To have a savior, to need a savior, means on some level admitting that you cannot save yourself. I can understand having difficulty with that.
I am a very independent person. I like to be able to figure things out myself. I like to do things for myself. Some things I am pretty good at, but then again, I do get things wrong, all the time. Sometimes the errors are factual: like forgetting a name or a date. Sometimes the errors are moral: I know that I have done and said things that have hurt others, and I have done and said things that have hurt myself. It’s not that I ever set out to make either kind of error; I don’t try to be wrong, but sooner or later it always happens again.
When the apostle Paul says: “I do not do the thing that I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I get that. It’s frustrating to make mistakes, especially when you are trying really hard not to.
You could tell yourself that you are simply not trying hard enough. You could blame your mistakes on others as many do.
Or, you could realize that you simply don’t have the power to do it on your own and that you need someone else to help you.
That was the revelation that Paul had. He eventually understood that salvation wasn’t something he was going to achieve through his own effort.
Some people still approach religion as if it were something that they could master, as if their intellect were more important than the disposition of their hearts.
Last Sunday our group attended mass while on pilgrimage at the cathedral which was just around the corner from our hotel. After we offered our worship to God in a very nice service, Keith and I thought that we might stop in at the coffee hour and meet some of the local congregation and perhaps greet the resident clergy.
As we were trying to mingle and make polite conversation, we encountered a retired clergy couple from England (a man and a woman). They were living in the area temporarily and were very excited to hear that we were married.
They thought that being two men, and priests, that we must be very theologically liberal, just as they were. And what commenced was an inquisition into our beliefs of various points of theology and biblical interpretation. In short order they were sorely disappointed.
They were shocked to find out just how seriously we take the Bible, and the traditions of the church.
When they found out that we actually believed in the Creed, the virgin birth and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they were simultaneously astonished and annoyed. If we disagreed with Paul about homosexuality, shouldn’t we disagree with him about everything else as well? Wasn’t all of this just an oppressive and backwards myth, which should have been dispensed with by sensible people long ago?
You know, and this may be a revelation to some people on both sides in the church, it is possible to faithfully disagree: it is possible that our faith is not an all or nothing proposition. It is possible to be neither liberal, nor conservative, but a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, sinful, but forgiven, thoughtful and believing. It is possible to disagree about particular issues and still uphold core doctrine. It is possible, but some people just can’t do it.
Honestly, at this point I was more taken with their bad manners than their bad theology. I am totally sympathetic with people who struggle with questions of faith and belief, but don’t attack me for actually believing what we all stand up and say we believe every week.
At last came the coup de grace, when he claimed that he absolutely did not believe that he was born in sin. He just wanted to come to church to hear that God loved him. To which my husband replied that we absolutely believed that we, like all men and women, were born sinners and that we had come to church not so much to hear that God loves us, but to say that we loved God. Of course we believe in a loving God that loves us first, but worship and therapy are not the same thing.
Those are two very different outlooks. They were intent on being correct, we were intent on being forgiven. I didn’t get the sense that they thought they needed a savior, we were pretty sure that we already had one.
If you think that following Jesus can be hard, you’re right. Trying to do the right thing, and then asking for forgiveness when you fail can be something of a burden, but it is the lightest burden you will ever carry. Trying to be perfect all on your own, now that’s hard. Some people just don’t want a savior, but I know I certainly need one.
Eventually we extricated ourselves from the situation as politely as we could, but I did find it a bit sad that here we were visitors in this place, and had happened upon another clergy couple that could accept our marriage, but not our faith.
I don’t use this experience as an example of most of my interactions with clergy in the U.K., far from it. This couple was the exception, not the norm. I use it as an example of how we often misjudge what people are looking for, both when they come to church and when they engage us in conversation and I use it to illustrate how dangerous it is to make assumptions about people, including theological assumptions, based upon knowing one thing.
I hadn’t come to church looking for an inquisition or a theological debate. I wasn’t looking for an enlightened priest that had all the scientifically and politically correct answers. I didn’t need someone to solve all the mysteries of the Bible, or to lecture me about the various nuances of scriptural interpretation. And I certainly didn’t need someone to tell me that what I believed was a myth.
I wasn’t looking for a savior during coffee hour, I already knew I had one. That is who I had just come to mass to worship. In truth, all I was really looking for at that point was a decent cup of tea.
Some people just don’t want a savior. I get it, but I am not one of those people.
(N.B. The image above is of the original Winnie the Pooh on display at the New York Public Library. These toys belonged to Christopher Robin Milne and were used by A.A. Milne as the inspiration for his Winnie the Pooh stories.)
Sermon for Father’s Day, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18th, 2017.
Exodus 19:2-8a Psalm 100 Romans 5:1-8 Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
The best argument for the truth of the doctrine of original sin, and the fallen state of our human nature, is living with a three year old (or maybe a two year old, or a five year old). Not every moment in the life of a young child is precious, let’s be honest. There are some moments that absolutely require endurance; there are some moments that are almost intolerable. It’s true that children are born with the capacity to love, but they are born with a lot of other capacities as well, some that are a lot less charming. They are born with impatience; they are born with tempers; they are born sometimes being greedy or selfish; they are born with a lot of things.
It takes a parent that can see past bad behavior in a child; that can continue to love a child even though they are not necessarily being lovely. It takes a parent in order to shape the life of that child. It’s true that we do learn some sins as we grow older through life, but some things just seem to come from the beginning. We are born with all these different capacities and it takes a loving and patient parent to love us before we are loveable; to love us despite our wickedness sometimes. It takes a loving and patient parent to spend the time to shape us, and to shape our character, and our souls, to form us into hopefully decent human beings. Parents, more than just protecting and providing for their children, a good parent should shape their child, should help to form their child as they grow older.
Now we could talk about mothers and fathers this morning. I think the role of a parent is interchangeable between the two. The reality is that we are not here this morning to celebrate a gender, we are here to celebrate a role. And the role of Father which we celebrate on Father’s Day, is in many ways similar to the role of Mother: it is the presence in a young life that not only protects and provides for, but also shapes for the future; that guides; that wants to be a part of that life, and not just create it and walk away. And our parents, they shape our lives in so many ways (by their example, by their patience), but one of the ways that I think parents most shape our lives (which they may not realize) is through how they play with us.
You see, I think part of the role of a parent is not just to protect and to provide for a child, but I think a good parent will also understand that playing with their children is crucial. Now you may think that playtime for a child is just time for their pacification, for them to let their imaginations run wild and their fancies set free. But I think that in that playtime of make believe and storytelling is where character is tested and formed.
If you look at some classic fairy tales and if you listen to the way that children play as their act out their fantasies, they are testing who they want to be in the world, and what they want to be in the world. They are trying to imagine what their world and what their life can be like. What better time for a parent to help shape their child’s future than in playtime? It enables parents to share stories with them that can affect the rest of their life. If you want to test what makes a good children’s story, go and read it now as an adult. If it still touches you; if it is still relevant to your life as an adult; that is a good children’s story. Children’s stories should be taken seriously. They are not there just to pacify the child so that you can go on and do something else. A good children’s story should be as relatable to your life as it is to theirs. One of the best things that a father or a mother can do for their child is to tell them stories that will mold them and shape them for the rest of their lives.
I was revisiting some of my favorite children’s stories these past couple weeks and rereading them. I was just amazed at how much I get out of them now, probably more than I did as a kid. For me the ones that are my classic favorites are The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I have found that I can go back to those stories and find them perfectly relevant to my life in so many ways now, perhaps even more so now than when I was little. And the beautiful thing about both The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, is that both of those stories were created by a father telling a story to his son. It was a father creating story time with his children that created both of those stories. And what a gift that has been, not just to their children, but to children throughout the world. Generations at this point now have had these wonderful make believe stories that have the power to shape who we are, and to shape our character.
One set of stories that I didn’t actually come to as a child (I came to them as an adult) is the Narnia series, the fantasy series written by C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis whom I am very fond of as an almost academic writer and as a spiritual writer, (and who can be a little difficult to approach because he is very, very smart and very heady) wrote these wonderful stories that just entrance children, and I think relate the faith to them and shape them into people of character. As I was reading about Lewis and his creation of The Chronicles of Narnia, I cam across this article written by C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. I want to share a couple pieces of what he wrote about his stepfather:
Lewis (I’ve always called him Jack, the nickname used by everyone who knew him) married my mother, Joy Davidman, when I was 10 years old. Four years after that my mother died. I was estranged from my father, who lived in America.
Suddenly a 62-year-old professor of medieval English literature who’d been a bachelor for almost all his life was the closest thing I had to a father. Jack was as grief-stricken as I was. And yet he did everything he could to raise me. I saw a C. S. Lewis few people knew, and I grew to love him deeply.
I didn’t feel that way on first meeting him. My own father was a successful writer, but he was an alcoholic and by the time he and my mother divorced he frightened me. My mother got to know Jack Lewis after writing to tell him how much his books on Christianity had meant to her.
The two began corresponding and then my mother moved to England and enrolled me in school there. I was excited to meet the author of the Narnia books and I pictured someone from Narnia itself, maybe a knight with a sword.
What I encountered instead was a bald, stout old man dressed in a shabby tweed coat and with tobacco stains on his teeth and hands.
I was crushed—until I began to get to know him. Almost immediately I noticed how funny he was. You always knew which room of the house he was in because someone was laughing there.
One of the first things he did was invite me out for a walk in the woods behind his house near Oxford. Jack loved trees and animals and gardens. More than that, he knew exactly how to talk to a child.
He was straightforward and took me seriously, not like some grown-ups, who get cutesy and condescending around children. He asked me what I liked to read and told me his favorite childhood books, including the Beatrix Potter stories, which he said he still loved as an adult.
Most of all we talked about Narnia. We often spoke of it as if it were a real place, as if a faun or a centaur might appear in the woods at any moment. It was a delightful game.
Two years after my mother died I learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and, rather than face the disease, had committed suicide. I was now an orphan. Jack knew just what to say to me.
He didn’t offer trite condolences—he knew too much about pain and grief for that. There had been tragedy in my family and he didn’t try to sugarcoat that. He could have washed his hands of me but he didn’t. Instead, he made me a part of the last years of his life.
Jack died in 1963, when I was 18. At his funeral I saw a candle burning in a simple candlestick on his coffin. Others say they remember no such thing. But I am certain I saw that candle. Its flame burned unwaveringly through the whole service.
It was a perfect image of Jack’s love—for me, for my mother, for anyone blessed enough to have come into his circle of friends.
Jack Lewis embodied values that sound old-fashioned these days—courtesy, duty, loyalty. He was steadfast in his devotion to me and so I now do my best to remain faithful to him. What would I have done without him, alone there in England with no one to turn to?
I had gone as a child hoping to meet a knight in armor from a fairy tale. I got something far better, a father who understood that what children need most of all is unwavering love.
Douglas Gresham had two father figures in his life: one person who biologically created him and assisted in his birth, and another who helped to shape his soul and who cared to form and look after his character. One of those was his real father.
Jesus, when he is teaching and talking, time and time again he refers to God as “Father,” or “My Father” over and over again. He teaches his disciples to pray beginning with “Our Father.” He tells them in today’s gospel that when they are afraid of what to say that the spirit of their father will speak through them. So my question to you is this: when Jesus refers to God as “Father” which kind of father do you think he is talking about?
Do you think he is referring to a father that creates and then walks away, having done his job at the birth and feeling satisfied that his role is complete? Or, do you think the Jesus is referring to a father who is far more intimately involved in the lives of his children? Do you think he is referring to a father who wants to shape and mold, to live next to and besides, and yes even to play with his children?
I am sure, I am confident, that the father of Jesus isn’t merely a creator that walks away from his creation. The father of Jesus loves his children even when they are not loveable, as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans this morning. The father of Jesus chooses to live among his children to share in their pains. He wants to shape the character of his children. He wants to guide them. He wants to feel their pain; he wants to share in their joy. The father of Jesus takes his children seriously. And as we have learned through the life of Christ, the father of Jesus very often seeks to teach his children using stories. More often than not, when Jesus was teaching his disciples it was by using a story (a parable). That is how he reached out to them to shape their character and their souls.
Our human fathers, they will always be imperfect. No matter how bad or good our human fathers may be, we will always have another father. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to preach a message to people who were like sheep without a shepherd; people who were longing and needing to be loved, to be shaped, to be guided. He sent his disciples out to those people with the message that they DO have a shepherd. They do have someone who cares, not just about creating them, but about shaping them. That they have a perfect father in heaven.
C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man, and one of the best apologists for Christianity in the history of the world, but he like all men was far from perfect. His strength as a father came not from his stature, his biology or his genes; his strength as a father didn’t even come from having all the right answers or from being brilliant. His strength as a father came from his steadfast love and from his willingness to take a child seriously.
Fathers, we honor you all this morning, but remember as a father, as a human father, you will always be imperfect. You will make mistakes and that is OK. Fathers don’t have to be knights in shining armour riding into town with their swords ready to defend and prepared to defeat every evil. You don’t have to be perfect, just be sure that in your words and in your actions, and especially in the stories that you tell your children, that you are always pointing them to the one father that is perfect.
Memorial Day, which is observed tomorrow in the United States, began around the time of the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day when people would visit war cemeteries and decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers. Supposedly, one of the reasons that this day was traditionally observed in late May, was so that flowers would have been readily available to decorate the graves with.
Well as much as placing flowers on the graves of the dead is a laudable custom, I can’t help but feel that the timing of Memorial Day is rather unfortunate. It comes at the end of the school year for kids, the end of the program year for churches and many other institutions, at a time when everyone’s minds are turning toward the coming summer and all that that entails. Because Memorial Day has become in our culture the unofficial beginning of the Summer Season, it is those summer activities that largely command our attention on this day, and not honoring the dead. Of course, moving the holiday observance to a Monday to make for a convenient 3 day weekend has only made this worse. Now Memorial Day is known for BBQs, the beach and sales at the department store, more than it is thought of as a day for honoring the dead.
While I agree with the VFW, that returning Memorial Day to its original date of May 30th, might be better; thereby making its observance something that is intentional, and not just a convenience, still I don’t think it would be enough. The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor those that lost their lives, not just in defense of our borders or our flag, but for our ideals. Those soldiers didn’t just die to preserve lines on a map, they died to uphold the very principles that Western Society is built on: freedom, democracy and self-determination. Its true we have always fallen short of our ideals; we have never achieved true equality in our societies, but at least it is an ideal; at least it is something we work towards and long for. Those principles and freedoms that we so often take for granted are what our soldiers died trying to defend. So we should ask ourselves: what is the best way to honor that sacrifice?
Is it enough to simply place a flag or a flower on a grave, or might true honor require something more of us? Might honoring a sacrifice require us to make a sacrifice of our own?
Regardless of what day we choose to pay our respects to fallen soldiers, I don’t think we do them much justice by simply tipping our hats as we go on about our lives taking for granted the principles they died for and not paying attention to the ways in which those same principles still need defending in our own day. A simple “thank you for your service” will not do. We must be willing to make sacrifices of our own. We must be prepared to continue to defend those principles and those freedoms, because if history has taught us anything, I hope it is this: there is no such thing as a war to end all wars. We can never just rest on the sacrifices made by those that came before us, because in every generation those principles which we hold so dear, will come under attack. Every generation will be challenged with defending them and protecting them anew. Respecting our fallen soldiers must mean respecting and protecting what they were willing to die for and that is far more difficult and more complicated than simply placing a flower on a grave.
After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his followers were certain that the victory had been won, that they were triumphant and that a new kingdom was about to be established that would put an end to their suffering and their struggles. They asked Jesus: “Is this the time when YOU will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were ready to thank Jesus for his sacrifice, for all that he had done in dying for them and to praise his victory over death. They wanted to stand their and await all of the blessings that his sacrifice was destined to bring them, but Jesus looked at them and said: “it is not for you to know when God is going to establish a lasting kingdom or an eternal peace, but YOU will receive power, and YOU are to use that power to be my witnesses to the ends of the Earth.”
Jesus may have won the ultimate victory over sin and death, but Satan wasn’t done with us yet; his work may have been finished, but ours was just beginning. There was still work to be done in the world, there was still evil to confront and fight. As he ascended into heaven his disciples wanted to just stand there in awe of what he had done, but that is not what they were called to do. They were called to go back out into the world and continue the work that Jesus had begun. That is what he gave them the power to do. It is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit give us the power to do as well.
Peter reminds us that doing the work of Christ in the world is likely to involve some suffering and sacrifice. The devil never rests. He prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour. We can never become complacent. We cannot simply satisfy ourselves honoring the efforts and the sacrifices of others, and paying no attention to the ways in which we may be called to defend the same freedoms and principles that they did. We must be prepared to fight the devil ourselves; each and every one of us, because until that day when Christ returns in glory, the devil is not going to stop trying to steal our joy, our freedom and our peace. He will try to turn us against each other; he will trick us into abandoning the very principles we should be fighting for; he will fool us into becoming the very thing our fallen heroes defended us from. If we truly want to honor their sacrifice we cannot let that happen. We must be prepared to resist the devil, to resist succumbing to the evil in the world. We must be steadfast in our faith; a people who are willing to stand up for what we believe.
We cannot be surprised at the suffering and struggle in the world, especially by people seeking to live in a free society or people seeking to follow the will of God. Either way the devil, or the evil forces of this world are going to try to bring you down. As Christians we have been given the ultimate freedom from sin and death; as Americans, we have the great privilege of living in a free society. We cannot take for granted the freedoms and blessings that have been won for us; and whether that freedom was won for us by Christ on the cross, or whether it was won by our grandfathers on the battlefield, we have a duty in our own lives that goes beyond merely acknowledging what they did. We have work to do to. We have sacrifices to make. We have evil to resist. And we are not alone in this fight. Peter reminds us that we have brothers and sisters all over the world who are struggling and resisting evil just like we are. It seems like we are reminded of that all the time now. This week we saw Christians attacked in Egypt and free people attacked at a concert in England. Both were painful reminders that freedom, whether in this world or in the next one, comes at a price. We must be prepared to stand not only with our fellow Christians, or fellow Americans, but will all free people in the world that share our values.
After communion this morning we will be singing “my country tis of thee”, which was a popular national song in our country, long before “the star spangled banner” became our national anthem. Of course, it is the same tune as another national anthem, that of Great Britain. Both songs are sung by free people, who have suffered and lost much to preserve those freedoms. As a tribute to our friends across the Atlantic, the choir will sing the other version of “my country tis of thee” as a postlude. You are welcomed to sing along if you know the words.
I have said before that I believe that there is really only one war: the war between good and evil. It is a war, which like it or not we all must fight. We won’t all fight it in combat or on a battlefield, but we all must fight it. As Christians, we gather here every Sunday to remember the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ in that war. We give thanks for all of the glory that he won for us, but I hope, that as we leave here and walk out those doors, that we will remember that we have a duty that goes beyond giving thanks. I hope that we can be a people who truly wish to live differently; a people who know that some principles are worth fighting for and even dying for; a people who know that the devil isn’t done with us and who are prepared to resist him, steadfast in faith. If we want to honor Christ’s sacrifice, we must carry on his work in the world, and sometimes that will mean having to make sacrifices of our own.
It is good and right that we should take the time to remember the sacrifices made by the members of our armed services, and all of those who have fought to gain or preserve freedom, but we can do more than simply say “thank you.” We can go out into the world as citizens ready to live differently, holding ourselves to a higher standard, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the principles and the freedoms that they died for. That is the best way to honor their sacrifice.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14th 2017
1 Peter 2:2-10
I had the great honor and privilege a few weeks ago to visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
The Arizona was one of the first ships bombed in the attack on December the 7th, 1941. The ship sank within minutes, killing over 1000 sailors, most of whom remained trapped inside. It is a very painful moment in our nation’s history.
The memorial is quite well-done. It straddles the sunken remains of the Arizona, and allows visitors to quietly look down and reflect, not only on the events that happened, but also on the fact that this is a burial site, sacred to the memory of all those whose remains still lie within the ship. As you stand there and look out over the water, eventually you notice little black droplets of oil that occasionally bubble to the surface creating a slight oil slick. They are know as the “tears of the Arizona,” and it is actually oil slowly leaking from the ship’s fuel tank. The Arizona has been submerged for over 75 years, and still it continues to leak oil.
For those that lost loved ones on the Arizona, the drops of oil are a continual reminder of lives cut short, and a loss that remains, even after decades. As I was looking down, prepared with my camera to take a picture of the leaking oil, I noticed a fish swimming into my shot, and then another one, and another one. Finally, a whole school of fish swam by and I realized, that of course, the sunken ship has now become a living and active reef. Despite the fact that oil and marine life do not mix, for whatever reason the leakage remains restrained enough here to allow new life to flourish. I quickly snapped a few pictures to remember the moment.
As I boarded the boat to ride back to the shore with the other visitors I thought to myself: “isn’t it ironic: here is a battleship, built by humans as a display of our own power, and destroyed by other humans equally as a display of power. The memorial is a testimony to how much we value human life, and a reminder of how little we value it at times. And the ruined hulk sits at the bottom of the bay, a symbol of the death and destruction that we humans are capable of, and yet it is now surrounded by new life.”
It was the Second Sunday of Easter, and we had just come from church and hearing the story of the risen Christ appearing to doubting Thomas, and here in front of me was a different, but equally powerful symbol of resurrection that I could almost touch. As I got off the boat back at the museum, it was as if I could almost hear God talking to me and saying: “you see, I am the author of life and death. Life belongs to me. I choose when to give it and where to give it. You humans may try to usurp my power. You may take the life that I give, but I, and only I, have the power to give it back again.”
It is true that a sunken ship turning into a living reef swimming with new life, is not the same thing as a dead human body miraculously coming back to life again, but it does illustrate an important point: God is in control of life. Life belongs to God, not to us. We humans are always entrusting our lives to the wrong things; we trust in the wrong things to save us.
We mortals, we are so prone to reject the true cornerstone of our life. We put more faith in our own power and our own abilities, than we do in God, who is the one, true living cornerstone. But only God has the power to save us. Only God can transform death into life. We can build houses and ships and walls and buildings and fortresses, but only God can build life.
We can destroy things, but God always has the power to build them back up again. We can sink a ship, but God can transform that vessel from a coffin into a crib; from death into life.
The Romans thought they had finished the job when they sealed the tomb over Jesus’s dead body; they were sure that they had destroyed him, but they were wrong. God is in control of life. The Romans didn’t know that Jesus and the Father, the author of life, were one. In trying to display to the world their strength and power, the Romans killed countless people, but in this one poor carpenter they finally met their match. They came face to face with a life that they could not defeat.
Jesus said to Philip “whoever has seen me has seen the father.” In Jesus we are given a glimpse of what God is like: not only in his teachings, but also in his life and actions. And what we learn time and time again is that God will not be restrained by our expectations, nor does he wait for us to understand before he takes action. He repeatedly shows us that he can create new life in the places where we see only death. Not only can he do it, he’s the only one that can do it. Life belongs to him.
In the Book of Acts we are told the story of the first deacon, Stephen. A faithful man condemned on false charges, he was dragged out of the city to be executed by the mob. And as he looked up, expecting to see death raining down on him from above in his accuser’s stones, what he saw instead was Jesus. And rather than use his dying breath to condemn those who were taking his life, he decided instead to use it to forgive them and to entrust his life to the only one who had the power to give it back again: Jesus.
If God can do that for Jesus, he can do it for us too, all of us. If he can give new life to the lifeless shell of a sunken battleship, I believe he can also give new life to his children that were trapped inside. Although the Arizona Memorial is lovely, I am not really impressed with what humans can do. Sure we are pretty clever now and then, but no sooner do we invent something good or build something good, when that fallen nature of ours takes over and we find a way to destroy it or use it for evil. But God, God never ceases to impress me, he can always take that evil we do and make it good again. God and only God can transform death into life. Life, all life, belongs to him.
Jesus gets some distressing news at the beginning of the Gospel this morning. His cousin John, the man who baptized him, the prophet who roamed in the wilderness telling people to repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near, has been arrested. Jesus knows this can’t be good, not for John at least. King Herod owes his allegiance to the Romans, so he isn’t going to put up with anyone challenging his authority, least of all some backwater prophet. John’s days are numbered. I’m sure Jesus knows that.
The reasonable thing for Jesus to do would have been to go back to Nazareth, go back to making tools in his father’s shop, and lead a quiet peaceful life, steering clear of Herod and the Romans. But that’s not what he does. He grabs his stuff and moves a few miles away to Capernaum, a little city on the lake, and he begins to move throughout that region, preaching exactly the same thing that John was preaching in Judea: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Maybe the world got a little darker for Jesus after John was arrested. I am sure that John’s followers were pretty disillusioned too. But instead of quitting, Jesus picks right up where John left off, proclaiming the same message. And the message was this: repent. Change your life. Choose to live differently, because God is not as far off as you think. God is closer to you than you imagine; his kingdom is breaking into this world and you can choose to be a part of it. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
I am sure that some people had a really hard time accepting or understanding this message: Do you mean to tell me that with all of the suffering in this world that God is actually close? With all of the hatred, killing, pain, anguish, with so much darkness in the world, it is hard enough for some people to believe that God even exists, much less that he is actually close and that he really cares about us and what we do, and yet that is exactly the message that Jesus continues to proclaim.
He walks up to two brothers on the lakeshore, proclaims his message and then says to them: follow me, and I will make you fishers of men, and they do it. They drop what they are doing, leave their nets behind and follow him. A little later he says it to two more brothers, and they do the same, leaving not only their nets but their father too. What would cause people to do something so radical as to leave their livelihoods and their family behind to go following after this man?
The gospel writer Matthew found the answer in the prophet Isaiah: the people who have dwelled in darkness have seen a great light. Those fisherman standing by the lakeshore saw something in Jesus. They saw light. They saw in him and in his message a light that they didn’t see anywhere else. It was that light that made them drop their nets and follow him.
I have commented before on how much I think we take light for granted. Most of us never have to deal with true darkness, not for very long. You flip a switch and the lights come on and everything is clear to see. But for most of human history it certainly wasn’t that way. Tonight we are having a candlelight service here as a special event, but for our ancestors every service was a candlelight service, there just weren’t any other options. Now we light candles at every service here, but it isn’t always easy to see them. The only time that you can truly appreciate the beauty of a candle is when you are sitting in the darkness. Darkness makes the light shine brighter.
There are other things that we take for granted too: things like hope, love, meaning, purpose, self-respect, forgiveness. Maybe you can remember a time in your life when you didn’t have one or all of those. Maybe you are struggling to find them now. Living without hope, love, meaning or self-respect, that is a very dark existence. And if you have ever lived that way, and someone came along showed you a light: a glimmer of hope or redemption, you would probably happily leave the darkness behind and follow that light.
I can’t say exactly what was going on in the lives of Andrew and Peter and James and John. They were poor fishermen living in the country. I can only guess that there must have been a lot of darkness in their world. Perhaps they were living without hope or purpose; maybe they felt trapped by their circumstances; maybe they felt that God was distant and didn’t care much about their lives; whatever their individual emotions, they each saw in Jesus and in his message (the message that change was possible and that God was near) something so compelling that leaving everything else behind wasn’t a difficult decision. However difficult their individual lives were, that darkness only allowed them to see his light more clearly, and by that light they were saved. They spent the rest of their lives trying to carry that light to others as well. That’s what it means to be a fisher of men: not to trap people unawares or reel them into church unwillingly, but to carry a light out into the darkness.
People always have and always will complain about how dark the world is. Suffering, pain, grief, hatred, murder, depression, anxiety…these things weren’t invented in the last century, they have always been around. If you want to you can stare out into the darkness your entire life, lamenting about how dark it is, but what good will that do? If you want to do something about the darkness be a light. If Jesus was distressed by John the Baptist’s flame being extinguished, he responded by going out into the world and lighting twelve more candles. If you don’t like the way the world is, if you don’t like the way our country is, then don’t just stare into the darkness and complain; take your light out into that dark world. If you think the world is going to hell, then it is up to you to carry Christ’s light out to those who cannot see it. Don’t worry about the darkness, it only makes the light shine brighter.
The story of the Birth of Jesus Christ, as we all know it, and as it is depicted in movies and songs and in countless nativity scenes, is not really one story, but two that we have tied together. What we know about the birth of Jesus, we now from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, two different authors who give us different details about this miraculous birth. If you only read one gospel or the other, you miss out, because each of them contain only a piece of the whole story. While our tradition has woven these two storylines together to give us one image of the nativity, it is helpful sometimes to unravel them to see how they complement each other.
In the gospel of Luke, which we read on Christmas Eve, we hear of the census that was taken while Quirinious was governor of Syria. We are told that Mary and Joseph found their way to Bethlehem, where she gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. We are also told that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, that were told by an angel that they would find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. There is however, no star, and no mention of the wise men in Luke’s account.
In the gospel of Matthew, which we read tonight on Epiphany, we hear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, but there is no mention of a census, no mention of an inn, no manger and no shepherds. Instead, Matthew tells us this fascinating tale about these wise men following a star. It leads them to a child that was born King of the Jews, and there they offer their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
In Luke we have shepherds but not wise men; in Matthew we have wise men, but no shepherds. Now I point this out not to argue that one version is more reliable than the other, but rather to show that our understanding of the birth of Jesus comes from two different stories that focus on different details. It is not that one must be right and the other wrong; we aren’t being asked to choose between Luke and Matthew; we simply need to recognize that the image we have of Christ and his birth is a composite, made up of different stories that while probably true in the details they present, are nonetheless incomplete. Sometimes it is only by looking at the differences in the stories of the gospels that we can really appreciate what they have in common and the great truth, which they are all trying to point to.
On the surface it would not seem that Luke and Matthew have much in common at all: just the characters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the little town of Bethlehem. Afterall, what do shepherds and wise men have in common with each other? Our two birth gospels give us two very different types of people that are able to identify and adore the baby Jesus: the very wise and the very simple. The wise men travel far, are entertained by kings and priests, and are able to offer the child expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the shepherds, who only keep company with the sheep and the livestock, find Jesus in their own town, but have nothing to offer him but praise and adoration. One group was probably dressed in fine and exotic clothing, the other in the only homespun clothes that they owned. Of all the people that could have been found at the birth of Jesus, it would seem that few could have less in common than wise men and shepherds, and yet, those are the only ones our gospels tell us about. The only people who were able to find Jesus were the very wise and the very simple; those that knew nothing, and those that knew that they didn’t know everything.
If you are a smart person you know things; if you are a wise person, you realize just how much you do not know. It can be dangerous to just be smart. You can have a little too much confidence in your own intelligence. You can put too much faith in your own version of reality and fail to see that others may see things very differently than you. A smart person may be able to memorize every word of the gospel of Matthew; a wise person will recognize that his account is only one part of the story.
A wise person recognizes the limits of their own understanding. Wise people realize that no matter how much truth they possess, or how much they think they know, that God and his truth will always be infinitely greater. The late archbishop Fulton Sheen commented in one of his Christmas broadcasts that there were “only two classes of people that heard the cry that night in Bethlehem: shepherds and wise men. Shepherds: those who know they know nothing; Wise Men: those who know they do not know everything. The very simple and the very learned. Never the man with one book! Never the man who thinks that he knows.”
What do the wise men have in common with the shepherds? Humility. They both understand that here is a mystery that is being revealed to them: this is not something that they figured out under their own power. None of them found the baby Jesus under the power of their own intellect; they were each in their own way guided to him. For the shepherds it was an angel, for the wise men it was a star, but each had to recognize that they did not already have all the answers, all knowledge or all truth. They had to have the humility to put their faith before their understanding, not ignoring what they knew, but always remembering that they did not know all.
When you look at a nativity scene, you will discover that actually all types and sorts of people were able to find Christ in the manger: Jews and Gentiles, Rich and Poor, Learned and simple; different races and different classes. What they all had in common was humility. Each one of them understood that they only had a piece of the whole story.