Wolves and Hired Hands

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Sermon for April 22nd, 2018

Readings:

 

 

Wolves and Hired hands. If I wanted to, I could stand up here all day and talk about the wolves and the hired hands in the church and in our world, but what would be the point really? I am willing to bet that everyone in here could tell a story about a Foxy Loxy in your life. You all remember Foxy Loxy, who shows up at the end of the old folk tale to shepherd Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey right to his dinner table. The world has always been filled with characters like that, that are ready to use you and exploit you for their own gain: from politicians to the TV ad man to sadly even the preacher in the pulpit sometimes. The world is filled with examples of bad shepherds and every one of us has experienced a wolf or a hired hand at some point or another. In fact, it would be really easy to think that that is all there is; that there is no one and nothing that can be trusted; that everyone is simply looking out for number 1. It would be easy to think that, if all I did was watch the news or look at Facebook; it would be easy to become depressed, despondent and cynical if all I ever talked about or thought about were the bad shepherds and forgot that there is a Good Shepherd.

 

Everyone knows a bad shepherd, but not everyone knows the Good Shepherd. We are blessed because we are gathered here on Good Shepherd Sunday (as we are every Sunday) to remember and celebrate the man who said that he was the Good Shepherd. We are blessed because we are led by a man who, unlike wolves and hired hands, was willing to set aside his own self-interests, even to the point of death, so that he could save his sheep and lead them to green pastures and still waters. We are blessed because, although we know we know plenty of bad shepherds, we also know the good shepherd, and we know him to be our God, not everyone can say that.

 

I think it is easy to take for granted the comfort and peace that comes from being able to put your trust in something or someone greater than yourself. We live in a world where we are taught from an early age not to trust anything or anyone. As we get older, the more wolves, hired hands and bad shepherds we encounter, the less likely we are to trust; so we are left thinking that life is something we have to figure out on our own. it can all seem so hopeless, until at some point you experience or realize that there is a power in this world that can be trusted.

 

It comes in different ways to each of us. Some of us have an epiphany, or a moment of revelation, when for the first time we can identify a powerful unseen force working in our lives. Some of us witness great miracles. Some witness profound sacrificial love coming from another and wonder: “where could this type of love come from?” “What spirit or power could motivate a person to sacrifice their own needs, maybe even their own lives, for the love of another?” No matter how we experience it, the realization that there is a Good Shepherd and that he cares about you can change the way you look at the world.

 

I think that may be why the 23rd Psalm is such a beloved piece of scripture: it is an ancient revelation about the nature of God that touches us personally and gives us hope in a world that can sometimes feel very hopeless. I challenge anyone to find a more beautiful expression of faith and hope than you find in those few, simple lines of scripture. It is interesting to note, that if you look in the burial office of our prayer book, there is only one psalm that is printed in both the modern and the King James translation: Psalm 23. Even if you didn’t know any other scripture you probably knew that one. It is a word of comfort when we may feel lost or in danger. It is a reminder that the God we worship is not some distant, foreign being, but has a real personality: the personality of a loving shepherd. In a world full of dark valleys and enemies, we are being directed and guided by a force of kindness and mercy. Don’t take that comfort for granted. There are plenty of people in this world that don’t have it.

 

When Peter was questioned about how he had healed a man, through what power, he didn’t mince words: it was through the power of Jesus Christ. He didn’t try to take credit for it himself; he didn’t try to persuade the crowd that he had the power in his hands, or that he was the one who was trustworthy or faultless. No, he pointed them to Jesus. Jesus was the one and the only Good Shepherd. Jesus didn’t say that he was A good shepherd; he said that he was THE good shepherd. He didn’t say that he was A way…he said that he was THE way. Peter knew that he wasn’t the Good shepherd, he was probably so aware of his own shortcomings that he didn’t even think of himself as a shepherd at all, but as a leader of the church maybe he could hope to be a good sheepdog: always listening for the master’s commands, working joyfully to protect and guide the flock; that is how Peter saw himself, not as a shepherd in his own right, but as a devoted worker and follower of the one who is. Good priests and pastors know that they are not the shepherd, but hopefully they seek to obey him with a dog-like devotion. But all of us who are blessed to know the Good Shepherd have a ministry to a world filled with hired hands and wolves. We are called to show through our words and through our lives that there is a power in this world that is greater than us and worthy of our trust. There is a power that doesn’t see us as a number, or a commodity or something to be exploited, but as a beloved creature worthy saving, worth dying for. We are called to remind a broken, cynical world that there is reason for hope and there is reason for joy. Despite what our fairy tales may tell us, Foxy Loxy doesn’t win in the end; in a world filled with bad shepherds, there is one good one and we know his name is Jesus.

 

 

Sometimes a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish…

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Sermon for April 15th, 2018

Readings:

It’s November 1948, a U.S. diplomat and his wife land in Le Havre, France on their way to begin a new assignment in Paris. After collecting their luggage and heading down the road, on their way, they stopped for lunch in the city of Rouen. The lunch was a simple meal really; oysters, fish, salad, cheese and coffee. It may not have sounded very exciting, but this was France, and in France, the man explained to his wife, good cooking is part national sport and part high art.

 

The fish was sole meunière, a very simple dish really: just a fresh fish sautéed in butter with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of parsley. Not overly exotic; but with one bite, the woman realized that her life would forever be changed. She called it an epiphany and a revelation. She had eaten fish plenty of times, but this was the first time that she really experienced fish. One little bite of buttery fish and this woman realized how powerful and important food can be, not just as a fuel for our bodies, but as a thing of beauty and joy that gives life to our souls; she realized that sometimes a piece of fish isn’t just a piece of fish, but the symbol and the taste of something far greater. She would spend the rest of her life trying to help others understand that same thing.

 

The diplomat’s name was Paul Child, but no doubt you are more familiar with his wife: Julia Child. That little lunch in Rouen would be a moment that would change her life forever. It was a revelation, an epiphany, and now she had a mission to share with the rest of the world that sometimes a piece of fish, wasn’t just a piece of fish, but rather a taste of heaven. When Julia Child was writing her memoirs late in life, she ended by again urging her readers to put time and care into their food, because (and this is how she concludes her life’s story):

 

“A careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience. Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany. In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.”

 

The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…or at least they can be. That was Julia’s revelation. The joy of that piece of fish remained with her long after she had cleared her plate. It was a joy she held on to her entire life, all the way to the end…and maybe even beyond that.

 

I don’t know who is exactly listed among the saints in glory. The church has always held up some individuals as being exemplars of the faith, worthy of respect and admiration; there are people that we have good reason to believe stand before the throne of God, but the precise list of names, well that is known to God alone. I’m not here to say that Julia Child was a saint; I don’t really know anything about her faith or her relationship with God (although, I must admit, a few years ago I found a tall votive candle with her picture on it in a kitchen store in Manhattan that says “Saint Julia, pray for us” I keep it in my kitchen next to my collection of cookbooks). What she believed about Jesus I can’t say, but knowingly or unknowingly, I do think that her life’s work was in some sense a ministry of his.

 

When Jesus was being tempted in the desert, he very famously quoted the book of Deuteronomy saying: “Man does not live by bread alone.” True enough. Jesus would never advocate putting one earthly pleasure or joy in the place of God, the source of all joy. We still get into trouble if we allow a fleshly urge or impulse to reign supreme. But Jesus cared a lot about food. I think he loved food and took great joy in it, and I think he also understood how powerful it is for people to sit down and enjoy good food together. I think he understood that food isn’t just something that provides fuel for our mortal bodies; it is a foretaste of the kingdom; it is an experience of joy and connection. Food doesn’t just connect us to the chef in the kitchen or the person sitting across the table. It connects us to people long dead.

 

The author Marcel Proust in his novel Remembrance of Things Past, famously took a bite out of a little Madeleine tea cake and was transported back to his childhood. In the Disney movie Ratatoullie, Chef Remy the rat, wins over critic Anton Ego by serving him ratatoullie that reminds him of his mother. I know that anytime I sit down with a baked potato or a serving of corn casserole, the taste brings back to me the joy of sitting and eating with my grandmother. Food is not God, but make no mistake, God uses it. God uses it to give us joy and to bind us together.

 

Think about Jesus’s life for a minute. His first miracle was at a wedding feast, turning water into wine. Although he was the son of a carpenter, his first followers were all fishermen, men that worked at gathering food. When 5,000 people gathered to hear him preach, he told his disciples to give them something to eat, and then famously multiplied then loaves of bread and the fishes. His parables and stories were full of references to food and feasts, and of course he often told them when he was sitting at the dinner table. His great prayer, the Our Father, includes of course a petition for daily bread. He even cursed a fig tree that didn’t have any fruit on it when he was hungry. This is a man who loves food and understands its power. No doubt that is why he would choose a meal, food, to be the means by which he would convey his life to his followers down through the ages. Communion with God, for Christians, happens primarily through a meal; communion; bread and wine that is really so much more than bread and wine. Food matters a lot to Jesus; it is the primary means by which he unites his followers with each other…and it is how he unites them with God. Food is so much more than just a cure for hunger.

 

So remembering how important food was to Jesus as he lived and taught during his earthly life, I find the stories of his resurrection appearances fascinating. In this morning’s gospel, a couple disciples had just run back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, a village a few miles away. They had been telling the story of Jesus’s resurrection to a stranger on the road. They invited the stranger to dine with them, and as he broke the bread at the table they suddenly realized that it was Jesus, there dining with them. Then he disappeared. As they are telling this story to the other disciples, Jesus appears again. Assuring them that he is not a vision or a ghost, but flesh and blood. They can touch him if they want. And then what does the resurrected Lord ask them? What do you have to eat?!

 

What do you have to eat? We are talking about a man that was crucified and died and buried, come back to life, defeated death and that is what he says to his disciples! What’s for supper? So they bring him a piece of fish, which obviously Jesus must be very fond of, and he eats it. Was he just trying to prove a point? Was he actually hungry? Or is there more going on here? Might this be a case where a piece of fish is more than just a piece of fish, but a symbol of pleasure, life and joy that doesn’t get left behind after the resurrection? Joy that isn’t left in the tomb but is a part of the resurrected life? Could it be that Jesus is trying to show us that the next world will not be some cold, spiritual sterile place, filled only with thoughts and ideas, but rather a lively world of redeemed creation with sights, sounds and even tastes that are all familiar to us from this world, but now fully reflect the true and infinite joy that comes from God?

This wouldn’t be the only time that the resurrected Jesus would be seen eating. In the Gospel of John, after the resurrection Jesus actually cooks for his disciples (again fish) and then leaves Peter with the parting words: “Do you love me…then feed me sheep.” Is Jesus only concerned with filling the holes in people’s stomachs or is food about more than that? Maybe Jesus and Julia understand that food, when treated with respect and care, can be a thing of infinite joy and beauty; a powerful agent that draws and binds people together, across continents and across time, and gives them a glimpse, a foretaste, of what heaven is all about. Maybe a piece of fish, is not just a piece of fish.

 

What the women know…

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

Jesus is dead. That is what the three women headed to the tomb knew when they woke up this morning. Jesus their friend, Jesus their teacher, Jesus their Lord. He is dead. They may not be sure of many things, but that they are sure of. They don’t know what is going to happen to his followers now, most of them had already scattered or were in hiding. They don’t know what is going to happen to themselves: they had followed Jesus here from Galilee and had tried to support him in his ministry. Now what? Jesus is dead. They don’t even know how they are going to move the stone so they can anoint his body properly, but they know where is body is and they know it is dead. They were there when it happened. They witnessed it.

 

Those women didn’t miss Good Friday. When all of the other disciples had run away, afraid to see the man they loved die, afraid, perhaps of their own deaths, these women remained faithful. They were there until the very end.

 

We are blessed here this morning because we woke up this morning knowing something that these women didn’t know when they woke up. You and I know something that these women don’t know yet. We know how this story ends. We already know that when they get to that tomb it is going to be empty. The stone is going to be rolled away and the body that knew was dead is going to be missing.

 

Of course they were terrified! Of course they were afraid to say anything! Of course they fled! Who wouldn’t? The one thing they thought they knew for sure when they woke up was the Jesus was dead and now his body is missing and some guy in a white robe is saying something crazy. Risen? What on earth could that mean? That is crazy talk! Dead bodies don’t come back to life! These women knew that. Something terrible must have happened. Maybe someone stole his body. Maybe someone moved it. Risen? What is that crazy man in white talking about? Who could believe such a thing?

 

We are blessed here this morning, because we know that this story doesn’t end with a missing body. We know that the man in white that met them in the tomb isn’t a lunatic, but an angel. We are blessed because we know that what he said was true. Jesus is risen. In a little while Mary Magdalene will see him herself. Later on he will appear to Peter and the other disciples. They will touch him, they will eat with him again and they will even see him in Galilee, just as the crazy man, no the angel, in white had predicted. Pretty soon the women will overcome their fear and they will tell the story of what they saw. They will tell the other disciples and they will share with the world the word that the man in white said to them in the tomb: risen. He is risen! They knew that he was dead, but pretty soon they will also know that he is alive. They will eventually share that knowledge with anyone that will listen. We are blessed because we already know the good news, but we only know it because a few women had the courage to overcome their fears and share what they knew: Jesus was dead, but now he is alive.

 

These were courageous women. Don’t be distracted by their moment of fear when their world is turned upside down, because in their hearts these are brave women. They had the courage to watch Jesus die. They hadn’t run away like most of the other disciples; they were there for him. And even after the Sabbath was over, they would continue to be there. They would be faithful to taking care of his body; they didn’t know how they would move the stone, but they would find a way. These were brave women, make no mistake about that.

 

I find it interesting that Jesus revealed his risen body first to his disciples that could most reliably testify to his death. The women who stood by him on Good Friday were the first to see him on Easter Sunday. It was only those that knew that he was truly dead, that could fully appreciate the power of knowing that he is truly risen.

 

The good news of Easter is not that Jesus of Nazareth cheated death; it’s not that his memory lives on in those that loved him; it’s not that he is resurrected in the form of a movement or an idea. And the good news of Easter has nothing to do with spring, which lovely though it is, happens every year. Those women knew that; they also knew that dead bodies don’t rise again…and then they saw something that turned everything they thought they knew upside down. The man who they knew to be dead, they now know to be alive again.

 

Knowing that one thing changes everything. It changes how we look at life and death. It changes how we approach everything else in life that we think is final. It changes how sure we are of everything we think we know about the world around us. It changes how we look at everything that Jesus ever said or did. Knowing that Jesus died and rose again: that changes everything. That proclamation is at the very center of Christianity. Easter Sunday is not the happy ending that is tacked on to the end of Jesus’s story. It is the story. Witnessing that resurrection is what gave all of the disciples the courage to finally face death, because now, they knew, they knew that there was more for them waiting on the other side of it. Jesus had shown them that.

 

I am often amused and frustrated at people (usually preachers) that think they need to make Jesus relevant. Jesus is and always will be relevant. As long as people die, the man who conquered death through his resurrection is relevant.  As long as people truly die, they need to hear about the man who is truly risen. As long as he is risen he is relevant.

 

We are blessed because when we woke up this morning, we already knew that he was risen. That’s why we got dressed to come here, but just remember when you go back out those doors, remember those three women headed to the tomb. Remember how they must have felt before they saw that stoned rolled away. Remember their sorrow, their sense of hopelessness and being lost, remember how they must have felt on Good Friday, not knowing the end of the story, not knowing what we are blessed to know. Now remember that there is still a world of people out there that woke up this morning believing that Jesus is dead. See if you can find the courage to share with them how the story really ends.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

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Sermon for Good Friday 2018

Readings:

Poor, poor Pilate! I almost feel sorry for him. Pilate is stuck in a situation that he doesn’t want to be in. Here he is in the midst of a religious dispute, and it isn’t even his religion. I am sure that when Pilate accepted this position as governor or procurator of Judea that he had grander things in mind. No doubt he wanted to make a name for himself by skillfully ruling this quarrelsome province. Judea has always been a thorn in the side of every empire that ever possessed it. If he can bring it into line and create peace here, then surely the emperor would take greater notice of him; promote him to a better position, perhaps relocate him to a more hospitable part of the world. All he has to do is keep these Judeans in line. He could care less if this man Jesus said something that offended the temple authorities; it’s not his religion, it’s not his God. He doesn’t care about that. He just wants to make sure that this man isn’t plotting some rebellion. If he is a threat to Rome, dispose of him quickly. If not, then stop disturbing his Friday morning. He just wants to keep the peace until he can move on to greener pastures.

 

He questions this man that is brought before him and doesn’t find any signs of someone about to lead an insurrection. He talks about a kingdom not of this world, but that doesn’t concern Pilate. The kingdom of the emperor is his only concern. Pilate finds no fault in him; he says so. But some rabble-rousers in the crowd are unrelenting. They keep demanding that this Jesus be crucified. If the religious argument doesn’t work with Pilate, then perhaps the political argument will. “If you release this man then you are no friend of the emperor.” Ah…there’s the key. They threaten to disturb the peace that Pilate is trying to maintain. That he can’t have.

 

So Pilate decides to have the man crucified, and during all this I am almost persuaded to feel sorry for Pilate until he utters the biggest lie in the entire Gospel.

 

In Matthew’s account of the passion, Pilate stands before the crowd, washes his hands and says: “See I am innocent of this man’s blood!” As Pilate is condemning Jesus to be crucified he has the audacity to say that “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Pilate would become the first in what would be a very long line of gentiles that would try to shift the blame for Jesus’s death onto the Jews, but he is the one who actually has the power to set Jesus free, he says so. And yet, he doesn’t do it. Make no mistake, he has Jesus’s blood on his hands.

 

It is there in that moment that Pilate turns from being an almost sympathetic character into a despicable one. Pilate is the most despicable character in this entire scene, because he actually knows the truth, and doesn’t care. He famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?” But we know that he knows the truth, or at least some of it. Pilate knows the Jesus is innocent of the charges against him, and still has him crucified anyways. He knows the truth and it has no affect on his actions; he knows the truth and doesn’t care.

 

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priests? Well, they may have lied about what Jesus said about the temple, they may have misunderstood him and many of his teachings, but they do think he is guilty. They do see him as a threat and I think they honestly believe that they are doing the right thing. Even Judas, Jesus’s friend that betrayed him probably thought that he was doing the right thing. We can look back now and see that they were misguided or mistaken, but at least they were sincere. And Judas certainly felt sincere remorse when he realized that he was wrong. But not Pilate.

 

In Pilate’s greatest moment in the spotlight on history’s stage he knows what is true and has the power to act on it, and chooses not to. He crucifies the truth and because of that his name is forever recorded in history and is spoken daily throughout the world, but not in the way he wanted.

 

In the creeds of our church, there are only two names mentioned after that of our Lord: one who is honored by bringing him into this world, and one who is condemned for sending him out of it. The Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. When we recite the creed we say that our Lord suffered…not by the hands of Annas, not by the hands of Caiaphas, not by the hands of Herod or Judas, and not by the hands of the Jews…no, we say that Our Lord suffered under Pontius Pilate. His name is the one name that we must forever associate with the death of Jesus.

 

Pilate thought that the truth didn’t matter. What difference does it make really if this guy is guilty or innocent? As long as I can maintain the peace…who will care really? Oh, but Pilate was wrong. The truth does matter. We may occasionally mistake a falsehood for a truth, that is only human. There are truths that we do not yet know, that is understandable. But it is something we should always be in pursuit of, even if we so do imperfectly.

 

Pilate isn’t condemned because he didn’t know the truth. He isn’t condemned because he made a mistake. He is condemned because he did know the truth and didn’t care. Pilate’s knowledge of the truth and indifference to it is a greater insult to our Lord, than those that called him a blasphemer and genuinely believed it. We may not always know the truth, but we must always care about it.

 

It is one thing for Pilate to get the truth wrong, but to not care what it is, well that is a different matter. Our creed forever reminds us that it is by Pilate that Jesus suffered.

The Courage to Sing

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Readings:

In the story of Our Lord’s passion in the Gospel of Mark, which we heard read on Sunday, there is a curious line which you may easily have missed. After the last supper was concluded and before Jesus goes to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that he and his disciples sang a hymn. It is the only time in all of our scriptures that we are told that Our Lord sang. Now it is likely that there was a song that was a part of the Passover meal ritual. We don’t know exactly what happened at Passover meals in Jesus’s time, the modern Passover seder developed later, but we do know some of the things that were eaten, we know that there were some rituals with cups of wine, and it is very likely that a portion of the psalms would have been sung as well (remembering, of course, that the psalms were always written to be sung). So it is entirely possible that Jesus would have sung many times in his life, but this is the only time that we are told about it explicitly, at this meal.

 

Think about the timing here. Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed. He knows that he is about to be arrested and tortured. He knows that his death is coming quickly, and yet here he is singing. He has predicted that he would die and rise again, but that hasn’t happened yet. That is a matter of faith at this point. What lies ahead for him is suffering and struggle, when he leaves the Passover celebration he is going to his agony in the garden, but still he finds the courage to sing. That’s a pretty remarkable thing if you stop and think about it. How many of us can claim to have such faith in God’s saving power that we would have the courage to sing as we approached death? How many of us can celebrate salvation before we witness it?

 

When we think of Passover or Our Lord’s Supper, we often think of them as something we do to remember God’s saving work and that is very true. God says to Moses: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.” Jesus says to his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembering is important, but think for a moment about that first Passover meal. When did the first Passover meal happen? On the night before the Children of Israel were freed from slavery. Moses and the Israelites were commanded to celebrate their salvation before they witnessed it. That first Passover wasn’t just a feast of thanksgiving, it was an act of faith; faith that God would fulfill his promises.

 

What about the Eucharist? For Christians the Eucharist, the Holy Thanksgiving, is the ultimate remembrance of Our Lord’s death and resurrection. Paul said that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But when did the first Eucharist happen? During Our Lord’s last supper, the Passover meal that he was celebrating before his death and resurrection. That feast wasn’t just an act of remembrance; it was also an act of faith, a celebration of what God was about to do. Maybe that is why Jesus could walk away from it singing: the feast called him to look beyond the pain of the present moment, to remember how God had saved his people in the past and to trust that he would do so again.

 

Maundy Thursday is a rather odd service traditionally. We have just come through Lent and all that time we never sang the Gloria, the song of celebration that is usually at the beginning of mass. We don’t sing it in Advent and Lent, but here in the midst of Holy Week, the night before we remember Our Lord’s death, we do sing it. We not only sing it, we ring bells. The vestments tonight are white, a color that we reserve for great feasts of celebration. You would think that we would wait to wear white until Easter Sunday (I’m sure it would make the altar guild a lot happier), but we don’t. On this night before we remember our Lord’s passion, we feast and we sing and we celebrate, not just what God has done in the past but what he is about to do. We celebrate God’s salvation before we witness it.

 

That is what every Eucharist is in some sense about, not just giving thanks to God for what he has already done in Christ Jesus, but praising and thanking God for what he is about to do in us. We are here to thank God for mercies that we haven’t seen yet. We are here to celebrate an eternal life that we haven’t entered into yet. We are here to sing about a salvation that is to come. That is an act of faith. That is an act of courage. That is how our Lord spends his last night here on earth. What does Jesus say after supper in tonight’s gospel?: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” His last supper on earth was about giving glory to God, not just for what he did, but for what he was about to do, and one of the ways that God was glorified was in song.

 

You might wonder what exactly Our Lord was singing as he walked off to dark Gethsemane. Actually, we think we might know. There is a collection of six psalms that are grouped together and were sung on the major Jewish festivals from very ancient times. They form a prayer called Hallel, and they are sung even to this day. They are psalms 113 to 118. I’m sure that it is no accident that Psalm 116 is the psalm assigned for this feast tonight, and sung by our choir:

 

“What reward shall I give unto the Lord, for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?

I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

 

They are words our savior himself may have been singing on his last night. And what would have been his last song that he courageously sang as he walked into the garden to confront the agony of human sinfulness? Listen to the end of that song of prayer, Psalm 118:

1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

4Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

5Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.

6With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?

7The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.

8It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.

9It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.

13I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.

14The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

16the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”

17I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

19Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.

21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.

28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

And with those words, Our Lord leaves the feast and walks into the dark garden. May we, like Moses, feast on God’s promises before we taste his freedom. May we, like Christ, have the courage to sing praises to the Lord, even before we witness his salvation.

Ask the Centurion

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Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018

Readings:

 

I love Bible movies. I have quite a collection of movies based on stories from the scriptures, and I have no problem watching them over and over again. The movies, and the stories never get old to me. I guess that is because the Bible itself is a part of my daily life. It isn’t something that I turn to now and then looking for advice or justification; it is a world of texts and stories and individuals that I live with. I try to keep myself immersed in scripture, regularly swimming around in it, not because I am a priest, but because I am a person of faith. I want to remain connected to my ancestors in the faith, and scripture is one of the most important ways that we do that.

 

So I like to see how others interpret or imagine these biblical stories and scenes and since I love movies, what better way than watching an epic (and sometimes junky) bible movie now and then? Of course, Hollywood is in the business of entertainment, not education and certainly not worship, so one must always be careful of confusing a director’s vision or an actor’s performance, with the actual gospel; but even a failure on film can teach us something if it encourages us to look deeper or pay closer attention to what is happening. Even a bad bible movie can be good, if it draws us further into the story.

 

The best example of that that I can think of comes from the movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Very expensive and very long with a somewhat dull Jesus portrayed by Max Von Sydow, and a cameo role for just about every available actor in Hollywood at the time, but the worst failure of the movie (and in my opinion the number one bible movie fail of all time) comes near the end with Jesus’s death on Calvary. The movie famously employed John Wayne to play the centurion at the foot of the cross. He has one line to deliver: “Surely this man was the son of God” and he totally butchers it. I’m not exactly sure how that line should have been delivered, but I know that’s not it. There is no emotion or life in his words; no sense of the importance of what it is that he is saying. I like John Wayne, but this has to be a low point in his movie career: 4 seconds in a 4 hour movie, only seven words to say and he totally flops. But he does succeed in doing one thing: he makes me want to know more about this character that he is portraying.

 

The centurion at the foot of the cross is one of the oddest moments in the gospel story. In this whole story that we just heard, the one character that actually recognizes Jesus as the Son of God is this unnamed centurion watching Jesus die. How strange. What was it that this centurion saw or witnessed that led him to this belief? He wasn’t Jewish, so Jewish expectations about who the messiah was, or what he should or shouldn’t do or say would have been irrelevant to him. He wasn’t one of Jesus’s followers, so he hadn’t heard him preach, hadn’t seen any of his miracles. That wasn’t what convinced him. He certainly would have seen crucifixions before, so the brutality of the scene wouldn’t have shocked him. So what was it? Was it the manner in which he accepted his death? Was it the darkness in the sky or the ground shaking beneath his feet? We don’t know. It is a mystery to us, what exactly changed his heart, but here is what we do know:

 

In Mark’s Gospel, the individual that most profoundly recognizes who Jesus is, is also the individual most responsible for his death. The person who truly recognizes what is happening on the cross, is also the person who most has to take responsibility for it.

 

From the moment that Jesus predicts his own betrayal, his disciples began saying: “Surely, not I?” I couldn’t be the one responsible for your death. I would never do such a thing.

 

The religious authorities that tried him and mocked him as a prophet, they think he is deserving of death. They condemn him, but they don’t want to pull the trigger. Let the secular governor, Pilate, take care of that dirty deed.

 

Pilate has the power to set Jesus free, but he doesn’t. Instead of taking responsibility though, he makes sure that he can blame the crowd…after all, he was just fulfilling the will of the people wasn’t he? Surely Jesus’s blood wasn’t on his hands.

 

Nobody wants to take responsibility for the death of this man, but the buck has to stop somewhere. The executioner, the man closest to the action, the last person with any authority in our story and the person who might very well have had Jesus’s actual blood on his hands is this lonely centurion. Did he tell himself he was just following orders? Did he try to justify that his actions would save lives by somehow keeping the peace? Who knows what thoughts crossed his heart, but no accusation or blame crossed his lips. The truth is, the centurion cannot deny his role in the death of this man, and that is what makes his statement so much more powerful.

 

The words “truly this man was God’s son” are being uttered by the man who might very well have held the hammer and the nail. The man who truly recognized who Jesus was, also had to recognize the role that he played in his death. Jesus was judged and condemned for offending God and threatening the peace, but who was the guilty one?

 

Maybe the centurion walked away from Calvary recognizing a profound truth: humans are always putting God on trial for their own sins. How many times have I heard people say: “where is God with all of the suffering and evil in the world? How can you believe in a God that stands by while innocent people are killed? How can a loving God allow such pain to exist?” I wonder sometimes if all these questions aren’t just another way of saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Maybe we don’t want to acknowledge the role that we all have had to play in making the world as it is. But God has not ignored our suffering, even the suffering brought about by our own hands. He hears the cries of his children, he enters into our human flesh, feels our pain, experiences our fear, and offers us the promise of forgiveness and the promise of a new life. Christianity’s answer to what God is doing about the evil in the world is to point to the cross. In that one symbol we are forced to acknowledge both the consequences of our own actions, and the power of God’s love.

 

Where is God in a world filled with suffering?

Ask the centurion.

Renewing His Covenant

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Sermon for Sunday, March 18th

Readings:

 

Last week I began my sermon talking about good King Hezekiah. Well good King Hezekiah was followed by his son, bad King Manasseh. Manasseh went out undoing all of his father’s reforms, and again worshiping foreign Gods. Well bad king Manasseh died and was followed by his son, good King Josiah. Josiah was only eight years old when he came to the throne, but by the time he was eighteen, he had already begun to reform the worship in his kingdom that his father had corrupted. Once again, the pagan altars and shrines were taken down and he set about refurbishing and restoring the temple in Jerusalem.

 

Josiah told the high priest, a man named Hilkiah, to go into the temple treasury and get money to pay the workers there. I guess some aspects of religious life never change…we are always looking for money to fix God’s house. Well, while Hilkiah was rummaging around in the temple treasury he found a scroll and as he opened it and began to read it he realized: this was God’s law, his Torah, his commandments. This was the story of how he had saved his chosen people and brought them to this land. But it wasn’t being processed around and celebrated. It wasn’t in a grand ark in the temple in a place of dignity and honor. Here it was, in the basement, unused and unread. Hilkiah can’t believe what he is reading. So he takes the book to the king and when King Josiah hears the words of the scroll, he tears his clothes. How far have his people strayed from God’s ways! How could they have forgotten God’s law! How could they have forgotten the story of their own salvation?!

 

Josiah has the entire community gathered at the temple: all the priests, all the prophets, big people, small people, everyone from the least to the greatest…and he has the book read. And the people hear how God had saved them. They hear how time and time again God made a covenant with their ancestors: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. They hear the commandments and the law that was given to Moses. And they also hear how time and time again, God’s people broke his covenant. But each time God’s people proved to be unfaithful, there was God, ever faithful. Each time the covenant was broken, there was God, ready to renew it. Ready to forgive, ready to start over. It isn’t that the people never had to suffer for their own sinfulness, they did, but God always fulfilled his end of the bargain. He never forsook his people. All of those covenants that he made were everlasting. God would not fail, even if his people did.

 

Inspired by this proclamation and reclamation of God’s Torah, his law, his divine story, Josiah declares there in front of all of Jerusalem that he and his people would renew this covenant. They would follow God’s commands with all their heart and all their soul. They would observe the Passover, which had not been celebrated in generations. They would tell their children about the greatness of their God and they would teach them to walk in his ways. And when Josiah was finished speaking the people stood and cheered. Yes, they would keep this covenant.

 

Standing there in the temple courtyard was the High Priest’s, son. He was a young prophet in his own right, just beginning his career of serving God. He wouldn’t forget this scene. Perhaps he was a bit skeptical as young people often are. Perhaps he doubted that all these people gathered here would really keep this covenant. So many times before God’s people would prove faithless…why would this time be any different? And yet…he found Josiah’s words inspiring; he loved the idea that God’s commands should be taken into our heart and soul, and not just be letters on a scroll that can be rolled up and forgotten. Wouldn’t it be great if God’s covenant was always met with the love and enthusiasm that it was on that morning? Well maybe this young man was unsure about God’s people, but he was sure about God. God would be faithful.

 

The young man’s name was Jeremiah. And he didn’t forget that morning. The image of people rejoicing in the love of God, celebrating his word, committing themselves to his law in heart and soul, that moment must have imprinted itself upon his soul, because it was a vision of hope that he would cling to for the rest of his life.

 

The prophet Jeremiah can be a tough read for most people. He predicted and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and he wrote about it vividly. Most of his prophecy seems dire, negative, painful, because the people of his land did stray from God again; again they broke his covenant, and he knew that they would continue to do so. I can only imagine that he lived with a broken heart; broken by witnessing how far people have strayed from the love of God. And yet…right there in the middle of Jeremiah’s book is this little group of verses, interrupting the death and destruction to shine a light of hope. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” Jeremiah said that God would renew his covenant with his people again. Despite their failures, despite their faithlessness, God would be faithful. But if you only read those few happy verses and ignored the difficult ones that come before and after you might miss an important detail: when Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, the House (or the Kingdom) of Israel is already dead. The people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel have already been massacred and hauled off into exile by the Assyrians. When Jeremiah says that God will make a new covenant with the House of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, he is talking about a Kingdom that is about to die at the hands of the Babylonians. So, God is going to make a renewed commitment or a renewed covenant with people that are either dead or dying. Jeremiah says that the death of his people, even death as a result of their own sins, will not cut them off from God forever. God says that the sun and the moon will pass away before he would reject his people. No, God will restore his people, he will reestablish the Kingdom of David, he will forgive their sins. That is a supernatural hope. There is a reason why we say in our creed that God through the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets; there is a reason why we honor them: because to be able to see what Jeremiah saw (all of the sin, the pain and the suffering) and still to hold on to even a seed of hope, well that is a profound grace. To stare death in the face and see the potential for rebirth and new life, that power, that message, comes from God.

 

Try to see in your mind, try to envision this renewed commitment and covenant that Jeremiah is talking about. What would it look like for someone’s heart to be so united to God, so in love with God, that observing God’s commandments are as much a part of their life as breathing in and breathing out? What would it look like for someone to be such a person of prayer that day and night their attention was turned toward God and that those who witnessed that prayer would have no question that God had heard them? What would it look like for someone to be so obedient to God that even their own suffering and death would not turn them away from following after God? What would it look like to be a part of a kingdom that no ruler of this world could destroy? What would it look like for God’s covenant to so shine in your life that even foreigners, people who worship others gods, are drawn to you and want to know your Lord? Have we ever seen someone whose union with God was so strong that even death could not break it? Have we ever seen a glimpse of this new covenant that God has promised us?

 

Maybe we have…