The order of events

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Sermon for Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Readings:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

I want to take a moment and talk about the exodus story.

It’s one of the foundational stories of our faith. It is the foundational story of the Jewish faith as well. It has been depicted in film enough that even if you aren’t a person of faith you probably know the story of Moses, Pharaoh, the Hebrew Slaves and the crossing of the Red Sea. So, think about that story for a minute. Specifically, I want you to think about the timeline of that story.

God hears the sufferings of his people. God sees people enslaved. God demonstrates his power through Moses. The people are miraculously freed: the Red Sea parts, there are pillars of cloud and fire, God gives them food, God gives them water. Then they reach Mt. Sinai, where God gives them his Ten Commandments; his rules for living in this world. And finally, after much wandering, the people reach the borders of God’s promised land. All along the way the people kept wanting to turn back. They grumbled, they turned away, they made mistakes, they were unfaithful, but God was faithful.

So, God hears his people. God saves them and sets them free. Then God gives them the law.

The Children of Israel escape from Pharaoh, they cross the Red Sea, they are fed and watered by God in the desert, and then they reach Mt. Sinai where God gives them his rules for daily living.

God hears his people. God saves them. God instructs them. That is the timeline of this story.

I really want you to get the order of events here so I am going to keep saying them:

God hears his people. God saves them. Then God instructs them.

That is the order of events in this story that lies at the heart of our faith.

God hears his people. God saves them. God instructs them.

So why is it then that we are always turning that order of events upside down? We hear this story about God hearing people, God saving them, and then God giving them commandments for how to live, but we live our lives and we live our faith as if it happened in reverse order. And this is not a Jewish and Christian divide. We all, I think, have a tendency to do this.

We think that if I just get the commandments right: if I study relentlessly, if I get all the science right, if I make the right choices and do the right actions, THEN God will save me. And then and only then, after I have made the right choices, and after God has decided that I am worthy of saving, then God will hear me.  We may not come out and say it just like that, but isn’t that what we really think? Isn’t that how we act?

God hears his people. God saves them. God instructs them.

That is how the story goes, but we are so inclined to turn that story upside down, that every now and then we need someone to come around and turn it right side up again. We need someone to come along and say: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In other words, God isn’t waiting for you to get it right before he hears you or before he saves you. Did God save the Children of Israel because they were obedient to the Law? NO, he had’t even given them the law yet. God saves them, because God loves them. God saves them, because that is what God does. This is a saving God. That is what we are called first and foremost to have faith in: the fact that God can and does hear us and save us, as we are, enslaved to whatever we are enslaved to in this world, before we have ever figured out how to live according to his commandments. God saves us first, then God teaches us. God is faithful to us, before we even have the capacity to be faithful to him.

As he began to sink into the water, Peter cried out, “Lord save me.” And Jesus Immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus has a lesson for Peter here, but you might notice that the lesson came after he pulled him out of the water. When Peter cried for help Jesus responded immediately. There is a time for teaching your children life’s lessons, but not when their lives are in danger. Jesus wants to talk to Peter about why he was doubting and about why he turned away from him, but he pulls him out of the water first.

God hears his people. God saves them. Then, God instructs them.

Of course, the instructions are important; of course, the commandments are important. Of course, Jesus wants us to listen to him about how we are to live in this world, and live in relationship with God and each other, but the Good News is that the commandments are meant to be our response to God’s salvation, they are not meant to be a condition of our salvation. Jesus did not quiz Peter on the Baptismal Covenant or on the Ten Commandments before he decided whether to pull him out of the water. Thankfully, that’s not how our God works. Our God is faithful, even when we are not. When we turn away from God, when we start focusing more on ourselves and on the work of our own hands, when we stop focusing on Jesus and start staring at our own feet, when we start to think we can do it on our own, and when we inevitably sink into the water, God is right there to grab us and pick us back up again. We just have to call on him.

Now to be sure, Jesus may have some words for us when we are back in the boat or on dry land. God’s commandments are important, Jesus’s teachings are vital, and we would be wise to pay close attention to them and heed them, but let’s always remember how the sotry goes and not get things out of order.

God hears us. God saves us. THEN God instructs us.

Action Jesus or Truth Jesus?

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Sermon for July 12th, 2020

Readings:

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Video of sermon

 

Sometimes when Jesus speaks in the scriptures he gives us direct commands: do this or don’t do this.

 

Love thy neighbor as thyself.

Forgive as you have been forgiven.

Heal the sick.

Feed the poor.

Follow me.

Take up your cross.

Make disciples of all nations.

Baptize, proclaim, pray, beware,

Do and do not.

 

This is action Jesus. And regardless of whether or not we actually heed Jesus’s commands and do what he says, I think we really like action Jesus because he gives us something to do. And we really like having things to do; that gives us power and control. When Jesus says to do something or to not do something, I get to decide how I am going to respond. I can do it or I can not do it, but in either case I am in control and I like being in control. So even if action Jesus is telling me to do something I don’t really want to do, I like listening to action Jesus because I still have power and choice and agency in how I respond to what he says.

 

But action Jesus is not the only Jesus we find in the scriptures. Sometimes, many times actually, the Jesus we meet in scripture is not action Jesus, but truth Jesus. Sometimes when Jesus speaks in the scriptures he isn’t giving us a direct command, but is instead sharing with us an important truth. Jesus wants to tell us something about God, about the Kingdom of God, or even about ourselves and we can choose to either accept that truth or reject it, but we can’t actually do anything to change it. I think we really struggle with truth Jesus, because truth Jesus doesn’t give us the same level of power and control that action Jesus gives us. Action Jesus calls us to respond, but truth Jesus calls us to understand, and let’s face it, sometimes responding is easier than understanding or listening. But time and time again, Jesus says “let anyone with ears to hear, listen,” “hear then the parable,” “let the listener understand.” Yes, a lot of times Jesus calls us to action in this world, but there all also many, many times when Jesus gets our attention to share with us a truth. It may be a truth we have no control over. It may be a truth that is good news, or it may be a truth that is very hard for us to hear, but either way, Jesus thinks we need to hear it. Sometimes the only response that we can have to the words of Jesus is just to hear what he is saying and to receive it as truth.

 

In today’s gospel lesson we have one of Jesus’s many parables, and perhaps one of his more famous ones. “Listen!” he says. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

 

Immediately some of Jesus’s disciples came up to him (and this is the part that gets cut out of the reading this morning) and they ask him: “why are you talking this way? Why are you talking to them in parables?” It’s like they came up to Jesus and said, “Look man, why don’t you just tell people what to DO, that’s what they really want?” And Jesus says to them: “I am trying to help you understand secrets or truths about the kingdom.” And Jesus quotes Isaiah and says that many people’s hearts have grown dull and they have shut their eyes and closed their ears and have no desire to understand or know anymore. Then he makes very clear to them the truth in the parable:

 

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

The only thing Jesus tells his disciples to do in this passage is “hear.” Just listen to the truth he is sharing. Some people hear the word of God and just do not get it. It never has the chance to grown within them. Some people seem to get it, they may even been incredibly enthusiastic at first, but quickly their energy fades, they can’t manage to set down roots, and they fade away. There are others that hear the word of God and it takes root, but it is just one plant among many that eventually just gets choked out by the others that just seem to grow more quickly and be more vigorous. Finally, there are those who get it, who receive a word planted in their soul that continues to grow and thrive and to bear fruit their entire life long.

 

All Jesus asks us to do is hear this truth, but it is so tempting to hear this passage and to try and respond to it as if it were action Jesus talking; as if Jesus were telling us to get up and do something. So we start thinking:

 

How do I get those seeds off the path?

How do I help the seeds in the rocky ground set down roots?

How do I weed out the thorns?

How do I grown more fruit?

And how do I sew more of the seeds of God’s word in the world?

 

I want to respond to this passage by trying to think of something to do, but the only thing that Jesus actually asks me to do here is to listen. Hear what he is saying. This is truth Jesus speaking. Jesus wants me to understand something. He wants to share with me a truth about the way things are.

 

I have heard this parable so many times, but the longer I have lived and worked within the church, especially in active ministry, the more I appreciate the truth of it. The picture that Jesus paints in this little story is absolutely true in its depiction of how people respond to God, to faith, to the bible or to church in their lives. I can’t even count the times anymore that I have seen every one of these scenarios play out. Some people just don’t or won’t get it. Some people convert enthusiastically and then immediately disappear. Other people get distracted, or busy, or simply fall out of the habit and allow other things in their lives to take precedence. And then finally there are the people that just grow and grow from season to season, bearing good fruit, some more than others, and quite often surprising you with just how deep their roots are. That is church. That is faith.

 

And if what Jesus is saying here is actually true. If this is the way it is, then I can expect that this is going to continue to keep happening. I can expect some people to continue to have no interest in God. I can expect people to show early enthusiasm and quickly fall away. I can expect people to drift away from church, overcome or distracted by other cares and concerns. I can expect all those things, and even though I might not like it one bit, I don’t need to beat my head against that reality trying to change it, nor do any of us need to beat ourselves up trying to figure out what we are doing wrong when every seed that is planted doesn’t become the fruit bearing tree we envisioned. This is the way that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world and quite a lot of it is simply outside our control.

 

I think that we can fully expect that many people, not just in our parish, but throughout the church, will simply not return once the coronavirus crisis passes. I’m not talking about people that are exercising due caution for their health but are otherwise prayerful and active in worship in whatever ways they can be. If you are taking the time to watch this service online, then I imagine you still have an active desire for your faith to grow and bear fruit in your life. But for some people the closure of our churches, the social distancing precautions and all that is going on in our world and in everyone’s individual lives, will prove too much. Their faith may simply not be deeply enough rooted in their lives to withstand this. Some people simply will not be back.

 

Some seeds just won’t grow, but some will. It’s a shame, but we can’t let the fact that people fall away or walk away from God, faith and the church, get us down, make us despair or quit ourselves. We can’t be overwhelmed and discouraged by the seeds that don’t grow. Jesus told us it would be this way. Some seeds won’t grow, but some will. Not every life we touch is going to be transformed, but some will. This is a truth we need to understand. Jesus told us that it would be this way and I think he told us, I think he shared this truth, this secret of the kingdom with us so that we wouldn’t despair every time we see it happen. We don’t have time to despair about the seeds that don’t grow. Jesus has real work for us to do. There is action Jesus who calls on us to labor in God’s vineyard. But if we want to have the strength or the stamina or the perseverance or the determination to do what action Jesus tells us to do, then we need to be willing to listen when truth Jesus tells us to listen.

 

The hardest verse in all of scripture.

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020

Readings


“And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

You know, you don’t have to read very far into this book to come across one of the most challenging ideas in the history of the world. In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, there is a proclamation, a revelation of a divine mystery that is so profound we have never been able to fully comprehend it. It has always challenged us. Now, it is not the story of God creating the heavens and the earth and the beasts of the earth out of nothing, that is not all that challenging. I don’t find the belief in a divine creator of the universe to be all that hard to understand, and throughout the history off the world most people haven’t had a hard time believing that either. It might take some faith to believe that, but it doesn’t take a whole lot.

No, I think one of the most challenging statements in this entire book, which is full of many challenging statements, comes at Genesis chapter 1 verse 27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” I can’t think of many other verses in the Bible that are harder to comprehend than that. Now it may sound easy at first. We may be able to say it over and over again like we understand it. That verse may roll off our tongues very easily; we may give it limp service, but have we ever really comprehended it? Have we every really understood what it means? Well I think history has proven that we haven’t.

Think about this: what this verse is saying is that this force that created the entire world out of nothing; this all powerful being that is at the center of the universe and that is the source of all life and all that is good in the world, that God has gifted human beings with his image.

Every human being walking the earth today, every human being that has ever walked the earth, has within them a reflection of this divine creator. No doubt God loves all his creatures, but this one, this human creature is special. God has given this creature a part of his divine image or being. And Christians believe that God loves this one creature so much that when they had fallen away from him that he was born as one of them, and was willing to die as one of them, just to bring them back. That is how much he loves them. And Christians also believe that God is continually pouring a part of himself into them in ways that are just unfathomable. Sure, God loves all of his creation, but this one is special. This one bears God’s image. Now don’t hate me dog lovers, I’m a dog lover too. Animals can reveal God’s love to us in unique and surprising ways. You can see God reflected in all of creation, but why is it that the one place that God has told us that he has placed his image is so often the last place we go looking for it?

We are willing to treat other human beings in ways that we would never treat a dog.

God has told us that human beings bear his image. We christians believe that that same God was willing to die as one of these human beings to save them. And we believe that our bodies are, as Paul says, temples of the Holy Spirit, but somehow we manage to find reasons and excuses to talk about and treat other human beings as if they were less than animals.

So I think I can confidently say that Genesis chapter 1 verse 27 is one of the hardest verses is all of scripture, because we have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we just don’t get it. We want other human beings to be just another part of creation that we have dominion over. We don’t want other humans to be equal to us, and we sure don’t want to have to recognize that the God we profess to worship is also present in them too, but from the beginning that is the challenge that God gives us.

What makes it so challenging is that people are not simple, people are complex. Nobody you have ever met in your life is just one thing. Nobody is just black or just white. Nobody is just a cop or just a criminal. Nobody is just a Democrat or just a Republican. Nobody is just a man or just a woman. Nobody is just gay or just straight. And with the exception of our Lord Jesus, in whom there is no darkness, nobody is just good or just evil. We are all a swirl of sometimes very contradictory things. People just do not fit into neat categories. People are a mystery. It is when we start trying to look at other human beings as anything less than a mystery that we really get into trouble.

I grew up quite literally at my grandfather’s knee. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child, and I was close to both of them, but I was particularly close as a young boy to my grandfather. We would drive around town, sometimes we would go fishing or exploring, sometimes I would help him in the garden, but most of the time we would just sit in the corner of his little den, he would smoke his pipe and either read his paper or watch wrestling on the television and tell stories. I loved his stories about the war and about growing up as a dirt poor farmer in Georgia. Sometimes the stories were heroic adventures like crossing the Atlantic on a transport ship bound for the war in Europe. Sometimes his stories were a bit darker though. He had an alcoholic and abusive father that left him and his mother and siblings for a while when he was young. To survive my grandfather and his brother would sort through the town dump looking for food for the family. Or they would try and raise money anyway they could, which sometimes their father would “borrow” from them and never give back.

I was thinking about my grandfather this week, because after he married and had kids, he eventually moved his family to Florida, where he got a GED and eventually a job at the Space center. Not a high powered or glamorous job at all, but still he was a part of something amazing. He went from looking for food for his family in the town dump to looking for rocket parts to send men to the moon.

I have also been thinking a lot about my grandfather this week, because in many ways he was something of a mystery too: he could be loving or he could be harsh, he struggled mightily will some really ugly personal demons like alcoholism and depression and he was also a practical joker with a great sense of humor. He could be the best neighbor you ever had, unless of course you were black.

You see, my grandfather was incredibly racist. A man who was very much a swirl of contradictions himself, wanted other people to be either this or that.

I don’t know if he ever committed any acts of violence against a person of color, he certainly never told me if he did, but I do know that for him black people, which is not the world he used, they were all just one thing.

Now my parents were very clear with my and my sister, that this was not OK. We needed to learn to respect everyone and to treat people equally. I could see my grandfather’s prejudice and recognize it as evil, but still I loved him very much.

I learned from an early age what it means to love someone, really love someone, that is deeply flawed, that did and said things that I thought were wrong. I learned that people are complicated; that people have pain and hurt in their lives that you probably know nothing about. Not only was my grandfather in many ways a mystery, I think that his response to the mystery within himself was to try and simplify everyone else. Mystery can make us uncomfortable. Certainty and precision feels better. I’m sure there are plenty of people that would like to see my grandfather as simply one thing or another, but I loved him enough to know that its just not that simple. I wish I could say that he taught me to be color-blind, but that’s just not true. What can can say though is that inadvertently at least, he taught me that people are complicated.

People are complicated and it is hard to live in a world with complicated people, so we create categories to make everything easier to understand. We find ways to lump people together and make them just another creature that we have dominion over instead of a little divine mystery. We find ways to make sure that people stay in these categories. But the problem is real human beings don’t fit into neat little categories, they weren’t meant to. That isn’t how God created us. God created us to be little, individual bearers of his image. But of all the things the scriptures tell us, that is surely one of the hardest things to believe, because most of the time that’s not how we treat other people. We keep trying to make people simple, when they just aren’t.

And maybe that right there is proof that we really do bear the image of God. You see Christians believe in the Holy Trinity. There is one God with three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is what we celebrate today, Trinity Sunday. At the heart of our faith is the idea that God is a mystery that is beyond our understanding. God has revealed himself to us in certain ways, but ultimately God is beyond our understanding. God is not simple. God is not just one thing. Every heresy over the past two thousand years has usually come when someone has tried to make God or Jesus too simple. Too much one thing or another. But God will not be put into a neat little box like that and neither will those that bear God’s image. You cannot understand or comprehend the Holy Trinity, but you can live in relationship with it and you can love it. And that is how we are called to live with everyone that bears that image in their soul: living in relationship with them and loving them. Part of the doctrine of the trinity is that a loving relationship is part of the very essence of the creator of the universe. It is part of the image that we have all been marked with. And if that is true then we will not fix the world by trying to simplify it and everyone within it.

This dumpster fire of a world we’re living in didn’t just happen over night. We have come to this point because we have never been able to grasp, since the beginning, Genesis chapter 1 verse 27. We have never been able to fully appreciate the divine image in our fellow human beings. We have either used power and influence to try and force people into simple categories that we can neatly classify and have dominion over like fish and cattle, or we have had people try and force us to be one thing or another. But people aren’t fish or cattle. People aren’t simple. I don’t fit neatly into categories and I’m guessing most of you don’t either. We are each and every one of us, a little mystery.

Now if it were up to me, I probably would have given up on the world and humanity long ago as “not worth saving.” It would be such an easy classification to dump the whole world in and just start over, but fortunately for us, God’s not that simple. God sees in every human being a little mystery, a reflection of himself, a life that is worth saving.

Maybe someday when it is all over and we stand before the throne we will be able to see each other the way that God sees us, but still I can’t help but hope that we don’t have to start living in the Book of Revelation, before we start to appreciate what God created in the Book of Genesis.

God does not need you

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Sermon for Sunday, May 17th, 2020

Readings

 

God does NOT need you.

 

God does NOT need you. Not for anything. God doesn’t need you to save the world. God doesn’t need you to save the church. God doesn’t need you to defend him or to DO anything for him. God does not need you.

 

So if you are coming to worship and you think that God needs you or is depending upon you for something, then you are starting out on the wrong foot. Because God doesn’t need any of us.

 

We are the ones who need God.

 

Now some of you may already be forming counter-arguments in your head saying: but, but, but…

 

Hear me out. Because there is a big difference between God needing us, and God loving us or God wanting us, but I will come to that in a bit.

 

In the book of acts today we find Paul on one of his missionary journeys and this journey has brought him to the great Greek city of Athens. Now, I’ve never been to Athens, it’s on my bucket list, but whenever I think of Athens I think of the Acropolis and The Parthenon, the great temple to the Goddess Athena. But there were lots of temples and shrines in Athens. The Athenians were, as Paul says, very religious in every way.

 

Well, the idea of a temple or worshipping God in a temple was not foreign to Paul, after all, at this time the followers of Jesus were still worshipping God at the temple in Jerusalem. So worshipping God in a sacred place didn’t bother Paul. But Paul sensed a difference in attitude between how these Athenians approached their Gods and how he and the other followers of Jesus approached the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There was something transactional about this pagan worship. Transactional worship is about giving this and getting that.

 

I will build this God a shrine and this God will grant me favors and protection. I will make this offering and this God will owe me something. On the surface these Athenians appeared to be worshippers of something divine, but looking at how the Athenians treated their idols, Paul began to question what they were really worshipping. Were they really worshipping the creator of the universe, or were they worshipping their own skill and creativity?

 

So Paul says to them: Let me tell you about the God that we worship. Let me tell you what I know about God. I worship the God that created the universe and everything in it….out of nothing. This God built his own home: it’s called heaven and earth. This God that we worship doesn’t need anyone to build him a shrine or a hut, or to carve some idol for him to inhabit. This God, Paul says, is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath to all things.”

 

This idea that God, as the sovereign creator of the universe, doesn’t need humans runs deep in Paul’s faith. It was a part of his faith before he was a follower of Jesus. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament, the book of Job, has Job at one point questioning God and God responds by saying: “where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?” Where were you, little human, with your plans and your schemes and your big ideas, where were you when I created the universe and everything in it? Did I need you then?

 

God said something similar to King David, when he got the bright idea that God needed him to build him a temple. God says to David: really? You think you need to build me a house? Did I ask you to do that? I am the one that made you king. I am the one who saved my people and planted them and protected them, and God says to David and I will bless you too, I will bless you, but NOT because you think you have done something for me.

 

And One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 50, because it really smacks you down to size. And God says there: “I am God…all the beasts of the forest are mine….I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.”

 

So the idea that God is sovereign and doesn’t need our help running the world runs deep in our faith. So when Paul sets out to evangelize these people in Athens he begins by explaining to them what his relationship is to the God he worships. And it is not quite the same as their relationship to their Gods. Paul worships a God that doesn’t need him, but loves him. That is what makes God’s love for us so amazing: he doesn’t need us in any way. God has nothing to gain from this relationship. And Paul, who in his life did amazing things to spread God’s kingdom, regards all of his efforts as nothing compared to what God has done for him. It was God that did all the saving.

 

The first step to having a relationship with God and the most important thing we have to always remember when worshipping God is the understanding that it is God who saves us, and not the other way around. We need God, God doesn’t need us. The moment we start to think that God needs us, we start worshipping something else entirely.

 

I wish that I could say that Paul settled this argument once and for all, but we all know that’s not true. It is so easy to slide into thinking that God needs us to defend him. Or that God needs us to do this or that ministry to save the church or the world. We either fall into that transactional way of thinking: believing that we do nice things for God and God will do nice things for us. Or, what I think is far worse, we start thinking that the future is in our hands: we start thinking that God needs us to save the world; we think that God is depending upon our technology, or ingenuity, or creativity, or our moral superiority to save this world that he created. And likewise, we start thinking that the future of the church is in our hands. We think that the church needs us more than we need it. We think that in order to be successful Christians and vibrant parishes that we all need to be doing something. We expect our priests to be little CEOs or entrepreneurs, or effective middle managers, and we keep shifting the focus on to what we are doing for God, or what we think we are doing for God, and away from what God has already done for us. We don’t hold up simple faithfulness as an ideal or a value anymore. We put more energy into being innovative than we do into just being faithful. We find new ways to convince ourselves that we are saving God and God’s church, rather than just resting and rejoicing in the knowledge that it is God that has already saved us. And the more we try to save ourselves, to save the world or to save the church, the more obvious our failure becomes.

 

You know, we believe, or we say we believe, that the Church is an institution founded by God in Christ. It is inspired by God and has been given a mission by God to tell the world about what God has done in Jesus Christ and to proclaim to all the hope that that gives us. But we also know that it is an institution that has always been led by sinful, sometimes pretty horrible, human beings. It is the place where divine truth comes into close contact with human baggage. Maybe that’s the point. Sometimes those of us that are very active in church life can fall into the trap of thinking that the future of the church is in our hands. We start thinking that the church needs us more than we need it. Then maybe we start thinking that God is relying upon us to get things right or to figure things out. In the end it seems like the God we are worshipping is the product of our labor and not the object of it. And that doesn’t seem all that different from the Athenians that Paul was talking to that were worshipping idols carved with their own hands.

 

So much for progress. I will let you in on a little secret. I am not much of a believer in human moral progress. The idea that human beings are becoming progressively more enlightened and morally superior to their ancestors…I don’t buy it. Circumstances change, and we are good at doing amazing things with technology, but I am not convinced that we have actually figured anything out that is going to save us from the evil that lies within us and from our own sinfulness. It’s 2020 in America, more than 2,000 years since the crucifixion and what does human progress look like? Well now, we can watch a lynching on the internet from the comfort of our own homes. If that is what human progress looks like, you can have it. If the future of the world, or of the church, or of our own souls is in our hands then we are all in deep trouble. I’m sorry, but I don’t think any amount of programming is going to put an end to sin in the world. And while good laws and good leadership is something we need to strive for, and work for, laws and elections don’t usually win hearts. And it is only when hearts change, that real change begins to happen. So maybe the church’s job is to try and spend a little less time trying to win every argument, and a little more time trying to win every heart.

 

Jesus said: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” You know, even after your heart is converted or turned to Christ you are still going to make mistakes, but I can also promise you that if you spend enough time with Jesus, he will show them to you. And when Jesus does that you can decide to either hold on to your sin, or you can hold on to Jesus. If our hearts are truly converted, if we truly love Jesus and believe that the future is in his hands, we will turn to him. It is in Jesus’s forgiving, loving heart that my hope lies, not in any plans or schemes of my own. So being faithful to Jesus will always mean more to me than being innovative or clever or powerful.

 

What I see when I look at the world, is a world that desperately needs God, not the other way around. God doesn’t need us; we need God. We need conversion of heart. God cannot be a hobby, or a project. The church cannot be something that you come to, thinking that you are going to fix everything that is wrong with it. And we Christians can’t go out into the world thinking that we have the answer to every problem, because we don’t. We cannot fix the world. Only God can do that. We have a message to share about what God has done and is doing to change the world, and we need to be prepared to share it, but we always need to share it with gentleness and reverence, because ultimately it is hearts that we need to win, not arguments.

 

Let me be clear, as citizens I think we absolutely need to work for good laws and good leadership. But as Christians, I don’t think we can ever settle for anything less than winning hearts. Winning hearts to a savior that doesn’t need us, but still sees in the eyes of every human being, someone worth dying for.

 

We are the ones who need saving, and the message of our faith is that God has done that. The message of our faith is NOT that God needs us; it is that God WANTS us. God Loves us. And despite our sinfulness is willing to suffer for us and to forgive us. Sure God can use our imagination, God can use our creativity, God can even use our technology, but let’s just remember that God created the whole universe out of nothing; it is God that gives breath and life to everything and in the end it is God in Christ that will judge the world with righteousness. The future is ultimately in his hands not ours. So we need God and Jesus a whole lot more than he needs us. He doesn’t need us at all.

 

 

 

Faith is a choice

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Sermon for April 19th, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 12:32

It is, I think, very unfortunate that history has labeled the disciple Thomas as “doubting Thomas.” Every year on the Sunday after Easter, we hear the story from John’s gospel of what happened the week AFTER the resurrection.

On that first Easter Sunday, when the empty tomb had been discovered and when the disciples first witnessed the risen Christ, flesh and blood, standing before them, Thomas had been absent.

We don’t know where he was, maybe he had a good excuse, but he wasn’t with the other disciples when they first witnessed the risen body of Jesus. So he didn’t see first hand what they saw. Even after they tell him all about it, Thomas doesn’t believe them until the following week, when he too gets to see the risen Christ for himself. So Thomas gets to be known by history as doubting Thomas.

But as I say, that’s an unfortunate name, because I’m not sure that doubt is what is actually going on with Thomas here. I’m not sure that doubt is what Thomas is struggling with.

In our translation of John’s gospel that you heard this morning, when Jesus finally stands before Thomas and invites him to touch him and to experience for himself the fact that he is not a ghost or a spirit but the same risen body that had been buried the week before, when that encounter happens the translation you just heard has Jesus say to Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” The authorized translation puts it somewhat differently though. In the Authorized or King James Version, Jesus says to Thomas: “be not faithless, but believing.” I point that out because there is a big difference between having doubts and being faithless.

Doubts are not necessarily something you have control over. Doubts can just creep in or show up at any time. Doubts and questions are a natural part of living in a world that is above and beyond our understanding. I have doubts all the time. I doubt myself. I doubt others. I have lots of questions. There are many things I wonder about. There is so much about scripture and theology that I don’t have the answers to, and there are times when I wonder: did this really happen exactly this way? How did this happen? Why did this happen? Is this true? Those sorts of doubts and questions pop into my head almost automatically sometimes; they aren’t the product of reasoning, they are almost an emotional reaction.

We may not have control over whether or not doubts pop into our head. What we have control over is what we do with those doubts. And that is where faith comes in. That is the difference between having doubts and being faithless. Faith is an act of the will. Faith is a choice you make. Jesus says to Thomas “be not faithless.”

Thomas’s problem was not that he had doubts; Thomas’s problem was that he was faithless. He was not willing to put any faith in his fellow disciples. He was not willing to believe their report of having seen the risen Jesus.

Why? Did he think they were all delusional? Did he think this was a conspiracy to gaslight him? To what end? An elaborate and cruel practical joke? What possible reason could the other disciples have for lying to him? And yet, that is what Thomas chooses to believe. He had no reason to believe that the other disciples would be delusional or lie to him, and yet that is what he chooses to believe. He chooses to believe that. Rather than put a little bit of faith into his friends, despite his doubts, Thomas chooses to hold onto his doubts. He clings to them and cherishes his doubts more than he does his fellow disciples.

Thomas’s problem is not his doubt, it’s his will. Thomas does not want to believe. He creates this preposterous standard of evidence: he wants to put his hand in Jesus’s wounds. That is a ridiculous request and Thomas in his heart knows it. But he says that unless he sees proof that leaves not the shadow of a doubt, he will not…will not believe. Belief is an act of the will and Thomas does not want to believe. Sure, Thomas has doubts, we all have doubts, but Thomas’s problem is that he is giving disbelief the benefit of the doubt.

Doubts are completely natural. Doubts just come into our heads whether we like it or not. But what we do have control over is whether or not we let doubt control our lives. Does doubt always have the last word? Does doubt always get preferential treatment in your head? Thomas’s problem is not that he has doubts; Thomas’s problem is that he does not want to give faith a chance. He chooses to give doubt the upper hand. He is faithless, and that is a very different thing than just doubting.

Sadly, Thomas is like many people in our world. The world is filled with people that don’t want to believe. There are people that look for reasons and excuses NOT to believe. There are people that are willing to believe something they read on the internet once with zero evidence or support, but when you suggest that the words of the Nicene Creed, something that has been professed and believed by billions of Christians throughout the centuries might be true, well they look at you like you are crazy. There are always people that are unwilling, unwilling to choose faith over disbelief.

But what does it mean to be faithful? Well first of all it doesn’t mean not having doubts. Faithful people have doubts all the time. In fact, being a faithful person means learning to live with uncertainty. It means that when questions and doubts arise in your mind that you willingly choose to give God a chance. It means accepting that you live in a world that is sometimes beyond explanation, it means accepting that religious people throughout the history of the world have not been either lying or delusional, it means accepting that the people that have come before you, might know something you don’t; they might have seen something that you haven’t seen yet. Poor Thomas couldn’t get that.

There is a line from my favorite movie “The Lion in Winter” where Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine says “In a world where carpenters are resurrected, anything is possible.” That is what I think it means to be a faithful person, it is to live in a world where anything is possible. That is the kind of world I want to live in, and sometimes that means choosing to believe something, choosing to have faith, even when I have doubts.

It is true that some people may not choose to believe in Christ until they meet him face to face, they may choose doubt, but Our Lord makes it very clear this morning, which is the better option.

He is risen

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020

Sermon starts at 16:08


Nobody expected good news on that first Easter Sunday.

On that first Easter Sunday morning, no one had heard yet about empty tombs, or mysterious angels in a garden, or stones being rolled away.

Nobody knew the story of Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus alive again outside his tomb. People had not heard the tale of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that encountered the risen Jesus along the way. Peter had not yet reported finding the empty burial shroud that had been wrapped around their beloved leader.

Nobody was headed to church on that first Easter Sunday morning. There were no high altars covered with lilies. There were no fancy processions with candles. There were no large buildings for people to comfortably and safely gather in to read a familiar story.

People were not heading to brunch with their families. There were no Easter egg hunts. No fancy hats; no shiny new clothes.

Nobody was expecting good news on that first Easter Sunday. And why would they?

Jesus’s followers had hoped that he would fix the world. They had hoped that his leadership would usher in a new regime that would change their lives for the better. They had rejoiced on the previous Sunday when this new king, this messiah, this Son of David had entered their city because they thought that this was the good news they had always wanted; finally, their suffering was over. But then, Friday came.

Friday came and as the disciples watched their leader die on the cross, their hopes died with him. Nobody expected good news anymore. On that first Easter Sunday morning, most of Jesus’s followers were locked inside the house. Locked inside, that is how most of Jesus’s followers woke up on that first Easter Sunday morning: locked inside.

There was no church service on that first Easter Sunday morning, but there was a sermon. In fact, it was the best sermon ever preached in the history of the world and it was only three words long. Three words long! As a priest and a pastor, you always struggle with what words to say on big occasions like Easter Sunday, but this year I find myself almost at a loss for words. Easter this year will be unlike any Easter any of us have ever celebrated. We cannot gather in public the way we normally would. Most of us will be more or less locked inside. A month ago, none of us would have imagined this situation. Now, I dare say, many of us have grown weary of watching the news; weary, because so much of the news we hear of late has been bad, heartbreaking, exhausting or terrifying. I am willing to bet that many of us don’t expect good news anymore.

I know that I don’t have all the right words to make sense of the situation our world is in right now. As I said, I am almost at a loss for words, almost. But the words I do have, and the words I will share with my parish by whatever means I can on Easter Sunday, are the three words of that first Easter sermon: “He is risen!”

Those words were first given by an angel to a heartbroken woman who had come to anoint the body of her dead loved one. She ran to share those words with the other disciples who were locked inside their home. Those words were pondered by the two disciples walking by themselves on the road to Emmaus. At first nobody would believe the news. Nobody could believe the message of those three words, much less understand what they truly meant. But when the disciples experienced the truth behind those words, well it completely changed their lives and the world they all lived in. These three little words of good news changed the way people dealt with all the bad news.

I don’t have many words to offer you this year, but I have three and they are very powerful. They are good news. They are the best news you will ever hear. This good news can change how you deal with all the bad news. These words have power behind them. Christians might be used to saying them in church on Easter Sunday as congregations gathered together, but maybe we need to start practicing saying them as individuals and as families again. Maybe these words need to be on our lips as we face death and uncertainty. Don’t just read these words, say them. Share them. Because in a world where it seems like death and bad news have the upper hand people need to hear good news. And not just some good news, THE GOOD NEWS. All it takes is three little words. Why don’t you practice saying them now?

He is risen

Ordinary Things

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2020

Sermon begins at 14:18

So here we coming to you once again from our dining room. Now I have said mass in all sorts of places, and I have said mass in homes and on dining room tables, but I never imagined that I would be observing Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, the holiest observances of the Christian year, from a chapel slash makeshift TV studio in my house.

There hasn’t been much to laugh about these past few weeks, but whenever I stand here to preach, I can’t help but be slightly amused that my choir and congregation have been replaced by a china cabinet. I think we’ve done a fairly good job of turning a dining room into an attractive, respectful and even prayerful space, but the marks of ordinary, everyday life or all over this place and I’m very aware of it.

Some of my grandmother’s dishes are in this cabinet. There is a teddy bear here that belonged to my other grandmother. This candelabra over here in the corner was a graduation present. There is a painting over there behind the camera that my mother painted. Family history and everyday life are all over this room.

There are also some funny things you can’t see. For instance, I’m standing on a cutting board. It’s not because I need the height, it’s because this floorboard over here in the corner is creaky and this was the best solution I could find to keep it from being a distraction.

I tried to bring some of the beautiful sacred items from our church here to lend some dignity to this chapel. I always want worship to be as beautiful as it possibly can be, but if you look under the surface what you will find is completely ordinary. Underneath the fair linen here on the altar is a consecrated altar stone, we are lucky to have an extra moveable one at Ascension. It is a square piece of marble that has been specially blessed to be a place where the sacrifice of the mass is said, but underneath that is a plastic card table.

Of course, the card table wasn’t quite tall enough for the frontal to hang right, so I had to prop up each leg on a paint can. That helped, but it still wasn’t tall enough, so I had to sit each paint can on old VHS tapes of Brideshead revisited. Finally that got the height just right. So with the exception of that altar stone, the most holy ritual of our religion, the rite in which we believe God offers his life to us under the forms of bread and wine, that is about to happen and has been happening on top of a bunch of stuff I found in the basement.

Just a bunch of common, everyday things, and yet with a little faith on our part and hopefully with a lot of blessing and grace on God’s part, they become something more than common. They become holy.

It occurred to me that on this night of all nights, Maundy Thursday, the night when we remember Our Lord’s last supper, his last Passover meal and the institution of the sacrament of his body and blood, on this night it isn’t just funny that we’re saying mass in our dining room. It’s actually fitting. Because a dining room is where this story begins. Up here above this china cabinet is a picture of the Last Supper. It’s a copy of DaVinci’s last supper and it belongs to Keith. And while I doubt that the Last Supper of Jesus looked exactly like that, still it gets the point across. Jesus is offering his disciples his body and blood, he is offering them his life….at a very ordinary dining table. And what he is using are the most ordinary elements: bread and wine. He takes the most common thing in the world and turns it into the most precious. All this time, every meal we have had in here, Jesus has been quietly up here presiding over it. But it’s a reminder that the most sacred meal in the history of the earth happened in a very ordinary dining room, with some very ordinary people, eating very ordinary things.

But look at what God can do with ordinary things. Not only does he transform bread and wine into his body and blood, but he transforms us who receive it into something else too. When we participate in the holy sacrifice of the mass we become more than what we already are. God takes very ordinary human beings and he transforms them into a new family. God takes rebellious, sinful people and he invites them into his life. God takes people of every imaginable difference and he pulls them together to the same table, feeds them with the same food and says “ok, you are a family now.” If you think of all the altars in all the churches throughout the world, some of them are unimaginably grand and some are just a few pieces of wood slapped together, but they all look back to that very ordinary table in the upper room in Jerusalem.

Meals are very ordinary things, we eat all the time and think nothing of it, but meals are also holy moments of connection. We are connected to the food which gives us life and joy; we are connected to each other in ways that give us identity and teach us love. The most ordinary thing we do is also one of the most sacred things we do, and God knows that. I think that as extraordinary as God is, maybe God wants us to see him and find him in ordinary things. Maybe that is why two of the most sacred rituals in all of scripture happen in dining rooms.

In our passage from Exodus, the Passover meal, that sacred meal when the children of Israel were huddled inside their homes eating the lamb. It wasn’t just a one-time thing. God commanded the Israelites to observe it as a perpetual ordinance. God didn’t want his children to ever forget his saving love for them and the way he tells them to memorialize that saving moment in history, was through a meal.

And many years later it was during one of those very meals when Our Lord demonstrated his saving love to his people once more, and once more he tells them to remember that moment, in a meal.

A very ordinary meal in a very ordinary place, becomes the most sacred thing on earth.

I know that many of you are longing to receive communion again. If you are someone who comes to the altar on a regular basis it can be very difficult to be kept away from the body and blood of our Lord. I know that many of you are longing to receive Christ sacramentally again, and you know what, that’s a good thing, because it means you understand how important this is. And when this is all past you will get to receive again and what a glorious day that will be, but until that day comes maybe it will help us to remember that this most holy extraordinary meal began as a very ordinary one. The most high God broke into our lives in the most common way in an ordinary dining room with plain old bread and wine. Maybe we can’t all receive the Holy Eucharist in our churches right now, but what other ordinary things might God be laying his hands on in our lives? In what other ways might God be taking things that are common or ugly or plain or broken and transforming them into something Holy? Maybe you can’t go and see Jesus in the church right now, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t coming to see you. Maybe you can’t come to receive him at the altar tonight, but that doesn’t mean that Christ isn’t offering his life to you in other ways through other ordinary things. Maybe you can’t go into God’s house right now, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t come into yours.

You know the Psalmist says it best today. (the Psalmist often says it best actually) The Psalmist says that when the Children of Israel were in the desert they railed against God and said “Can God set a table in the wilderness?”

And of course, God showed them that he can set a table anywhere he darned well pleases.

The Hard Way

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Mass and Sermon for Palm Sunday 2020

Readings

Sermon begins at 23:50

I imagine that many of you are probably over this by now. I’m not even sure what week we are in anymore of this crisis and all of this social distancing, but it is getting old and we all know we have much further to go before this is over.

 

Maybe you used to think: oh how easy and great it would be to work from home all the time! How nice to just roll out of bed in sweatpants, grab your coffee and go to work. No need to shave, no trains, no commuting…just doing whatever it is you do in the comfort of your own home. Once upon a time that may have seemed like a dream situation to you, but now that that is what so many are being forced to do, it may not look quite as much like easy street as it once did. I think by now we have rubbed the shine off that dream.

 

This stay at home life, may not be quite as easy as we once imagined. You start to miss things. Like hugs. Or chance encounters with strangers. Or the random sights and smells you get walking through the city. Maybe you miss seeing people’s faces now that so many are covered up by masks. Maybe you miss your routine or your coworkers. This way of life that we thought would be easy, turns out to be not so easy after all. It’s hard.

 

Comfort and convenience can be false friends, they lure us in with the promise of rest and peace, but in the long run, do they ever really deliver on that promise? Pragmatism is a very appealing idea: just do whatever works; take the path of least resistance; achieve your goal by whatever means necessary.

 

If you think back to the beginning of Lent, what seems like a year ago at this point because so much has changed, but if you remember the first Sunday in Lent then you will remember that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, and what was Jesus tempted to do: he was tempted to take the easy way. Turn stones into bread to satisfy your hunger; throw yourself off the temple to demonstrate your power; worship me to take control of the world. Three times Jesus was tempted to take the easy way and three times he chose the harder path. I say three times, but that was just the temptation in the desert, the truth is that throughout his life Jesus was continually tempted to take the easy path and time and time again he chose to do what was hard.

 

Jesus didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. He had a nice life in Galilee. He had a thriving ministry; Galilee is beautiful, plenty of fish, plenty of followers to fund his ministry. Why would he go to Jerusalem? Jerusalem was always dangerous. It has always been a center of conflict. Why should Jesus take that risk?

 

When he got to Jerusalem and the crowds welcomed him as the messiah, he could have armed them and mobilized them to fight the Romans. They would have done anything he asked. It would have been so easy. Why didn’t he give them weapons to fight the oppression? Why did he go out of his way to annoy the temple authorities? Wouldn’t it have been easier just to work with them against their common enemy?

 

If Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, then why didn’t he just stop him? It would have been so easy. When Pilate asked Jesus to defend himself, why didn’t he speak up? Pilate had no love for the Jews. He was not allied with the Temple police; he wasn’t even friends with Herod at this point. All Jesus had to do was say a few simple words and he would have been free…it would have been so easy. But he said almost nothing. No defense.

 

Every step of the way there was an easier path Jesus could have taken, and every time he chose the harder way. That’s a clue you know that there is something special about this man. Look at all the other characters in this story: How many of them chose to take the hard path? Not many. The disciples didn’t want Jesus to go to Jerusalem, they knew he would get arrested. Peter was happy to claim Jesus as the messiah, but he didn’t want to see Jesus get killed, much less carry a cross of his own. When it came down to taking the risk of even claiming that he knew Jesus, Peter found that too hard. So much easier to lie, so much easier just to deny him.

 

Judas? All it took was a few pieces of silver to get him to chose the easy way of betraying his friend.

 

Pilate? He could have followed his conscience. He could have listened to his wife. But then, there might be a riot. So much easier to just give the crowd what they want.

 

What about the crowd? There must have been some people in the crowd that were still hanging on to their affection for Jesus that they had proclaimed with shouts and palm branches just a few days before. Surely there must have been some people there that would have chosen Jesus over Barabbas. But when the shouting started, maybe it was just easier to go along with those shouting the loudest. Why rock the boat? Just let these agitators have the man they want and they will be appeased. After all, it’s just one life for the sake of the many, right? So much easier to just go along with the crowd.

 

The soldiers? They had a hard job. They had orders to follow to kill this man. They could have chosen to give him dignity in his death, but that would just make their jobs that much harder. So much easier to humiliate him, that way killing him won’t seem so inhuman.

 

The disciples could have chosen to stand by their man, but most of them didn’t. Too hard to watch him die, too hard to admit that they had been followers of this man now condemned to die on a cross.

 

And you know, it would be easy to sit or stand in judgement against all these characters in this story, but the truth is, most of us would have probably made the same decisions they did. Because most of the time, that’s what we humans do. We choose the easy way. We choose comfort and convenience. We choose what is expedient over what is right. We do it all the time, everyday. The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, Jesus said, and there are many who take it. The road is hard that leads to life.

 

In then end the only ones that were able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and do the hard thing of witnessing his death, were a few women. What gave them the strength to choose the hard path when so many others found it so irresistible to take the easy road?

 

Well, I think it was the same power that led Jesus to take the hard path every step of the way: love.

 

It was love that kept those women at the foot of the cross. It was a love that was so deep that they could not turn away from his suffering and pain, no matter how hard it was. It wasn’t greeting card, gushy romantic love. I’m not talking about love as the emotion that makes us feel good; I’m talking about the kind of love that makes us heart sick. I’m talking about love that makes us stare death and suffering in the face. Love that will not let me go. Love that causes people to do unimaginably hard things. That kind of love is what kept those women at the foot of the cross when so many others found it easier to turn away.

 

And it was that kind of love that led Jesus to walk the hard way of the cross from the very beginning. It would have been so easy for God to just turn away from humans. God could have just said: well, they screwed it up, let them suffer. Let them work it out. Doesn’t matter to me, I’m eternal. They can’t do anything to me. God could have just walked away from this sinful race, but that isn’t what we believe. He doesn’t do that, but choses to do something supremely hard. He chooses to suffer and die as one of us. Why does he do that? What was so powerful that he willingly choose the cross? Love. It was love that led God to choose the hard path.

 

We have a long road ahead of us, and I’m not just talking about this crisis we are all living in, I’m talking about life in general. There is a long road ahead of us, and as we go down it there are going to signs all along the way, everyday that say bypass, and detour, the easy way is this way. Don’t be fooled. Ease and comfort aren’t all they are cracked up to be. You might enjoy it for a minute, but that kind of joy doesn’t last. It’s the hard road that leads to  life.

 

 

 

Born Blind

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Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 17:41

I know that there are a lot of priests and preachers this morning preaching to empty, or almost empty rooms. Everyone is trying to do the best they can to participate in worship online, but there is no sense in pretending that it is the same thing as worshipping together, it’s different. I can’t see most of your faces right now, and while that may not change the message I have to give, it does change how it feels to give it.

But this is not the first time I have preached to an almost empty room, as a matter of fact I do it all the time. I very often will come into the empty church and go over my sermons out loud. It’s not because I want the sermon to be some kind of performance, not at all. It is because I want to make sure that what comes out of my mouth is what I really want to say. Sometimes things sound different in your head, or on paper, that they do out loud. So sometimes, I will come into an empty church and preach.

I also do this when I am down taking classes for my graduate program in Tennessee. Most of you know that I am working on a doctorate in ministry, and when I am down at the University I do the same thing. I go into the chapel, which looks nothing like this space, but is nonetheless beautiful with lots of clear windows that look out on the mountain setting, I go in there and I practice my sermons.

I did it this past summer. I had a sermon that I was working on that I needed to give for class, so I left happy hour early one night and walked back up to the chapel to go over my sermon. Most of my classmates were still in the restaurant so I figured I was safe to have the chapel to myself for a bit.

So I went into the chapel and started reading out loud.

And about the time I got a couple minutes into my sermon I saw a man walk up outside, over on my right, just outside the windows, looking around. So, I got quieter, but I kept preaching to myself. A few minutes later he walked into the chapel and I stopped.

The man walked up to me and introduced himself. He was probably in his mid fifties and he was dressed like a man than knows about hard work. He said he lives on the mountain but doesn’t work here or study here. He had been out walking in the woods all day and for some reason he just felt like coming up this way. He knew that there was a chapel here, he had seen it from a distance, but had never been in it. He wanted to see if the doors were open.

I told him, yes, by all means, please look around. I’m just reading over this sermon I need to give next week. He said go ahead and keep reading, who knows, maybe you will say something I need to hear. And he began to look around the chapel and I went back to my sermon, but self-consciousness got the better of me and I read it to myself silently. I told myself that I didn’t want to disturb this man in his time of prayer, but of course the truth was I didn’t want him to think I was crazy, standing here preaching to an empty room.

So he went up to the front of the chapel and for a while he stood there at the foot of this life-sized crucifix, looking up at Jesus, as I stood over in the pulpit, silently reading my sermon. And then, when he was done he walked back over to me and said, would you do me a favor, would you tell me what your sermon is about.

Of course, I said.

Well my passage was from Deuteronomy, but the story was all about the Exodus story, some of which you may remember we heard about last week.

I said to him: Do you remember the story of Moses and the children of Israel? Do you remember the part when God sets them free from slavery to pharaoh?

Yes, he said.

Well, they came to the shores of the Red Sea and they turned back to Egypt. They said, “it would be better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” But God shows them grace; they sea parts and they keep going.

And then a little further into the wilderness they get hungry. They remember the fleshpots, the food and the bread that they had in Egypt. That food, those fleshpots, that bread, it gave them life. They thought surely they should turn back. They turn and look back to Egypt and say, “if only we had those fleshpots and that bread again.” But God shows them grace; God gives them food, they re-turn and keep going.

And then I said,

They move on further, and when they don’t have any water, they turn away and look back to Egypt; and again God shows them grace and they re-turn and keep going. This happens over and over and over. God’s children even reach the border of the Promised Land once, they look in, and they are afraid, and they turn back toward Egypt again. They turn away from God. And eventually they find their way back to the Promised Land and Moses, right before he dies, tries to make it as clear as he can to them. Life is this way. The Promised Land is this way. Blessings are this way. God is this way. So I said the man that I think when we turn away from God we turn away from life, and it doesn’t really matter what we are turning too.

I told him that I think the point of my sermon is that even though we are on the road to freedom, the fleshpots keep calling. We keep looking back to Egypt. We want good things like bread and water, and family and wealth and comfort, but we forget nothing is as good as God. We want all these things in life, but we don’t want to put faith in God to provide them, that was part of the story from Exodus we heard last week. And I told the man that my sermon is that: God is the source of goodness; God is the source of life. Moses wants the children of Israel to make good choices. He wants them to make God their supreme good. He wants them to pursue God above all else. He wants them to put faith in God.

But I said to him, here is the funny thing: Moses already knows they are going to fail. Because right before Moses tells them to choose wisely, to choose life, he tells them that someday they are going to find themselves wandering again, scattered and exiled. And he says to them that when they realize they have turned away from God, when they take that to heart and they re-turn to the Lord, that he will take them back in love.

And I said to him that what I want to say in my sermon is that we will make wrong turns, but when we do, we can return and come back again. When we discover that the road we are on is headed in the wrong direction, we can turn around. God wants us to choose him. God wants us to choose the Promised Land and choose life. But when we choose wrongly and choose to put our faith in the wrong things, God lets us choose again and return back to him.

And he looked at me for a minute and said, thank you. I imagine if you preach it just like that you’ll do just fine. It really meant something to me. And he stood there a minute and paused and said, “but how can you see in here?”

And I said well, there’s a light right here that shines down on my text. And he said, “well I can’t really see very well. Bad vision runs in my family. That’s usually what I am praying for whenever I come into a church. Better vision.”

That’s when it hit me.

It occurred to me then that there was something missing from my sermon. I spent all this time talking about people turning away from God and settling for lesser things that are never as good as God; I spent time talking about people making wrong turns and heading in the wrong direction, and putting their faith in the wrong things, but I couldn’t see the obvious problem. The reason why we do it. The reason we do it is because we can’t always see which way the road is headed. Bad vision runs in our family. When it comes to knowing where God is; when it comes to judging ourselves and our neighbors rightly, we are all blind. We turn away from the Promised Land we turn away from God and from life, because we can’t always see clearly. We humans don’t have good vision and we can’t see God or Jesus from a distance, we have to get right up close to him and stand or kneel right at his feet to see who he really is. Sometimes God has to get right in our face before we can see him. Lesser things, closer things, block the view. Daily life can block the view. We cannot see the world as it really is. We cannot see ourselves as we really are. Sometimes we need grace to turn us around. By some means we need God to get in our face and show us the way and say “hey, here I am right in front of you, and life is this way.” Sometimes we need God not just to help us see, but also we need God to show us just how blind we really are.
And then it hit me again harder, because I realized in that moment that it was happening to me, right then, only I was the one who was lost, I was the one who was blind and couldn’t see God working right in front of me. Here I was focused on my text, a stranger came up to me and asked me for a word, I think he wanted a glimpse of the Promised Land; he wanted a word of life, he wanted me to show him Jesus and I didn’t do it. I let fear and respectability silence me. I decided to lean on fear more than God’s grace. It was so easy. Here was a holy moment, a divine encounter, and I wasn’t ready to enter in just yet. I wasn’t ready to open my eyes. I made the wrong choice. I was the one who turned away from God. I was the one who couldn’t see clearly. I was the one who was blind.

You know, this man could have just walked out and gone on his way. But he didn’t. He came back over to me and basically said, “would you offer me a word now.” I got a second chance. Here I was preaching to this man about how God gives second chances, and in that moment God flipped my world upside down and this man was preaching to me. I was the one who turned away from God and the Promised Land; I couldn’t see which way led to life, and this man gave me the chance to re-turn again. He touched me and opened my eyes. That was grace.

I once was lost but now am found

Was blind but now I see

We shook hands, said goodbye and thanked each other. I returned to my text and he returned to the woods, but he stopped before he walked out the door and called back to me.

He said, “It’s a round world you know…well meet again.”

And all I could say was “Amen brother, amen.”

I don’t know who that man was. Maybe he was an angel. Maybe he was someone that God sent to cross my path to teach me something. I don’t know. But what I know, or what at least I hope I know is this: I live in a world full of things that I cannot see. Some of these invisible things can harm me, we are all aware of that right now, but some can save me. If there is anything that we all need to realize, especially in this time we are living in, is that we can’t always see with the naked eye everything that is in this world of ours. We can’t always see viruses, and we can’t always see God. I hope I do run into that man again, or someone like him. Because I need God and God’s grace to help me see things as they really are, we all do, because the truth is, we are all born blind.

Harden not your hearts

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Sermon for March 15th, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 16:00

 


“Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me. They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.”

 

Those words are from Psalm 95, our Psalm for the day.

 

Now if Psalm 95 sounds familiar to you, then you’ve just made me very proud, because that means you are probably saying Morning Prayer regularly. Psalm 95 is regularly said at the beginning of our Morning Prayer service as a part of the invitation to worship called the Venite, from the Latin word for “Come.” It begins “O Come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.”

 

Most of the time at Morning Prayer though, the Psalm ends with verse 7: “O that today you would hearken to his voice.” We don’t always read the rest. But right after that verse the Psalmist says:

 

“Harden not your hearts, as your forbears did in the wilderness, at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me. They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.”

 

What happened at Meribah and Massah? What did our forbears or ancestors do that tempted God? Well in our Old Testament reading today we hear the story.

 

Moses and the Children of Israel are traveling in the wilderness. They are in the desert really. They have just been through the most tumultuous journey. They had just been slaves in Egypt. God had seen their misery and heard their cries, and after Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, after Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, God demonstrated his might through one miraculous demonstration of power after another. And Pharaoh relented and set God’s people free.

 

God led them with pillars of cloud and pillars of fire out of Egypt.

 

And when Pharaoh changed his mind, and decided to pursue the Israelites, God demonstrated his power again, by opening the Red Sea and allowing them to pass through on dry land. And when the Children of Israel saw Pharaoh’s army stuck in the mud and drowned in the sea they sang a song of praise. It is the first song recorded in the Bible. We call it the Song of Moses:

 

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise him, my father’s God and I will exalt him.”

 

Everyone sang and celebrated what they had just witnessed. God was powerful and mighty and God had just demonstrated both his power and his will to save his people.

 

But it didn’t take the people long to forget it.

 

They had witnessed God’s saving power, but before the chapter ends, they are complaining to Moses that the water isn’t good to drink. When Moses calls upon the Lord, the Lord shows him what to do to make the water drinkable. And the Lord tells his people: listen to me and trust me. I am the Lord who heals you. I will not bring on you any of the plagues I brought on Egypt. I am the Lord who saves you. Trust in me. And they had good water to drink.

 

Then a little further, a couple months later, the Israelites get a little hungry. Do they turn to God and ask for his saving help again? No. They turn to Moses and Aaron and complain saying: “it would have been better for us to stay in Egypt! You should not have brought us here, you are going to kill us!” But God hears them, and through another miracle, sends them bread and meat to eat. The Lord commands them to gather the bread and meat for six days, but to rest on the seventh. On the sixth day he gives them enough to last for two days, but still some don’t listen. They won’t rest. They can’t trust that God will provide for them.

 

Then a little bit further and we find the Children of Israel in our passage from Exodus today. Still journeying through the desert, when they come to a place where there appears to be no water. They have seen God in pillars of cloud and fire, they have seen God split the sea, they have seen God turn bitter water into sweet, they have seen God provide bread and meat, but instead of turning and leaning on their faith in God, they turn to Moses once again and say: “Give us water! Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us?”

 

So God instructs Moses to strike the rock with his staff and there is water to drink. But Moses names the place Meribah and Massah, words that mean “test” and “quarrel” as a reminder of how the people quarreled and tested God, saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” These people that had witnessed God’s saving power in a way unlike any others, still allowed their hearts to be hardened the moment the next hardship came along. Instead of turning to God for their needs, instead of asking for God’s saving help again, they turned on each other.

 

So when the Psalmist many years later is composing another song about God and is imagining what God’s voice might say, what he writes is this:

 

Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, at Meribah and on that day its Massah, when they tempted me. They put me to the test, though they had seen my works.

 

They may be hard words to hear, but it they’re true. We do that, don’t we? We witness miraculous things in our lives, we witness God’s love and saving power, and then we quickly forget about them. We forget what God has done for us. We question whether God is truly with us or not. We fear, we quarrel. We allow our hearts to be hardened.

 

It is so easy for us to become jaded and cynical. It is so easy for us to become hardened in our hearts; to give in to anger and fear. It is so easy for us to forget what God has already done for us, it is so easy for us to not see God, even when he is right in front of us. Jesus says to the woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would give you living water.”

 

Do we know the gift of God? Do we know the one who is asking us to serve him? We should know him, we have seen his works, but I guess we need to be reminded. We need to be reminded regularly about what God has done for us, and the miracles our forebears witnessed, and the miracles we have witnessed. That is one of the things that worship does; songs of praise like the song sung by the Israelites when they made it across the sea, they pour out praise to God, but they also remind us of what God has done for us. That is why we need prayer and praise in our lives, so that our hearts are not hardened when hard times and adversity show up again.

 

I don’t need to tell you that this week we have entered into a somewhat strange and difficult time in our world. The fact that this service is being broadcast online, without much of a congregation is a testimony to the fact that we are traveling in desert land right now. There are a lot of unknowns and people are worried about their health, their savings, and all that is perfectly natural, but we have been here before. Even something as bizarre as cancelling public gatherings and worship. We have been here before. This week I dug through the old parish register and found the entry from October of 1918 when our church was closed for two weeks due to the influenza epidemic. When have been here before. We have been through depressions and wars, we have been through tough times and we get through them. We get through them by turning back to God. By remembering what God has already done for us, and by remembering that he has promised to be with us through the end. That is why we need worship now more than ever. We may have to do it differently for a while. We may each have to turn to God in our homes, on our beds and sofas, and at our dinner tables. We may need to get our prayer books and bibles off the shelves, we may need to use some new technology for a while, but if in the end we are all individually brought a little closer to this saving God, then surely that is a good thing.

 

This God of ours has triumphed over death, let us never forget that. As Christians we remind ourselves of that every time we gather for prayer. That is the salvation that our forebears witnessed: Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. If that is true then what on earth do we have to worry about….nothing. We will do what is prudent and wise to protect the weakest among us and to limit the spread of this disease, but we will not fear, panic or let our hearts be hardened. We will not forget God’s saving works that our ancestors witnessed, or the miracles that we ourselves have witnessed. We will continually turn to God in prayer and praise and with supplications, because we know the answer to the question the Israelites asked in the desert. We know that the Lord is among us.