Beauty is an act of rebellion against an ugly world.

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Sermon for Sunday, September 8th, 2019

Readings:

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

 

Well as General MacArthur said after he waded on shore in the Philippines: I have returned!

 

After a summer of either academic study or the various adventures of my sabbatical, I am back home and back in the pulpit. Of course, I was here last week, but we were still on our summer schedule, so it wasn’t quite back to life as usual. But we are back now in full force, all of us, returned from our various travels and diversions this summer, and hopefully ready to meet the coming program year with renewed passion and energy.

 

And our gift from God on this Sunday, the Sunday of our collective return, our “welcome back Sunday” is this charming gospel passage, wherein our Lord Jesus Christ says:

 

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

 

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

 

Sweet no?

 

Of course, I am being facetious. There is nothing charming about that passage. It is one of Jesus’s challenging, hard statements that people really struggle with.

 

Isn’t honoring our fathers and mothers a commandment? Shouldn’t church be a place where families are strengthened and supported?

 

And I am not going to even get into the whole idea of giving up our possessions….yet.

 

These are some hard words that Jesus has to offer his would-be followers. And if you only want Jesus for comfort, and not conviction, then his words today are going to be a real challenge.

 

I mentioned General MacArthur because when I think of someone making a grand return the picture of him standing knee deep in the water on the beach in the Pacific comes to mind. When I think of that image of General MacArthur, which I’m sure most of you are familiar with, wading on shore in the Philippines, it seems triumphant and victorious and encouraging, but I have to remind myself of what he was returning to: he was wading into a war-zone. There were bullets in the air, there was a battle going on; things weren’t going exactly to plan, his boat got stuck, which is why he had to jump into the water. Maybe he was supremely confident that the war would be won, but he also knew that at any moment it could cost him, or any one of his soldiers, everything. Returning isn’t always easy.

 

So as we return to our regular life of worship here on our “welcome back Sunday,” perhaps it is fitting that Jesus has some harsh, challenging words for us. Because we too are returning to a war zone…and I am not talking about the up-coming friendship fair and the bomb of stuff that has been dropped on the parish hall. No, this is a spiritual war zone and the front line of the battle is within each and every one of us. It is true when we are out in the world, but it is especially true here.

 

I saw a post online last week, it was a picture of a gorgeous chasuble, much like the one I am wearing, and it said something like “beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world.” I loved that thought. There is so much God-given beauty in our world, there is much man-made beauty, but I don’t have to tell you all that there is so much ugliness in it too. And the ugliness is insidious. It sucks us in before we know it. If you have ever gotten into a comments argument with someone online you know how fast it can happen. Even in person, it is almost impossible to have reasonable, rational debates anymore because we all get sucked in to these ugly emotional responses so quickly.

 

There is a battlefield within each one of us. Ugliness creeps into our soul. It affects how we treat God’s creation, how we treat each other and even what we see when we look into the mirror.

 

But beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world. Trying to live a beautiful life, trying to offer God worship that is sincere and beautiful, trying to treat others in a way that acknowledges the God-given beauty within them…these things are acts of rebellion in a world that would love to drag us down into despair and ugliness.

 

As Christians, we believe in the Resurrection. We believe that the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has already won this war. We believe that forgiveness has defeated sin; that life has defeated death; that beauty has defeated ugliness. The ultimate end to the last battle may be settled, but for each one of us, the daily battles still go on. The enemy doesn’t want us to know that Jesus has already won the war between good and evil. So the enemy distracts us, and discourages us, hoping that we will lose the nerve, the will or the energy to keep fighting; hoping that we will settle for something that is less than God. And sadly, many do.

 

Last week the Episcopal Church released its Sunday attendance figures from the past year, and I can tell you that they aren’t good. Now our parish is growing, and our diocese is holding steady too, we are bucking the trend, but for many places the numbers are extremely troubling. Now I can give a more extended analysis of the various reasons for decline; and I would be the first to point out the many mistakes made by church leadership, but still, we aren’t alone in this decline. In fact, almost across the board churches everywhere, of every denomination, are seeing decreased attendance. The real sad fact, is that people aren’t leaving to go to another church, they are leaving church altogether.

 

I do understand the temptation sometimes. Because Church isn’t easy. Following Jesus is not easy. Sometimes his words sting. He challenges our assumptions. He calls us out on our own hypocrisy, and then he tells us to do things that we simply don’t want to do. Finally, Jesus sums it all up by saying something like what he says this morning: following me must be more important to you than anything else on earth, anything else. More than your money, your life, your friends, your political affiliation, even your parents. I have to mean more.

 

So as tempting as it would be for me to find another career, or to do something else on Sunday morning, here I am. I keep coming back, because, ultimately, I believe this story we tell about Jesus to be true, and filing in behind him in this rebellion against ugliness is more important to me that a few more dollars in my pocket, a few more hours of sleep on Sunday and a few less headaches with plumbing issues and miss-sent emails.

 

And here you are, fighting many of the same battles. By now, some of your friends and family and co-workers may have decided that the cost of following Jesus is too great; that the battles aren’t worth fighting. I understand and I sympathize, but I’m not ready to give up the fight, and I’m guessing neither are you.

This story we tell about death and resurrection, sin and redemption, God’s good creation and the new heaven and earth, the new kingdom that he is creating; it is a beautiful story. I believe it is a true story. and beauty and truth are still worth fighting for. Beauty is an act of rebellion in an ugly world.

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2019

Readings:

There was an extremely famous Baptist preacher in England in the middle of the nineteenth century named Charles Spurgeon. A huge number of his sermons were transcribed and published so they are readily available, even today. In one of his sermons on Pentecost, the feast which we celebrate today, he has one line which just stood out to me out as being quite profound. It could have been just a passing comment or a throwaway remark, but it gave me pause so I want you to hear it.

 

When talking about the Holy Spirit and the events recounted in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, which you just heard, Spurgeon says:

 

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

His words strike at the heart of a dilemma that I think all priests and preachers encounter whenever we have to talk about the Holy Spirit, and the Feast of Pentecost, more than any feast other is really an occasion when we must talk about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a part of the Holy Trinity, which is the core of our faith. The Holy Spirit is an aspect, it’s a part of our God, it is God, but how do we talk about it? It is much easier to talk about our Lord in the person of Jesus Christ. It is even easier to talk about God the Father, but when it comes to the Holy Spirit, which we in our traditional manner often refer to as the Holy Ghost, how can we talk about that? It is so much more mysterious.

 

And the day of Pentecost, it is a bizarre story with mysterious sights and sounds. How should we remember that? Should we try and recreate rushing wind and tongues of fire? What is the best way to remember the Holy Spirit on this day?

 

Well according to Mr. Spurgeon, “the cause is always best remembered by the effect.”

 

What was the effect of the Holy Spirit on those apostles, because that is probably the best way to remember it? Well let’s look at Peter for a second. Fifty days ago, Peter would not publicly admit that he even knew Jesus. He was fearful of what would happen to him if people knew that he was a follower of this man from Galilee. And now, after being anointed by the Holy Spirit…Peter is standing in the public square and loudly confessing that Jesus is both Lord and Messiah.

 

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

What effect did the Holy Spirit have upon Peter? It changed him. The Holy Spirit took a man that was scared and afraid and unable to witness to Jesus Christ and it transformed him into a man that would boldly proclaim the resurrection in front of any that would listen. The Holy Spirit gave Peter the words that he needed to witness to the power of God. It gave Peter the insight to see how Jesus had been proclaimed and predicted through the prophets of old. It transformed him into a man that would work miracles in Jesus’s name.

 

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

What effect does the Holy Spirit have? The Holy Spirit can change people. It can change fear into boldness. If we want to remember the Holy Spirit today, we will best do it by remembering the effect that the Holy Spirit had upon those disciples, and not just the disciples, but on those who heard the disciples’ proclamation and witnessed the effects of the Spirit on the disciples’ lives.

 

The Book of Acts continues:

 

So those who welcomed this message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

That is the effect of the Holy Spirit.

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

How should we remember the Holy Spirit? Let’s look at the effect that it had on people. People’s lives were changed; they were converted; their priorities shifted. This resurrection, this promise of new life, this wasn’t just some nice idea that they agreed to in their minds, it was something that offered them transformation now. And what did that transformation look like? It looked like devotion to the word of God and the words spoken by Jesus; it looked like fellowship and prayer; it looked like generosity and selflessness; it looked like gratitude and praise. That was the vision that won people’s hearts and minds. That was the vision that converted the masses. That was the real effect of the Holy Spirit. Who cares if you can speak in Parthian or Elamite if you are still singing the same old song you always sang? If what you are saying isn’t good news I don’t want to hear it in any language.

 

The cause is best remembered by the effect.

 

The effect of the Holy Ghost descending upon those apostles is that their lives were transformed in such a way that people who witnessed that transformation wanted to know more. Tell me more about this God you worship that gives you hope in the midst of despair. Tell me more about this man who healed the sick and forgave sinners. Tell me more about how he was freed from death and promised to raise his followers up with him. I want to know about this God who shines a light into darkness.

 

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

If we want to remember the Holy Spirit on this Pentecost Sunday then let’s talk about lives being changed by God, because that is the real effect of the Holy Spirit. This spirit gives us a new relationship with God, as Paul says: “Not a spirit of slavery or fear, but a spirit of adoption.” In other words this Spirit teaches us that we are loved and wanted by God. This spirit bears witness in our souls that we are children of God. This spirit has the power to transform us and how we live, that is its effect. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul spells out the effects of the Spirit. He says this: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control those are the effects of the Spirit. Those are the real languages it speaks. That is what we need to remember today. If people see the fruit of the Spirit growing in our lives, they will listen to what we have to say no matter what human language we say it in.

 

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

 

You know I hear church leaders and Christians all the time lamenting that people don’t go to church the way they used to and people don’t listen to the church the way they used to, and numbers are declining. And some enterprising church leaders like to write books and develop programs they can market on how to grow your church. Everyone is looking for the silver bullet. Well I think part of the problem is that we have forgotten how the church was born. We say that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, but that birth came through the power of the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t through the skill or the cleverness or the goodness of the apostles. It was an effect of the Holy Spirit. The church was born when God demonstrated his power to change people. It was God’s power that converted those three thousand people, not Peter’s. You know, I firmly believe that the secret weapon of the church is the Holy Spirit, but the problem is that it is so secret that most of the time we don’t even know we have it. But when Jesus told us that he would send us the Advocate, or the Holy Spirit, he said that it would be with us forever. So I reckon that it is still here, only maybe we have forgotten it. Maybe we have forgotten what it looks like. Maybe while we were looking for speaking in tongues and parlour tricks, the real Holy Spirit has been here working quietly in our midst healing, converting, convicting, comforting; maybe not speaking Parthia, Mede or Elamite, but speaking the languages of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

 

How are we to remember the Holy Spirit? I think Spurgeon was right.

The cause is always best remembered by the effect.

A Tale of Two Cities

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Sermon for Sunday, May 26th, 2019

Readings:

 

The bible begins and ends with a city. There are two important cities in the bible: one at the very beginning in the book of Genesis and the other all the way at the end in the book of Revelation. Whenever I see that kind of parallel structure in the scriptures I feel compelled to look at them together, (and mind you the scriptures love to do this. The scriptures love to create parallels across books, authors and testaments. Either by editorial design or divine providence, the bible is full of these wonderful parallels). So let’s look at these two cities that bookend our holy writings.

 

The first city we find in the bible, comes in Genesis chapter 11. Now this is after the Garden of Eden, after Cain and Abel, after Noah and the flood. After all those stories we are told about the first city that humans built: Babel. All the peoples of the earth were gathered together in that one city and there was one language…they didn’t just have unity, they had uniformity. So the first city the bible shows us is a place where all the people of the earth are gathered together as one: one language, one culture, they understand each other, they work together and they are smart. They start to figure out how to build things; in fact, they figure out that if you fire bricks in an oven they get a lot stronger and you can build bigger buildings. And so in the middle of this city they build a great tower as a symbol of their achievement. The city and the tower are built as a tribute to themselves…they say it is to make a name for themselves. These people are confident that their salvation lies in their ability to work together and build together; they are terrified of what may happen if they end up scattered across the earth. Their salvation is technology and uniformity and the great symbol of that salvation is this one great tower stretching up into the heavens. That is the first city in the bible.

 

The last city we see in the bible comes in Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, part of our scripture readings this morning. This city comes at the end of the story, the end of creation, the end of all time. This is the New Jerusalem, the new city that is a part of the new heaven and new earth. Now our passage this morning sadly cuts out a chunk of John’s description of this city, because its long and the lectionary thinks you might find it boring, and maybe you would, but what John describes is this massive glorious city with twelve gates, one for each of the tribes of Israel. So symbolically, this is a city where all of God’s people are coming together again, but they aren’t one…not the way that the people in Babel were one. These tribes have different names and are coming from different directions. These people are one, but they are not the same. There is diversity here, not uniformity. And the city isn’t built with manmade bricks. It is made of gold and jewels and precious stones, things only God can make. And the gates to the city, which never shut because the people don’t have anything to be afraid of anymore, the gates are made of twelve pearls (you’ve heard of the pearly gates, well this is where that comes from). And in the middle of this city, the source if its identity and unity is not a manmade tower celebrating human progress, not even a temple. In the center of this city is God himself. God, who has come down to live among his peoples. That is the last city we are shown.

 

In one city we have people focused on saving themselves and building a tower up to God. In the other city, what John sees is the heavenly city, a city made of stuff only God could create, coming down to earth, with diverse peoples gathered in it that feel no need to celebrate themselves or save themselves, but only want to celebrate the fact that their God has chosen to dwell among them. This is the parallel or the comparison that I think we need to look at this morning. I think it is a parallel that the bible or God speaking through the bible wants to show us. There is something in our human nature that the Bible wants us to see: a tension that runs through religious life and secular life and political life; the church is frequently getting mixed up in this tension because the church is made up of humans and human nature is what it is. And at the heart of the tension is this: humans like to think that they can build a stairway to heaven through their own good sense and accomplishment, and God stands back and laughs, because God is planning to bring heaven down to earth. The New Jerusalem in John’s vision comes down from heaven, it isn’t made by man. God comes down to dwell among his people, they don’t muscle their way up to him by being clever or even good. God comes down. We want to climb up to God, and we can’t. God wants to come down to us, and he can. That is what all of this is about. And in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, humans are finally so aware of God in their midst that they can finally stop trying to be him. That is John’s vision.

 

But despite the fact that we have placed John’s vision as the culmination of all our scriptures, I don’t think that we are really ready to give up on Babel yet. We still desperately want to build that stairway to heaven. We still want to save ourselves and celebrate ourselves. You may know the musical Godspell. Great music…a lot of the lyrics come from our own hymnal, but there is this one song that was added later: “We can build a beautiful city. Yes we can, yes we can.” It’s a pretty song but when I hear it I always want to sing to myself: “no we can’t no we can’t.” Maybe God can build a beautiful city, the perfect city, but real humans? I don’t think so. Even Walt Disney couldn’t do it.

 

Some of you may know the story behind Walt Disney World, which I grew up not very far from. When we think of Disney World we think of Cinderella’s castle and Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom and amusement parks, but building another Disneyland type amusement park was only a minor part of Walt’s vision for his Florida project. His main vision, the heart of his project, was this thing he called EPCOT…the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow: the perfect city of the future that would not only celebrate the best of American industry, but would also celebrate the cultures of the world and serve as a vision, as a beacon of optimism and hope for how we might live in the future. The city of EPCOT was to show us how technology could transform how we live and create a better tomorrow and its symbol would be one great big tower stretching to the heavens. Sound familiar? You can still see the model Walt had built. But the city was never meant to be.

 

Walt died and those following after him realized for a moment at least the fundamental flaw in Walt’s plan: you can’t have a perfect city if you have real people living in it. Real people are a mess. Real people are unclean, real people practice abominations and falsehoods. It is hard enough dealing with real people as guests in the park, how on earth are they going to manage with them living there all the time? So that project was shelved and eventually turned into another amusement park: Epcot Center. The Disney company would try again though, the idea of building the perfect city is just too enticing I guess…they would try again to build a perfect town down the road, called Celebration, and that didn’t work out so well for them either. We never learn. We will keep trying to build Babel until the Lord returns and finally builds his own beautiful city. We will keep trying I am sure, but I am thankful for the vision that John and his Book of Revelation and the bible give me. I am thankful for the revelation that God is coming down to me and that I don’t have to claw my way up a ladder to heaven. I am thankful for the Good News that I don’t have to build the perfect city, because once in a while it actually gets through my head. Once in a while, I am able to put down the bricks and the trowel, to stop trying to build something and just rejoice in the beauty of God’s presence.

 

Walt’s vision was never built, but you know, Epcot Center, the park that was made, is my favorite of the Disney parks. If you have ever been there then you know that the first half of the park, future world, was built to be a celebration of progress and technology, much like Walt had envisioned, and the back half, World Showcase, was built to be an international exposition of different cultures and countries. The whole thing was envisioned as some sort of permanent World’s Fair. Well as a child I was fascinated by future world and all the technology, but as I have grown older my focus and my heart have moved to the back of the park, to the World Showcase, because what I have realized is that while my cellphone and my computer are useful, they don’t really add value to my life in quite the same was as listening to the Voices of Liberty sing in the American Pavilion, or having a croissant in the France Pavilion, or a beer in the German Pavilion. In other words, I have realized that culture and language and food, and the God given diversity of the peoples of the world means more to me than any piece of manmade technology. Sure, we can say that culture is something that humans are a part of and influence, but it is always bigger than any one of us and shaped by elements that are beyond our control. Culture and language are, in my opinion, a gift from God worthy to be celebrated. And what I love about Epcot now, the back of the park, is that for me it is a vision of what the real city of God might look like: a place where all the people of the world gather together, celebrating all the glory that God has given them and shown them and feeling no need to put their neighbor down in order to build themselves up. A place where God’s people can celebrate what God created them to be. A city where the sinfulness and dirtiness and messiness of this life has been washed away. A city where people are one, but they are not the same. A city that never gets old or outdated. A city where people aren’t afraid, because with God in their midst there is nothing to fear.

 

Now, I know Epcot is not all that. It isn’t made out of gold or jasper or pearl or carnelian…it is plastic. I know it. Still, I love it. For one thing it is a theme park and Lord knows I love a theme. But more importantly I love it because it is a reminder to me, that as I go through life I am often faced with a decision: I often find myself pulled between two cities, which really represent two philosophies or ways of life. I can either keep trying to build and update future world, always toiling and struggling to figure out how to build the next new Babel, just like Disney is struggling to figure out what to do with the front of Epcot which is outdated and doesn’t make sense anymore; or I can take a walk over to the Mexico Pavilion, sit in the sun by the water and have a margarita and enjoy the day God gave me. I think I know which one I’ll choose.

The Greatest Love of All

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Sermon for Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Readings:

 

What is love?

 

What does Jesus mean when he says, “love one another”?

 

Well before we answer that, I think there is another question we must ask:

 

Who are you willing to die for?

 

That may seem like an odd question to follow with, maybe it seems severe, but think about it for a moment. Put aside for a moment your secret list of individuals you think the world would be better without, and think about those people that you are pretty sure you would risk your life to save. I’m willing to bet that most of you have at least a few people that you hold so dear that you would risk anything to protect them. Your children perhaps. Maybe your spouse. The people in your life that you depend on; the people you are closest too.

 

If you have been in the military or worked in law enforcement or served as a firefighter or first responder, perhaps your job has called you to risk your life for someone. Maybe a buddy or a partner…maybe even a complete stranger. It takes special people to do that kind of work, because let’s face it, for most of us, the list of people that we would be willing to die for is pretty short.

 

The will to stay alive runs deep in our veins as a species. Throughout the natural world there is this drive, this deep desire to stay alive, to survive. It takes a lot to override that. There might be only a handful of people in your life that you can imagine doing that for. I think that is normal, but think for a minute about those people. Think about who you would willingly accept death for in order to save. Who would you take a bullet for?

 

Why do I ask? Because those are the people you reallylove. Those are the people that you love with the approaching the love of Christ.

 

Now you may be thinking, “hold on a sec! I love lots of people, that doesn’t mean I am ready to die for them. This is just an extreme example. There are lots of types of love.”

 

Well maybe there are lots of types of love, so perhaps we should be clear what we mean when we use that word. And perhaps we need to be clear what Jesus means when he uses it. I get a little nervous when I see or hear the word “love” used in churchy circles, especially when I see it used as a slogan or as a buzzword or as a way to market Christianity or the church. I get nervous because love is such an overused word in our society and we have been trained by television and music to think of love as some sort of greeting card fuzzy feeling that we all want and that is the key to all the world’s problems. All you need is love. Love, love will keep us together. Love, soft as an easy chair; love, fresh as the morning air.

 

I’d like to build the world a home

and furnish it with love

grow apple trees and honey bees

and snow white turtle doves

 

I’d like to teach the world to sing

in perfect harmony

I’d like to buy the world a coke

and keep it company

 

Ok. That’s cute, but is that what love really is? Is that what Jesus is talking about when he says love one another just as I have loved you? Go buy someone a Coke? What is love? What does Jesus mean when he says love?

 

I am reminded of the scene in the Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 

I do not think the word love means what we think it means when we use it to describe sunshine, lollipops and rainbows and everything that’s wonderful. When Jesus talks about Love, when he commands his disciples to love one another, is he talking about some warm and fuzzy (or peaceful, easy) feeling? Is love some a many splendored thing? Is it nature’s way of giving, a reason to be living? or is love the exact opposite: a supernatural force that calls us to sacrifice everything, even our own lives?

 

Walk in Love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.

 

That is our offertory sentence that we hear every week; it is also a line from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but what does it mean to walk in love?

 

It would be easy to just redefine to be something easy like a feel-good emotion, or like self-esteem, like just holding hands and singing kum bah yah like the only thing standing between us and world peace is one great big hippie love fest, but is that the love that God has shown us? What if it’s not that easy? When we discover that love comes at a price, that it isn’t easy, we might be tempted to draw the circle smaller to limit the number of people we feel obligated to love: let’s just love our families, or our like-minded Facebook friends, or let’s just love people that are loveable, but is that how people will know that we are followers of the man on the cross?

 

What is love? What is love to Jesus? What is the love of our God? Paul’s line says it all, I think.

 

Walk in Love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.

 

Love is giving.

Love means offering yourself.

Love means sacrifice.

 

What does that look like? Well ultimately, we believe it looks like this. The cross. This symbol of cruelty and death and shame, becomes for us the reminder of where true love, real love leads. It leads to sacrifice. This is the extreme symbol of sacrificial love; a love that wills the good of another to the point of personal loss. A love that has no self-interest; a love that doesn’t seek personal glory or comfort; a love that is so deep and complicated that you can’t slap it on a greeting card or a bumper sticker. This kind of love, the love of Jesus, the love of the cross…this is the world’s worst marketing campaign, because who wants love that promises pain? It doesn’t make sense why anyone would choose this kind of love…it doesn’t make sense, until that moment when you look into the eyes of someone that you would be willing to die for.

 

Then you get it. When your will for the good of someone else is stronger than your will to live, then you get it. It might just be in those moments when you are willing to lose everything for someone else that you are seeing the world through God’s eyes. Those moments might just be the only moments when we really understand love. Love seems like an easy emotion until we realize that real love costs something.

 

A little later in John’s gospel, Jesus says again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

 

I’m sorry but the greatest love of all, isn’t inside of me; it isn’t easy to achieve and it isn’t learning to love yourself. Maybe those words would make great lyrics to a song, but they don’t make great theology, because that is not the love that was revealed to us by God. According to Jesus the greatest love of all is the love that calls us to the cross; it is love that involves sacrifice.

What is love? This is love.

Avoiding answers

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Sermon for May 12th, 2019

Readings:

I was looking ahead a few weeks on my calendar recently and I noticed that I had scheduled a doctor’s appointment for my physical. I must have booked it months ago and forgotten about it. Well no sooner did I see that appointment then I started thinking to myself: how can I get out of this? Maybe I can double book myself that day. Maybe I will be too busy for one reason or another. I feel reasonably healthy right now, so maybe I should just cancel.

 

So many reasons not to go.

 

But of course, even if I do go, I can always find reasons not to trust what the doctor tells me. I can tell myself that his scale needs to be recalibrated, or that my clothes or shoes are particularly heavy that day; or I can tell myself that his tests are faulty or not trustworthy; I can tell myself that his science is flawed; and if none of that works, I can try to pick my doctor apart, saying things like: why should I listen to him? he looks like he could do a few more push ups.

 

I am looking for reasons not to go; I am looking for reasons not to believe the doctor or to trust him. I feel mostly OK right now. If I wanted to, I could probably convince myself that I’m pretty healthy, that nothing is wrong, nothing is broken. If I let the doctor start poking around, he might tell me something I don’t want to hear. He might try and come between me and my relationship with butter and bacon. He might tell me that I need to change something in my life, and then I am going to be left having to make this decision that I don’t want to make.

 

If I decide to listen to this man, and trust this man and accept that what he tells me is true, then I am going to be faced with a much worse decision: I will have to decide to actually listen to his advice and possibly change my life, or I will have to decide to knowingly reject what he has to say and accept full responsibility for the consequences. That’s a tough decision. That’s not a decision I want to make. I don’t want to have to change if it is going to interfere with doing something that feels good or eating something that tastes good. And I don’t want to accept the consequences or the responsibility if things start to go badly for me. So what is the easiest way out? Don’t go to the doctor. Plead ignorance. Argue with the data. Question the doctor’s judgment; question his integrity. If I let myself believe that this doctor actually wants to lead me to health and vitality and life and has the power to do it, then I will be forced to make the decision to follow him or not. That may sound like an easy decision to you, but you would be surprised how hard it is for people to make. It is amazing the mental backflips we can put ourselves through to avoid dealing with the truth sometimes.

 

Humans have always been that way though. We are always looking for a diversion or the escape clause or the loophole that will allow us to avoid facing the truth; to avoid making that tough decision to follow or reject; we look for delaying tactics that will allow us to not make any substantive changes in the way we see the world or in the way we live our lives. We don’t want new information if that new information might require us to respond or change. Ignorance is bliss sometimes. If we can be willfully ignorant, and that is different than plain ignorance; plain ignorance is not knowing something; willful ignorance is not knowing something and not wanting to know it, avoiding it. If we can be willfully ignorant then we don’t have to deal with the truth when it tries to confront us.

 

Sometimes, believe it or not, sometimes asking questions is a way to avoid dealing with the truth that we have already been confronted with. Sometimes questions are a way of avoiding answers.

 

Don’t get me wrong, questions are good. Questions are how we find answers. Questions are important to our faith formation. People asked Jesus questions all the time. Jesus asked questions in return. We don’t have to be afraid of questions. But we do need to be aware that sometimes when people asked Jesus questions they were looking for the truth, and sometimes when they questioned him, they were avoiding it.

 

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” How many times has Jesus heard this kind of a question?

 

He can’t be the messiah can he?

How can he say I have come down from heaven?

How can he give us his flesh to eat?

Who can accept these teachings?

How does this man have such learning? Where did he go to school?

When the Messiah comes will he do more signs than this man has done?

Surely the Messiah doesn’t come from Galilee does he?

Who are you?

 

Read through the gospels. How many times was Jesus questioned about who he was? How many times did he answer those questions, not just in words, but also in deeds and actions? So it is no wonder that Jesus gets a bit exasperated at once again being faced with the same questions. He says “I have told you and you do not believe.” The truth is, and Jesus knew this, some people just don’t want to believe. Some people just don’t want to believe.

 

They keep asking question after question after question, not because they seek the truth, but because the truth is, well the truth is right in front of them and they just aren’t prepared to acknowledge it. It’s scary. It’s risky. Because if they admit that this man is a man unlike any other. If they acknowledge that he has power and wisdom unlike anything they have ever witnessed before. If they accept that he is who he says he is, well that is going to force them to make a decision. Sometimes we come to a point where the question has been answered and we have to decide how we are going to respond to the answer that we have been given. Are we going to follow this man or not? Are we going to listen to his voice or not?

 

Even today there are plenty of people in the world that don’t want to believe in Jesus. I’m not talking about people that are legitimately struggling with belief, people that have deep questions, I am talking about people that deep down don’t really want to believe, because if they come to believe that this man is who he says he is that is going to force them to make a decision to follow him or not. So people look for reasons not to believe. People try and find a way to unplug Jesus, so they will try and pick apart the scriptures, or they will point to the failures of Jesus’s followers…anything that will give themselves permission to not believe. I get it. It’s an easier path.

 

Deciding to trust that Jesus actually is the Messiah, the son of God is a scary thing, because if we believe that he actually is who he says he is, then that means that everything that man ever said suddenly is of supreme importance. It means everything he taught, everything he did, now has eternal significance for our lives, so we can’t ignore him anymore. When Jesus is just some Jewish prophet or a good man or a good teacher, then we could ignore him, then making a change in our lives wasn’t such a pressing issue, but once we know that what he says is true…

 

well at one point Jesus asked his disciples: “Do you wish to go away?”

 

and Peter answered him “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.”

 

If I truly believe that this is the holy one of God and that he has the words of eternal life, then where else can I go? If I recognize his voice to be the voice of the good shepherd, my shepherd, then I am bound to listen when he speaks and follow where he leads and there is a good chance that that is going to mean making some changes in my life. I understand why people don’t want to believe in Jesus, in the same why I understand people that don’t want to go to the doctor. Because there is a good chance he is going to tell you something about yourself that you don’t want to hear, and there is a good chance he is going to ask you to do something that you don’t want to do. But if I want health, then I dare not turn away from the source of health, and if I want life then I dare not turn away from the source of life. Jesus isn’t afraid of my questions, so maybe I shouldn’t be afraid of his answers. Maybe I need to deal with the truth that he wants to show me. Maybe deciding to trust him and follow him, and finally believe that he is who he says he is the best and most critical decision I will ever make.

 

We can only avoid truth for so long. And one truth that I am painfully aware of, is that no matter how much time I spend at the doctor’s office, how many drugs I take or how much kale I eat, there is one sickness I am never going to avoid and that is death. Sin and death are a disease we humans have never managed to cure. Oh sure, I am going to try and take care of myself because I want health and vitality, but nothing I do is going to help me cheat death and no matter how hard I try, I am never going to overcome my own sinfulness, not completely. In the history of the world only one doctor or healer has ever proven that he has power over death, only one doctor that has the key to eternal life, only one man has the solution to damage caused by sin, only he didn’t call himself a doctor…he called himself a shepherd.

When the man comes around

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Sermon for Sunday, May 5th, 2019

Readings:

Near the end of his life, Johnny Cash had a dream.

 

And in this rather bizarre dream he was at Buckingham Palace and the queen referred to him as “a thorn tree in a whirlwind”. It was an odd image and when he woke up he pondered what it must mean. The image wouldn’t leave him alone.

 

A thorn tree in a whirlwind.

 

For him I think it signified a powerful force of nature stripping off the thorns of this world and off of us. Johnny was intrigued by this image and as a man of faith he began digging into the scriptures to see if he could find some biblical source. He began in the Book of Job, but where he found this dream or vision most strongly reflected was in the Book of Revelation. The imagery there was complex and strange and dream like. Johnny didn’t understand every image or reference in Revelation, just like we don’t always understand everything we see in our dreams, but what Johnny found in his journey through the Book of Revelation was a vision. A vision of the end of all things, a vision of a powerful force stripping the thorns off this world, a vision that he could only express in the way he knew best: in song.

 

The result of this dream and this journey through scripture was that at the very end of his life, Johnny Cash wrote and recorded, what for my money is his greatest song. When the man comes around.

 

Now if you have never heard “when the man comes around” I strongly suggest you go home and listen to it, but I will warn you it isn’t a song that tries to tell a story, it is a song that tries to show you a vision. It is a song filled with lots of biblical references and images, mostly from the Book of Revelation, and you may not get, or understand them all, and that is OK. It isn’t supposed to be a story with a beginning a middle and an end like some songs. You don’t have to understand it all to appreciate the vision. But what is fascinating about this song is that it is written and sung by a man very near the end of his life, and he is singing about the end of all things, the end of the world. He talks about death and destruction and judgment and yet, his voice and his music is full of hope, and the tempo is upbeat and there is this sense of joyful expectation.

 

That’s not how I was originally taught to read the Book of Revelation. Revelation has usually been presented to me as a scary book. An apocalyptic book of fire and brimstone and mysterious symbols and destruction. A book that you have to be an expert bible scholar to understand. It is frequently presented as a book of prophecy that details in masked language the end times. There was that whole “left behind” series that treated revelation as some sort of blueprint that predicts exactly how God is going to end it all. But maybe that isn’t the best way to read Revelation. Maybe the fact that we mostly focus on the destruction in Revelation says more about us than it does about God.

 

The Psalmist says that God’s “wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, his favor for a lifetime, weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning.” We pay so much attention to the wrath sometimes, but that is momentary; God’s favor and grace is what lasts a lifetime. What we pay attention to in scripture, and what we dwell on can say a lot about us. There is so much more to Revelation than doom and destruction. There is worship and praise and singing and new life and new creation. We get readings from Revelation during Eastertide and I urge you to pay close attention to the image or the vision of eternity that these readings paint.

 

Angels surrounding the throne and singing with full voice

Every creature in heaven and earth and under the earth singing

All the elders fell down and worshipped

 

Singing and worship. That is the image we are given in Revelation today. And if you decide to sit down and study the Book of Revelation sometime and read through it, challenge yourself to see the whole picture that it is painting. Yes there is the last trumpet, but there are also angels singing, and yes there is smoke and fire but there is also incense and candles. What is the ultimate end that the author wants us to see? It is the singing and the worship. So maybe the best way to appreciate Revelation is to sing about it. If we really want to appreciate where we are headed, as people that are washed in the blood of the lamb, as people that are invited to his table, it should be through song.

 

I have to say I studied the Book of Revelation for years, but Johnny Cash really helped me to love it. Hearing an aging man sing about the ultimate end of existence, helps me to appreciate the vision in a way that the words alone never could, because the vision that is being painted in Revelation is not that God is just destroying things. He is stripping the thorns off, that’s for sure, but this isn’t just destruction. God is creating a new reality. He is setting right things that have gone wrong. He is bringing his children home and he is doing it in song. God children were made, created to sing around his throne, and finally that is what they are getting to do. They are singing around his throne. You can’t just tell that story. You need to sing it.

 

Now you might be thinking that country music isn’t your thing, but don’t worry. Johnny Cash was not the first person to realize that Revelation needed to be sung. In fact there is quite a long tradition in the church of singing about the vision in Revelation. If you have ever been to a traditional requiem mass, there is a sequence called the Dies Irae. It’s basically the Medieval Latin version of “When the Man comes around” and it has been set to music by some of the best composers including Mozart. If you sit down and read the words it may seem severe, especially by our standards these days. But it wasn’t written to be read. It was written to be sung. When you hear it sung you get a vision of the beauty of what God is doing that the words alone can’t convey.

 

Music touches a part of us that words alone just can’t. That is why music is such an important part of worship. It touches us somehow inside, even when we aren’t the ones doing the singing. If you have ever been given goose bumps or brought to tears by a song then you know what I mean. And worship and praise fill a need in us, feed us, in a way that simply nothing else on earth can do, and there is a reason for that: because that is the way God has designed us. We aren’t just capable of wonder, love and praise…that is what we were created for. And when all of the thorns of this world are stripped away and we can finally be what God created us to be, as God created us to be, we may not need the sun and the stars, but we will still need music. There will still be singing.

 

So if you expect to be a part of the heavenly choir someday, you might as well start practicing now. That is part of why we are here. You know mass isn’t a performance, it isn’t a lecture, it isn’t a social gathering, or a self-help group. It’s a foretaste. It’s a vision. It’s a glimpse of our eternal destiny. The children of God. Redeemed by the blood of his son. Gathered around his throne. Fed at his table, singing his praises. This is worship and it is like nothing else we do in life and it feeds us in a way that nothing else can. And you don’t have to understand every symbol to appreciate the beauty of the vision.

 

Singing isn’t the only way to praise God, and church is not the only place where God can be worshipped, but worship and praise should be at the core of everything we do here in church, from printing the bulletins to cooking the food to mopping the floor or lighting the candles. Worship and praise are a fundamental part of who we are; that is what Revelation has revealed to us and that is the vision that we need to show the world.

 

Sure there is judgment in revelation. There is pain. Some things are cast down…they have to be, because this is, as Johnny says, “Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom Come.” All other kingdoms must give way. But after all that is past, what Revelation shows us is an eternity of worship and praise. That is the real end. That is our real destiny. When the man comes around, that is what his new world is going to look like. We aren’t destined for destruction. We are destined for praise.

 

Blessed are those who choose to believe.

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Sermon for April 28th, 2019

Readings:

 

It is one thing to have sincere doubts and questions about one’s faith; it is quite another to take pride in disbelief.

On the one hand you have someone that is genuinely unsure, looking for answers and open to truth; on the other hand, you have someone that is closed off, unwilling to question themselves because they are convinced that they already have the truth.

Thomas crosses that line in today’s gospel.

All of Thomas’s friends have testified to him that they have seen the risen Lord. They have seen the resurrected Jesus. They had an experience that Thomas didn’t have and they share with him the good news. And Thomas’s response is revealing. He doesn’t say “could it be?” he doesn’t say “maybe” or “how is this possible?” He doesn’t for a moment question himself or his understanding of the world or reality. Instead his response is “I will not believe.” Unless I actually see his wounds, unless I actually touch his body, I will not believe. His closest friends have just testified to something they know to be true, and Thomas cannot for a second question himself. He can’t let himself be wrong, not even for a moment. We often refer to Thomas as “doubting Thomas” but the truth is Thomas has a tremendous amount of faith…in himself. Thomas only doubts others…he doesn’t doubt himself. He doesn’t believe and that is a matter of pride for him. He doesn’t want to believe, because if he did believe this unbelievable tale he might start doubting himself. He might have to doubt his ability to understand the universe and his role in it. He might have to doubt his social standing or his intellect. He might have to doubt his understanding of life and death. He might have to doubt some of the limits he has placed on God’s power. Thomas doubts others because he can’t bear the thought of doubting himself.

Thomas is forced to question himself though. He has an experience of the risen Lord that shakes him to his core. Jesus stands before him, in the flesh, wounds and all, and Thomas is invited to touch him. And all Thomas can muster to say is “my Lord and my God.” Thomas’s whole world, a world that had been propped up by his own phony self-confidence, just came crashing down. And while I am sure that there was tremendous joy in Thomas at seeing his resurrected friend, I am also sure that that joy was mixed with fear and trembling and angst, because Thomas’s whole world has just been turned on its head.

“Do not doubt but believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. Or maybe to put it another way: “be willing to doubt yourself, in order to believe in something greater.”

You Thomas, have come to believe because you have been given no choice, but blessed are those that choose to believe.

Choosing to believe the gospel can come at a great price though; a price that even many who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus are still unprepared to pay. Choosing to believe the gospel can mean sacrifice. It can mean sacrificing the idea that we fully understand the world around us. It can mean sacrificing our confidence in our own intellect. It can mean admitting that we are not quite as smart and evolved as we like to think we are. It can mean admitting that we are not better than other people, like we secretly like to tell ourselves that we are. We do that too, we pride ourselves on not being like those people, those ancient people, those superstitious people, those tacky people, those poor people, those people without multiple letters after their names. Admitting that the gospel might be true, means choosing to let go of a lot of myself, and that is a price that even some people who truly love some of the things that Jesus had to say, struggle to pay. They, like Thomas, are more comfortable with Jesus as a dead teacher than as a living Lord and God. This is not new.

 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

 

That is what Paul had to say in his first letter to the Corinthians. Now, that’s not one of our readings this morning, so you won’t find it printed in your bulletin. But it is a word I think we need to hear this morning.

You know, the Apostle Paul was one of the first people to put pen to paper and write about this man named Jesus. And Paul didn’t have a nice leather-bound bible with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in it. The gospels, the books of the bible that tell the narrative story of Jesus’s life and teachings, they weren’t written yet, or they were just starting to be written, but Paul didn’t have copies on his desk. And the church in Corinth, they didn’t have copies of the gospels yet either. What they had was the tradition that Paul proclaimed to them. The good news that they knew, was the good news that had been handed on to them by Paul, which was the good news that he received from the other apostles. And the essence of the good news, the gospel, the most important thing that Paul wants to share with them, is that last sentence I just quoted a moment ago:

 

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”

 

You can accuse Paul of many things, but you cannot accuse him of doubting the resurrection. But that was not always the case. Paul, like Thomas, began as someone brimming with self-confidence that doubted everyone but himself. Paul also had an encounter with the risen Lord, that shook him up, knocked him off his donkey and made him realize how bind he had been all along. Paul needed to be shaken up, he needed to doubt himself in order to truly understand and appreciate who this man Jesus really was. And Paul’s letters, the first written documents we have about Jesus, they are all about how Jesus rose from the dead and subsequently what that means for how we should live in the world. That is the message that Paul wants to convey: Jesus Christ is alive and now what are you going to do about it. Paul does not spend a lot of time talking about everything Jesus said or did during his life. Paul doesn’t record Jesus’s teachings. Paul begins with the most astounding, unbelievable, reality shattering and doubt provoking proclamation about Jesus Christ. Paul doesn’t let you wade into the water with something non-controversial and benign like “do unto others” he throws you right into the deep end with “Christ is risen.” Think about that for a second. If you had ten seconds to tell someone the most important thing about Jesus Christ, what would you tell them? Paul can do it in less than ten words…Christ has been raised from the dead.

 

Before we talked about the Golden Rule, before we had the words of the Sermon on the Mount, before we had “love your neighbor”, or “forgive your enemies,” before we have any words he spoke, before we have any records of miracles or healings, before we are allowed to form an opinion of this man…we are told that he was raised from the dead. The hardest thing to believe is the first thing we are told. Why does Paul do that? Well, maybe it is because Paul knows all too well just how dangerous too much self-confidence can be. We talk about self-confidence nowadays as if it were only a virtue, but it isn’t you know. It is entirely possibly to be completely confident and completely wrong at the same time. Many of history’s worst figures were brimming with self-confidence. When Paul shares the gospel, he begins with the Resurrection. It isn’t some extra bit that is tacked on by a later generation of believers, it is right there from the beginning. Paul begins with the part of the story that turns your world upside down and forces you to doubt yourself and your understanding of the world around you. Paul’s Jesus, the first Jesus we ever hear about, is not just some rebel rabbi put to death by the Romans; he is a resurrected Lord that forces us to choose between putting our ultimate faith in ourselves and our own understanding of the world, our putting our faith in a God that is more powerful and more mysterious than we could ever imagine. Choosing to believe in that kind of a God, and choosing to doubt ourselves, is a powerful choice; it is a difficult choice, but it is the most important choice we can ever make. Blessed are those who choose to believe.

 

We are in the midst of our Easter season, the time of the year when we very boldly proclaim Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Now the truth is we are always proclaiming Christ’s resurrection from the dead, but in Easter we do it in a big way. And just about every year the media finds someone they can trot out, usually some clergy person, to question if Jesus actually did rise from the dead and if that is really important. This year, was of course no different.

 

There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this past week, which was so unoriginal that I don’t suggest you waste your time reading it. Basically, the head of a prominent seminary in New York, and a Christian Minister of some variety, was interviewed and proclaimed that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ was really not that important to her faith.  I think it’s sad, but it’s not news. Since that first Easter Sunday there have always been some people that have taken some measure of pride in disbelief, even among the followers of Jesus. There have always been, and probably will always be, people that value every type of doubt but self-doubt. I’m sure that Jesus loves them as much as he loved Thomas or Paul. I must admit though that I don’t get it. If I didn’t believe in all of this I would go and find something else to do. I could be a person of faith, but it wouldn’t be the Christian faith. Sure, Jesus was an excellent teacher, and a brilliant and compassionate man, but that is not why his teachings were recorded and that is not why we are called by his name. John our gospel writer this morning, like Paul, makes it very clear why he is telling the world about Jesus and why he is sharing his words: “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Blessed are those who choose to believe.