A symbol of something greater

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Sermon for the Memorial for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

September 18th, 2022

She was not my mother, or my grandmother, or an aunt, or a distant cousin, or a relation of any kind. 

She was not a personal friend; I’ve never had tea with her; Never chatted with her by the fireplace. She never invited me into one of her homes, although I have been in almost all of them. 

She was not even an acquaintance. I never got to shake her hand. Never got to meet her or even see her from a distance. The closest I ever got was standing outside the very thick and heavily defended walls of Windsor Castle once when she happened to be at home.

She was not aware of my presence. She did not know my name.

As I am a citizen of the United States, she was not even my Head of State,

But she was my Queen. 

That is why this hurts so much. That is why this loss feels personal; like family. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. As I have watched some of the ceremonial proceedings this week, I have noted the mass outpouring of grief, the tears, the crowds, the flowers, the lines of mourners waiting hours for just a glimpse of that casket draped with the Royal Standard. How many of those people standing in line to see that casket never got the chance to meet or even see the woman inside? But still they waited…for hours, they cried, they mourned, and they all probably felt just a little bit broken inside. Just a little bit lost.

Why?

Because she was their Queen.

Even though they never met her she was a part of their daily lives. Her picture was engraved on the money. Her initials could be found on banners and on post boxes. She was on the television every Christmas. Politicians, musicians, fashion trends, those things all came and went, but the Queen was always there. People around the world, people like myself and I’m guessing many of you here, people are not just mourning a remarkable individual that they never met. They aren’t mourning a celebrity or a political leader; they are mourning their Queen. 

The grief that is being felt isn’t just about the loss of an individual though, remarkable though she may have been; it is about the loss of a symbol. A living symbol.

I could stand up here for hours talking about the unique personal qualities of Elizabeth. Books have been written, and many more will be written, about this remarkable person. News commentators tomorrow will tell you all about the countries she visited, the world leaders she met, and the everyday regular people whose lives she engaged with. They may talk about her personality: her razor-sharp intelligence, her dry sense of humor and her inherent shyness. They may talk about her love of horses and Dubonnet and gin. People may talk about all of the many things that made Elizabeth such a fascinating individual, but none of that will explain the collective grief that is being felt by so many across the world. None of that explains the pain that so many feel on the loss of someone they never met.

It’s because we have lost more than an individual; we have lost a symbol. A symbol of so many things. A symbol of a country, that whether or not we are citizens, many of us dearly love. A symbol of Anglicanism. The most famous Anglican Christian in the world was the Queen, who lived her faith, our faith, quite openly and unapologetically. A symbol of the generation that lived through the war. A symbol of monarchy. A symbol of reserve, of grace, of dignity, of humility. She was a symbol of service and charity. She was a symbol of so many things and now she is the symbol of an era that we all lived through. The funny thing about symbols is that they always point to something greater than themselves, even when the symbol is a living person, even when being a symbol is your job. Elizabeth did that supremely well.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Elizabeth as an individual, her greatest personal strength we might say, and what made her so well suited to her calling in life, was the extent to which she knew, knew, that none of this was actually about her. Elizabeth understood that she was a symbol. She knew that the crown and the palace and the gold carriage and the robes, she knew that all of this stuff wasn’t for her. It wasn’t Elizabeth that was really being celebrated; it was the monarch, the Queen. Elizabeth knew that. Of course, symbols are complicated things, especially when that symbol is a living human being, and people often project onto symbols negative as well as positive things that have nothing to do with the individual. To put it bluntly: you get blamed for things that are not your fault. Elizabeth knew that too. For better or for worse, when you live your life as a symbol of something greater, you have to continually remember that this is not about you. Elizabeth did that. 

I think that we often have some Disney-esque fantasies about what it means to be a King or a Queen. We think of fairytale princesses with fancy dresses and glass slippers, or we think of petty tyrants screaming “off with his head!” whenever their slightest wish isn’t granted. We think of grand ceremonies and throne rooms with people groveling at the monarch’s feet. Elizabeth knew that being the Queen had very little to do with any of that. Her personal wishes and desires were going to be superseded for most of her life. Elizabeth knew that being a symbol was not just about show; it was also a lot of hard work. Countless hours of sitting in her office reading and signing paperwork. Innumerable engagements: sitting with politicians whom she may or may not have liked or agreed with, supporting charities, visiting communities, marking events, and almost all of these things having to happen whether she felt like it or not. Elizabeth knew that her feelings, her opinions, her emotions, her personal likes and dislikes all had to take a back seat in her life, for her entire life, so that she could serve something greater. Her life needed to be about or point to something greater. That is what it means to be a symbol. It means being a part of, or representing something greater than yourself. Something bigger and more important than you. Monarchy, for Elizabeth, wasn’t a fairytale. It wasn’t about glass slippers; it was about sensible shoes. It wasn’t just diamonds and gold. It was endless, literally endless, hard work serving others. That is the opposite of the tyranny that some people imagine monarchy to be. 

You know what tyranny is? Tyranny is being enslaved to one person’s emotions, opinions, and feelings. Tyranny is having your life completely centered upon and controlled by one person. No one else matters. Well I do think we are living in an age of tyranny, only the tyrant that is seeking to control our every thought and action isn’t a king or a queen, or a president or a premier, or a dictator. The most dangerous tyrants we face right now are ourselves. We are living in an age where people have become enslaved to their emotions and their opinions. We are told over and over, in every survey we are sent just how much our opinions and our feelings matter. Every online newspaper article has a comments section underneath, wherein we may share our oh so valuable opinions, regardless of how ill-informed they may be. We feel compelled to offer them more and more and more. Our own individual opinions, emotions and feelings have become so sacred to us that if someone should commit the heresy of having a different opinion, feeling, or emotion we cut them off and cut them down. They are now the enemy of the only person that matters: me. It’s tyranny. We live in an age of tyranny and the tyrant is often staring right back at us from the mirror. Yes, there are still the old-fashioned tyrants in the world that would steal our freedom and our lives, but we will never be able to fight those tyrants if we don’t first learn how to fight these tyrants, the ones inside. 

As our Western culture has been descending into a tyranny of individualism for decades, there all along the way standing in contrast to the culture around her has been a woman who has been the image, or the symbol, of the opposite of all that. Other than laughter and joy, we rarely witnessed her emotions. Her opinions went unshared. Her feelings were usually unknown. She was willing to talk about her faith, because that was bigger than her, but she rarely talked about herself. Week after week she sat down with prime ministers that she may or may not have liked, and listened to policy proposals that she may or may not have agreed with. You can’t do that if you are enslaved by your own feelings and opinions. You can’t really serve others. Elizabeth, in the way she lived her life and conducted herself was a constant reminder that we don’t have to give in to that tyranny. Whoever we are, at whatever station in life we are, we all have the power to live lives that are about more than just ourselves. We all have the power to be a living symbol of something greater. 

That was Elizabeth’s conviction as a public figure and it was her faith as a Christian. As Christians we are a part of something greater than our individual selves. We have a greater calling than just serving our own emotions, opinions and feelings. Like kings and queens, we too are anointed to be a symbol of something bigger. We represent and belong to a kingdom that is in this world, but not of it, and we are called to serve a king who promises us more than just victory on the battlefield, but instead gives us victory over sin and death. Elizabeth was anointed as queen over a very large kingdom, but she always knew that she served a greater king. None of this was about her. Well we serve that king too, and when we gather to mourn a fellow, faithful Christian, whoever it is, it is right for us to remember the hope that we have of that future day when the one true king will raise us up and set us free; even if that tyrant we are being set free from is ourselves. Someday we will know that although we are individually treasured by God, this whole story isn’t about us personally.

In British tradition, the monarch never dies. A king or queen may die, but the symbol of the monarch immediately lives on in the heir, the new King or Queen. It isn’t about an individual person, it is about recognizing that there is always someone greater than yourself to serve. Many people have said that there will never be another like Elizabeth, but I don’t think that that truly honors her legacy and the way she lived her life. She was a unique individual, but that wasn’t important to her. Her life wasn’t about her. What was important to her was being a symbol of something greater. That is why we have come together to mourn a woman that we never met. Because she wasn’t just a woman. She was something greater. She was our Queen.

She is gone. The Queen is dead. But the role she served, the living symbol lives on, just like she always knew it would. God save the King. 

People who make bad choices

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Sermon for September 4th, 2022

Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33


In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses has come to the end of the road. The end of the road for him at least. Moses is near the Eastern shore of the Jordan river, not far from Mount Nebo from which in the distance you can see the mountains of Jerusalem. We are told that he is 120 years old. He has had the most epic life. Saved from death multiple times. Raised in Pharoah’s court. Reborn in the desert as a prophet. He has stood in the very presence of God. He has witnessed unimaginable miracles. And finally, he has led God’s people to the promised land. 

We know that it hasn’t been an easy journey though. Despite the miracles, despite their covenant with God, these people that Moses is leading have wanted to turn back every step of the way. On foot the journey from the shores of the Red Sea to the shores of the Jordan River should take about 10 days. It has taken them 40 years! 40 years of complaining and turning back to Egypt. 40 years of turning away from the God that was saving them. Moses has been through it with these people; he knows what they are like. So, in his last speech he makes it very clear to them: God and salvation and life and the promised land are this way. Death and curses and slavery are that way. Choose life. Choose a relationship with God. Choose blessings and the promised land. Moses implores people one last time, to make a good choice. Then he steps down and begins to hand leadership over to Joshua. 

But before Moses dies, the Lord pulls him aside and has another talk with him. And this is a part of the scripture that you don’t hear this morning. The Lord said to Moses: “you are going to die soon and be gathered to your ancestors, and these people that you led, they are going to break the covenant again. They will forsake me. They will go chasing after other Gods. This will make them weak and they will suffer because of it.” 

Now you might be thinking, “gosh, poor Moses. How depressing to think that he has come through all of that only for God to tell him at the last moment that it has all been for nothing. What is the point of urging people to make good choices, when you know that they are going to make bad ones?” But God says something very revealing to Moses. God says: “For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” God already knows that his people are going to turn away from him. God knows that these people will break his commandments. God knows that they will forsake him and go chasing after other Gods. God knows this, and he still leads them to the promised land anyways. 

That is a revelation about the character of God and it is a revelation about the kind of covenant he has made with his people. God is giving life, showing love, saving and blessing people that he already knows are going to betray him. God already knows. But God does it anyways. This isn’t tit for tat; this isn’t a contract between equal partners. God may want his children to make good decisions, but his love for them and his commitment to them is not contingent upon that. God is leading people into the promised land that he already knows are unworthy of that blessing. That is a revelation to Moses that is greater than the commandments themselves. 

In fact, this little conversation that God has with Moses, far from being discouraging, was probably very encouraging to him. You know, when Moses gives that speech that you heard this morning: “I set before you life and death; choose life,” you know that weighing on Moses’s soul must have been the knowledge that these people who he has been leading for 40 years are incapable of consistently choosing life. Moses knows that these people don’t have a history of making good choices. Moses knows that. He wants people to follow the commandments. He knows that the commandments are given for their benefit. He implores people to make good decisions, but in the end we see that that is not what his faith is built upon. Moses’s hope, Moses’s faith, is in God’s saving love for his people and as he is about to end his journey God shows him that that is a hope that is well founded. 

You know, some people think that religion and religious leadership is just about convincing and teaching people to make good choices. Well if that were the case then this would be a very depressing job indeed. People don’t make good choices. Even people that have seen and witnessed God’s saving grace; Even people that know the Lord and have made a covenant with God; even God’s people make bad choices. They break the commandments; they bow down to idols and chase after other Gods; they forget what God has done for them. They love other things more than they love God. God’s people have never been very good at holding up their end of the covenant. 

In our prayer book, I am sure most of you know that we have this thing called the baptismal covenant. People who are being baptized recite the creed, or the record of what God has done for us, and then they respond to a number of questions that we have added on: Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace? And of course the people respond to every question: “I will, with God’s help.” And every time I hear that response, the crusty old priest inside of me wants to shout back: “no, you won’t! Who do you think you are kidding?!” I’m no amateur at this. You are going to break a number of these commitments, not to mention several of the commandments before you get back to the parking lot. If religion, specifically this religion, if this was simply about imploring you to make a good choice when confronted with decisions that lead to either blessings and life or curses and death; if religion or faith was simply about morality and ethics, then this would indeed be the most depressing job, and I don’t know how long I could do it. I think that’s why so many clergy and religious leaders end up getting burned out and quitting. It is probably why so many people in the pews give up on faith too. The moment we start putting faith in human decision making instead of in God’s grace we are setting ourselves up for a huge disappointment. In the gospel this morning, Jesus says that if we want to be his followers that we need to love him above all else; more than our families, more than our comfort, more than our possessions. Now I have to remind myself that most of the people that Jesus is talking to, aren’t willing to do that. Not yet at least. They aren’t ready to make that choice. But he still loves them anyways. He still offers them forgiveness and eternal life even though they are in no way prepared to be as faithful to God as God is to them. There may be a covenant at the heart of our faith, but we must always remember that it is in no way an equal one. 

Moses wants the children of Israel to choose life and blessing; Moses wants them to be faithful to God, but he shows in the end that that is not ultimately what his faith rests upon. Moses’s faith is not in people’s ability to make good choices; Moses’s faith is in God’s will to save people who make bad ones. With that faith, Moses can die happy and content, knowing that his faith and his life’s work has not been in vain. 

Before Moses dies he does two things: he writes down the law and gives it to the priests and tells them that every seven years it needs to be read out so that every generation is taught to know and fear the Lord and to respect his commandments. The people need to be instructed and encouraged to make good choices. But the people need a little bit more than that. They need a song. They need a song that will remind them of the wonderful things that God has done for them. They need a song that will proclaim God’s love for people who make bad choices. So Moses writes down a song that the Lord had given him and one verse goes like this:

“A faithful God without deceit, just and upright is he; yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation.”

I can only hope that that was set to a catchy tune, or that it rhymes in Hebrew more than it does in English. It may not make you want to stand up and clap, but it is good news. It is a reminder that our faith is in God’s goodness, not our own wisdom. Now we need to hear God’s law. We even recite it here once a year and we ask God to incline our hearts to keep it and to write these laws on our hearts. We should be encouraged and we should encourage others to make good choices, but we need to remember that God already knows that we won’t do it. Not consistently at least. Our faith is not about God’s love for people who make good choices; our faith is about God’s love and God’s grace for people who make bad ones. 

Guilty as sin and still set free

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Sermon for August 21, 2022

Readings:

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

It has been a long time since I last gave a sermon featuring insights drawn from the Andy Griffith Show, so y’all please indulge me for a couple minutes.

Season 1, episode 20. Sheriff Andy Taylor needs to go to the courthouse in Centreville to testify one afternoon, so naturally he leaves his deputy, Barney Fife, in charge. Barney is eager to show Andy what a good job he can do at maintaining law and order in town, so he is only too happy to take over for a few hours. 

When Andy returns later that afternoon and walks down the street toward his office, he is amazed at how quiet everything is in town. Everything is peaceful and calm and everyone in town seems to have left for the day. Then Andy opens the door to his office and he hears the commotion. The reason why the streets of Mayberry seemed so calm and quiet, is because just about every citizen was locked up in one of the town’s two small jail cells: the mayor, Otis, the president of the bank, even Aunt Bea and Opie. Everyone in town has done something to land themselves in jail. 

Well, one by one, Andy listens to Barney’s charges against each person, and one by one, Andy finds a reason to show leniency and dismiss them and to let the offender go free. Barney, of course, protests and says “these people are guilty as sin,” but Andy just doesn’t think that locking up the whole town is the way to go about it. Only Andy quickly discovers there is a problem: everyone in town starts to make fun of Barney. They tease him and laugh at him and scoff at his approach to the law. This is a real problem for Andy, because although he and Barney may have some different approaches to law enforcement, they both are on the same side of the law. Andy can’t have people treating the law as if it were just a joke.  And on a personal level, Andy can’t have people treating Barney as a joke either. Barney isn’t going to stay and serve people that treat him that way; he is prepared to quit and move on. 

So Andy really puts the town to the test. He starts to tell everyone that he has to let Barney go. He may be a compassionate and merciful sheriff, but he can’t have people treating the law, or a symbol or representative of the law as a joke. The law is there for their own good, and if the people cannot appreciate that, then Andy will have to bring in another deputy that the town will respect. Well, one by one all the townsfolk start to realize what they had done. They all really loved Barney, they knew that Barney wanted what was best for everyone, but when he pointed out to them something wrong that they had done, they let their self-righteousness get the better of them; they became defensive and indignant and it just about destroyed their relationship with him. Barney may have been overzealous in the enforcement of the law, but he wasn’t wrong. They were guilty.

At the very end of the episode, as Barney is taking off his badge and gun, and returning the one bullet that he keeps in his shirt pocket, Aunt Bea and Opie walk in, march over to the jail cell and lock themselves in. Then, one by one, almost every other citizen of Mayberry walks into the office, heads over to the jail cell and proclaims, “guilty as charged.” The people of Mayberry are no longer defensive about breaking the law, they are owning up to it. They may very much appreciate Sheriff Andy’s mercy and leniency in enforcing the law; they may hope for forgiveness of their trespasses, but they realized that Barney wasn’t wrong. Not really. The law existed for them. The law was for their benefit, and they had broken the law. So while this episode began with everyone in Mayberry proclaiming their own righteousness and defending their innocence, it ends with everyone in Mayberry proclaiming their own guilt. As you can probably imagine, there is way more peace and love at the end, than there was in the beginning. 

Now I’m not just retelling the plot to an episode of one of my favorite television shows for our mutual amusement and to eat up some sermon time. I think this episode is actually a pretty good illustration of our relationship, as Christians, to God’s law. Think for a second about the moment that the law, God’s law, was given to God’s people. I’m talking about the Ten Commandments and Moses and Mount Sinai. It’s OK, you can think about the Charlton Heston movie, we’re all doing it. But think for a second about the scene: you have a mountain with clouds and thunder and smoke and a burning bush and laws written in stone. Intimidating scary stuff. But these laws that are given, is God giving these laws to be arbitrary, to be a big meanie, to punish his people? Or is God giving these laws for the good of his people? Are they for his sake, or are they for ours? Think about the sabbath. What a fascinating law that is. God says to a bunch of people that were just slaves; God says to people whose lives were valued only by what they could produce, by their productivity; God says to these people, one day a week, YOU WILL NOT WORK. God isn’t trying to enslave people; he’s trying to set them free. God’s law was given for their benefit, not for their punishment. The people needed God’s law, it was for their good, even when they inevitably ended up breaking it. 

Christians know that we have a merciful saviour that will be our judge. We know that Jesus offers forgiveness and leniency. We know that for those who are in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation, but just because Jesus offers us mercy, that doesn’t mean that the law was wrong, or that it should be mocked and ignored. As Christians, if we really trust in God’s love for us, both in giving the law and in judging us with righteousness and mercy, then we should be able to walk right up to the judge, just like all those people in Mayberry, and humbly declare “guilty as charged.” We can trust that the law is good, while at the same time recognizing that we have broken it. We don’t need to be defensive. We don’t need to mock the law or scoff at it. We don’t need to point the finger at others and say, “well, they did it too, or they did it first.” We don’t need to be like lose in the gospel today who are so intent on catching Jesus breaking the law, that not only are they hypocritical about their own observance of the law, but they also totally miss the point of the law in the first place: setting people free from the chains that the world puts on them. God’s laws, God’s commandments were given to us as a blessing, not as a punishment. Commandments and justice, and mercy and forgiveness, they all come from the same God. We will never find peace in this world by imagining that we are on the right side of God’s law all the time and pointing the finger at everyone else, and we will never find peace by ignoring God’s law and the actions that he has declared to be good. We fall short and we are forgiven; we fail and we try again.

Peace, true peace comes to Mayberry, when its citizens recognize that both Andy and Barney are on the same side of the law. It isn’t either/or. True peace comes when the people recognize that you can be guilty as sin, and still set free. 

You cannot trust the clergy. Not all the time.

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Sermon for August 14th, 2022

Readings:

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

You simply cannot trust the clergy. Not all the time at least. Priests, prophets, bishops, preachers, academic theologians, popular authors who call themselves theologians…you cannot simply trust that everything they say is the gospel truth, good advice, or that it represents the will of God. You can’t simply take it for granted. You need to do the work of discernment. Their message needs to be tested. How does it compare to the scripture? What kind of fruit does it produce? It doesn’t matter how big their church is, how many letters they have after their name, how many followers they have, or how many books they have sold. Popularity is never a good indicator of divine approval, in fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite. Faithfully following God, and trying to speak his word faithfully, can sometimes, oftentimes, make you deeply unpopular. 

It has ever been this way. 

The prophet Jeremiah was deeply unpopular. He went around telling people that they had turned their backs on God and God’s law; he said that the priests and prophets and leaders of the kingdom were leading people astray; he said that the end of all of this would be destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. It didn’t win him many friends. In fact, people repeatedly tried to kill him. That was the acclaim that Jeremiah got in his own day for sharing God’s word. Not a book deal; not an interview on television. He got thrown in the bottom of a well and left for dead. Hardly the sort of thing that is going to inspire many would-be televangelists. But his message was tested, and his message was true.

Jesus warned his followers repeatedly that following him and ministering in his name would at times prove extremely unpopular. Causing division, and not peace. Resulting in rejection by one’s loved ones, and even possibly a cross of one’s own. Jesus’s first sermon was in his hometown and as soon as it was over folks wanted to kill him. That was his reward for calling people to greater holiness. Jesus may have been popular among some of his loyal followers, but we have to always remember that at the end of the day, when Pilate put it to a popular vote, the crowd chose Barabas. Democracy and Christianity do make strange bedfellows if you really think about it. Humans don’t exactly have a history of making good choices. Jesus knew that. Jesus’s word was tested, and Jesus’s word was true.

Being popular, and being correct or being on the right side or being true to God, or even being wise, these are not always the same thing; they are often at odds with one another. Discerning the will of God is never as simple as putting things to a vote, ever. So we need to be careful whenever we are ascribing divine will to things, or individuals, or to messages that are popular in our own day. Jesus reminds us in the gospel this morning that we are better at predicting the weather than we are at interpreting the age we live in, and truthfully we aren’t THAT good at predicting the weather. It can take a long time to know which leaders in our own age are true prophets, and which ones are just interpreting their own wishes as the will of God, so be careful out there. Because you can’t just trust all of us. Not all the time. The message, the word, needs to be tested. Sometimes it may represent timeless, divine truth, and sometimes it may be just what we want to hear in the moment.

There was a dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the early 20th century called William Inge who famously wrote: “The church that marries the spirit of the age, becomes a widow in the next generation.” We should always be suspicious of being too popular, too contemporary or too hip, because popularity has nothing to do with the will of God. And what is popular today will be dated and unpopular tomorrow. The most dated prayer in our prayer book, isn’t the Rite I prayers that we use here; it is Eucharistic Prayer C, which was written in the 60s and talks about the vast expanse of interstellar space. That might have sounded cool 50 years ago, but now it kinda feels like that polyester jumpsuit hanging in the back of your closet. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but not every innovation is worthy of holding on to. Things that are popular in the moment don’t always have lasting value. Incidentally, Dean Inge also had some other opinions on things like eugenics, that now we would consider totally abhorrent, so like I said, you just can’t trust the clergy. Not all the time. The message needs to be tested.

One of the reasons why I am such a strong believer in tradition is not just because I like old fashioned things. I do like old fashioned things, but that is beside the point. I believe in tradition, specifically church tradition, because it has been tested by time. Discernment has happened, not just by one priest or prophet, but by generations of faithful people. All that discernment, all that time just has a way of sorting through that which has lasting value, the things that are of God, from the stuff that just represents the spirit of the age. Traditions have been tested.

It’s also why I prefer my religious authors, the ones I read, to be good and dead. Not just recently deceased, but good and dead. Dead for 50 years or more. There are a few exceptions to this rule; there are occasionally living authors writing in the field of theology and religion that I find to be worthwhile, but not too many. One of my favorite writers, C. S. Lewis, who passes my good and dead test, once wrote that if you have to choose between reading a new book and reading an old one, read the old one. Because, as Lewis says, a new book is still on trial. “It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down through the ages, and all of its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) must be brought to light.” New books, specifically, new religious books, new books that claim to be about Christianity or Christian theology or spirituality, they need to be tested. Is this author, faithfully trying to deepen our knowledge of God, or are they just putting a new spin on an old heresy? Is this so-called prophet actually calling people to faithfulness, or are they just trying to promote themselves and sell books? You see, I get really nervous when religious leaders, or scholars, or whatever, start to get a little popular and start to sell books. It is so easy to let that popularity go to your head. It is easy to start packaging up your vision and selling it as God’s. We know from scripture that it has happened before. You can’t always trust us.

In religious books, religious leaders and movements, as in so many other things, it isn’t popularity that is the ultimate judge of what has lasting value; it’s time. Time is a serious judge. Are a prophet’s words wheat, or are they straw? Is our life of faith being fed by the wheat of God, that has substance and life within it, or is it the straw of the passing age? I trust in that judge, the judgement of time at the hands of God, more than I trust any other. Jesus said that God has his winnowing fork in his hand. That’s what a winnowing fork does: it separates straw from wheat. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two, straw and wheat, not for us, but God knows what has lasting value and what doesn’t. I promise you God doesn’t care about what, or who, is popular and God already knows that the clergy can’t always be trusted to get it right. Not all the time.

The only interesting thing…

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Sermon for August 7th, 2022

Readings:

Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22 
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Sermon 8-7-22

The only interesting thing about religion is God. 

That bears repeating. 

The only really interesting thing about all of this: the building, the vestments, the rituals, the scriptures, the beliefs, everything that we classify as religion, the only truly interesting thing about all of that is God. 

God as a personality that we live in relationship with. That is what makes religion fascinating and compelling. A living God. A mysterious, all powerful being that we encounter, but never fully comprehend. Without God, all of this just becomes a very sad, very tired old play. 

Now maybe it seems obvious to you that religion and church should be about God, and that God should be the central focus of all that we are and all that we do. Maybe that seems like a no-brainer. But we get distracted from that central focus all the time, and there are forces that will always want us to be ABOUT something else. Human beings have this amazing ability to constantly lasso the spotlight back onto ourselves, even when we pretend to be talking about God. Somehow we always manage to find ways to make it about us. We start to focus less and less on what God has done and what God is doing, and we focus more and more on what we have done, or what we are doing, or what we should be doing, or what we want to be doing. 

Maybe the problem is that we are too embarrassed to admit to our friends that we actually believe in a personal God, so instead we make the focus of our faith things that are less controversial: like doing good works in the world. Even atheists approve of those things. Or maybe the truth is we just like to talk about ourselves and think about ourselves a little too much. Somehow, one way or another, we find a way to make religion more about us than it is about God. 

We do it in subtle and innocent ways. 

For instance: I imagine that there will be many sermons given this morning on the faith of Abraham and the amazing things that Abraham’s faith led him to do, just like faith led Isaac and Jacob and Moses to do amazing things. Look what faith can do: faith can lead you to do amazing things. Faith can make you a hero. 

It is really tempting to go there with that passage from the Book of Hebrews; to talk about what faith can do for us; to talk about the amazing things that people of faith can do. To think about faith as some sort of virtue that comes from within US; something WE have a right to be proud of. I could easily write that kind of a sermon; it’s not entirely wrong, Hebrews does remind us of the amazing things people of faith did. But that’s not the whole story.

The really interesting thing about Abraham is NOT that he had faith. The world was filled with people that had faith. There was a god on every corner and someone to worship him. Simply having faith didn’t make Abraham special. What made Abraham special is WHAT he had faith in, or should I say WHO he had faith in. Abraham didn’t just have some generic faith or non-specific hope for the future. Abraham was not “spiritual but not religious” as so many people are nowadays. Abraham didn’t just have faith in a god; he had faith in THE God and he had faith that THE God, the maker of heaven and earth, the judge of all men, he had faith that that God wanted to have a relationship with him and wanted to bless him and was making everlasting promises to him. That is what makes Abraham special; not the fact that he had faith, but WHAT he had faith in. He had faith that God wanted to bless him. That was the God he believed in: a God that loves and wants to bless. A God who keeps his promises. A God you encounter and live in relationship with. Because Abraham believed in this God, a God who wills good things for him, it is because of that belief that Abraham is able to obey and follow and go where God tells him to go. What Abraham believed about God mattered. It isn’t enough to say that Abraham had faith. We have to remember WHAT he had faith in. We have to remember WHO he had faith in.

Abraham had faith in God. Not a generic higher power, but a specific, personal God. That is what makes Abraham such an interesting character, and that is what leads Abraham to do what he does. That belief is what has led religious people down through the ages to do amazing things. Everything from building the great cathedrals, to founding monasteries, caring for the sick and feeding the poor, creating some of the world’s most beautiful art and writing some of history’s greatest music. These things have been done largely as a response to a BELIEF. Belief matters. What we believe about God matters. What God does matters more than what we do. It is so easy to just focus on human actions that we often forget that human actions are usually guided and directed by human beliefs. What we believe matters. What we have faith in matters.

I am sure that some preacher’s this morning will have a field day with Jesus’s instruction in the gospel to “sell your possessions and give alms,” because in part, some folks just want to the church to be a glorified social service agency. “Let’s justify our existence as an organization by pointing to all the good works we do.” Some people really do see it that way. But is that all that church is about? Is that what gives us our identity and our strength? Is that what saves us? I don’t think it is. 

Before Jesus told his disciples to sell their possessions, he said to them: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, because your father, your God, it is his WILL to bless you. God takes pleasure in giving you his kingdom. Your God is a god who gives. Your God is a god who blesses. NOW, therefore, you go out and do likewise. Now, you give. Now, you go out and bless, because that is the love that your father in heaven has shown to you. It is our faith, our belief, in a God that takes pleasure in giving us the kingdom; it is our faith in that specific God that gives us the power and the strength to live the life that we live. It is that faith that gives us patience and hope in the hard times, and it is that faith that gives us generosity and compassion in the good times. Being a person of faith is great, but what exactly do you have faith in? What you have faith IN matters.

Everyone who steps on their car brake pedal or takes a Tylenol has some kind of faith; everyone who puts their money in the bank or the stock market has some kind of faith. What kind of faith do you have? If you have faith in God, what God or what kind of god do you have faith in? 

Do you have faith in a God that has the power to call heaven and earth into existence?

Do you have faith in a God who values, calls, and uses babies and old people to serve him? The rest of the world values, the young, the strong and the virile, but do you have faith in a god who still values the very young and the very old? Because it seems like the God of scripture does.

Do you have faith in a God that loves us enough to become one of us? Do you have faith in a God that still tries to save us even when we can’t or won’t save ourselves? Do you have faith in a God who forgives? Do you have faith in a God who heals? Do you have faith in a God who conquers death? Do you have faith in a God who calls you to follow him into unknown territory? 

In just a moment I am going to ask you to stand and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. You might think that that is a rather dull part of the service, reciting week after week our beliefs about God using words that were worked out centuries ago, you may think it is boring and unimportant, but you would be wrong. Because before we encounter God in the sacrament, we need to remind ourselves just who exactly it is that we are encountering. It isn’t enough to just say we are people of faith; we need to remind ourselves and proclaim to others what and who we have faith in. We have faith in God. This God. This God who made promises to Abraham. This God who was born and lived among us in our Lord Jesus Christ. This God who raised him from the dead and promises us eternal life and a place in his kingdom. This God. That is the only thing that makes any of this interesting at all. 

Monsieur Hulot and the fools

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Sermon for July 31st, 2022

Readings:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

One of my favorite filmmakers of all time is the French director Jacques Tati. Probably his most famous movie is Mon Oncle, or “My Uncle,” but there is also Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Traffic, and his masterpiece which is called “Playtime.” If you get the chance, go and watch them. They are hysterical and you don’t need to speak French, because not only are they subtitled, but there is very little dialogue in the first place and it really doesn’t matter. Most of the humor is visual and auditory. 

Tati was most active in the 60s during a time of immense cultural change in post-war Western Europe, and the central character in his movies, Monsieur Hulot, with his characteristic hat, trenchcoat, umbrella and pipe, which Tati always played himself, he stands at the crossroads of two different worlds: the very messy ancient world of tradition and community; the old-world France of villages and street vendors and dilapidated buildings, and the new emerging modern France of super highways, steel skyscrapers, and clean sanitized suburbs. Monsieur Hulot is a product of the old world, and his encounters with the new world are a revelation of the absurdities of modern living. Because no matter how hard humans try to make things better, they usually just end up making them a bit worse, at least in Tati’s world. Now maybe that sounds depressing to you, but the movies really are hysterically funny, or at least I think they are and it could be because I identify with Monsieur Hulot. I feel out of place in the modern world too. I too am very skeptical of anything that gets labeled “new” or “progress.” 

The people in Monsieur Hulot’s old-world live in a bit of a mess, but it is a mess filled with meaning and purpose and everyday joys: little boys playing pranks and eating bits of sugary dough fried by a street vendor, old ladies haggling over vegetables, old men arguing at a local cafe, stray dogs and cats running around cobblestone streets, sunshine, grass and birds singing. The inhabitants of the new world? They live in a mess too, only they don’t realize it because they are so enamored with their ideas of progress. But their world is filled with cranes and jackhammers, and traffic jams and is made of plastic, steel and glass. In one film, Playtime, which is set in Paris, the only time you see any of the famous Paris monuments like the Arc de Triomph or the Eiffel Tower, are brief reflections in the glass windows of sterile, modern buildings. It could be any city anywhere: there’s no style, no local character or culture. So much for the bright future that humans are making for themselves. The people in Tati’s films that are obsessed with living in the future, walk right past the immense beauty that is right in front of them. Monsieur Hulot is regarded as something of a fool in each of these films, but Jacques Tati is only using him to show you who the real fools are. 

The real fools are the people who cannot see the beauty in the world, as it is. But you don’t have to be living in the modern world to be that kind of a fool. There have always been people in the world that are so obsessed with a theoretical, idealized future that they miss the very real, very beautiful life that is going on all around them. One of my favorite books in the Old Testament, probably in all of scripture is the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we heard excerpts from this morning. 

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I had to work all my life to build something for the future, only to have to die and leave it to people who didn’t work for it, and may not respect it, care for it, or use it wisely. What a waste. So I despaired about that, and then realized that despairing was a waste of energy too. 

Now you may think that Ecclesiastes sounds depressing, but I find it to be liberating. It is liberating, because you know what, the future can be a golden idol that people bow down to and worship. The future can be a false God that people make the most astounding sacrifices to. How many evils have been perpetrated in our world in the name of some idealized, theoretical future? All of the “isms” that have tried to rule our world: Communism, Naziism, Fascism, Socialism, Capitalism, Consumerism…all of those isms, all of them, have shown themselves willing to tolerate and even perpetrate horrendous evils now for the sake of some theoretical future. All for the sake of progress. All for the sake of the new or the novel. But what happens if those theoretical future utopias never materialize? What you are left with is pointless suffering. That is what the teacher in Ecclesiastes sees: so much pointless suffering. It is pointless suffering that comes from trying to live in and exercise dominion over a world that does not belong to us. We do not live in the future, and it does not belong to us. The only thing we really have control over, in so far as we have any control at all, is the life we are living today; the decisions we make today; the joy and the meaning and the purpose that we find today. We may hope for tomorrow; we may dream about it; we may plan for it, we may try to make it better for those that inherit it, but we have to live today. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to us. 

That doesn’t mean that we ignore the future; that would just be giving up one type of foolishness for another. The decisions we make now, the life we live now will have an effect upon the future, we must always be mindful of that, but we have to recognize that it may not be our future, it might be someone else’s. But whether we live to see that future hope or dream or not, we have to recognize that it is the life we are living now, right now, that truly matters. We need to live with the future in sight, we need hope for the future, but we need to live now. We need to find joy today, not tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be a big joy, it can be a silly stupid joy. It can be the joy of a good cup of coffee or a piece of crusty bread or a baby’s smile or a momentary break in the humidity, but we need to identify it and cherish it. We need to find purpose today; it doesn’t need to be the grand purpose for your entire existence; it can be the purpose of cooking a good meal for your family, or fixing something that was broken, or telling a story to your grandkids. We need to love today, we need to repent today, we need to worship today…not tomorrow. Today is all that you have been promised. What are you doing with what God has given you today? 

If you think about it, greed is a sin that is really focused on tomorrow: what will I have tomorrow? What could I have tomorrow? Greed makes us lose sight of what we have today. Greed makes us dissatisfied with what we have today. That’s why, when Jesus wants to talk about greed, he tells a story about a man whose only thought is about the future; how to control his future. But as it turns out, the future didn’t belong to him; it belonged to God. All that the rich man accomplished was wasting the great gift of the present day that God had given him. That’s what greed does: greed promises us tomorrow if we will only sacrifice the joy and all the other gifts we have today. But it is a false promise, because greed is a false God. Tomorrow, the future, it is something we can have hope for, but it is not an idol that should be worshipped.

God has given you the gift of today, with all of its messy beauty. Can you embrace that beauty, that gift, like Monsieur Hulot, or are you only looking at a world filled with things that you plan to someday fix? Some people may think that Monsieur Hulot is a fool, but he knows who the real fools are.

Boldness and Humility

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Sermon for July 24th, 2022

Readings:

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

The dialogue between God and Abraham in our passage from Genesis this morning could almost read as a Monty Python sketch. The back and forth between them over how many righteous people were worth saving the town for is definitely absurd and the repetitiveness of Abraham’s questions treads the line between tedious and amusing. 

God has heard that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are filled with the most heinous, awful sinners. What were they up to? People love to speculate, but the truth is we don’t really know, but that is a bible study for another time, because it doesn’t really matter for my argument this morning. You can appreciate this passage without knowing how this particular story begins or ends. 

God says he has heard bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah and is going to see if it is as bad as he has heard. He is coming down as the great divine judge. Abraham asks him a question: What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will you sweep them away with the sinners? And God says: no, if I find 50 righteous I will forgive them all. Then Abraham says, well what if it is 45? And God says, OK, 45. Abraham: How about 40? God: alright, 40. Abraham: do I hear 30? 20? 10? 

And God says, OK, OK, OK! 10. If I find 10 righteous people I will forgive the whole town. The exchange is very amusing.

Now how this story ends is a whole different sermon, although since the air isn’t working in here this morning I am probably missing a great opportunity to preach about some hellfire and brimstone, but that’s not really what this passage is about, so I’ll skip it. Forget about Sodom and Gomorrah for a minute. Stop fantasizing about what you think those folks were doing and pay attention to this relationship that we see between Abraham and God right here. 

Abraham knows that he has no business questioning God this way. As he says, he is but dust and ashes. What business does he have trying to negotiate with God? Why should God even be talking to him or listening to him? Why should God care what Abraham thinks at all? God doesn’t have to justify himself to Abraham. He is God. End of argument. You could say that Abraham is almost being impertinent or disrespectful, except that he’s not. Not really. Abraham understands his position in relationship to God. He is dust and ashes and he is speaking to the Judge of all the earth. Abraham knows that he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on, so he is very respectful each time he approaches God, almost to the point of being obsequious or annoying, but he is still bold enough to do it. He is still bold enough to speak to God. Abraham knows that he has no business talking to God, but he talks to God anyways. He is humble and then he is bold. He is bold, and then he is humble. Balancing boldness and confidence with humility and reverential fear, that is a tough call. That is what makes Abraham so remarkable. He isn’t just some jerk who tells God what to do; but neither is he so self-effacing that he refuses to believe that God can be spoken to by mere humans. Abraham is both: he is bold and he is humble. And that is remarkable because it is always so tempting to just be one or the other. 

We all know people of faith. We all know Christians who are better at being one or the other. There are people out there just brimming with confidence and boldness. 1000% sure that they know what God’s will is for their life, and for yours, and not afraid to tell you about it. They are not a bit afraid to talk to God, but you have to wonder sometimes if they ever stop talking long enough to listen to what God has to say. We know those Christians, but on the other hand there are Christians who are so meek and mild that they don’t really appreciate how much God loves them, don’t believe that God can use them, or they may be so afraid of giving offense that they just cannot stand up for anything. We know those Christians too. As people of faith we need to balance boldness with humility. We may not ever get it to be a perfect balance all the time, but the people who veer off too far one way or the other are gonna miss God speaking to them and their going to miss God’s will. People that are too bold are going to confuse their voice for God’s voice and their will for God’s will. People that are too humble are going to think that God doesn’t speak to them at all or doesn’t have a will for their lives, or that God won’t act here and now. 

This is a perennial problem that we need to be aware of. Paul was aware of it. Jesus was aware of it. Paul warned the Colossians about being “puffed up without a cause by a human way of thinking.” He knew that some people get caught up in their own philosophy and traditions and ways of thinking that they end up leading others astray, often in the name of God and Christ. He warned them about being too bold. But Paul also wanted the Colossians to know exactly who they were in Christ, how they had been forgiven and saved at a great price, and just what grace they had received when God saved them. They couldn’t be too bold, but they shouldn’t be too humble either. 

And our Lord, when he taught the central prayer of our faith, he taught us to come before God boldly, addressing God as Father, asking for our daily needs and asking for forgiveness, confident that God can and will supply both to us in unlimited measure, but at the same time we are reminded in that prayer that it is God that is truly holy, it is God’s kingdom that needs to come, God’s will that needs to be done. The forgiveness we have been promised, we must be willing to share with others. And although we may be bold and confident, we too may be tested and tried and we live in constant need of God’s grace and protection. It takes boldness and humility. It took boldness for Jesus to say to the crippled man “your sins are forgiven”; it took humility for him to help him to stand and walk. It takes boldness to hold the bread and say “this is my body,” it takes humility to get down and wash your disciples’ feet. Jesus had boldness and humility. It takes boldness to ask God for what you need, especially when it requires great persistence; it takes humility to trust that God IS giving you good things when what you get is NOT exactly what you asked for. 

The life of faith takes boldness and humility. It takes boldness to follow Jesus; it takes humility to know that you aren’t the first person to do so. It takes boldness to speak to God; it takes humility to listen to him. It takes boldness to stand up for what is right in the world; it takes humility to know that even in trying to do what is right, you might do the wrong thing or come to the wrong conclusion or make a bad decision. It takes boldness to read the scriptures as the word of God; it takes humility to know that your interpretation of what is written may not be the only one or the correct one. It takes boldness to share this faith with others; it takes humility to learn how to share it in ways where people feel more loved than judged. It takes boldness to talk about God’s anger at sin and unrighteousness; it takes humility to know that it is only by God’s forgiving grace that any of us are saved. 

Boldness and humility. Knowing that you are unworthy to talk to God, but talking to him anyways. Knowing that you are dust and ashes, but dust and ashes that God has already raised from the grave. Knowing that you are a sinner, who makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and at the same time knowing that you have a place in God’s kingdom and a share in Christ’s righteousness. Knowing that you can ask for forgiveness and knowing that you need it. Knowing that God speaks and also knowing that God listens. Boldness and humility. It cannot be either or. As Christians we need both.

Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things…

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Sermon for July 3rd, 2022

Readings:

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Throughout the bible there are many places where God is depicted as a parent and we his children. It is an image that occurs over and over again. Obviously, “father” is how the Lord Jesus refers to God many times, especially in the central prayer of our faith, the Our Father, but Jesus wasn’t unique in this. The image of God as a father or a mother is woven into our scriptures, especially in the prophets and in the psalms. In our passage from Isaiah this morning, God says: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Of course, I have read these passages many times before, but when you have spent the past several weeks literally comforting your child, feeding him, changing him, and looking into his eyes and knowing that he depends upon you for everything, and also knowing that you would do just about anything to protect him, well that just gives that image of God an extra depth of meaning. It stands out to me a little more right now for obvious reasons.

Now I should say here, I don’t like it when preachers talk about their kids all the time. In the first place, it’s just not good preaching. There is a fine line you walk as a preacher between using personal stories and experiences to illuminate the gospel, and using them just as an excuse to talk about yourself and your family. Preachers cross that line all the time, and cute kid stories are a trap. In the second place it is bad practice because it is unfair to the kids themselves. You, the preacher, signed up to be in the public eye. Your kid did not. Not everyone wants to be a sermon example. And not everyone wants to be on display.

I say all this because I want you to know that I don’t intend to speak about our son Robbie very often from this pulpit. Nor do I intend to yammer on incessantly about what it’s like to be a father. You can have a wonderful, meaningful, purposeful, grace-filled life without being a parent, as I did until just about 4 weeks ago. So as I said, I’m not going to talk about being a dad or my kid very often from up here. 

But, this IS my first time back in the pulpit since Robbie was born, so I am going to indulge myself just a little today. 

What I have learned over the last few weeks is that it isn’t just responsibility you feel looking into eyes that desperately need you, and it isn’t just a sentimental love. There is also a powerful, almost inexpressible, joy. Pure joy. Now I’m not naïf, I know that infants become toddlers, and teenagers, and adults, and that along with the love and joy comes heartache and frustration and maybe even disappointment. I know that it isn’t just sunshine and lollipops and rainbows everywhere. But, you know, it isn’t that way for God either, is it? If we pay close attention to the stories in scripture, then we will know very well that God’s relationship with his children is NOT an uncomplicated one. God’s children are not well behaved. Heartache, and frustration and disappointment are all a part of our relationship with God too, aren’t they? According to our faith they are. But you know our faith also tells us that for some reason God keeps loving us, and caring for us the way that a mother or a father cares for a child. God still finds joy in us, even when we cry and scream and struggle and make a mess of ourselves. That is the power of that image of God as a parent. That is what it can teach us about God’s love. Kids are a lot of work, but parents still seem to find joy in them and care for them. Human beings are a major headache, but for some reason God keeps loving us and finding joy in us and caring for us. It is true that there are plenty of bad parents in the world that don’t care for their kids the way they should, and even the best parents in this world are still broken sinners who make mistakes, but when a parent-child relationship is at its best, it has something to teach us about God’s love and God’s persistence in caring for us in everyday simple ways. Understanding that God loves us like a parent means understanding that God’s love isn’t just shown to us in big showy miracles that happen once in a while; God’s love is shown most powerfully in little everyday things that just happen over and over and over again.

As a new parent, it would be easy for me to get overwhelmed thinking about the future, and everything this kid is going to need and all the times he is going to try my patience. Yes, I have moments where I think and dream about what he might become and the things he might do, but I don’t have a whole lotta time right now to think much further than the next bottle or the next diaper change. Now, do I have an overall vision for how I want to raise my child? Yes, but there is also an immediacy to his needs right now that forces me to actually get up and do something, seemingly every few minutes. No vision or philosophy ever changed a dirty diaper. And parents, I am sure you know this well or can at least remember, it is mind-numbingly exhausting. It is some of the hardest work I have ever done. I know that there are plenty of parents out there that have done this right by themselves and I can’t imagine how. There are two of us taking care of this kid, we have had the blessing of time off, we have just about every convenience and gadget that has been gifted to us to make life easier, and thanks be to God and all of you for those blessings, but even still with all of that, it is incredibly hard work. There have been a few mornings at 3am, and a few times when he wet through a sheet that I JUST changed, where I have said “you know kid, it is a good thing you are so darned cute!” It is such hard work, but somehow you keep finding the strength and the energy to just keep doing the things that need doing. And they usually aren’t big things, they are little things that just need doing over and over and over: feeding, changing, burping, laundry; trying never to forget to take the trash down to the curb lest your garage start to smell like a superfund site. Little things that just need doing over and over again. No one thing that is super hard to do, just a constant repetition of little things that become the hardest, and most joy-filled work that you have ever done. That is what makes the parent-child relationship strong. It isn’t one moment. It is a million tiny moments. Choosing to love; choosing to put someone else first; choosing to do what needs doing, over and over and over again. It is hard work, but it is also filled with joy.

It’s the joy that makes all that hard work possible really. It’s the joy that gives you the strength to do the little things that need doing. It is an immediate joy that is about a miracle that is happening right here, right now and not just about some future dream or vision. It is a joy that is hard to explain, but you can feel it. And reading the scriptures I am reminded that it isn’t just a joy that I feel for my child; it is a joy that God feels for me, and it is a joy that God feels for you too.

Most of you know that our son’s name is Robert David. Robert for king Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and David for both King David the psalmist and Saint David of Wales. Now you may not know much about Saint David, Saint David of Wales was a Welsh bishop and missionary in the 6th century and he is responsible for some of the early evangelization of Wales, kind of how Saint Patrick is credited with evangelizing Ireland. In Saint David’s last sermon which he gave right before he died, David said “Lords, brothers and sisters, be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.” Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things. Joy, faith, and little things, that is what David saw as essential to the Christian life. Not huge miracles and big programs and grand schemes. Joy, faith, and little things. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning, he says: “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” 

Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. In other words, we need to keep doing what needs doing. Doing what is right is often doing little things. Keep working for the good of all, but especially for the person that is right in front of you. Especially for the family of faith, but not just for them. To be a Christian, it isn’t just about making a one-time big commitment of faith and receiving a one-time major reward. Now I believe in making a commitment of faith, and I believe that there is a heavenly reward, but those are big things, and so much of the Christian life is really about little things. Little decisions that you make over and over again. Stopping right now to say this prayer. Not worrying about a philosophy of prayer or cultivating a style of prayer, but deciding to pray right now in this moment. Not worrying about implementing a major feeding program but deciding to feed this person who is right in front of you. Not talking about love endlessly as an idea, but deciding to love and show love to the people that God has already put in your life. Our relationship with God, like the relationship of a parent to a child, is not built so much on the big things that are done once; it is built on the little things that are done a million times. And you know, you don’t have to be an actual parent to understand this. People have been calling me father for 18 years before I actually was one. Not everyone is called to actually give birth or even raise children, but that is still a model for how we care for one another, because it is a model for how God cares for us. The church is a family. It is the family of faith, and the beating heart of family life are little acts of love and care that are done over and over again. 

Paul was right to warn the church about growing weary in all of this. It would be so easy to grow weary if we stop looking for and stop finding joy in it. Even though it is small things that need doing, it is still hard work. It is joy that will give us the strength to do it. There is nothing worse than a miserable Christian. We need joy as Christians to do the work that God has given us to do. We need to look for and find joy in the simple everyday signs of God’s love for us, God’s joy over us, as his children, and we need to share that joy with God’s other children. The Christian life is work, yes, but it should be joyful work. And it can be joyful work if we stop worrying so much about all the big things and just pay attention to the small things. There’s that old saying “mind your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves.” Well pay attention to the small things in life, do them, take care of them, and let God worry about the big things. 

I don’t think this is just good advice for the life of faith. I think it is important for life in general.

You know, whenever I look at the news I am confronted with huge problems that I personally can do very little about. It is overwhelming, it steals your joy, and it leaves you feeling powerless and hopeless. Politics, gun violence, war, disease, the environment, not to mention all of the nonsense that people share on the internet. It is enough to drive you crazy and it is driving people crazy. Because people are only looking at the big things, big headlines, and they aren’t paying attention to the small things. Most of the time we don’t have control over big things, but we do have control over small things. Don’t underestimate the power of those small things. Don’t grow weary in doing them. Because from the very beginning, life really is about little things that happen over and over again. Look for joy there. Look for joy and meaning and grace and God’s love in little things. Let God worry about the big things. Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things. Something I have learned from both Saint David, and from Robert David.

One with God

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Sermon for May 29th, 2022

Readings:

I want you to think back to Christmas for a minute. Think back to the gospel reading at Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the gospel reading you always hear on Christmas Eve, the one where “…it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” That’s the gospel that Linus recites holding up his blanket in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, that is from Luke’s gospel, and although Luke is my favorite gospel, that’s not what we are talking about today. Today, I want to talk about how John tells the story of Jesus’s beginning, and that is in the gospel we hear on Christmas Day, and on the Sunday after Christmas, and in this parish at least, we hear it at the end of mass on Christmas Eve as the Last Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John’s gospel wants to make something clear right out of the gate: this man Jesus that we are going to be talking about, is ONE with God. This is not just a prophet, or a good teacher, or a really nice guy. No. In John’s gospel to have an encounter with Jesus is to have an encounter with God, that is setup right from the beginning with the prologue: “the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him.”

Throughout this gospel we get little reminders of just who exactly we are dealing with when we are dealing with Jesus. This is God. And then we get to the gospel passage that you just heard, when Jesus himself makes it very clear. Let me set the scene for you: It is Maundy Thursday. Jesus has just finished his Last Supper. He has washed his disciples’ feet; he knows that he has been betrayed and that his hour has come. In the morning he will be tried and put to death. Now Jesus is divine, but you wouldn’t have to be God in this moment to see the handwriting on the wall: the end is near. Jesus only has a few friends left in this world, and they have already proven that they aren’t good for much.  Jesus knows what’s coming, but before he walks off to the Garden of Gethsemane, he offers a prayer. 

He begins right before this passage by saying: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Jesus was one with God before the world ever existed, just like the prologue says “the Word was with God and the Word was God,” and that is the glory that he is returning to: the glory of being one with God in God’s presence. But this prayer of Jesus’s isn’t going to be just about the love and unity that exists between him and God; No! Watch what Jesus does in our gospel passage today: 

Jesus prayed for his disciples. 

Which disciples? Who is Jesus praying for?

That useless bunch of friends of his who can’t ever seem to figure anything out? 

Well, yes, but not just them. Jesus prays for everyone who will ever believe in him through their witness. All of his future disciples too. They are on Jesus’s mind as he is about to go to the cross.

Jesus was just looking back to being in God’s glory at the beginning of creation, and now Jesus is looking forward to being in God’s glory again, only in that future glory that Jesus sees, he’s not alone. Jesus doesn’t want to be alone when he returns to God’s glory, he wants to bring folks with him. He wants his disciples to be there, and he wants everyone they preach to to be there, and everyone they preach to, and on and on. That means that Jesus is praying for people like Paul, who probably never heard Jesus preach in person, and for people that would come to believe in him through Paul, like that Roman Jailer in our passage from Acts. You know, let’s think about that jailer for a second. It is astounding to me, and it should be astounding to you to that Paul cared at all about that Roman. He was his jailer and his oppressor. Most of us would probably have just run off not cared at all about what happened to that Roman. But not Paul. This man’s life still matters to Paul. What is this Stockholm syndrome? No. It’s Christianity. This is what Christianity looks like: recognizing that Jesus died for your enemies too. Sharing his love with them. Forgiving folks, Inviting them into the Kingdom. That’s what Paul did, he recognized that this man who was his oppressor had a place in the kingdom too. And that Roman Jailer, he brought his family with him, so I guess Jesus was praying for them too.  Who else was Jesus praying for? Was he praying for you and me? Was he praying for people whose lives may be transformed by our witness to Jesus? 

As I said, Jesus was one with God at the beginning of this gospel, and Jesus is going to be one with God at the end of it. Jesus was in God’s glory at the beginning of this gospel and Jesus is going to be in God’s glory at the end of it. But the difference between the beginning and the end, is that in the end, Jesus is bringing a whole lotta folks into God’s glory with him. This oneness that exists between God and Jesus, Jesus wants others to be a part of that; we are invited to be a part of that. 

 “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”

“The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

“You loved me before the foundation of the world.” That relationship that God and Jesus had in the beginning, when the “Word was with God and the Word was God,” we are invited to be a part of that relationship. We are invited to share in that glory. But we aren’t coming into that glory alone. We aren’t just sharing it with God and Jesus. We are invited to be one with them, but that means being one with everyone else that is being drawn into this relationship. Hold up! You mean, it’s not just me and Jesus? Nope. There is a great Tom T Hall country song called “Me and Jesus.” I’ve mentioned it before, and I actually like the song a lot; it’s catchy, and I think it is important for folks to have a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But I also think that it is important for us to remind ourselves that it’s not JUST me and Jesus. Jesus is praying for more than just you in this prayer he is praying today. He’s praying for more than everyone in this room or in this church. There are other people that he wants to be united with. He might even be praying for people you don’t like. We love to split ourselves up into little parties and denominations and factions and cliques, but that is our own sinfulness at work. We aren’t seeing ourselves the way Jesus sees us when we do that. We often have a hard time looking at another human being and seeing them as a part of Christ’s life or a potential part of Christ’s life, but that’s really what they are. Maybe someone isn’t a part of Christ’s body now, maybe they aren’t a Christian or don’t believe in God, but they could. Jesus is still praying for them and loves them; was willing to die for them. We see people as right-minded or ignorant, Catholic or Protestant, Liberal or Conservative, Rich or Poor, Black or White. When we look at other people, we don’t always see someone who is called to share in God’s glory, but that is what Jesus sees. That is the challenge of this gospel passage: learning to see others as people that Jesus is praying for; learning to see people the way Jesus sees people. 

John’s gospel makes it very clear that you can’t split up God and Jesus, but he also makes it clear that you can’t split up Jesus and his followers. We may have remembered Jesus ascending into heaven on Thursday night, the Feast of the Ascension, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus is now absent from us. No. It means that we are now present with him in the Glory of God the Father. You can’t split up Jesus and God, and you can’t split up Jesus and his followers. If Jesus is present with God, then so are we. We are a part of that relationship now. All of us who are believers in Christ. All of us.

John began his gospel with this majestic description of Jesus’s relationship with the Father, but he also added there that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In Jesus’s final prayer, he makes it clear that this glory that God has given him, is not something he covets, it’s something he shares. This relationship that Jesus has with the Father, this oneness, is a relationship that we are invited to be a part of too. We are invited to share in it, AND we are invited to share it. Jesus isn’t going back to God empty-handed; he’s bringing folks with him. Well, who are you bringing with you? Who are you inviting into this relationship? I don’t just want to make it into God’s kingdom by the skin of my teeth and alone; I want to bring folks with me. There is a hurting world out there that needs to hear Jesus’s invitation to be a part of God’s glory. Are we showing them what that grace and joy looks like? On Thursday night I talked about Ascension Joy and how important it is to share that with a world that seems to be overcome by death and evil. Now as I said, it’s not up to us to save the world, Jesus did that on the cross, but what we can do, what we must do, is share with others the love that God has shared with us. In your words and in your actions, how are you showing other people God’s glory? Are you showing them grace? What about those people you don’t agree with and don’t like? Jesus is praying for them too you know.

A strange sort of joy

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Sermon for Ascension Thursday, May 26th, 2022

Readings:

You know, I find it so odd, that after Jesus ascends into heaven his disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy. Joy. They just spend hours in the temple in joy, blessing God. 

It’s odd to me that they are so filled with joy, because Jesus just left them…again. Now, the last time Jesus left them he was dead. A little more than forty days before he disappeared into the cloud he had been crucified and buried. He had been brutally murdered. And when he rose from the dead and returned to them, well it just turned their entire world upside down. Their loved one, their friend, their teacher, their master, he had died and come back to life, so of course the disciples were joyful on Easter Sunday, when Jesus came back to them. That joy makes sense to me. That is a joy that I think most of us long to experience ourselves. We long to see loved ones again. That is Easter joy and Easter joy makes sense to me. Easter joy is about seeing and touching, someone or something that you thought was lost. Easter joy is about hope fulfilled.

But in our gospel passage today, Luke isn’t talking about that kind of joy. He isn’t talking about Easter joy. Luke is talking about Ascension joy. Ascension joy is very different. It’s a little harder to understand. It’s still joy, but it is a joy that walks hand in hand with a huge measure of faith. It is a joy that forces us to look beyond this world. It is a joy that requires patience. It is a joy that requires humility. 

Once Jesus disappeared from their sight, the disciples couldn’t touch him anymore, they couldn’t see his body. They knew that he had been resurrected, they had witnessed it, but now the physical evidence, his body, wasn’t standing in front of them anymore. But still they have joy. They have joy that Jesus has gone to the Father. The world that Jesus leaves behind is still broken. There is still brutality and murder and sin and darkness. There is still pain and suffering, but they have joy. They have joy that there is a presence at the right hand of God that knows all about that pain and suffering. They have joy that they have an advocate in God’s kingdom. They have joy that Jesus has entered into the heavenly realm. They don’t necessarily understand what that realm is any more than we do. They see Jesus disappear, but they know that he isn’t just floating around on a cloud somewhere; he is in God’s realm, God’s kingdom that exists outside our understanding of time and place. But the disciples don’t walk away feeling abandoned. As hard as it was, I am sure, for them to see Jesus disappear, they still recognize that it is a good thing. It is still good news. It is still reason for joy, even though it now has to be joy coupled with faith. 

The disciples rush to the temple to bless God when Jesus ascends into heaven, because that event confirms for them something that Jesus had told them on many occasions: that his life and ministry was about more than this world. It didn’t begin here. It doesn’t end here. Jesus is still alive. Jesus is still hard at work, but his work isn’t just about fixing this broken old world of ours; it is about making us a part of something new. It is about more than this world. There is joy in knowing that this broken, horrible world is not the end of God’s plan and our final destiny, but there is also joy in knowing that even in this horrible, broken world God has mighty power. God is at work. And God can change people, and transform lives. Ascension joy, is about living in the knowledge and faith that there is a link between the world we are living in and God’s eternal kingdom. There is a link between heaven and earth and that link is Jesus Christ. The Ascension isn’t about being abandoned or left to our own devices to figure out how to fix the world that Christ left behind, oh no. It is about being eternally linked to God through the grace that comes from the risen and ascended Jesus. It is about knowing that Jesus is at work in us AND Jesus is at work for us. It isn’t one or the other, it is both, and that is reason for joy. Ascension joy.

You know, I think what a lot of Christians really want is for God to either teach us to fix this world or to snatch us out of it. So some folks want Jesus to just be a good teacher who tells us to be nice to one another and share and do nice things, and heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race…that’s what some people think this is all about. An eternity of social work. The salvation of the world waiting on us. These people are exhausting for the record. I’m too tired to save the world most days. But then other folks really want to lean into Jesus as a saviour who wants us to give him lip service but not much else. Sign on the dotted line, call me Lord and saviour, and when the going gets ugly I will helicopter in and snatch you out of this ugly world, no personal transformation required. No change of heart. Nothing you do really matters. These people are exhausting too, but in a different way. I mean, what’s the point of having faith if you are the same miserable person you were before? I know plenty of Christians who are on one side or another of this divide, and they all have a few scriptures to back up their position, but in order to be on one side or another you have to leave plenty of scriptures out. But we have to look at the whole Jesus. 

Because Jesus does heal folks in this world, and he does instruct us to care for others, and to share and to love, and to be compassionate, and yes, I’m going to say it, to sin no more. The Jesus who teaches us to do nice things to others, also teaches us, first and foremost, to address our own sinfulness. Not just the sins of society, or the sins of history, or the sins of the system, or “the man” but our own personal sinfulness that is our own fault and no one else’s. Jesus does teach us and his teachings aren’t always simple and easy. But Jesus does more than teach us. What is happening on the cross isn’t just God teaching us a lesson. The resurrection isn’t something that we can achieve on our own through good works and right opinions. And the Ascension should remind us that there are things that Jesus does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus goes someplace that we cannot go on our own. There is no stairway to heaven that we can just climb up by being better people. We need Jesus. We need a saviour. We have a saviour. But it just so happens that the saviour we have is a saviour who also teaches us. Jesus is both of these things, there’s no getting around it.

It strikes me that Ascension joy, the joy that the disciples experienced on this day, comes from the realization that while I am standing here on this earth, trying to do what my Jesus has commanded me to do, that even now (right now) a part of me stands before the heavenly throne. Jesus is my teacher, yes, but he is also my Lord and saviour. He is my advocate. He pleads for me. My pains are his pains, and his joy is my joy. There is work for us to do in this world, but this world is not the end of the story. Thank God this world is not the end of the story. Thank God there is a link between this world and the world to come. Like the disciples on Ascension Day, it is right that we should come to the temple and bless God for that living connection between these two worlds, it is right that it should bring us joy, because if the Jesus who died on the cross in this world wasn’t seated on the throne I would despair. I would despair. 

Maybe it seems odd to spend so much time talking about joy at a time like this. How dare we talk about joy when we have had yet another mass shooting of children? And cue the stock responses from everybody (and they are stock responses now because at this point they have been used so many times). The liberals say this, the conservatives say that. And nothing really happens. Joy? How can we talk about joy, when one half of the country hates the other half of the country? How can we talk about joy when human lives, which scripture tells us means so much to God, means so little to us? Oh yeah and there’s also all that other stuff: inflation and covid and war. How dare we talk about joy? How dare we not!

I promise you, people in the world are well acquainted with suffering and sorrow. We need to talk to them about joy. People need to hear about Easter joy, the joy of knowing that death doesn’t have the final word; that we have hope of reunion with those we love, but they also need to hear about Ascension joy. People need to know that right here, right now there is a power in heaven that knows their name. Knows their sorrows; knows their pain; knows their struggles. I promise you, people already know about death, and darkness and evil. But do they know about grace? Do they know that the Jesus who taught us about living in this world, do they know that that same Jesus lives to intercede for us even now? There is joy in that knowledge. People know about the power of death, but do they know about the power of God? How can we not talk about God’s power at a time like this? 

So many people right now have no hope for heaven and no fear of hell, just a lot of pain and no place to put it. People are angry at everything and at nothing. Let’s find someone to blame. Let’s project our anger onto everything and to hell with anyone that wants to find joy, and goodness, and happiness and innocence in the world. 

If I thought that it was up to the politicians to fix this, I would despair. Man, I would despair if I thought the solution was waiting on us. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have sensible laws in this country, but in order to get sensible laws, you have to have sensible politicians. In order to have sensible politicians you have to have sensible voters and in order to have sensible voters you have to raise up people whose primary motivation in everything they do isn’t anger. You need people who still believe in the power of joy and goodness even in the midst of pain and suffering. That power is a grace that comes from God, it isn’t something that comes from us.

That is the power of Ascension joy. It is joy that is in this world, but not of this world. It is a joy that gives us the courage to try and follow Jesus even when we know that it is only by his grace that we will be saved. It is an odd, peculiar joy that can only come from knowing that the Jesus who sits on the throne in the next world is the same Jesus who hung on the cross in this one. It is a strange sort of joy, but it is a joy that the world very much needs right now.