Lord AND Saviour

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Sermon for October 10th, 2021

Readings:

Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

My singular goal, as your priest and pastor, and as the rector of this church, is for each and every one of you to have a living relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord AND Savior. My only mission, my only agenda, the thing that I actually, really care about is that the people in this parish are given the space, the resources and the guidance that they need to meet Jesus and to develop a relationship with him as Lord and savior. Maybe that sounds very churchy and pious, but it’s true. Now naturally I can’t force this relationship to happen, you can only lead a horse to water, and it’s not that I don’t get distracted sometimes, like anybody, but that’s what I really care about and everything else needs to serve that goal.

Do I love this building and want to preserve it and improve it and keep it as beautiful as possible? You bet, but only because this is a sacred space where people meet Jesus. I have no interest in being the curator of a museum. We have pretty things here, and I love pretty things, but they are not idols to be worshiped in and of themselves. Their real value is in their ability to point us to God. And that is the value of this building; if this building ever stops pointing people to God and serving as a sacred space where people meet Jesus, then it will be worth no more than the land it is sitting on. 

Do I love this community of misfits and want the parish to grow and expand and gain new members? Yes! But we aren’t here to run a fancy private club, nor are we here to run a senior center, a commercial enterprise, a social service agency or a daycare. Church has to be about more than that. There needs to be a deeper connection here, more than just hanging out with some friends once a week, or just doing nice things in the neighborhood. People don’t need the church for that. They can do that on their own.

There needs to be a connection to Jesus Christ; to God. We need to be teaching people to follow him as Lord and Savior, and I say we very intentionally, because it’s not just my job; it’s our job. Helping people to meet and walk with Jesus should be our shared mission and agenda, not just something I am trying to sneak in on you. And I am also saying follow him as Lord and Savior very intentionally, because these are two distinct ways of living in relationship with Jesus and we need them both. We need a Lord and we need a savior.

If Jesus is Lord, then that means when he says to do something, you do it. You take it as a legitimate command that has authority behind it. That means understanding that you are accountable to him. The Book of Hebrews tells us that “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” The true word of God, the word made flesh, Jesus, is living and active. He is a Lord that has authority and power. He cuts right through all your garbage. Nothing is hidden from him, and before him, one day you will give an account. Jesus, as Lord, gives commands that he expects you to respond to; he cares about how you live your life. He cares about what you do with your money.

Gasp. Money

What did you think I wasn’t going to talk about the gospel reading this morning? Jesus is approached by a man who thinks he’s doing pretty good commandment-wise, thinks he is obeying God’s laws, thinks he is a good person, he’s a nice guy, but he asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus has the audacity to tell him to sell his stuff, give the money away and follow him and the man can’t do it. There are limits to his commitment and to his obedience. You know in the gospels, Jesus calls all sorts of people to follow him, and they usually do it; they leave behind family and jobs and security and they follow Jesus because they see in him something that is just so compelling, but NOT this man. Something is holding him back. He can’t commit to Jesus. Not fully. Now do I think that Jesus is some peace love and dope hippie that is trying to push a communist economic agenda? No I don’t, but Jesus is very clear that money and possessions can be a barrier between us and God. With money comes a little power and security. I like to have power and security. I like having money in my wallet, but here’s the thing if you’ve got your fist clenched around a dollar bill, then it will be closed to everyone else in this world, including Jesus. It is so easy to substitute the power that comes from money, for the power that comes from knowing and following Jesus. People settle for money power every day. Jesus doesn’t want you to settle. He wants you to have a connection with real power and real security, and that can only come from putting your hand in his hand, not putting your hand in your wallet. So yeah, Jesus cares about how you live your life, how you follow his commandments, and how you follow and serve him in this world as your Lord, with the resources that God has entrusted to you. Jesus cares about that.

But Jesus isn’t just a Lord, he’s also a savior. He knows that there are some things that you just can’t do. We need more than just a good teacher in this world; we need a God that can do what we can’t. Thing is, no matter how hard you try to live a good life, assuming that you are trying, no matter how good you are at following Jesus’s commandments, you are going to fail somewhere. You are missing something. You lack something. You are not as good as you think you are. Jesus said no one is good, BUT God. In the Book of Hebrews this morning, we are told that we will be accountable for our actions and that the secrets of our hearts will be revealed, that’s the bad news, BUT we are also told that those secrets are being revealed to a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tested just like we are, that’s the good news. Because of this we can approach the throne of God with boldness, because we are assured that there is mercy and grace there. Jesus is not just a Lord that gives commandments, he is also a Savior that forgives us when we break them. We need both, and Jesus is both. That is what a relationship with him is all about.

Yeah, Jesus cares about how you treat people, how you obey the commandments, what your priorities are and yeah one way of evaluating your priorities is looking at what you do with your money, that is just a fact, but no amount of money is going to buy you a ticket to eternal life, and no amount of correctness or doing the right thing or being nice is going to earn you salvation. It doesn’t work that way. We are sinners and we are mortals and for mortals, eternal life is impossible, but not for God. Everything we have as Christians: our hope, our security, our power, our righteousness and our promise of eternal life all of it comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Nothing is more important than that. So that has to influence everything we do here. I can’t fix any of you and we cannot fix the world, but Jesus can. Jesus can fix you. Jesus can change minds and hearts in ways that you can’t even imagine. So my goal, our goal, in this place, in this church with all of the resources that God has entrusted us with, with every Fair we organize or worship service we conduct, is just to help people meet Jesus and follow him as Lord and Savior. We have to try and trust him to do the real heavy lifting.

Don’t be a jerk

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Sermon for September 26th, 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distractions

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Sermon for September 12th, 2021

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To live more nearly as we pray

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Sermon for September 5th, 2021

Readings:

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

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

The hymn ends:

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

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

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

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

James does not mince words in his epistle this morning. 

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

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

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

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

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

So Lord, 

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

Dressed for battle

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Sermon for August 22nd, 2021

Readings:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

It is important to remember when you hear St. Paul speaking in his letter to the Ephesians, it is important to remember, that he is in prison. Paul got into trouble with some of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem for his preaching, he was arrested, and because he was a Roman citizen he requested and got a change of venue to Rome where he spent the last two years of his life imprisoned. So this man who fought with the Jewish authorities and was kept in chains by the Roman authorities, this man who we know suffered in his body, writes to the Christians in Ephesus and says:  

“our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Wait a sec…Paul, who is being physically held captive by the Romans, says that the struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh? You mean to tell me that Paul thinks that the real enemy is NOT the Romans or the Jews? Yes, I think that is precisely what Paul is saying. Our struggle, as Christians, as people who have allied ourselves with the son of God, is really against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, as Paul says, or the spiritual forces of evil. That is the real enemy: the powers of darkness and the forces of evil. Our struggle as Christians is with them. We may have physical enemies in this world, we may suffer and be oppressed, but those struggles are secondary to the spiritual struggle. We are easily distracted sometimes by the enemies of blood and flesh, but the bigger and more important battle is the spiritual one. Essentially what Paul is saying is that we should not get so distracted by these little side battles that we lose focus on the real war that is actually going on. But it is easy for us to get distracted, even for people of faith.

You know, there have been a lot of arguments in the past, especially among some historical and critical scholars of the bible over whether it was really the Romans or the Jewish Temple authorities that are really responsible for having Jesus crucified. But don’t you see, no matter which side of that argument you come down on, you are missing the real conflict that is happening here! This isn’t about a struggle between Jews and Romans. This is about the fight between good and evil. This is about the struggle between God and the forces of darkness. This is a spiritual battle that involves flesh and blood, but is about so much more than one man’s life. You know, when Jesus was arrested he said to those who were putting him in chains: “this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” The powers of darkness were responsible for having Jesus crucified, and yes it was darkness working with and through human beings, but don’t go thinking that you can just blame Pontius Pilate or Caiphas for this and let it go, like they are the only ones who ever leant the powers of darkness a helping hand. The spiritual battle that is happening on the cross affects all of us; we are all a part of it.

The crucifixion is a historical event, but the cross represents a battle that transcends place and time as we know it. The cross is about the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, good and Evil, or God and Satan that is taking place in every age, in every country and society, and even within every person. The cross is about a struggle that is happening right now in all of our lives, and I will let you in on a little secret or insight…if you look at the cross…without the eyes of faith or the knowledge of God’s power, if you look at this symbol and don’t know what happened three days later, if you don’t know about Easter, then it is always going to look like the darkness is winning. Always. 

But what if you do know how the story ends? What if you knew that this man was victorious in this fight? What if this is a reminder to you that in this cosmic battle between light and darkness that evil only ever appears to have the upper hand, but in the end is always defeated and thrown down and trampled underfoot by God? Could that change how you live? Could that give you some perspective on who the real enemy is in this world and which battles are more important? Would that change how you look at suffering?

Well it did for Paul. Paul could sit in prison and realize that his real struggle wasn’t with his captors. His real struggle was with darkness. The powers of darkness. That is how Paul, earlier in his ministry when he had found himself in jail was able to minister to and even convert his jailor. As much as he was being oppressed by this man, Paul knew that he wasn’t the real enemy. And here’s the other thing Paul knew, Paul knew that you don’t have to be sitting in a jail cell to be struggling with those forces of evil. Everyone is assaulted by them. It may come in different forms, but man or woman, young or old, rich or slave, we are all going to have to struggle with evil in some form. So what is the best way to fight it? What is the best way to defend ourselves against the real enemy in this world? Well, first off, make sure you are dressed for battle. Paul gives the Christians in Ephesus some very practical advice by way of a metaphor: put on the whole armor of God. Paul encourages these Christians to think about spiritual weapons like pieces of a soldier’s armor:

He says fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Lies only serve the devil. Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus said I am the truth. Remember that the person in the gospel that questions the importance of truth is Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus to be executed. Truth is a spiritual weapon.

And the next is righteousness. Paul says “put on the breastplate of righteousness.” Now I hasten to add here that Paul is not talking about self-righteousness; he’s not talking about being puffed up and conceited and arrogant. Paul is talking about guarding your hearts, like a breastplate, with the motivation of goodness. Are you seeking righteousness? Not have you lived perfectly, but are you trying to do the right thing in all your actions? Are you seeking to live a moral life? Do you believe that right and wrong truly exist? That is righteousness.

The next thing Paul says is you need shoes that will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Telling other people about the peace that only comes from knowing God; telling the gospel story, telling people how this really ends, that is a powerful weapon.

But of course, Christians need to be prepared for the resistance that the darkness is going to throw back at them. The devil isn’t going quietly, so you need a shield of faith, a helmet of the knowledge of your salvation, and a sword that is the word of God. Knowing the word, reading the word, listening to God speak through the word that is your best defense against the powers of darkness in this world. Just be sure that you have a good grip on it and aren’t just dabbling in verses here and there, because you know, the devil can quote scripture too.

Finally, Paul adds, pray. Pray at all times. Yes, there is real physical work to be done, but it must always be accompanied before and behind with prayer. Prayer is a powerful reminder that no matter what our circumstances are, the real battle that we are fighting is a spiritual one, and therefore we need to make sure that we are properly equipped with spiritual weapons. 

Now maybe you don’t like Paul’s militaristic metaphor and imagery, maybe it makes you a little uncomfortable, but when I look at the world around me, when I reflect on what is going on in the lives of the people I know, and when I think of what has happened in my own life, the only conclusion that I can come to is that spiritual warfare is real. Yeah, we all have some material and physical problems from time to time, maybe even all the time, but our real problems are the spiritual problems. Yes, the enemies of flesh and blood can hurt us, but that kind of pain and oppression is nothing compared to despair, or hopelessness, or anger, or hatred. So fight the spiritual battles first. 

Every day there is a spiritual victory to be had. Every day there is joy to be had, and hope and grace and love to be shared. Every day there is a reason to give thanks to God. If you know how this story ends, then you have a reason to rejoice today, no matter what enemies of flesh and blood you may have. But remember that there is nothing the devil wants more than to so consume you and distract you with what he is doing, that you lose all sight of what God is doing. Satan wants you to be so obsessed with all the pain and suffering in this world that you feel guilty for even being happy. The devil wants you to be so overwhelmed by all the junk you see that you just want to give up and give in. That is the spiritual battle that we are fighting every day in our world and in ourselves. But as our final hymn today confidently proclaims: “Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise.” Nothing threatens the devil more than joyful, thankful Christians. We are not phony or blind to the suffering in the world, but we know that there is victory beyond it. We can be joyful, even when getting dressed for daily spiritual battles, because we already know how the war ends.

Onward, then, ye people,
join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices
in the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor,
unto Christ the King;
This thro’ countless ages
we with angels sing.

Biscuits, Brenda Gantt, and the Bread of Life

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Sermon for Sunday, August 1st, 2021

Readings:

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

I am taking the long road in my sermon this morning, but please come along with me. I promise, I do have a point and I will eventually get to it. 

Many of you know that when I was an undergraduate, I did a summer term at Oxford University in England. That experience is actually part of how I became an Episcopalian, but that is another story. But while I was there studying, and mind you this was my first time outside the United States, while I was there I started to have cravings for a biscuit. Now I know that this is New York and y’all think a lot of your bagels, and yes, I can appreciate a really good bagel, but I will never love them or crave them in the same way that I do biscuits. Biscuits were a staple for us. Grandma always had them on the table, maybe not at every meal, but at most of them. They are a part of my culture. Now here is something that you need to know if you don’t already know it: biscuits are not really a part of British culture. I love England. I have lots of friends in England. And the English have some wonderful food, but they don’t really have biscuits. They have the word “biscuit,” but the word biscuit in England means a cookie, not the fine, flakey quick-bread that we make with shortening and buttermilk and flour. Now I wasn’t going hungry, but for some reason I just really wanted a biscuit. So in-between studying and exploring churches and castles, I was also looking for a biscuit. I figured maybe their McDonald’s would have a sausage biscuit, but no. No biscuits. Then I tried KFC. Surely if they sold fried chicken they would also sell biscuits. No luck. No biscuits there either. This was getting serious. I remember at one point trying to explain to some of my lovely English hosts what an “American Biscuit” was because they had no idea what I was talking about, and I said “well, it’s kind of like what you call a scone, but it’s usually lighter and fluffier and buttery.” “Huh” they said, and just kinda shrugged it off. It didn’t really mean anything to them. 

You know, at the time I thought I was just having a strange craving, but looking back now I realize that it wasn’t just my stomach I was trying to fill. I wasn’t just longing for a fluffy piece of bread, I was longing for a symbol. 

I think sometimes we misuse or misunderstand the word “symbol.” We talk about symbols like they aren’t real things or aren’t important. I myself have used the expression “just a symbol.” But symbols are real things, and they are powerfully important. Symbols are little things that connect us to much bigger things. They are physical things that connect us and reconnect us to memories and stories. And symbols show up all the time in everyday life. In fact, that is when they are the most powerful. Think about bread for a second. Growing up we would buy sliced bread or yeast bread from the store for things like sandwiches, but we never made that at home. At home, the everyday bread that we made was either cornbread or biscuits. As I mentioned, my grandmother loved them. I can remember watching her make them when I was little. She would bring out this giant green Tupperware bowl from under the counter that she kept her flour in, make a well in the center with her fist, pour in some milk and oil and start to work it with her hand, drawing in little bits of flour as she gets it to just the right consistency, then shaped it into biscuits, and baked them off. Whenever the family gathered you can be reasonably sure that there would be biscuits on the table. So to me, a biscuit isn’t just a piece of bread, it is so much more than that. It is a symbol of a whole world of relationships: it reminds me of the South and my family and my grandmother, and my aunts and uncles and cousins in South Georgia. It reminds me of a dialect, and of values, and my faith. All those stories told over the dinner table and all the while this little piece of bread was there, just absorbing it all. A biscuit is about so much more, to me at least, than just a piece of bread. I didn’t realize that when I was on my first trip to England, but I do now. 

This all became more clear to me very recently when I discovered Ms. Brenda Gantt. Now if you don’t know who Brenda Gantt is, I will share with you a link to her Facebook page and some of her videos. Brenda Gantt is a grandmother in South Alabama, who about a year or so ago started recording videos with her phone, standing in her kitchen teaching folks how to cook. She now has over two million followers I believe, and the video that really turned her into something of an internet sensation was one of her showing how to make biscuits the traditional way. Well you know I had to watch. Ms. Brenda takes her big bowl of flour, makes a well in it with her first, pours in the buttermilk…I think you are beginning to get the picture. She was doing almost exactly what my grandmother did. In so many ways she was reconnecting me with my grandmother who died several years ago: through some of her words and phrases and mannerisms, but most importantly in the food she was cooking. Food just has this amazing symbolic power to connect people. It is a connection that isn’t just happening in your head either, your whole body is a part of it. So naturally I have been watching Ms. Brenda just about every day, not just for recipes, but also because when you watch her you just feel like you are hanging out with her in the kitchen. She talks about what she did today, and what her family is doing, and very often she will talk about her faith or even read from the scriptures. You get the sense that this has very much become a ministry for her. And you know, watching her, and seeing the love that she just pours into her followers and into the food she is making for her family, I at least feel very ministered to. In one video, she invites a pastor friend over and the celebrate communion right there on her chopping block. There was another video, and I forget what Ms. Brenda was making, but while she was cooking she grabbed this very long dish towel that was clearly designed to be worn around the neck. Now I haven’t seen that type of dish towel before, it looks kind of handy, but when she put it on and stood before her big chopping block island in the middle of her kitchen, well darned if she didn’t look a lot like a priest saying mass with a stole on. Now to my knowledge Ms. Brenda is not ordained and in any event she is a Baptist and Baptists don’t usually wear stoles, so I don’t think the she was trying to look like a minister, she was trying to fix supper, but for me as a good Episcopalian who loves traditions and signs and symbols, well for me it caught my eye as if God was trying to get my attention and say “pay attention now, because there is something important going on here.” Maybe Ms. Brenda isn’t ordained, but the act of pouring your own life and your own love into some food that is then going to give life and joy to others, that is a priestly act. It is a sacrificial act. And it is an act that Our Lord himself performs. 

Jesus feeds people. Not just spiritually or metaphorically. Jesus literally feeds people. And this is not a one-time thing in the gospels; it happens over and over again. Feeding people is important to Jesus. Even after the Resurrection, Jesus tells Peter, “if you love me, then feed my sheep.” In today’s gospel reading that you heard just a minute or so ago, Jesus had just been feeding the five thousand, and people are still following him and looking for him. And Jesus says to them, right now you are following me because you are hungry. “You are looking for me…because you ate your fill of the loaves.” But Jesus offers us more than just a piece of bread that fills you up one minute and is gone the next. What he is really offering people, through his food, is relationship with him. That is the food that leads to eternal life: bread that is more than just flour and water, but that is a symbol or our relationship with God. Bread that is a reminder of God’s love and care for his children, just like the fine, flaky manna in the wilderness. Bread that is life-giving in a way that includes the body, but that is really about so much more than a cure for hunger. Bread that feeds us with God’s own life. Bread that connects us to others that we love. Bread that reminds us of stories, and values, and expressions, and physical actions. Bread that is really a little piece, a little taste of a whole other world. 

Is that too much to ask of a little piece of bread? Well, I don’t know. If grandma or Ms. Brenda can do that with a simple biscuit, what can the Lord of all creation do with a little dough? If this flaky piece of bread can reconnect me to my past and remind me of who I am; if this can feed me both physically and spiritually, and I just baked it this morning, then what can the bread that Jesus gives me do?

Jesus says in the gospel today that “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” When Jesus gives us bread, he isn’t just giving us a snack to tide us over. It is his own life that is offered. He isn’t just giving us a piece of bread. He is offering us a relationship, an eternal relationship with him. In this church, right before we receive communion, we say the Prayer of Humble Access, which many of you know is my favorite prayer in the entire prayer book, and right at the end of that prayer we say: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Whenever we participate in the Lord’s supper we are renewing our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are re-inviting him to be a part of our lives and asking him to be a part of his. And we believe that in that whole act of drawing us together, uniting us with his life, and uniting us to each other, and recalling stories, and values, and God’s love…we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in that act. Sure Jesus is present in our lives in other ways, but he is especially present in this way. And the symbol of his presence, is a little piece of bread that points to a whole world of relationships. 

That is why we treat the bread of communion with so much reverence and respect here. Because we believe that Jesus is touching our lives in a very special way through it. It isn’t just a reenactment of something that happened a long time ago; we aren’t just using Jesus’s recipe here, we are asking him to be the chef. It is God’s heavenly feast that we are invited to be a part of. We don’t always understand exactly how God is working through communion, and maybe we shouldn’t try to over-define it and just take Jesus at his word: this is my body; this is my blood. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” It is a mystery and it is miraculous, and I am ok with that. I want to be a part of this meal, because I want to be a part of Jesus’s life and the life of his people. 

Whenever I eat a biscuit, I am reminded that I come from biscuit eating people, and I become a biscuit eating person once again. And not that there is anything wrong with scones and bagels, they can be lovely, as can the people that eat them, but I have no doubt that I will die a biscuit eating person, and until that day comes I will try and spread the good news about biscuits to the non-biscuit eating world, much like Ms. Brenda is doing and I pray for God’s blessing upon her. 

But as much as this bread means to me, there is another piece of bread that means more to me than a biscuit, and it is far more important that we all spread the good news about it. Because it’s not just a piece of bread. It is a symbol of the heavenly feast. It is a little piece of another world, that God has given us here. It isn’t just bread; it is a relationship with the saviour. We treat this bread with a lot of reverence here, because really, what could be more precious than a relationship with Jesus?

Here is the link to the Cooking with Brenda Gantt Facebook Page:

Cooking with Brenda Gantt

Here is the biscuit video that started it all:

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself

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2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19 
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself.

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself.

I wish I could say that these were my words of wisdom, or a grand epiphany that I had, but they are not. They are the words of a priest in the Church of England, a Father Bill Scott, who passed away just last year. 

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself. When someone loves you, when you experience that love, you are reminded that you are in fact lovable. Despite all the evidence to the contrary; despite your failures and your sins, and your bad habits, and all those bits of yourself, whether they are moral, mental or physical that you consider to be unattractive, despite all of that, here is evidence that there is beauty within you, because somebody else sees it. Someone else can help you see beauty within yourself that you don’t see, and it is a miraculous thing.

This doesn’t just happen in romantic relationships. All loving relationships do this. Mother or Father to Child. Friend to friend. It can even happen between strangers on the street. When someone loves you, and shows you love, one of the first things that changes, is how you see yourself. And that can change your entire world. This happens in our relationships with one another, but think about when it happens in our relationship with God. What happens to us when we realize that we are beloved of God?

That really is Paul’s challenge to the Church in Ephesus in the epistle this morning. Paul wants these Christians to know, really know, the power of Christ’s love because that is going to change how they see themselves and it turn it will also change how they see everyone else in the world.

“I pray,” he says “that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Knowing the love of Christ is not just an intellectual exercise. It is an experience. I don’t think that Paul means “comprehend” in the sense that you understand exactly how God’s love works, or how love works in general. I think Paul uses “comprehend” to mean knowing that you don’t know. Knowing that there is a reality here that “surpasses knowledge” as he says. We can’t really know how big the universe is, but we can look up at the night sky in awe and wonder at the vastness of it. We can experience the limitlessness of it. It is one thing to say that the universe is big, but it is another thing to look up at the stars. Paul wants people to approach Christ’s love with mystery and wonder. Because this love, doesn’t just say something about the God that we worship; this love says something about us too. Despite all of our flaws and failures, God still sees something in us that is loveable and beautiful and worth saving. Worth dying for in fact. 

Experiencing that love MUST change us. How could it not?

We have not earned God’s love. The scriptures make it very clear that God’s love for us was there right from the very beginning. God’s love is WHY we exist. It was God’s love that created us in the first place. And it was God’s love that saved us through Jesus Christ. Paul says earlier in Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works.”

In other words, God has a love for you that has nothing to do with your own sense or worthiness or accomplishment, or for that matter, your own sense of unworthiness or sinfulness or failure. Paul is praying for these Christians to really know and experience that love, because if they do, that should change everything for them. Not only how they see themselves, but also how they see other people. 

If Christ loves me so much that he was willing to die for me, then there must be something within me that is, in fact, loveable. There must be something beautiful, even if I sometimes have trouble seeing it. And if I believe that Christ loves you so much that he was willing to die for you, then something within you must also, in fact, be loveable. There must be beauty within you, even if I sometimes have trouble seeing it. God’s love challenges us to see beauty where it is sometimes hard to find. 

Immediately after the verses from Paul’s letter that you heard this morning, Paul goes on to say that “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” If we actually believe what we say about God’s love to be true, then that should invite a response from us. We didn’t earn this love of God, but we may certainly respond to it. Part of this response that Paul lays out in his letter is learning to love and respect each other as the beloved of God. We are challenged by God’s love to see beauty within ourselves, and to see beauty within each other. 

When we talk about love, we are not talking about some warm and fuzzy sentimental feeling. What we are really talking about, is a way of looking at the world through the eyes of God. We are talking about learning to see beauty in unlikely places, in the eyes of our fellow human beings, and even within ourselves.

I will shepherd my people

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Sermon for July 18th, 2021

Readings:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23 
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jeremiah has some harsh words for the shepherds of Israel this morning, and rightly so. Because the people have gone so far astray through terrible, inept and unholy leadership, there are hard times coming to God’s people. I don’t have time this morning to go through the whole Book of Jeremiah, but let me just say that through much of the book, the Prophet Jeremiah paints a very dark picture about what is about to happen in the land. It’s a tough read, and Jeremiah has some tough words for faithless shepherds. But in the midst of these dire warnings and tough words is a promise. 

God says to the shepherds: YOU may have failed, but I will not. Not only will I appoint new shepherds for me people, but I myself will be a shepherd. I will shepherd my people. I will look for the lost. I will gather people in. I will appoint new shepherds. 

Do you remember last week how I said that our God reveals himself to us? Well, he is doing that today in this passage. God is giving us a glimpse here of who he is. God raises up and appoints shepherds, that’s true, but it is only to share in his work, because it is really God that is the shepherd. 

Some shepherds fail, yes that’s true, but God does not abandon his people. If you read the rest of Jeremiah you will see how God is sometimes abandoned by his people, but God is never the one that walks away. God’s people may get lost; God never does. And people are never so far gone that God can’t find them. There are tough words from Jeremiah about the present state of affairs, but within those words is the promise that God is prepared to do something about it. 

When Jesus looked out on the great crowd, what did he see? Sheep without a shepherd. People that were lost and suffering. People that had likely put faith in leaders that had led them astray. People that were oppressed and mistreated. Jesus saw all of this and he had compassion on them. He taught them. He laid hands on them and healed them. And…he appointed some new shepherds, his disciples, and he sent them out with instructions to do the same. 

That is our God at work folks. 

No matter what valleys of death our faithless shepherds may lead us into, we always have a good shepherd who will lead us right back out of it. God hasn’t just done this once, or twice. Our God has done this many times, because this is who our God is. 

If we keep reading in Jeremiah this morning, the prophet goes on to say: 

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he[a] had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land.

What Jeremiah is saying there is that the days are coming when we won’t just look back on God saving us from Egypt, we will also look back on God saving us from this. Whatever this is. The God who led our ancestors out of Egypt is going to lead us out of this too. The God of Moses is the God of Jeremiah and that is the same God that we believe was incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus’s followers looked back on Jeremiah’s words they thought “surely this is the righteous branch from David” that Jeremiah was talking about. Surely this is God shepherding his people again.

We believe that’s true. God was shepherding his people in Jesus. And God is still doing it. Because that is who God is.

There was an Episcopal priest in Connecticut at the end of the 19th century, who died a very young man, just 35, but before he died we wrote this poem about how we often don’t experience God shepherding us until we are in the deepest valley or the darkest night. His name was Robert Clarkson Tongue and the poem is called “When the tale of bricks is doubled.”

When the tale of bricks is doubled,

“Moses comes,” the Hebrews say

When the night has grown the blackest

Comes the long expected day;

When our cares have grown so heavy

That we scarce can bear the load,

Then a hand is stretched to help us

On our weary road.

When the tale of bricks is doubled,

As our cares and wants increase,

Comes a double share of courage,

Though the battle may not cease.

Though the fight may rage the fiercer,

And the fiery darts be whirled,

If we will but call for succor,

We may face the world.

When the tale of bricks is doubled,

When oppression bows us low,

Comes a Moses who will free us,

Break our fetters with a blow,

And if we will truly follow

From the black Egyptian night,

He will guide us, He will lead us,

To eternal light.

You cannot shut God up

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Sermon for July 11th, 2021

Readings:

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

You cannot shut God up.

I really could just end my sermon right here, because that is the main thing I want you to take away from the scriptures this morning, particularly the Old Testament and the Gospel. 

We cannot shut God up. But we sure like to try. 

Now before I elaborate on that, let me say that we, as Christians, fundamentally believe in a God who reveals himself to us. We believe in a God of revelation. What we believe about God or what we know about God, is based on what we believe God has revealed to us. We do NOT believe that God is just some idea that we concocted, or that our knowledge of God is something that we have come to through our own brain power. We haven’t figured God out, God has shown things to us. We believe in a God that wants to be known, that wants to live in relationship with us; we believe in a God who speaks. God speaks through Holy Scripture, through sacred tradition, through priests and prophets, through angels, through the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through nature. God speaks to us in so many ways.

But here is the problem with that: we don’t always like what this God of ours has to say. 

Now it is great when God “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own” like we sing in that hymn “In the Garden.” And don’t get me wrong; I believe that is true and I love that hymn. God does having loving words for us that affirm that we are his beloved children. But that is not all that God has to say to us. God regularly challenges us. God calls us out on our hypocrisy. God knows about that thing you did. And God has forgiven you for it, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have something to say to you about it. The scriptures can be challenging sometimes, and it’s not when I don’t understand them that they are the most challenging, it is when I DO understand them. Because that is when I hear God calling me out on my junk; pointing out to me those times when I have not been as faithful as I am called to be. Now this isn’t to condemn me; not at all. You don’t discipline children because you hate them. You discipline them because you love them and want them to have a good life. And that is what God wants for us. God wants us to have a good life, but in order for that to happen, sometimes God has to point out to us where and when we have gone wrong. 

But very often, we don’t want to hear it. As a matter of fact, we find all sorts of ways to drown out God’s voice so we don’t have to hear anything negative God has to say. I hasten to point out that this is NOT a modern phenomenon. We’ve been trying to shut God up for years.

Consider the Prophet Amos. Now Amos was from the South in the land of Judea and he was sent by God up to preach to a bunch of Northerners in the land of Israel. And poor Amos, God gave him a tough message to deliver. God was sending Amos to call out that kingdom for all of its unfaithfulness. They were not being true to their calling. They were being unjust. They weren’t treating each other like they were all children of God. They were getting into some idol worship, and one of the idols that they were worshipping was money. They were using debt to enslave people. I could go on and on. Amos ends up telling the Northern kingdom that because of their faithlessness, their kingdom is going to crumble, their king will fall and they will in fact, become slaves. 

As you can imagine, people didn’t like that. They didn’t want to hear what Amos had to say. Even their priest didn’t want to listen to this message from God. So the priest said to Amos: “Get out of town.” No, literally, get out of town. Off with you! Go back down South where you came from. So Amos heads back down South. 

And you know what eventually happened? The Northern kingdom fell just like Amos predicted, and all of its people were hauled off into slavery. You can silence a prophet, but you can’t shut God up. God always has the last say. And you would think that after hundreds and thousands of years that we would learn that lesson, but we don’t. 

You remember John the Baptist? He got into trouble, because he called out Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Now Herod was just trying to ignore that part of John’s message, but his wife Herodia was infuriated. This was publicly embarrassing. So she figured out a way to shut John up by having him killed. Had his head cut off. Did that spare Herodia further embarrassment? Well, no. Because here we are today, thousands of years later, not only still talking about her unlawful marriage, but what is far worse, the despicable way that she tried to cover it up. 

You know, sometimes I wonder if God laughs or cries when we try to ignore him. Maybe it is a bit of both. We so foolishly think that we can silence God. We tell God’s prophets to shut up. If that doesn’t work, we have them killed. We cut out or skip over the scriptures we don’t like, or we just shut the Bible altogether. Now I’m not saying that every quack out there with a Bible in one hand and a megaphone in the other is a legit prophet with a message from God. There have always been false prophets, God promised us that there would be. But just because some people spread untruth, that doesn’t mean that the truth has stopped talking. God never stops talking to us. Sometimes his message is sweet. Sometimes it goes down a little rough. We may think that if we don’t listen to what God says then we won’t have to deal with the message, or the truth that it contains. But we’d be wrong. It seems to me that Ol’ Pontius Pilate also thought that he was done with this pesky man Jesus when he had him killed and washed his hands. But he was wrong. No matter how hard we try and silence him, God always has the last word. You cannot shut God up. 

The First and Greatest Commandment

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Sermon for July 4th, 2021

Readings:

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In each of the gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, at some point somebody comes up to Jesus and asks him: “what is the greatest commandment?” And each time Jesus responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” And then Jesus adds: “and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now y’all are familiar with this because I repeat it at the beginning of almost every mass here, but I want to talk about it a bit this morning, because understanding the order of these two commandments is important for doing the ministry that we are all called to do in this world. 

Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is loving God. That comes first. That is the most important. The second command is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is related to the first command, Jesus says it is like it, but Jesus does not say that these two commands are exactly equal. They can’t be, and I’ll explain why they can’t be. 

In order for a command to have any meaning or power, the person giving the command, the commander, needs to have some authority, or needs to be someone that you love or respect. If Jesus was just some dude on the street telling people to “love thy neighbor” we could just walk on by and say “well, that’s just like your opinion man.” And keep on going. But we don’t do that. We have recorded those words in our scriptures and we have enshrined them in our worship. Why? Because we believe that the man who said it is the Son of God. Those words are a command from God, so our love for God, our respect for God, our fear of God even, that is what makes those words so important. The first commandment is what makes all the other commandments possible or meaningful. 

If I don’t care about God or believe in God, then why should I give a hoot about any divine commandments? Why bother? Why not just do what I want? Some of this stuff that Jesus tells us to do is flat-out hard. Just look at the gospel today. Jesus gives his disciples authority over unclean spirits, well that’s fun, but then he says, don’t take anything with you. No bread, no bag, no money, keep your clothes simple, oh and by the way, whenever you get to where you’re going, some folks won’t listen to you or accept you. You’ll be rejected. Oh fun! Sign me up! You know from the original twelve that are mentioned in today’s gospel: Judas killed himself and John died in old age, but every other one was killed for doing what Jesus commanded them to do. It was a similar situation for the prophet Ezekiel. God sent him on a mission to preach his word and call people to repentance, knowing that some people would refuse to listen; knowing that this was going to be hard work. 

There are blessings that come with doing God’s work and doing ministry, that is absolutely true, but there are also challenges and trials. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians today talks about someone that he knows that had amazing visions of heaven; things he couldn’t even describe. What did Paul get? A thorn in the flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn in the flesh was, but we know it tormented Paul, and we know that Paul asked God to remove it from him and the Lord didn’t do it. Paul wanted to be strong and healthy and successful in ministry; Paul wanted to have it all, but the Lord’s response was No. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s ministry was a response to God’s grace and in the end that grace had to be sufficient, because there’s no guarantee of miraculous visions, there’s no guarantee of comfort or safety, there’s no guarantee of having the big church on the corner, there’s no guarantee of a private jet. In fact there’s no guarantee that people are gonna like you or even listen to you. They might even try and kill you. All that we are promised is God’s grace. That alone has to be enough. That has to be the reward. It has to be our love of God that compels us to serve God’s people. 

And I mean all of us, not just ordained ministers. Jesus’s command to love God and love thy neighbor, they are given to all of us. We are all called to some ministry in this world. And undoubtedly some people will say: well can’t serving or loving my neighbor draw me into the love of God? Can’t I find God in the face of God’s children? Well yes, of course. Serving others can draw us deeper into the mind and heart of God, but I think we underestimate how much loving God makes loving our neighbors consistently possible. Because here is a big revelation:

People are not always loveable.

I’m not; you’re not. Nobody is. People can be incredibly unlovable. People do and say hurtful things. They don’t think like us; they don’t act like us. That love thy neighbor commandment is the harder commandment, and it would be so great if we could just make that the optional extra Christian add-on, but we can’t because if we are really following that first command of loving God, then that first command binds us to the second command, because it is the same God that is giving both. I love God, some days I’m less sure about my neighbors, but Jesus keeps pointing me back to them and saying “they’re my kids too. ”So God never lets us give up on loving them, tempting as that may be.You see, it is an abiding love for the Lord that makes the Christian life possible. There is no substitution for the first and great commandment. Loving God with heart and soul and mind, that has to be the primary motivation behind all that we do. That relationship is the horse that makes the whole cart go. The Christian life is a response to God’s grace and at the end of the day the day, God’s grace is its only reward. We cannot expect anything else. God’s hasn’t promised us anything else. Just his grace. And that is enough.