someone sheepishly replies.

 

Oh, the aqueduct, yeah they did give us that, that’s true.

 

And sanitation.

 

Yeah, alright. I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and sanitation are two things the Romans have done.

 

And the roads.

 

Well, of course, the roads. The roads go without saying don’t they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads…

 

Irrigation, medicine, education…

 

The scene goes on and finally ends with the leader saying, somewhat exasperatingly:

 

Alright, well apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

 

Brought peace?

 

Oh peace! Shut up!

 

It is a brilliant and famous scene in that movie, and one of the things that I think this little scene pokes fun at is that it is so easy for us, when talking about the life of Jesus Christ and the world of the ancient near east to simply demonize the Romans. It is so easy to just make them the oppressive enemy or overlords, and yet, the Romans were, in truth, so much more than that.

 

The Roman Empire was the most progressive, advanced civilization in the ancient Western world. They had the most advanced technology. Without the use of calculators or computers they built some of the most splendid buildings in the world. They were cosmopolitan and multicultural. People from every race and language across the known world participated in the Roman Empire. There were vast open markets where you could buy items shipped from all over the world. Items that had been transported along Roman roads. Roads that were protected by the Roman army and that benefited from the general peace that Rome’s power had created in the region. There was education. There were social services: public baths, libraries. The Romans had official state religion, but they were mostly secular. The Romans didn’t really care how you worshipped so long as it didn’t disturb the public peace or threaten their power. They were very reasonable people. The Romans loved technology and progress and reason, and those three things brought Rome tremendous power. And what today is the most enduring symbol of Roman power?

 

What piece of technology are the Romans most remembered for today? It is about to be unveiled in front of you. The cross.

 

This civilization that valued technology and progress and reason; this splendid society of culture and educated people…where is their empire now? Ruins. Ruins everywhere. A few buildings here and there; a few walls; a few reminders of how sophisticated and advanced they were, but their empire is gone. And what we are left with everywhere you look is this; this symbol: two pieces of wood stuck together. A brutal piece of Roman technology.

 

The sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health…all brought to you by the people that gave us the cross.

 

You see, the Romans, will all of their technology and progress and reason were able to fix many of the worlds problems, except for two: sin and death.

 

The Romans could not conquer sin and death; not their own, not anyone else’s. And this thing that we hang on our walls, carry in our pockets, or wear around our necks; this little piece of Roman technology has become the enduring symbol of the two things that Roman technology could not fix: sin and death.

 

This symbol of Roman advancement and technology; a reminder that the most progressive society in the western world, a society that conquered the entire Mediterranean, couldn’t conquer its own demons: greed, lust, brutality, deception, cruelty and death. Sure the Romans may have done some great things, but if they can’t fix sin and death what good are they? What have the Romans done for us?

 

So much for progress…

 

But let’s be fair to the Romans, in every age we find some piece of technology to cling to, some symbol of our advancement as a society, some symbol of progress and the future, we use it thinking that it will fix our problems; that it will create peace and put an end to those age-old problems of sin and death. But the next generation comes along and sees that technology for what it really was: a symbol of the very sin and death that it was trying to conquer.

 

Think of the guillotine, the rifle, mustard gas, the atomic bomb, drones. In every age we come up with some piece of technology that we think will finally cure our problems and in every age we prove that we still lack the capacity to fix sin and death.

 

Every wonderful thing we create as humans all of our progress and our technology, it always gets tainted, ruined by our own sinfulness: the internet, medicine, industry, roads, commerce… we always find a way to mess up any human achievement.

 

Maybe Isaac Watts said it best:

 

When I survey the wondrous cross,

on which the prince of glory died

my richest gain I count but loss

and pour contempt on all my pride

 

My friends, I must admit to you that I don’t believe in progress, at least, not in the way we normally talk about it. I don’t believe that through time, effort, education or technology we humans are ever going to save the world. I have examined very closely the story of modernism; you know the story of modernism: new is better. Through progress, human progress, we will make the world a better place. Well I have examined the claims that human achievement and determination can and will some day fix the world. I have examined how one empire after another has risen…and then fallen. I have seen science is used to save lives…and to destroy them. I have seen people place their faith in one –ism after another: rationalism, imperialism, industrialism, modernism, communism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism. In the end what I find is the same old sin and death, still haunting us after all these years.

 

Every day I am told: “do this and change the world,” “Do that and change the world.” I am tired of trying to change the world. I am tired of being told that the future of humanity rests on every decision I make at the grocery store. I want to make good and informed decisions in my life; I want to make good choices in how I live in this world and what I leave behind, but I do not suffer from the delusion that human progress can or will conquer sin and death.

 

You may think that sounds pessimistic, but it isn’t. It’s good news. It’s the best news you are ever going to hear. You are not going to save the world, and you do not have to, the burden is not on your shoulders, because it has already been done.

 

On the cross, hanging on that grotesque piece of Roman, human technology, God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. God defeated sin and death on Good Friday and that moment when Jesus died on the cross, the world was as saved as it is ever going to get. No roads, no sanitation, no education or medication is ever going to save the world more than God did in that moment on that day.

 

Use technology, but don’t put your faith in it. Make good decisions. Let Jesus’s life and teachings inspire you to live the best life you can, but stop trying to save the world every day. It’s already been done. We can lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross today, knowing the Jesus has already saved the world more than we ever could. That is why this is a good Friday.

 

Three Questions

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2019

Readings:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has said in interviews that there are three big questions that any reflective person must ask themselves at some time:

 

Who I am?

Why am I here?

How, then, shall I live?

 

Science and technology don’t do a very good job of answering those questions. They are questions of faith and philosophy.

 

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How, then, shall I live?

 

These are the big questions. They are so big that many people may be afraid to ask them, perhaps for fear that they won’t find any answers. But we ignore these questions at our peril, because they are the foundation of who we are, not just as a community, but also as individuals. Our very identity is tied to those questions. Our sense of meaning, and purpose and direction are tied to those questions. Our values are tied to those questions. Our mental health, our stability, our culture…they are all tied to those questions.

 

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How, then, shall I live?

 

Those are the questions that religion attempts to answer. Religion is no hobby my friends, because if we as a society stop trying to answer those questions, we are in deep trouble. If we stopping teaching our children to ask those questions and if we stop providing them with answers to those questions, what will their lives be? What will they see, or who will they see, when they look in the mirror?

 

The church is always answering one or more of those questions in different ways, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, on this very special night of the year, we answer all three.

 

Who am I?

 

Well we are all individually many things, but together we are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are people that gather at his table, not just tonight, but week after week and what we receive is not just a piece of bread and a sip of wine, but his body and his blood. His life, that is what flows in our veins. They say you are what you eat, well this is who we are. We are individuals that have been invited, by God, to share in his life. Whoever I am as an individual, whatever my story is, as someone baptized into the life of Christ and who is called to the Lord’s table, my life is forever linked to his life; my story is linked to his story.

 

Why am I here?

 

We are here because we have been saved by God. Not just us but our ancestors before us. Our Lord’s last supper was a celebration of freedom from slavery. That is what the Passover meal is. And part of the tradition of Passover is making sure that the children there know what the whole night is all about. The ritual of Passover teaches the children the answers to those fundamental questions: who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live? Jesus was celebrating the fact that he belonged to a people that worshipped a saving God. He, and all of his people, were in the promised land and could worship at the temple in Jerusalem, because God had saved them. As Christians we are here because we have witnessed God’s saving power as well. God has saved us, Christ has saved us…why? Because he loves us.

 

How, then, shall I live?

 

Jesus makes that very clear for us tonight in his words and in his example. The God and creator of the universe didn’t think that it was too low a thing to stoop down and wash our feet. If he can do that, how can we, poor humans, think that any sort of service to our brothers and sisters is beneath us? How shall I live? Well, how did he live? He observed traditions. He worshipped. He prayed. He celebrated. He cried. He served others. He loved.

 

A wonderful life to emulate, but of course we know the story doesn’t end there, because he also suffered and died, and then three days later…rose again. You already knew that, I didn’t just give anything away. How then shall I live? As someone who already knows that his story doesn’t end in death. Make no mistake, like Jesus, death will be a part of our stories, but it won’t be the end of our stories. How shall I live? As someone that values love, more than his own life.

 

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How shall I live?

 

Our faith seeks to answer those questions all the time, but on tonight of all nights we are given some pretty clear answers. We must not neglect to share those answers with our children.

 

Who am I?

 

I am an individual loved by God. I am a part of a community, a family of people, that have been saved by God. I have been invited to a heavenly banquet, and every time I gather at the Lord’s altar I am offered a bit of his life. He feeds me, literally.

 

Why am I here?

 

I am here because God has sought me, and my ancestors before me, and saved me from the slavery I found myself entrapped in. I am here because I am loved. I was created by a loving God to share in his love, and when I have found myself trapped and suffering he has sought me out to set me free.

 

How shall I live?

 

I shall live as one who has already been redeemed from death. People will know me as a disciple of Jesus, not because of my t-shirt or my bumper sticker, but because of the love that I show. I shall live as one who knows his feet have been washed by Jesus, and who is prepared to wash the feet of others.

 

Who is on trial here?

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Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019

Readings:

The trial of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what the passion of Our Lord feels like, one long trial with a defendant and lots of interesting witnesses.

 

Judas had betrayed him. We don’t really know why. I’m sure Judas thought he was doing the right thing at the time. Maybe he convinced himself he was doing it for his people, for his country. Maybe he was mad at Jesus for some reason or another. Maybe it was greed. We don’t really know. We know when he saw the results of his actions he repented and tried to give the money back, but it was too late. The deed was done. Judas despaired and hanged himself, unable to deal with his guilt.

 

What about the other disciples? They fell asleep, during our Lord’s agony. They didn’t have to suffer as he did; he just told them to pray, but they couldn’t even do that. When they did decide to act and defend Jesus, of course they did the wrong thing. They resorted to violence. And it didn’t take long after Jesus was arrested for Peter to deny him three times. Of course, that’s the last time we hear about most of his disciples until after the resurrection. Most of them have scattered in fear.

 

The soldiers that arrested Jesus, just doing their jobs right? Just following orders? And yet, before the trial even begins they blindfold him, and beat him, and taunt him, and humiliate him. He was arrested and in shackles. He was no threat to them at this point. They probably didn’t even know him. He had never done anything to them, so why are they taking this sadistic glee in hurting this poor man?

 

The chief priests and scribes: do they really care what Jesus has to say? Is this a real trial at all? They twist Jesus’s words around and then they outright lie about what he said. They can’t let anything Jesus actually said interfere with what they want to do, so they will twist it, or lie about it. They are tired of this man calling them out on their hypocrisy, so they are going to find a way to get rid of him, preferably a way that they can blame on someone else. So they send him to Pilate.

 

Pilate isn’t a Jew. He doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. And Pilate knows that these are phony charges, but Pilate is very smart and very career minded. He will make this Herod’s problem.

 

Herod was glad to see Jesus…at first. Herod wanted Jesus to perform some miracle, or to tell him something that he wanted to hear, but Jesus just stood there. Wouldn’t act, wouldn’t speak. So since Herod couldn’t get what he wanted out of him, he decided that Jesus would serve him best as an object of derision….someone to mock. But of course, people who bully and make fun of others are often just cowards under the surface, and that is what Herod is. So he sends Jesus back to Pilate.

 

And Pilate, still seems convinced that this man is innocent, and if that is true then why is he more willing to listen to the mob than he is to his own conscience? If Jesus is innocent, as Pilate says, then why does he insist on having him flogged before he is released? If he is innocent he is innocent…why make him suffer more? Pilate doesn’t really care about Justice. Oh he knows the difference between right and wrong, even the Romans had morals, but as so many of us do from time to time, he doesn’t let those morals interfere with his actions. He condemns Jesus to die and sets Barabbas free.

 

And then the crowd. Mobs are always the same…doesn’t matter if it is 1stcentury Jerusalem or 21stcentury Facebook, mobs always act the same. One of the things I love about the Palm Sunday liturgy, is that it asks you the congregation to proclaim Jesus as your messiah and king one minute and then a couple minutes later cry out for him to be crucified. That may seem strange, but that is how mobs work. I have no doubt that some of the same people that welcomed Jesus on Sunday called for his execution on Friday morning. And you may want to think that you wouldn’t have been a part of that mob, but don’t be so sure. Don’t be so sure.

 

The enticing thing about being part of the mob is that you get all of the emotion and none of the responsibility, because once the dust settles and you realize what just happened, you can try to convince yourself that you didn’t have that much to do with it…you were just one among many.

 

And what about the others there? What about Simon of Cyrene? We always talk about Simon carrying Jesus’s cross, but Simon didn’t do that willingly. He wasn’t moved by compassion at the sight of Jesus’s sufferings. He didn’t reach out to provide comfort to a dying man, he was forced too. Simon probably would have been content to not get involved, and who could blame him?

 

And finally there is the women, who follow Jesus weeping and wailing. If anyone in this story shows some compassion it is these women, but what does Jesus say to them: “do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves.” Their hearts are breaking for this man that has been put on trial and condemned to die. Our hearts may break too when we witness again the trial and passion of our Lord. If there are any characters in this whole story that we want to identify with, it’s these women who mourn for Jesus, but he seems to imply that they are missing something, that they have gotten something wrong. “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves” Jesus says. The women don’t appreciate what is really happening in this story.

 

What did he mean by that? The next thing that Jesus says, after he is lead to the place of the scull and nailed to the cross, may give us the clue we need to figure out what Jesus means by “weep for yourselves.” As Jesus is hanging there, probably remembering his whole life, but undoubtedly recalling the events of the past week, and remembering how even his closest friends let him down, how the system let him down, how justice had been a shame and religion a pretense, and how even those with hearts of compassion couldn’t see what was really happening. There in that moment, he says: “father, forgive them.” This is a condemned man. What business does he have forgiving anyone? And yet, here in his final hour, this man whose has been tried and condemned, now starts to sound like an advocate. Forgive them? How Jesus, in that moment are you in a place to say: “forgive them?” You are the one on trial here. You are the one who has been condemned. Now you are starting to sound like a public defender, an advocate. Jesus you are almost making it sound like we have been on trial this whole time, not you.

 

Maybe, we like the women, have gotten this story wrong. Maybe this trial was about us and we didn’t know it. So many characters in this story, so many roles. I wonder how many of them I have played? The betrayer, the sluggard, the coward, the upward-moving career minded administrator, the convenient Christian, the denier, the accuser, the mocking guard, the disinterested bystander, and even the person who mourns but doesn’t understand. I thought that this trial was about Jesus, while all the while I was the one that was being condemned.

 

Jesus isn’t condemned in today’s gospel, we are. And we, like those two thieves on either side of Jesus are justly condemned. And what does out advocate have to say to the eternal judge?; what sentence has he recommend?

 

Father forgive them.

Right here, right now

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Sermon for April 7th, 2019

Readings:

All of your actions happen in the present moment.

 

That is a fairly heavy statement that probably needs to be unpacked a little.

 

Our actions, that moment when we either do one thing or another, they always happen in the present. Always.

 

You may say, well what about my actions in the past?

 

But those have all transformed into memories now, haven’t they? You may remember decisions you made this morning; you may remember actions you took, but they have moved out of the realm of action now, because you can no longer do anything to change them. You may have been hungry when you woke up this morning. You may have decided at that time that the best way to address that dilemma was eating a great big sugary donut…or two. You may have acted on that decision in the moment and scarfed down those donuts, and now that it is a few hours later you may be thinking: maybe that wasn’t the best decision. Maybe I should have had a banana instead. Too bad.

 

There is nothing you can do about it now. Nothing. It’s all a memory now. No action you take now can change the past. You can choose to think about it or not; you can choose to reflect on the memory of that donut (or donuts) with either fondness, longing, and gratitude, or with regret and shame. But the one thing you cannot do, is decide right now to eat something different for breakfast this morning. I’m sorry fellow humans, but even Cher cannot turn back time.

 

Then you may say, what about my actions in the future?

 

But those aren’t actions yet are they? They are just hopes and plans right now. Let’s just say, speaking purely hypothetically, that I did have something sugary for breakfast this morning, and that I do regret it and therefore have decided that I will make amends for that transgression by taking a five-mile walk this afternoon. Well as anyone that has ever made a new year’s resolution can tell you, deciding to do something, and actually doing it are two different things. I may get home and decide that a nap seems like a better plan. Or maybe it will be raining or cold. Or maybe, and this is always a possibility, maybe this afternoon will never come. Maybe my plans will come into direct conflict with God’s plans. What then? Hopes, plans, intentions, fears, they may all influence my decisions or my actions now, but the only actions I have real control over are the ones that are happening right now in this moment. I may intend to take a walk this afternoon, but until it actually happens it is just a plan, or a goal, not an action. It’s not a reality yet. It becomes an action when I actually put one foot in front of the other.

 

Now you may be tempted right now to put one foot in front of another and go to the bathroom until this philosophical sermon is over, but I urge you to press on through the desire to do or think about something else for a minute, because this is really important. You may use your memories of the past, be they good or bad, to influence your decisions now; and you may use your hopes and dreams, or your intentions or your fears of the future to influence your decisions now and your actions now, but ultimately, the only thing you have actual control over is your decision now, your action now. Your actions always take place in the present moment.

 

Why is this important? It’s important because the devil doesn’t want you to live in the present moment. The present moment is, in truth, the only place in your life where you have actual control or power, so the devil doesn’t want you to live there. So the devil will try to lock you away and keep you living in the past with shame and regret; he will make you relive past trauma over and over again, to the point where you become incapable of experiencing joy or love in the moment; a love that that might be right in front of you. Or better yet, the devil may try to lock you away in the future…he may do that through fear and anxiety, ruining your present life by making you perpetually afraid of something that may never happen, or he will fill you with the best of intentions and plans and dreams for the future, we all know what the road to hell is paved with, don’t we?…good intentions. Intentions and plans and dreams are no threat to the devil as long as that is all they are. Planning to read the bible, or pray, or serve God by helping out a poor stranger in need, is not the same thing as actually doing it. As long as our plans don’t affect or become our actions, the devil is in his glory. As long as we remain focused on what was, or what might be, we will never appreciate the joy and love that already is.

 

We have been reading C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters this Lent, and in this brilliant book which is so timeless it could have been written yesterday, Lewis makes this keen observation:

 

“Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.”

 

Lewis has one of his demons say this:

 

“We want a man hag-ridden by the Future- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth- ready to break God’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other- dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now; but always read to sacrifice on the altar of the future, every real gift which is offered them in the present.”

 

And don’t we do it? We get so caught up in our plans and our schemes, that we can’t even see God when he is right in front of us. And that is what the devil wants. He wants us to live in a world of perpetual yesterdays, or perpetual tomorrows, not today. He doesn’t want you to serve God now, or to be happy or joyful now; or to love the person who is right in front of you now. He wants you to plot, and plan, and scheme, and fear, and regret. The last thing he wants you to do is actually take action in the present moment and show love to someone.

 

In John’s Gospel we are told that the devil entered into the heart of Judas Iscariot. It doesn’t say exactly when, but I suspect that by the time Jesus came to Bethany and had dinner at the home of his friend Lazarus, that the devil had already been working hard on Judas, getting him to focus all of his attention on the future. He says that Mary’s jar of ointment could have been sold to help the poor. The gospel writer tells us that he had other plans in mind. But either way, Judas is focused on the future. As long as Judas remains focused on plans, his plans, the devil gets what he wants, which is to turn Judas away from actually serving the God that is right in front of him.

 

In today’s gospel there is one person who takes action in the present. The devil has not trapped her in the past or in the future. She has the opportunity in the moment to show love to the person that is right in front of her and she has the strength to push past all of the devil’s distractions and take action. Mary acted out of love in the present moment, and in doing so, she touched God. Don’t let the devil trap you in the past or in the future, because God might be right in front of you, right here, right now.