Don’t be a jerk


Sermon for September 26th, 2021


Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Your words and your actions are either drawing people closer to Christ or they are pushing people further away.

Now maybe that seems a little heavy or harsh; maybe you don’t want to feel responsible for someone else’s relationship with God or Christ, but the fact is, you will have an effect of someone else’s walk with God whether you like it or not. The question that you have to ask yourself is: what kind of effect am I going to make? Are my words AND actions going to draw people closer to Christ, or are they going to drive them further away? Am I bringing people to the faith, or am I a stumbling block?

Here is a pro tip from Jesus in our gospel passage this morning: you don’t want to be a stumbling block. 

You don’t want to be the barrier that is keeping people from a life in Christ. You don’t want to be the person that pushes someone away from Jesus and his church. You don’t want to be the stumbling block. That will not end well for you. Yes, we are all humans, we are all sinners who make mistakes, and we believe in a merciful and forgiving God, but that does not mean that what we do and what we say doesn’t matter. We may believe, as Paul says, that “there is, therefore, no condemnation for those which are in Christ Jesus,” and that may be well and true, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t someday going to have to stand before the Lord and explain ourselves and give an account for the effect that our words and actions have had on the lives and on the faith-lives of others. 

Jesus uses some strong language and some extreme examples in the gospel today to really get his point across. Jesus likes to do that sometimes. His point is not to get you to go out and start amputating your appendages. What Jesus wants to make clear is that he does not want there to be barriers or stumbling blocks between him and his people. If there is something in your life that is interfering with your walk with God, then do something about it. You can’t just give up on faith in God because someone was mean to you at church once, or because you don’t like the minister. If there is a stumbling block in your way, then do something about it. You have some responsibility over your own faith life and you have the responsibility of getting around or over whatever stumbling blocks or barriers stand between you and Jesus, but you also have a responsibility to make sure that your words and actions aren’t turning you into a stumbling block in someone else’s life. We have a responsibility toward each other too.

And I could actually summarize that responsibility in four words, that Jesus doesn’t exactly use, but I think they are four words that really summarize a lot of his practical teachings: Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t be a jerk. You don’t have to be artificially nice or phony with people. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend. You don’t have to like everyone or agree with everyone, but don’t be a jerk. Believe it or not, it is possible to think that someone is completely wrong and still not be a jerk to them. You can pray for and pray with, people you disagree with. You can even be nice to them. How you respond to someone who is wrong or who has gone a little off course will say as much about your walk with Jesus as it does about theirs. In the gospel today some of the disciples are all up in arms because someone is using Jesus’s name, doing some kind of ministry, and they are all worked up because this person isn’t a part of their group. Maybe he isn’t doing things exactly the way that they were taught. Maybe he has some wrong opinions or is just a little different. In any event, they wanted to put a stop to him. And Jesus said No, don’t stop him. If he is doing good things in my name, then he is drawing people to me. If his words and actions aren’t pushing people away from us or working against us, then ultimately they are drawing people to us. Jesus’s disciples were well intentioned, but they kinda wanted to be jerks to this man casting out demons in Jesus’s name, and Jesus knew that that wouldn’t work, in fact what it would create is a stumbling block. 

You know, us followers of Jesus, the churches, we are so concerned sometimes with making sure that things are done this way or that way, or that we all have this correct opinion or that correct opinion; we are so concerned that other people follow Jesus the way that we follow Jesus, that we often end up being real jerks to one another, whenever we encounter folks doing things differently. And whenever we Christians act like jerks to other Christians, we end up becoming great big stumbling blocks for people outside the church who look in and wonder if there is any truth to this message that we proclaim. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. I believe that there is truth and error, I believe that there is orthodoxy and heresy. What I don’t believe in is being a jerk. If you think that someone is on the wrong path, you can guide them to the right one without being a jerk. Pray for them. Show them love and compassion and kindness. Show them a better way, and show some humility while you are at it, because the truth is, they might not be the ones that are wrong; but when you become a jerk, you become a stumbling block. Jesus tells us what he thinks about stumbling blocks. 

Jesus ends this little discourse with “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In other words, make sure that there is some substance to your faith life. Make sure that there are no barriers in your walk with God. Make sure that your words and your actions have the flavor of God in them, and don’t be a jerk to those who may be a little different or who might even be wrong about something. Pay attention to what you do or say, especially when you are disagreeing with other Christians, because your words and your actions are either drawing people closer to Christ or they are pushing people further away. 

What can you do for me?


Sermon for Sept 19th, 2021


 Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Children are useless. I think I may have said that before, but it bears repeating. Children are useless. They scream and cry and mess things up. They want attention all the time. They want food. Most of them have a real hard time holding down a steady job, so they don’t contribute much to society. They don’t pay taxes. They are always looking for some sort of handout. They don’t have a lot of skills. I keep thinking of Karen Walker from the TV show Will and Grace, when a button comes off her fur coat she says: “Children can’t do anything right!” 

Children may look cute, but they take way more than they give. They aren’t really useful, not when they are little. You have to serve them for a long time before they are even capable of serving you, and even then there’s no guarantee. Now maybe I am jesting a bit; you recognize that it is ridiculous to look at a child and wonder “What can you do for me?” But how often do we look at other adults that way? 

We know that it is absurd to look at little children and to value them based on what they can do or produce or give. They can’t do much at all, not at first. Children need more help and assistance than they can immediately repay. And as far as I can tell, most parents are really OK with that. The bonds of love are so strong that a parent can give and give without getting an immediate payback. Children don’t need to be useful to be loveable or to have value. Naturally you want them to grow into adults that are responsible and healthy with a sense of purpose and the capacity and inclination to give of themselves, but they don’t start out that way. They start out needing more from you than they can give back. We are OK with that with little children, most of the time, but when it comes to adults….that’s another story.

This is an unfortunate truth but it needs to be told: a lot of times, maybe not all of the time, but a lot of the time, when we meet another adult, one of the first things that starts to go through our minds is “how can you serve me?” How can you help me? What can you do for me? Now maybe that seems cynical, but don’t get defensive just yet, because I think it is just part of our human nature. Until we get to know and love people as individuals we often deal with people as objects. Something we can use. That’s what networking is all about. You know this person that I want to know. You’re a good lawyer, well that’s convenient because I need a new will. You’re good with computers, that’s great because I need a new website. We do this all the time with each other, and it isn’t always sinister, or meant to be nasty or mean, but we look at people and we wonder how they can serve us. 

Can you advance my career? 

Will you publish my book?

Will you vote for me?

Will you become a regular patron of my establishment?

Will you buy this thing that I want to sell?

Can you help my kids get into the right school?

Will people have more respect for me because they know I know you? 

Welcome to our church! We are so glad you are here! Would you like to serve on a committee? Oh don’t think for a second that us good church folks don’t do the same thing. It’s tough, because there are only so many people that volunteer to do things, and there are all these essential things that have to get done, I can’t do this by myself, so it is very tempting to look at every new person that walks through the door as someone who might be useful. You can serve on the altar guild. You can be a lay eucharistic minister. You can teach Sunday School. It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember your name yet, here’s the key to the building, please lock up when you leave. And this isn’t me pointing fingers, this is confession. I do this too. All churches do this, we always have. 

Think about the passage from James a couple weeks ago when he talks about showing favoritism to rich folks. That is all that is about: looking at people and wondering how useful they might be, or how useful their money might be. Humans do it all the time, it is a part of our nature, but there is a giant problem with looking at people this way: it’s not how God looks at people. God doesn’t look at us the way we look at each other. God doesn’t value us the way we often value each other.

The creator of the universe doesn’t need you for anything. Jesus didn’t need his disciples to help him up on Easter Sunday or to roll away the stone. God has more power than you can ever imagine. So, God’s love for you is not based in any way on how useful you are. God does not see us the way we see each other, that is all over the scriptures. So if you want to understand the mind of God and if you want to try to see the world the way that God sees it, which as followers of Jesus I hope you do, then you need to at least try to look at other people and see them as beloved before you see them as useful. You need to see someone that you are called to serve, without trying to figure out how you are going to benefit from this relationship in the long run. In other words, you need to look at them the way that a parent looks at their little child. It is hard to do that though. Old habits don’t go easy.

Some of Jesus’s disciples were arguing with one another along the way about which among them was the greatest. Basically, they were all trying to figure out how they were going to get the others to serve them. That’s what jockeying to be the greatest is all about: figuring out how to get others to work for you. Maybe Jesus got frustrated and wondered: is there ever a time when you people can just love something and serve something without expecting an immediate payback? Is there ever a time when you can just love someone and know that there’s gonna be a whole lotta work before they can ever do much for you? Is there ever a time when humans see each other the way that God sees them? I imagine that it was just about that time that a baby in the room started fussing and screaming. Now the gospel doesn’t say this, it just says that Jesus took a child in his arms, you probably imagined when you heard that that the little child was cute and asleep and precious, but I’d be willing to bet (or at least I hope) that he or she was screaming his or her little head off, because that would really have driven Jesus’s point home. Jesus takes this precious, beloved, and useless, child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” It is one thing to love someone when they can serve you; but it is another thing entirely when you have to serve them. It is also one thing to follow Jesus when you have much to gain; and quite another thing to follow him when you have much to lose.



Sermon for September 12th, 2021


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

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

When we hear Jesus rebuke Peter in this familiar passage from the gospel story, I think that we are often inclined to focus on the first thing that Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!” It is a stinging slap in the face. Peter makes a mistake by trying to tell Jesus that he is wrong. Now, as an aside, please don’t make the same mistake. If you disagree with the Son of God about something, it’s because you’re wrong, not him. 

Anyways, at least Peter tries to correct Jesus privately, but Jesus responds by very publicly by saying “get behind me Satan.” I’m sure that Peter was a little shaken up by this. It would grab your attention too. But the real meat of what Jesus has to say is in the second part there. This isn’t just about name calling, Jesus has a point to make. “For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” That is what Satan does. He doesn’t run around with a pitchfork playing pranks on people, making children levitate and spit pea soup. That’s Hollywood. The real Satan is usually much more subtle, and all he needs to do is just refocus your attention. He sets out minds solely on human things. He doesn’t want us to stop and recognize that God is all around us. There are divine things all around us, only we often don’t see them because other things are taking up all our attention. Jesus needs to get Peter’s attention to make him see that.

Now we don’t need to pick on Peter too much here, because the truth is, he is just a human like any one of us. We all make the same mistakes every day. We can claim Jesus to be the Messiah and then turn right around and try to avoid actually following him, at least if we think it means we are going to have to suffer a little. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not terribly fond of suffering. I like to avoid it if I can. And you know what, it is also really, really easy to get completely distracted by human things. Air conditioners break, refrigerators break, maybe your boss is being a jerk, maybe you have screaming kids, bills to pay, the Long Island Railroad is late again, some relation of yours is saying something stupid on Facebook, this beloved child of God in the car in front of you is looking at their phone while the light has turned green…don’t get too mad at Peter for getting distracted from God, because it is something we all do, even the most devoted among us. All these human things scream for our attention. The media will do or say anything to get or keep your attention. Billions of dollars are spent by companies every year to get your attention, that is how much your attention is worth. Our attention it is one of the most precious things we have, and yet how often do we just give it away to things that aren’t worthy of it? How much time and energy do we spend focused on things that aren’t going to matter six months from now? The Son of God wants to get Peter’s attention, so he has to make it very clear to him just how distracting these human things can be, and he needs to make it clear who those distractions serve. Distractions don’t serve God.

We are beginning a new program year today; we are bringing back the choir; we are bringing back the Sunday School; we are having a party for the first time in almost two years. We are trying to move on with our communal life, despite the fact that we are still dealing with covid. So I have been reflecting on what our mission is here as a parish. All churches are called to spread the good news, to share the Gospel story of Jesus Christ, to worship God and to serve God’s people in their community, but not all churches and not all communities are the same. What do the people in this community need? Yes, there certainly are people in our community that need food or other assistance and we do try to address that, at least in a small way, through grocery store gift cards, or through the food that is donated to the Mary Brenan INN. We do that, and I thank all of you who generously give to support that, those outreaches are necessary, but I wouldn’t say that is the greatest need of this whole community. This isn’t an urban area or an area with great poverty. It exists here, but it isn’t the thing I see most when I look at the activity right outside our doors. Yes, there is physical poverty in our community, but the bigger issue that I see is spiritual poverty. Distraction.

How many people every day walk right past our doors? They couldn’t find time to pray this morning, but somehow managed to wait 20 minutes to get a coffee next door. On the train, off the train, on the train, off the train…day in, day out. Redecorate the house, try to get that promotion, or that car, maybe find some time to gather with friends at a local watering hole, but mostly just chasing after something, although they’re just not sure what. Distraction, distraction, distraction. Well to quote the great Peggy Lee song: Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life? Just one never-ending stream of distractions and frustrations and acquisitions until you die? 

Well, no. That is not all there is. In the midst of all these distractions, in the midst of all these human things, there is God. God’s kingdom is in this world too, only most people are just too distracted to see it. Even those of us who are prepared to call Jesus the Messiah, we are still prone to getting distracted too. We all need to have our attention redirected back to divine things. So what do the people in this community need? They need someone to get their attention and to show them that there is more to life than all of these distractions. How do we do that? Well frankly I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think standing on the corner with a big sign that reads: “Get behind me Satan!” would be very productive, so we may need to be a bit more subtle than that, but we can’t be so discrete that people walk by and wonder if this is some kind of private club or secret society. We know that that isn’t what we are, but not everyone else does. We are people that have a story to tell. We are people that believe in the power of love and forgiveness, and we are people that believe in the resurrection of the dead. We are people that believe that in a world full of distractions, God wants our attention too. So we have a mission, here on this street corner, and it may not be exactly the same mission as it would be for a church in the inner city, or for that matter a church on a hill out in the country, but it is still the same Jesus that we are called to follow. It is the same God that wants our attention. He does not promise us that this will be an easy path following him, but he does promise that the rewards are eternal.

To live more nearly as we pray


Sermon for September 5th, 2021


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

Some of you know that part of the focus of my doctoral work has been on the writings of a priest from the 19th century named John Keble. In addition to being a priest he was actually quite an accomplished poet in his day. One of his poems is a hymn in our hymnal, hymn number 10, New every morning is the love. The hymn ends with what I might call a burn. You know what a burn is; a burn is when you cleverly or subtly, or maybe not so subtly, call someone out on their behaviour, usually pointing out their hypocrisy, but do so in a way that is not mean spirited but loving. The words kinda burn a little. Now Keble was a Victorian, so he’s very subtle, but I think he makes a point if you are paying attention.

The hymn ends:

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.

Those words should sting just a little bit because of what they imply: we don’t always live as we pray. What we say we believe, or what we pray with our mouths does not always line up exactly with how we live our lives or what we demonstrate with our actions. Basically, Keble is saying that we are hypocrites, and his prayer in this line is “Lord, help us to be a little less hypocritical today.” Help us this day to live more nearly as we pray. 

Keble was not the first person to realize that Christians don’t always do a good job of living the faith that they proclaim. If you ever get frustrated with Church, the best thing you can do is go and read or study some of the epistles. You’ll learn really quickly that hypocrisy is nothing new. 

James does not mince words in his epistle this morning. 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

James throws the sermon on the mount right in people’s faces: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Did you believe Jesus when he said that? Is basically what James is asking. When Jesus says forgive, when he says love, when he says judge not…do you believe him? James is pointing out to folks that they aren’t living the way they pray. Their beliefs and their actions are not lining up. 

James finally comes to the ultimate question: if your faith doesn’t change your life and the way you live, then what good is it? What good is it to say that you follow Jesus if you never pay any attention to what he actually says? What good is it to say that you believe in a God of mercy if you never actually show mercy yourself? 

There is a difference for James between living faith and dead faith. A living faith is one that is truly aware of just how much grace and mercy we have received from God and is always prepared to show that grace and mercy to others, even if imperfectly. A living faith always seeks to draw nearer to Christ, each and every day. A living faith is a faith the desires to respond to what God has done. And dead faith? Well a dead faith is a lot like an honorary degree: it is a title without necessarily having the knowledge that should go along with it. Christians need to have a living faith, not just a title, a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. 

We Christians, we have some powerful beliefs and prayers, we have a high calling as followers of Jesus Christ, but we are also always at least a little prone to being hypocrites, every one of us. It is a part of the human condition and it has always been a part of life in the church. Don’t worry…if you keep reading scripture I promise you, Jesus or one of his apostles will call you out on it. Sooner or later, God will have a little burn for you, a loving reminder that you still need work too. We all need a lot of help in our day to day lives to actually follow Jesus and not just give lip service to being Christians. 

So Lord, 

Help us, this and every day, to live more nearly as we pray.