I shall know him

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Sermon for April 11th, 2021

Readings:

I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
And redeemed by His side, I shall stand.
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the print of the nails in His hand.

Those words are from a great Fanny Crosby hymn called “My Saviour First of All” and they kept ringing through my head as I was rereading today’s gospel this week. I shall know him, I shall know him, by the print of the nails in His hand. 

First of all, you need to understand that Fanny Crosby, the author of this hymn, was blind her whole life. She never saw any paintings of Jesus. She never looked on his face in a statue or a stained-glass window. She never watched a movie with Jesus played by some hunky Hollywood actor. The ridiculous debates some enlightened church folks have about what Jesus’s skin tone would have been precisely, would have been meaningless to her, because she never saw him represented anywhere in any way. We, who have good vision, have all these pre-conceived notions about what Jesus looks like. These ideas are culturally transmitted; they aren’t from scripture, not most of them. It’s just that we have been depicting Jesus in art for so long now, that we expect Jesus to look a certain way: he wears a white robe, with a cloak, has longish hair, a beard. We think we know what he is going to look like. 

We had a dear family friend when I was younger, who swore that she could see the face of Jesus in the popcorn ceiling over the bed in her guestroom. Now I’m not saying that the face wasn’t there, and who knows, maybe God was trying to comfort her by giving her a sign, but she had no doubts that it wasn’t just a face; it was the face of Jesus. I think it shows just how confident we can be that we think we know what Jesus looks like. We have expectations. We think we know. 

But Fanny didn’t know. She was blind. She knew she didn’t know what Jesus would look like. Fanny longed to see Jesus though. Fanny longed like Job to see her redeemer. There is a line from the Book of Job that we say as a part of the burial office: 

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold,
and not as a stranger.

Fanny longed for her eyes to be opened and to see Jesus, and to recognize hymn, but how would she recognize him? By the print of the nails in his hand. That is how she would know him. 

When you heard about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb last week, you may recall that when she went to the tomb, she saw Jesus, but she didn’t know that it was him until he calls her name. In the Gospel of Luke after the resurrection, two disciples go walking to the village of Emmaus, and Jesus comes and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him until he breaks the bread at dinner. The resurrected face of Jesus isn’t the first thing people recognize: it is his voice, his actions, and perhaps most of all his wounds. 

The first thing that Jesus shows his disciples on that first resurrection day, the first thing he does after entering their home and greeting them, is show them his wounds. He shows them his hands and his side. Before they even ask. Before Thomas says anything about wanting to touch Jesus’s wounds, Jesus shows his wounds to his disciples as the unmistakable, irrefutable proof of his identity. And they rejoice. 

Does it seem odd to you that the resurrected body of Christ would still have the nail marks where the Romans crucified him? It isn’t what I would expect. I would expect that a resurrected body wouldn’t bear any of the scars or wounds that it received in life. Afterall we are talking about a miraculous resurrection, not just a resuscitation. Jesus wasn’t just really sick you know and got better. He was dead. If God is giving new life to a dead body, why isn’t he patching those scars up on his hands and side? 

It’s true the scars don’t hurt him anymore, but why are they there at all? The resurrected Jesus is so mysterious. He can pass through locked doors, but he has a body that you can touch and feel. He has the ability, and the desire to eat, just like a regular person, but he also just appears and disappears. Sometimes people recognize him as Jesus, sometimes they don’t. There are so many mysteries about this resurrected body of Jesus that we just can’t comprehend and one of the greatest has to be the fact that he still bears the scars of his sacrifice. He still has the print of the nails in his hands. 

 Why? Is it just so that the disciples will recognize him as the man on the cross three days earlier? That could be part of the reason, but I imagine there may be more. Maybe these wounds aren’t some accident of history, but are actually a part of who Jesus is. The wounds that represent Christ being nailed to the cross and his life being poured out, they weren’t just injuries done to Jesus, they are a part of his very identity. Our God bears eternally in the body of his son, wounds that are the ultimate symbol of his love. Thomas’s didn’t say “my Lord and my God” when he saw Jesus’s face. He said it when he saw his wounds. We, who have good vision and are used to seeing Jesus, we think we will know what he looks like, and so often we miss him when he is right in front of us. Fanny couldn’t see, so she knew she wouldn’t recognize him that way. Fanny expected to know her saviour, by the print of the nails in his hands.

When he calls your name

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Sermon for Easter Sunday April 4th, 2021

Readings:

“Where is your Lord?” she scornful asks:

“Where is his hire? we know his tasks;

Sons of a king ye boast to be:

Let us your crowns and treasures see.”

We in the words of Truth reply,

(An angel brought them from the sky,)

“Our crown, our treasure is not here,

‘Tis stored above the highest sphere:

“Methinks your wisdom guides amiss,

To seek on earth a Christian’s bliss;

We watch not now the lifeless stone;

Our only Lord is risen and gone.”

Yet e’en the lifeless stone is dear

For thoughts of him who late lay here;

And the base world, now Christ hath died,

Enobled is and glorified.

No more a charnel-house, to fence

The relics of lost innocence,

A vault of ruin and decay;

Th’ imprisoning stone is rolled away:

‘Tis now a cell, where angels use

To come and go with heavenly news,

And in the ears of mourners say,

“Come, see the place where Jesus lay:”

Oh! Joy to Mary first allowed,

When roused from weeping o’er his shroud,

By his own calm, soul-soothing tone,

Breathing her name, as still his own!

So it is still: to holy tears,

In lonely hours, Christ risen appears!

I shared the words of the priest/poet John Keble on Good Friday, so I thought it would be only fitting that I should share his words on Easter Sunday as well. Poetry has a way of helping us see and experience familiar stories in a different way. Poetry also has a way of helping us experience the heart, the spirit, or the emotions of story in a way that prose just doesn’t. You may think, “well, I’m not really a big fan of poetry.” Do you have a radio in your car? Do you listen to it? Then you ARE a fan of poetry. That’s what music is. Songs are a form of poetry. That’s why hymns are so important: they help us to experience parts of the gospel story that we can’t fully grasp when we are just reading the words on a page. And singing and poetry have been a part of the worship of God from the very beginning. That’s probably why music was invented: to worship God, to tell sacred stories. Jesus sang on the night before he died. And you can be sure that there were angels singing three days later.

When this covid crisis has passed, I promise you, we are going to have a great big hymn sing here, so we can get caught up on all the singing, and on all that beautiful poetry that we have missed over the past year. Now obviously I have written this sermon with the 10:30 service in mind, because we all know that 8 o’clockers don’t sing, but I’m willing to bet that secretly they love music too, they’re just a little shy and like to get up early. 8 o’clockers know the power of music and poetry too. It is one thing to say “He is risen!”, but it is another thing to sing “because he lives!” It is one thing to read “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb” but it is another thing to sing “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.” It is one thing to tell the story of the resurrection, but it is another thing to sing about it, or to read and write poems about it. The poem draws you into the story; the singing the song makes it your story too. 

You have probably heard the story from John Chapter 20 many times, but did you ever realize that everything changes for Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her name? That is when everything becomes real for Mary. That is the moment of transformation for her, when she realizes that her Lord is calling her name. She had seen the stone rolled away, but she had another explanation for that. She had seen the empty tomb and the linen shroud lying on the floor, but she thought someone had stolen his body. Angels were speaking to her, only she didn’t realize they were angels; she is so wrapt up in her grief. She even sees Jesus, standing right in front of her, only she doesn’t recognize it is him, until he calls her name: “Mary!” 

That is when the resurrection becomes real for Mary, when Jesus calls her name. 

Earlier in the Gospel of John, when Jesus talks about the good shepherd, he says: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him, because they know his voice…I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” And a little further on Jesus says: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again…I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again.”

It’s all coming true. Jesus lays down his life, and takes it up again. Jesus calls one of his sheep by name, and she knows his voice.

It’s one thing to hear about or to see an empty tomb, but it is quite another for the risen Christ to call your name. That is when you realize that God didn’t go through all of this for his own benefit; he did it for yours. Jesus doesn’t just get out of the tomb and leave; he comes back to it, to call his sheep out of the tomb, by name, so that his resurrection can be their resurrection. Jesus calls Mary, as one of his own, and invites her to share in the joy of his resurrection. Mary was the first, but she’s not the last. Jesus is still entering tombs and calling his sheep by name. Have you heard him call yours yet?

It’s ok if you haven’t. Just wait. Cry if you need to, but keep praying. Keep singing. Keep telling the sacred story in poetry and in prose, because some glad morning when he does call your name, your eyes will be opened and you will see him and you will realize that it’s not his empty tomb you are being called out of…it’s yours. 

Within the veil

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Sermon for Good Friday 2021

Readings:

There is a wonderful verse in the hymn Amazing Grace that you may have never heard. 

I know this may seem hard to believe; it is one of the most popular and frequently sung and frequently recorded hymns in the history of the world, but there is still one verse that is almost never sung or recorded; in fact, the verse isn’t even in our hymnal. But it was one of the original verses that John Newton, the slave trader turned priest, wrote back in 1772. 

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
   And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
   A life of joy and peace.

Hear it again:

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
   And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
   A life of joy and peace.

You never hear that verse. I learned about it through one of my favorite television shows Call the Midwife. There is a scene where they sing that verse at the bedside of a dying woman. What really stood out for me was the phrase “within the veil.” I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace. Within the veil.

If you know your Old Testament, or even, if you look back to the beginning of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, you may recall that in the temple in Jerusalem there was an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred spot on earth; it was the place where God most nearly dwelt with man. In the original temple, this is where the ark of the covenant was kept. In the second temple, the temple that Jesus would have known, the ark of the covenant was gone, but the inner chamber was still regarded as the most sacred place and once a year the high priest would enter this chamber and offer incense, and the blood of sacrifice to God. In the Gospel of Luke, we find the priest Zachariah standing just outside this veil at another altar of incense when he is told by an angel that he will have a son, whose name will be John. John the Baptist. 

What separated this inner chamber from the rest of the temple, and indeed from the world outside was a veil. A curtain. God was worshiped all over. Sacrifices were made in front of the temple. Incense and shewbread were offered in the first chamber, and there were crowds gathered outside; some to pray, others would have been catching up on the latest gossip, because people never change. We know, of course, that there were money changers in the outer court of the temple. The whole complex was in one way or another directed to the worship of God, but to go within the veil, well that was to be in the nearer presence of God, and it was only the high priest that got to do that. Your average, everyday people worshiped God, but they didn’t get that close to him. There was this barrier. If you ever watch the movie King of Kings, it begins with the Roman general Pompey, forcing his way into this inner chamber and tearing open the veil with his sword. Only all he finds when he enters are a few scrolls of parchment that talk about this Hebrew God’s love for his people. Worthless to Pompey, but the temple priests are willing to die to save them. This was a symbol of God’s love for his people, and it was more precious than all the gold in the world.

You just heard the story of Jesus’s death from the Gospel of John. But think if you will, to the story of Jesus’s death that you heard on Sunday, the one from Mark’s gospel. Or you can think about the way that Matthew tells the story, or the way that Luke tells the story. In all three of those gospels, what happens right at the moment of Jesus’s death? Just as Jesus takes his last breath, the curtain of the temple, the veil is torn in two. It is ripped open. Not from bottom to top, the way that Pompey ripped it, but from top to bottom. 

It is interesting, in Luke’s gospel, the last thing that happens before we hear about the veil being torn in two is the thief crucified beside Jesus says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies: “truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Then darkness covers the land and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The moment that Jesus’s heart literally breaks, the division between us and God, is torn in two. 

There is a way for us to enter the holy of holies now. There is a way for us to enter into the nearer presence of God. And not just into an inner room of a temple that was built with hands, but now there is a way for us to enter into the very heart of God. The thief who repents has a better view of the heavenly throne than all the priests that ever lived. The temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent and holy place, but the real temple where God truly dwelt more fully than any place else was Jesus. The real veil, was not a curtain in an interior room, it was his flesh. And the real holy of holies, was his heart. His flesh was pierced and his heart was broken, so that we might enter in. That is what the author of Hebrews means when he talks about the “way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” There is a life within the veil, a life of joy and peace, but that life is Jesus’s life and the veil is his flesh. Our pathway into the heart of God was opened by a cross and a spear. In Christ’s wounded side, we will find our ultimate refuge and peace. Our holy of holies is the heart of Jesus, that is where the true blood of sacrifice is offered; his blood. That is where our true joy and peace are to be found, within the heart of God, and that heart is broken open, like the temple veil being torn in two, so that our broken hearts may find a refuge inside.

John Keble, a famous Anglican priest from the 19th century is a particular hero of mine, and in his own day he was a best-selling poet. Well in his little book of poems called the Christian Year, he ends his reflection on Good Friday this way: 

Lord of my heart, by thy last cry,

Let not thy blood on earth be spent-

Lo, at thy feet I fainting lie,

Mine eyes upon thy wounds are bent,

Upon thy streaming wounds my weary eyes

Wait like the parched earth on April skies.

Wash me, and dry these bitter tears,

O let my heart no further roam,

‘Tis thine by vows, and hopes and fears.

Long since- O call thy wanderer home;

To that dear home, safe in thy wounded side,

Where only broken hearts their sin and shame

may hide.

What happens to us when our hearts fail? When they are literally and figuratively broken? The cross tells us that there is a place for us within the broken heart of God. When Jesus’s body is broken, and offered to us and for us, the veil is torn apart. There, within the life of God, is the true life of joy and peace, and now we all may enter it. That is what God’s grace has done for us on the cross, and yes, it is amazing. So maybe it is time to start singing that verse again, and now is as good a time as any.

The Hard Part

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2021

Readings:

“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

The easiest part of being a Christian is studying about Jesus. 

Reading Jesus’s words in the gospel; reading what others like Paul and Peter and James and John had to say about Jesus; studying the Old Testament passages that the first Christians used when they spoke about Jesus; analyzing the creeds to understand how the early church defined who Jesus was…that is the easy part. 

Sure, lots of people struggle with those things. People are forevermore misquoting Jesus or saying that he said things that he didn’t say. The scriptures aren’t always straightforward. They can be confusing. And there are references and place names and words that you may not understand. Maybe you don’t understand every part of the creeds or why they were written, but you can study those things. You can learn them.

Studying about Jesus might seem like a chore, but that’s the easiest part of being a Christian. Doing what Jesus said….well, that’s another story.

That’s the hard part: following Jesus. Listening to what he says AND doing it, actually doing it with your own hands and your own feet and your own mouth; that is where people stumble. There are tons of people in the world that know ABOUT Jesus, that have heard his teachings; there are plenty of people that have the ability to recognize that he was a good teacher; there are plenty of others who may even have the faith to proclaim with the church that he is the son of God. But how many are willing to actually do what he commands? How many are willing to follow his example when it involves humiliating yourself, or doing something unpleasant, or giving something up, or suffering? That number will always be fewer, because that’s the hard part. 

It is easy to want to be a Christian on Easter Sunday. When we are talking about the glories of being a Christian, or God’s promises and gifts to us; when we are talking about the resurrection from the dead and the promise of eternal life with those we love, we all want to lift our arms and shake a tambourine. Amen. Sign me up. I want to be forgiven for my sins. I want eternal life. I want healing. I want to be blessed by God. Give me flowers and happy hymns about feasting at God’s table; I’m here for it. Those things are all real, but they are the easy part of being a Christian. 

The hard part, is actually following Jesus. 

This week in the life of the church is an important reminder that Jesus’s life was about more than comfortable words and eternal promises. Jesus did things, very difficult things; and he asks us to do them too. 

Now let me be clear, there are some things that only Jesus can do. Part of the church’s proclamation is that he was NOT just a good teacher, or a wise man, he was the incarnate son of God. He was fully God and fully human. He was the saviour of the world and only he can save it. Let’s be clear about that. The sacrifice that Jesus makes for the sins of the world is not one that we can repeat. None of us has any right to eternal life, we cannot achieve it on our own; it is given to us through and by Christ, and it is given as a free gift. There are some things that Jesus does for us that even he is clear, we cannot do for ourselves. He goes places that we cannot go; he knows things that we cannot know.

But if we are going to take Jesus’s promises seriously, then we also need to take his commandments seriously. If we are going to take him at his word when he proclaims “this is my body” then we need to take him at his word when he commands “love one another.” If we are going to obey him when he holds the chalice and says “do this in remembrance of me,” then we need to obey him when he says “wash one another’s feet.” For both of those commands came from the same Jesus, at the same supper, on the same night, with the same disciples. Maundy Thursday can be a tricky night to preach, because a lot of preachers, myself included, feel torn between preaching about Jesus instituting the sacrament of his body and blood, which happens tonight, or between preaching about Jesus washing his disciples feet and commanding his followers to do the same, which also happens tonight. We can sometimes feel pulled to talk about one OR the other, as if they are unrelated events. As if it weren’t the same Jesus making both commandments. But it is the same Jesus.

Yes, there are wonderful, miraculous things that Jesus does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Yes, our God in the person of Jesus Christ, saves the world, and humanity, which cannot save itself. But Jesus willingly and knowingly gave his disciples instructions and examples of behaviour thatb he very clearly expects us to follow. That is the hard part of being a Christian: not believing in what Jesus said, but doing it. 

Feet are not always the most pleasant part of the human body. If everyone’s feet were just gorgeous and beautiful it wouldn’t be like pulling teeth to have people come up and get their feet washed. Feet take a lot of abuse. They get misshapen. You get veins and bunions and scars from surgery. There are some things even the best pedicure can’t make look pretty. Sometimes they smell. They get dirty very easily now, can you image how dirty they would have gotten in Jesus’s day? But without the feet, the head can’t go anywhere. Jesus, who was the head of this little band, was not above getting on the floor and washing its feet. 

“You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. Knowing about Jesus is one thing; doing what he says is quite another. We are called to do both. We are called to know the one giving the command; and we are called to follow the command that was given. Jesus did not command us to outsource morality to others; he did not say that compassion and pastoral care and listening to people, feeding people, washing people, healing people and generally caring for others, he did not say that these are just the job of the priest. Nor did he say that they are the sole job of the government, or of doctors and nurses and health aids or social workers or police officers or firemen. Jesus did not tell us to just pay others to do the things that we find unpleasant. The example, and the commandment, that he gave was that love should compel even the greatest among us to do even the lowliest jobs. It is one thing to know that, but it is another thing to do it. Doing it is the hard part. 

There is a sign that hangs in our narthex that many of you may have seen. It is a quote from the sometime bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston. It is there for you to read as you go back out into the world, hopefully after having received sustenance from our lord in the sacrament of the altar. His words are true always, but they are especially powerful on this night:

You are Christians, then your Lord is one and the same with Jesus on the throne of his glory, with Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, with Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, with Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray and with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down the world. NOW go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you find him, gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship, and wash HIS feet in the person of his bretheren.