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.

Healing the sick and raising the dead

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Sermon for June 27th, 2021.

Readings:

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
 Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

The woman with the hemorrhage in today’s gospel had been trying for 12 years to find a cure.  12 years this woman was sick and bleeding, and it’s not like she just sat around and did nothing about it. She had been to one doctor after another. She had tried this cure and that cure. She had spent all her money trying to get well; trying to find a cure. But nothing. She was still sick; still bleeding. 

You know, I think of all the people in our world right now suffering from long covid. Living their lives, thank God, and yet still not well. Still suffering. And we don’t know how to fix it. And it’s only been a little over a year. Imagine 12 years or longer. Some of you don’t even have to imagine. Some of you know what chronic health issues are like. You know our medical science is an amazing and wonderful thing, and I thank God for it, and I thank God for all the doctors and nurses and healthcare professionals that do everything they can to try and help people, but there always comes a point where we reach the end of what we know, or of what we think we know. Doctors and nurses can’t fix everything, and they don’t know everything. They are human. We have gotten so good at fixing things that sometimes it can come as quite a shock when you come up on something that you can’t fix. But we get reminders every now and then of just how much we don’t know. 

The woman in today’s gospel has done everything that she can do and it hasn’t been enough. I want you to just sit with that for a minute, because it’s a really horrible place to be in. This woman has spent all her money looking for a cure, and now she is at the end of her rope. We don’t know how much pain she was in; I don’t imagine that bleeding constantly feels very good, so I am willing to bet that she was miserable. There is no trying harder for this lady. She has done everything that she can do, and her doctors have done everything that they can do, and it hasn’t been enough. It’s not enough.

But someone had told her about Jesus. Someone told her about Jesus. I don’t know what they said about him, but they told her she should go and see Jesus. And when she gets to Jesus she realizes something really profound: Jesus doesn’t have the answers. Jesus is the answer. 

Jesus is the answer. She didn’t need an audience with him. She didn’t need his attention. She didn’t need to question him. She just needed to touch him. Just touch him. She said even if I just touch his clothes, that will be enough. All of those people crowded around Jesus looking for answers, when THE answer was right in front of them. 

But you know, that’s what people do, they go to Jesus looking for the answers, and sometimes they miss the fact that he is the answer. In his very being. A poor woman who was at the end of her rope, who had tried as much as she could try, she could see that, why couldn’t everyone else? She could see his power, but they couldn’t.

I wonder if it was because they were able bodied, or healthy or comfortable. You know the people that struggle the most with Jesus in the gospels are the people that have a little money and power. I’m not talking about the super rich folks like Herod. I mean the everyday comfortable folks: the scribes and the lawyers and the tradesmen, the folks who have a few shekels in their pocket and generally take care of themselves from day to day. I’m not saying these are bad folks, certainly not, many of these people become Jesus’s most devoted disciples, but still they struggle with him in a way that this poor lady with the hemorrhage doesn’t. They like Jesus, but they often misunderstand him and they struggle with what it means to follow him, and they don’t always realize what he has to offer. 

Pay attention, whenever you are reading the gospels, pay attention if somebody calls Jesus “teacher.” Now this means you will be paying attention a lot, because lots of people call Jesus “teacher.” Jesus even refers to himself as “teacher” on a few occasions, but pay attention when you see that, because throughout the gospels a lot of people, when they see Jesus, that’s all they see: a teacher. 

When the little girl died in the gospel this morning, the folks gathered around said: “why trouble the teacher any further?” There’s nothing more he can do. And if Jesus had only been just a teacher they would have been right. But they were wrong. 

Please don’t make the same mistake. Jesus isn’t teaching moral lessons in the gospel today. He is healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus doesn’t just have answers; he is the answer. We do not have the power or the know-how, or the resources, or even frankly the will to fix everything in our lives and in this world, but if there’s a lesson in the gospel this morning, it’s this: God can fix what you can’t.

If you have come to Church today hoping for Jesus to give you some good advice, you may walk out the door sorely disappointed, but if you have come to hear about and to touch a savior that has the power to tell the dead to get back up, well then have I got good news for you. 

Keep your mouth shut

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Sermon for June 20th, 2021

Readings:

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

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Job has been severely tested. 

Job was a good man. Righteous, honest, worshipped God, did all the right things. Followed the rules, obeyed the laws. Job did everything right, and yet what we find in scripture is a man suffering beyond belief. Job has lost his wealth, his health and his family. The only thing that Job has left are three friends, and you know the old saying that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Well that pretty much describes Job’s friends. Because at first when Job is suffering they just sit with him and mourn with him, and if they could have just left it at that they would have been good friends indeed, but they don’t. They can’t keep their mouths shut.

Incidentally, as an aside, I spent years in hospice and hospital chaplaincy, and I have spent a lot of time doing what we call Clinical Pastoral Education, reflecting and learning about ministry to the sick and dying, and I think I can sum up all the wisdom I gained from that experience and those years in ministry in four words: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. When you encounter someone who is in pain, who is sick, suffering or grieving, the best thing that you can do is just be there with them. Stand beside them, sit beside them, bring them a casserole if you want, but just be with them. Obviously, if their suffering is something simple, and you have the power to do something to help them you do that. But a lot of the time suffering isn’t simple, and helping them isn’t as simple as fetching someone a pill or a glass of water. There is no pill that will make the pain of death or grief go away. And sometimes sickness isn’t easily diagnosed or treated either. Some things are chronic, and some pain, especially emotional pain, goes deep. The best thing you can do is just be with people that are suffering. Be with them. Don’t let them suffer alone. Listen to their cries; listen to their story. If you try to explain or explain away someone’s suffering you are likely just to cause more pain. There are not magic words in ministry, but there is presence. You can just be with people, and that is a powerful thing.

If Job’s friends had just sat with this poor, suffering man, listened to his cries and his stories, and witnessed his pain, they would have done a good job. That would have helped him. But they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They had to come up with or explain a reason for his pain. So one by one, Job’s friends each suggest that Job must have done something wrong. If God is a God of justice, if God is fair, then you Job must have done something along the way to deserve this. Some friends right?

Job knows that he is innocent of all that his friends accuse him of, but their constant prodding, and their constant insistence that God is a just God and that therefore Job must be guilty of something, this leads Job to the point of despair and he starts to question God and God’s goodness, and that is when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and that is where our first reading begins this morning. And God begins by saying that all of this talk is “words without knowledge.” Words without knowledge. And maybe Job hoped in that moment that God would lay the knowledge on him and answer his questions, but God doesn’t do that. Instead God asks Job a question:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you Job, when I created the world? 

The response stings a little bit, but maybe it needs to. Because we should never approach God with anything but humility. God certainly isn’t threatened by our anger and he isn’t hurt by our questions, but we need to remember, whenever we approach God, whether it is in joy, or in suffering and anger, we need to remember that God is God and we are not. We NEVER, never know the whole story. We are prone to using words without knowledge. If that phrase doesn’t sum up the age we are living in right now, I don’t know what does. Words without knowledge. Talking without listening. 

God doesn’t give Job a simple answer. We may wish that he had. We might want God to give us simple answers about all the suffering in the world, but God doesn’t do that for Job, and he doesn’t do it for us either. Instead, God shows Job the whole majestic world: he shows him mountains and oceans and clouds and stars and little goats and deer giving birth and giant creatures in the sea. And God says, I made all that. I run this. 

And Job says, you’re right. I spoke too soon. I don’t understand how all this works. 

And then God says to him: oh and by the way, your friends are stupid and they don’t know what they are talking about. God isn’t nearly as upset by Job’s complaint as he is by the nonsense Job’s friends have been spouting. And Job’s health and wealth and family are restored, and Job lived to see his grand-children and he died old and full of days. 

You know the Book of Job is one of the oldest books of the Bible. We actually have no real idea when it was written, and maybe that is as it should be, because it is a reminder that there are real limits to human knowledge, and that is a truth in every age. There is so much about this world we live in that we just don’t know. The Book of Job asks the quintessential human question: why do bad things happen to good people? It asks God the big question, and God doesn’t give a simple answer. The reality of the universe is just too much for us to grasp. The Book of Job doesn’t give us a simple answer to a complex question, but the story of Job presents us with a difficult question instead: when you encounter a suffering person, when you see someone who is grieving or in pain or sick or down on their luck, when you encounter a suffering person how do you respond? Are you quick to look for someone to blame? Do you shell out cheap advice to the suffering person? Do you try and help them figure out where they went wrong or what mistakes they must have made? Are you quick to open your mouth or can you just sit and listen? Can you listen to someone cry and just let them cry? Can you sit in dust and ashes with someone? 

The lesson that I take from the Book of Job is that it is not up to us lowly humans to determine who deserves what in this life. That question is way above our paygrade. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that anyone deserves anything. At least, not in the way that we often use that word. Deserve is a loaded word. Justice is another word that I think we misuse. Human justice and divine justice are very different things, and we need to remember that whenever we start throwing the word Justice around.  Maybe it isn’t possible for us to know who deserves what in this life, but what we can do, what we have the power to do is to identify the people that are suffering and to go and be with them. Just do that: when you encounter someone that is suffering, go and be with them. Listen to them. Cry with them. Hear their story.  

The Book of Job is 42 chapters long, and most of that is taken up with Job’s friends trying to convince him that he must have done something wrong, but in chapter 2 we read that: “when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home. They met together to go and comfort and console him…..

They should have just left it there. They should have just kept their mouths shut.

Everything

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Sermon for June 13th, 2021

Readings:

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4,11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
Mark 4:26-34

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

Everything. Those words of Saint Paul from his letter to the Corinthians paint a slightly different picture of Christianity than the one we often see.

Being a part of Christ. Being in Christ. Being baptized into his body; being redeemed by his blood; being saved by the son of God who died and rose again, that should change everything for you. Everything. 

How you live and how you die and everything in between. Everything in your life from the way you spend your money to the way you spend your time, everything should be influenced, everything should be touched by being in Christ. 

Jesus didn’t die and rise again just to redeem an hour of your life every Sunday morning. Christianity is not a hobby to be pursued alongside all your other hobbies, and it’s not a form of do-gooderism either. Do-gooderism, I don’t know if that’s a word, but it is now. You know what I mean. We aren’t here to just be a club of nice people that like to do nice things once in a while. It is easy to fall into thinking that way though, because that is very much the story we are told by society all the time. It is the picture of Christianity that the world shows us.

We live in a secular, and pluralistic society, as does a large portion of the modern Western world, and don’t get me wrong, there are some great benefits to that, but one of the downfalls is that in these modern times, we have all been taught to compartmentalize our lives. So you have your public life and your private life, your professional life and your home life, and we’re all supposed to keep everything in its own little box, including our religious life. Religion, for the rapidly decreasing number of people that find it significant at all, is now just another compartment of our private lives. Religion is about what we think happens to us when we die; Religion is about what holidays we celebrate with our families a few times a year; Religion is about a culture that we identify with; at best it is a part of our identity among many other parts of our identity. And of course there is a huge segment of society that doesn’t even want that level of commitment, so a lot of people call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’, and while a part of me wants to be critical of that mindset, there is another part that recognizes that those folks are longing for a better story than materialist western society is giving them, they recognize that atheism and modernism are insufficient stories to make sense and meaning out of the world they live in, BUT they haven’t yet found in Christianity (in any of its forms, or in any other religion) a better story. Well, that is on us, it’s not on them. We haven’t been good at telling them a better story. We have also bought into this modernist, secular worldview that your faith is supposed to be this one little compartment of your life, among so many other compartments, and so often that is what we sell people when we talk about our faith (if we talk about it at all): it is another thing to do, another club to belong to, another bill to pay and if that is what Christianity is all about then I really can’t blame people for not wanting to be a part of it. But is that really the Christian story?

Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says: 

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Paul is not talking about Sunday morning religion folks. What Paul is talking about is a way of looking at the world that changes everything. Everything. The conviction that Jesus died for all, even for someone like him, changes the way that Paul looks at every other human being. It changes the way he looks at himself. The death and resurrection of Jesus isn’t just some historical event, it is something that touches the life and death of every single human being. A Christian, therefore, someone who is in Christ and united to the man on the cross, a Christian isn’t meant to be just the same old human with a bit of window dressing added on. A Christian isn’t supposed to be someone with just another box to tick on a census form, or something else to do on the weekends. A Christian is supposed to be someone who is radically reoriented to the world around them. We have a completely different story to tell about the universe than the modernist, materialist story the world is telling. The power behind the universe, and the source of all life, for us, is not some meaningless, purposeless, shapeless force, for us the power behind the universe has a name and a face. We have witnessed, in Jesus, the god of all creation. We have been invited to live our lives as a part of his life. All of our lives. God isn’t asking to be the Lord of your Sunday morning. God doesn’t need your free time. Christianity isn’t a hobby, it is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a different story, that we are invited to be a part of.

Should Christians be doing good things in the world? Absolutely! You bet! Faith without works is dead. But the church isn’t a club for nice people that like to do good things. We are meant to be a community of believers that have a story to tell. It is a different story than the one the world tells. The world likes to tell the story about what humans have done. Human beings are the heroes of the secular, modern world. In that story, we congratulate ourselves for all of the progress in the world. In that story, we become convinced that through our own intellect and ingenuity, we are just going to keep making the world better and better. There isn’t a higher power or deeper meaning in that story, just more and more stuff. There is a lot of stuff in the world’s story and the more of it you have, the more blessed you will be. Although, blessed is probably the wrong word, isn’t it?, because there is no blessing in that story. There is no unmerited grace, just chance. Just luck. If there is any salvation in that story, it will come at our own hands. But salvation is a pretty meaningless concept in that story, because what is being saved but a just a heap of swirling chemicals and molecules? If you follow that story to its logical conclusion, our deepest emotions and attachments in this world, become nothing more than illusion created by a bunch of hormones and chemicals in our brains. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are being told that story by the modern world all the time. 

But the Christian story is different. We have a story to tell about what God has done, and what God is doing in the world. God is planting the seeds of his kingdom all around us. It may be invisible to us at first. It may be hard to see, but it grows. The story we tell isn’t just about something that happened once upon a time, it is a story about here and now too. God is alive here and now. Jesus didn’t die for your Sunday morning; he died for your every morning. He died so that every time you open your eyes, you look out on a world that was created not as some cosmic accident, but as an act of love. The Christian story doesn’t have to be opposed to science; that is a false dichotomy. Christians just see, behind the workings of science, deeper meaning and significance. Science is good at explaining how things happen; but it isn’t good at explaining why? The Christian story is about why. The Christian story isn’t just a few set answers to questions about what happens after we die, the Christian story is a completely different way of looking at the world, and when that story becomes our story, when we become a part of that story as Jesus invites us to, that should change everything for us. Everything.

The atheist, modernist, materialist story about salvation through human progress…it’s a weak story. I think a lot of the world knows that it’s a weak story, they just haven’t found something better yet. That, my friends, is where we come in. We have a better story to tell. We have a story, that when told properly, should change everything. The Christian story is not meant to be just one compartment among many in our lives; it is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a different way of life.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

Everything.

The grass isn’t blue

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Sermon for June 6th, 2021

Readings:

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

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Early in Jesus’s ministry he went to Capernaum, a little fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. When the Sabbath came he went into the synagogue and began to teach. And people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught “as one with authority.” He taught the scriptures like he really knew them. And if that wasn’t enough, while he was teaching, a man came up to him that had been struggling with an unclean spirit, a demon. We don’t talk a lot about unclean spirits or demons anymore. We like to dismiss these things as primitive superstitions or misunderstandings. I’m not so sure. I think demons are real. We all probably deal with demons more than we care to admit. But anyways, through this man the unclean spirit or demon cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And just then, Jesus says “be silent and come out of him!” And the man convulses and the demon come out of him. The demon is destroyed, but not the man. The man is saved. And people start to wonder.

Jesus walks out of the synagogue and heads just a few steps down the block to Peter’s house where his mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her hand and the fever is gone. People start bringing other folks to Jesus that are sick or struggling with demons and Jesus heals them all. The demons know who Jesus is, they know he is coming for them, so Jesus won’t even let them speak anymore, because demons are liars. Then Jesus takes the show on the road and starts casting out demons in other villages. 

A leper comes to him. Jesus touches him and makes him clean. People start to flock to Jesus. They bring him a paralyzed man and Jesus not only makes him walk again, but very curiously the first thing that Jesus said to this man was “your sins are forgiven,” sort of like that was the most pressing issue and the greatest gift that he had to offer. Jesus is getting very famous and starts calling more people to follow him, and then one day, he heals a man on the Sabbath. Jesus does a good thing; he brings health and wholeness back to someone, but he does it on the Sabbath, and there are some people who have such a restricted view of what God allows on the Sabbath, that they completely turn on Jesus. This is just a bridge too far. Because he has broken one of their rules, or perhaps more accurately, because Jesus is questioning how some people are interpreting God’s rules, he has created some enemies. But he keeps going. He keeps healing the sick. He keeps teaching people and casting out demons. 

Some of Jesus’s critics, even some members of his family, start to suggest that he is the one that is possessed by the demons. People start saying that Jesus is doing all of these good and miraculous works through the power of Satan. And Jesus points out how ridiculous this is: How can Satan cast out Satan? Satan doesn’t cast out demons and heal people. Satan doesn’t set people free, Satan binds people; Satan enslaves people. But Jesus is healing people and setting people free. Jesus is actually binding Satan up. Jesus uses this fun little analogy of tying up a strong man to plunder his property. Well Jesus is tying up Satan so he can take God’s property, that is you and me, back. Jesus is plundering Satan’s house and stealing us back for God. But you know, as much as that is good news, some people just don’t want to hear that; don’t want to believe it. Because if that is really true, then that means that we are really going to have to start taking what Jesus says seriously.

Jesus teaches with authority. And Jesus challenges some of the prevailing interpretations of God’s law. And Jesus is demonstrating such actual divine power that people are distressed and shocked and conflicted and maybe a little terrified, because if the power that is in this man’s hands is also in his words and in his teaching, if what he is saying is actually true, well that is going to re-order their world, and that’s scary. So we find ways of not believing the truth when we are confronted with it. We look for reasons not to believe God when God is speaking to us. Sometimes we will even go so far as to cling to the exact opposite thing because doing so keeps us in our fantasies; It keeps us from having to confront a truth we don’t want to confront. That is what is happening in the gospel today. People don’t want to accept that Jesus is teaching and acting with the power of God, because if they did that then that would mean their lives would have to change. So instead they try to convince themselves that the exact opposite is true, and that Jesus is, in fact, using demonic power to cast out demons. It’s ridiculous, but that doesn’t matter. Humans are good are believing ridiculous things if it keeps them from having to confront the truth.

I think that one of the most brilliant Dolly Parton songs ever, and this is really a difficult judgement, because most of them are brilliant, but one of the most brilliant at least in terms of lyrics is “The Grass is Blue.”

I’ve had to think up a way to survive
Since you said it’s over
Told me goodbye
I just can’t make it one day without you
Unless I pretend that the opposite’s true

Rivers flow backwards
Valleys are high
Mountains are level
Truth is a lie
I’m perfectly fine
And I don’t miss you
The sky is green
And the grass is blue

There’s snow in the tropics
There’s ice on the sun
It’s hot in the Arctic
And crying is fun
And I’m happy now
And I’m glad we’re through
And the sky is green
And the grass is blue

I mean, that’s not scripture but it might as well be, and not just because St. Dolly wrote it, but because it really speaks to a truth in the human condition. If there is a truth that we are confronted with that we really, really don’t want to accept, well sometimes it is easier to just turn the rest of the world upside down; sometimes it is easier to just hold on to the opposite of what is true, so that we don’t have to let go of our delusions. Dolly would sooner believe that the grass is blue rather than accept that her lover is gone. The Pharisees would rather believe that Jesus is using the power of the devil rather than accept that his authority comes from God. Adam and Eve would rather believe the serpent than trust in God’s goodness. Lies go down real smooth and easy. It is the truth that is usually hard to swallow. 

But deep down I think a lot of times we know we are fooling ourselves. The sky isn’t green and the grass isn’t blue. And the devil never sets us free. Only Jesus can do that.

In the year that King Uzziah died…

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

Readings:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty…”

That is how the prophet Isaiah begins telling the story of his wondrous vision of God and God’s heavenly throne room. In the year that King Uzziah died. Those words have been rattling around in my head all week. I want to just jump into talking about what Isaiah saw and what it might mean, but for some reason the part of this text that keeps jumping out at me this week and getting stuck in my brain is the first line: In the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah is kind of a fun name to say. Who was Uzziah? Well, Uzziah was a king of the Southern kingdom of Judah, back when there were two kingdoms of Hebrews. 

One of the fun things about the Bible, is that sometimes you will read details in scripture and they will seem completely meaningless, and then other times you will read those exact same words again and all of a sudden they will contain a major clue to the meaning of the whole passage. “In the year that King Uzziah died” is one of those passages for me. The first few times I read it, I just saw it as a more or less meaningless date marker: like “in the year 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I just thought Isaiah was pointing to a significant event to set his story in time, and it does that, but it also does so much more if you take a closer look at who Uzziah was and then reflect on why his death might actually be an important detail in the story Isaiah is trying to tell. You see, you have to be careful when you are dismissing details in scripture as being unimportant. Somebody thought they were important enough to write down, back when the written word really meant something and writings were really sacred, so don’t be too quick to dismiss minor details…like King Uzziah. 

Here’s what you should know about King Uzziah: in the first place he was king over Judah for over 50 years. That’s a long time now, it was an especially long time back then. There would have been plenty of people living that would have never known another king, most people actually. Uzziah would have been a sign of stability and security. When your country loses that great symbol of continuity and strength and power, well that is bound to be upsetting. But here is the other thing you need to know about Uzziah: he started off as a good king. He was capable and successful and faithful, but, as often happens, his success led to his downfall. He got a little full of himself and decided that he should be the one to go into God’s temple and burn the incense and not God’s priests as the Lord had ordained. He tried that once and while the censer was still in his hand, his skin burst out with leprosy. You have to tread lightly around God’s throne; it’s a lesson that Uzziah learned the hard way. 

So while the nation is mourning the death of this great king, who was just a little too full of himself, that is when Isaiah has this powerful vision. And what is his vision? A throne! In the year that the great king dies, Isaiah sees a throne, a throne high and lofty, and this throne isn’t empty. The great king Uzziah might be dead, but that doesn’t matter, because the only throne that really matters isn’t empty at all. Human thrones can be vacant, but God’s throne is always occupied. And God’s throne isn’t occupied by the sort of petty tyrants we get on this earth. Even our best, most noble and greatest rulers can’t compare with this majestic king, the very hem of whose garment seems to fill the whole temple. And more than that, Isaiah sees creatures that are almost impossible to describe or fathom, seraphs will all sorts of wings that fly around singing this song of praise which ought to sound familiar to you, since we sing it ourselves every week: “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah knows that he’s not worthy to be there or to see these sights, he says I am unclean and I have unclean lips. And then one of the seraphs purifies his lips with a live coal. The voice of the Lord says: “whom shall I send?” And Isaiah replies, send me. And God gives Isaiah a message: he says “go and say this: keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand.” God goes on to say to Isaiah that he doesn’t want people to think that they have figured everything thing out on their own; he wants them to turn and be healed. Keep listening, keep looking. Do not comprehend; do not understand; turn and be healed. 

Isaiah cannot comprehend this Lord sitting upon the heavenly throne; he can’t fully understand him. But he can worship him. He can join his voice with the voices of those seraphs proclaiming God’s greatness and majesty. Isaiah can be cleansed by this God; Isaiah can turn and be healed. That is what this glorious Lord wants Isaiah to understand. That is why God sends Isaiah out to share this vision with the world. We worship a God who reveals himself to us. We have a king that now and then gives us a glimpse of the kingdom, not so that we can strut around all arrogant and proud thinking that we have figured things out, but so that we can actually fall down before the true king and lord of life who has the power to heal us, and who wants to live in relationship with us. Isaiah didn’t volunteer to tell the world about God because he had figured God out. Isaiah was so moved by God’s glory and mercy that he felt compelled to tell the world about a vision of the Lord that was beyond comprehension. In the year that King Uzziah died, what Isaiah witnessed was a king, but a king unlike Uzziah. Earthly kings come and go. Earthly kings don’t have half the power and might that they think they have. But the true king is eternal, almighty, glorious beyond all comprehension, and most important: merciful. 

I’m sure that when Isaiah told people about what he had seen, that some people immediately sat down and tried to figure out how the hem of the Lord’s garment could fill the whole temple, or they might have tried to figure out how exactly those seraphs were flying around with wings over here, and wings over there, and no doubt some people would have gotten so caught up in figuring out exactly what Isaiah saw, that they might have missed the fact that Isaiah was healed. His sin was blotted out. It is so typical of us humans, we get so caught up in our own understanding and our own pride, that we miss God’s grace when it is being held out to us, simply because we don’t understand it. But what if we could push our understanding off to the side for a bit and just said: I’m not going to try to figure things out for a minute. I’m just going to simply worship, love and adore. What would that look like?

Well it might look like how we are going to end our service today. This morning we are going to end mass with a solemn te deum. I don’t think it is something that we have done, at least not during my time here, but it is a very ancient Christian prayer or song that glorifies God and testifies to how we have witnessed God’s glory. Most of you know that today is Trinity Sunday, a day of infamy every year when preachers across the world dive headlong into heresy by trying to oversimplify and explain the very essence of who we believe God is. But the Holy Trinity is not a doctrine that we are meant to truly understand, anymore than Isaiah was meant to understand the vision he had. It is a revelation. It is a revelation of who God is. It isn’t something that we sat down and came up with one day; it is a testimony to the God that we have witnessed in the world. We have witnessed God as the great creator and king seated upon the throne, as Isaiah saw; we have seen the fullness of God in God’s only son, Jesus Christ; and we have experienced the power of that same God through the Holy Spirit. What has been revealed to us is that these three are all in fact the same God, reaching out to us and offering us grace and forgiveness. In each one of those persons of the Trinity, God offers us grace. That’s what really matters. We could sit around beating our heads trying to figure God out, or we could just fall down and worship and accept the grace that has been offered to us. That’s what a te deum is all about: simply giving thanks to God for the wonders that we have been shown, for the grace that we have been given. 

The goose doesn’t give up.

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2021

Readings:

Jesus said “when the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” 

I don’t think I want that. Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the comforter, no? But truth isn’t always comforting. Truth can be disturbing as hell. Sometimes the truth hurts. Delusions, now they are comforting. Self-righteousness is comforting. Self-confidence is comforting. Fantasy, that is comforting. But truth can be anything BUT comforting. Truth is disturbing. As Jack Nicholson said in a Few Good Men: You can’t handle the truth. And sometimes we can’t, or at least, we don’t want to.

But when Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, he calls it the spirit of truth, and this spirit of truth is not only going to testify to Jesus and the things he did and said, but this spirit will also declare to us things that are to come. But Jesus also calls this spirit the advocate. Our advocate. A force that is on our side. The spirit is there to help us, even when we don’t want it to.

Saint Paul says that the spirit helps us in our weakness; that the spirit intercedes for us. But I think we sometimes have a very sanitized view of what God’s help looks like. We want God to gently nudge us in the right direction. But if we are to believe the witness of scripture and the witness of tradition, then we are bound to realize that while sometimes God or God’s spirit can be subtle and gentle, sometimes, many times, the spirit is decidedly less so. Sometimes God can be very heavy handed in getting his message across. Think about Saint Paul getting blinded and knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus. Or think about the Spirit of the Lord snatching Philip away after he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Or think about the passage you just heard, with the spirit of the Lord bursting into the upper room like the sound of a violent wind, and compelling the disciples to do something which they were all terrified to do: to preach the good news; to talk about Jesus. The Holy Spirit led them into truth all right, and I’ll bet that it was terrifying. 

There is an ancient song of the church called veni sancte spiritus, “come holy spirit,” we sing it at ordinations: come Holy spirit, from heaven shine down. Well you have got to be careful what you ask for, because God just might do it. God just might send you the Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you, only it may not look like those sweet little doves we have in our stained glass windows. God’s fire may not look like the little flickering flame of your soy scented vanilla candle. God’s fire may come at you like a bonfire or a wildfire: something you don’t have control over. Something that compels you to go places you would rather not go.

There was this viral video that was shared online earlier this year of a woman getting attacked in a parking lot by a mad goose.

It was a security camera video, and you see that the goose chases her one way, then the goose chases her another way, the goose flies at her head and several times she tries to swing her handbag at the goose to scare it away, but oh no, the goose isn’t having it. Finally, the woman’s rescuer shows up in a car, and the woman drops her handbag and jumps into the passenger side door, only the goose flies right into the car after her continuing his ruthless attack. It’s hysterical. But one of my priest friends shared the video and she commented: hey look, it’s me and the Holy Ghost. And I thought: YES! That is perfect. We are forevermore painting the Holy Spirit as a white dove, based upon the passage from scripture where the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism like a dove, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t always been that subtle and that sweet in my life. The Holy Spirit isn’t all that gentle in scripture either. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has been more like that goose: relentlessly chasing me, pecking at me, ignoring my feeble attempts to push it away, making me go places I don’t want to go, and basically scaring the hell out of me in the process. You need to be careful when you ask for God’s Holy Spirit to come down on you or to guide you. Because sometimes God has to apply a little pressure to lead us into truth. Truth is a scary place. Truth can be uncomfortable and if given the choice, I probably would rather live in a fantasy land of delusions and dove kites rather than have to deal with the real holy spirit. 

When you are confirmed in the church, one of the things the bishop prays for when he lays hands on you, is for God to send you his Holy Spirit, and there used to be this tradition of giving the confirmand a little slap on the face right then. It dates back to the middle ages and was symbolic of the need for the mature Christian to face and stand up to the adversity or the “blows” of the world. It has military symbolism like a new knight being tapped by his king on the shoulder with a sword. It isn’t always done anymore, although I was slapped at my confirmation and some of you were probably slapped at yours. But that slap doesn’t really hurt. When the bishop slaps you, that is a tap on the cheek. When the holy spirit actually slaps you, that is another thing entirely. 

Because while the Holy Spirit can be comforting and encouraging, the Holy Spirit can nudge you, God knows that his beloved human beings are also sinful, stubborn creatures, and that we would just as soon sit comfortable in our fantasies and delusions than actually be led by the spirit of truth. Now I don’t want to contradict that great Ferlin Husky song that says “On the wings of a snow white dove, God sends his pure sweet love.” God may indeed send down his love on the wings of a dove, but God’s love might also come in the form of a mad goose too, chasing us in directions we don’t really want to go and biting us in the backside alone the way. Do y’all really think that those disciples on Pentecost Sunday really wanted to be out in the streets preaching to all those foreigners? Of course not. I imagine that they were perfectly fine, just gathered together in one place with like-minded people that looked like them and talked like them. But the Holy Spirit wasn’t having any of that. The Holy Spirit had to push them out into the world. It chased them out there and said “go and talk to these people. I will be with you. I will help you, but you have to open your mouth.” 

And yeah, people sneered at them and made fun of them, but so what? People will find a reason to make fun of you, no matter what you do. If they can’t find a reason they will make one up. You can spend your entire life trying to be comfortable and safe, but it won’t necessarily make you happy, or popular, or successful; that is like imagining that you can get healthier by avoiding exercise. The Holy Spirit’s mission is to testify to Jesus and to guide us into truth. That is how the Holy Spirit advocates for us; that is how the Holy Spirit helps us. Only sometimes the spirit has to push us pretty hard to get us to cooperate. But thank God it does. I give thanks to God for those times when the Spirit is not subtle, when God seems to come at you like a violent wind or a mad goose. We need to thank God, for not giving up on us the first time we swing our handbag to shoo his spirit away. Because if the Holy Spirit hadn’t pushed those disciples out of that upper room and into the street to proclaim the Good News to every nation, would we know anything about Jesus and the love God has for us?

Our only mediator and advocate

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Sermon for Ascension Thursday May 13th, 2021

Readings:

I spend a lot of time giving lawyers grief from the pulpit, so I figured I should probably take a moment and show them a little love for a change. They aren’t all bad you know. In fact, as I said a few weeks ago, if you find yourself in trouble, you want a good lawyer on your side. They are there to help you get out of the mess that you have gotten yourself into. They are your advocate. In French the word for lawyer, avocat, makes this very clear. It’s also the exact same word for avocado though, so you do need to be careful. There is something very powerful, very special about being an advocate for someone else. Anyone can plead for themselves, or advocate for themselves, but to intercede on someone else’s behalf, well there is something special about that act. It is an act of love. And likewise, to have someone intercede for you or advocate for you, that is a special feeling, it is like feeling loved. 

So if we push the jokes aside for just a moment; if we stop thinking of lawyers as just those people that make everyone’s lives more difficult, and think of them instead as advocates, then we may begin to see how God could have a use for them. In fact, when lawyers are living into their calling as advocates, it is in those moments, however rare they may be, it is in those moments that lawyers are almost as good as priests. Because advocating for others or interceding for others is a fundamental part of a priest’s job too. It is just a different judge that we stand before to make our plea.

One of my jobs as a priest, one of the most important parts of my job, is intercessory prayer: holding before God the needs, and fears and hopes of this congregation and this community. Now other than the little bit you witness on Sunday mornings, it is a part of my job that most people don’t see. But it isn’t like an optional extra part of the job that I do if I get around to it, or if I have time after sorting everything else out, it is the job. Praying for, or advocating for God’s people is a main part of the job of being a priest. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer who’s afraid of talking to a judge; you shouldn’t hire a priest that’s afraid of talking to God. 

Now imagine, if you can, imagine having a really good priest. I don’t mean some poor slob that you pay to mumble incoherently in the front of the church from time to time. Imagine that you have a priest that not only knows your name, but also knows your greatest fears, your weaknesses, your loves, your struggles. Imagine a priest that knows all your sins and still forgives you. Imagine a priest, who like a good lawyer, knows you are guilty, and still asks the judge to let you off. Imagine a priest who is never impatient and never incompetent, who never gets tired. Imagine a priest who is praying for things for you that you never asked for. Imagine a priest who’s entire life is one of constant prayer and intercession and advocacy, and now imagine that this priest isn’t just praying in a pew, or in an office, or in an armchair, but is actually praying and pleading for you in the very presence of God. 

What if this priest actually held up to God your broken aching body, or even your broken heart, and pleaded for you before God? 

We don’t have to imagine having this priest. This is the priest we have. Today is the Feast of the Ascension, our feast of title as a parish, and the day when we remember Jesus, our great high priest, ascending into heaven, entering into the very presence of God. Jesus isn’t flying into a cloud to escape from his disciples, he isn’t going on vacation. He’s going to work. Jesus is entering into God’s throne room to be an eternal advocate for his people; to constantly intercede for them in ways that no earthly priest could ever do. 

Jesus doesn’t leave us today. He takes our case to God. Jesus goes to the father to plead our case and when he goes, he goes in the flesh. Our flesh. He doesn’t leave his body behind like some empty vessel, he carries it to God too. The disciples rejoiced when Jesus ascended to the father, they rejoiced, because now they knew they had an advocate with the father, standing right before the throne. The author of the book of Hebrews writes: 

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Basically, the author of Hebrews is saying that with Jesus on our side we can walk into the courtroom like we have the best lawyer in the place. We can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence. And not just confidence, but thankfulness, because unlike most lawyers, Jesus isn’t going to send you a bill when it’s all over. As the old hymn goes…Jesus paid it all.

We have an advocate in heaven. Jesus, our great high priest, our only mediator and advocate; that is why we can rejoice today. That is why the disciples rejoiced. Long ago we humans got ourselves into trouble, the evidence of that is all around us. But the Son of God has come to get us out of it. God’s only son is advocating for us, he is doing it directly before the throne of God, and he is doing it in the very human flesh that his mother gave him. That is what the Ascension is really about; not flying off into clouds and heaven over our heads. The Feast of the Ascension is about recognizing Jesus’s eternal role as our advocate in God’s holy realm. That is reason to rejoice.

So we give praise to God tonight for our Lord’s ascension, and we also remember that advocating for others is a part of our Christian duty. It is imitating the behaviour of Christ himself. You don’t need to be a lawyer or a priest to do this. Part of our belief in the priesthood of all believers is that we all, as Christians, have a calling to intercede for, and advocate for, others. Not just before the powers and principalities of this world, but also before the throne of God. We are called, day in and day out, to be people who intercede for the world; who pray for the needs and concerns of others. That is a part of our job as Christians, not just those of us who do this for a living, but all of us. We are all called, in big ways and in small ways, to be advocates. 

And we can do this with boldness as Christians. You can’t always trust the lawyers and the priests in this world, sometimes they are crooked, they might overcharge you and they don’t always win; but we can have supreme faith and confidence in our advocate in heaven. Why? Because we know something else. We know that when that gavel comes down and the verdict and the sentence are read out, we know that when that day comes, the man that has spent his life advocating for us and pleading our case at his own great expense, we know that that man, Jesus, isn’t just going to be our advocate, he’s also going to be the judge. 

One Job

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Sermon for May 2nd, 2021

Readings:

My favorite story in the entire Book of Acts is the one we get this morning: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. It is such a brief little passage, and it is such a brief encounter between Philip, one of the first deacons of the church, and this unnamed Ethiopian, but I could spend days talking about it because there is just so much going on here. There are so many implications that can be drawn from this passage for how we, as disciples of Jesus, should be evangelizing and proclaiming the good news to the world; how we should be sharing the faith with all people and baptizing them into the body of Christ. We could draw all sorts of conclusions from this passage about what we as Christians need to be doing to grow the church, but I want to point you in a different direction first this morning. I want to draw your attention to something else. First, I want you to pay attention this morning to what God is doing to grow his church. 

Take a closer look at that passage from Acts. It was an angel of the Lord that said to Philip “go down this road.” And when Philip had gone down the road that the angel had told him to go down, the Spirit of the Lord told him to “go over to this chariot and join it.” And after Philip and the Eunuch have their encounter, and the Eunuch is baptized, it is the Spirit of the Lord that snatches Philip away and sends him off to preach somewhere else. You know, it’s almost like God has something to do with this! Like maybe God has his thumb on the scale with helping the Church out.

It was God who told Philip to go down this road. It was God who told Philip to go and talk to this person. And eventually it is God that tells Philip that it is time to move on and preach to other people. God is directing the action here. Yes, Philip has a role to play. Philip needs to be obedient to God. Philip needs to go where the angel or the spirit direct him to go, and Philip needs to have the courage to speak when it is time for him to speak, but I doubt that Philip woke up that morning with a grand plan to evangelize the Ethiopians. This encounter was a part of God’s plan, not Philip’s. Philip wouldn’t have imagined it. God is directing Philip here and Philip’s success comes directly from his ability and willingness to listen to God. 

Philip wasn’t a biblical scholar. There is no evidence here to suggest that he was rich, or that he was a charismatic speaker; we don’t know what he looked like: if he was handsome or charming…we don’t know any of that. What we know is that God said go, and Philip went. Philip didn’t have all the answers, but there was one thing that he had supreme confidence in, and that was that Jesus was the messiah. As far as Philip was concerned that is the only answer that matters. Philip doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows who does…Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just have the answers; he is the answer. Philip knows that Jesus is the answer, not just to the Eunuch’s question about scripture, but to all of the Eunuch’s questions; all of his struggles and pains and hopes; Philip knows that the answer to all of that is the man who died and rose again. The man who forgives sins and defeats death. Philip knows that Jesus can change this man’s life. Philip knows that Jesus can give him a new life, a life that is about more than just guarding other people’s riches; a life where you aren’t forced into slavery and mutilated along the way. Philip doesn’t have much power to help this man, but he knows that Jesus has unending power. So Philip, as a follower of Jesus, has one job. One Job. And unlike all those other people in the world that have one job and can’t seem to do it, Philip does his job. Philip’s job, Philip’s one job, is to connect people to Jesus. That’s it. Philip’s one job in his encounter with the Eunuch is to connect him to Christ, and he does his job. And you’ll notice that the moment Philip does his job, God moves him on and basically says, OK, I’ll take it from here. 

And the Eunuch goes his way rejoicing and Philip is moved by the spirit off to preach the gospel somewhere else. All Philip needed to do was to point this man to Jesus. Philip needed to connect him to Jesus; once that relationship was made, the Eunuch is going to get his nourishment and sustenance from Jesus. Jesus will answer his questions.

You know, Episcopalians are notoriously bad at evangelism, or sharing our faith, and I think that one of the reasons why, is because we are afraid that someone might ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to. What does this scripture mean? Why do you cross yourself here? Why do some Christians do this and some Christians do that? We don’t want someone to ask us a question that we don’t have the answer to, so we avoid the situation by not talking about our faith at all. 

But we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to know every scripture by heart or know every answer to every question about our faith, as long as we know that the ultimate answer, to all of it, is Jesus. We just have to connect people to Jesus. That is our job. He will help them find the answers. He is the answer. Our problem is not lacking knowledge, it is lacking courage. Lacking courage to go when God says go and to speak when God says speak. We get so caught up in our plans and in our strategies for growth and in trying to figure out how we are going to grow the church and draw in new members and attract new families, and on and on and on, and we forget that God is playing an active role in all this, and God may not care one bit about your plans. Listen to God; go where he sends you, share your faith with those you meet along the way, and most importantly, connect people to Jesus! Do not forget that God has his thumb on the scale and he is trying to help us, we just have to be willing to listen and to know that even if we don’t have all the answers, we know the one who does. 

Over the past two thousand years, some of the most brilliant minds in history have written some deep, powerful, mystical, complicated stuff about Christianity, and Christian theology, and scriptural interpretation. The reality of God and the mystery of what Christ did on the cross and the implications of his resurrection, all these things are probably far more profound than what you learned in Sunday School as a kid. The Christian faith is not a simple religion and I am not at all in favor of dumbing it down. I think we still need to use our greatest minds to grapple with the truths that God has revealed to us, just like we always have. But you don’t need a Master’s degree to start your Christian journey. You shouldn’t have to have a diploma in theology or scripture to become a baptized part of the body of Christ. As far as I am concerned, if you can come to me and in good faith make the responses in our prayer book that are a part of the baptismal service, if you can reject Satan and the evil forces of this world and if you can affirm to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and saviour and if you can affirm a belief in the Church’s faith as the creed states it (even if you don’t completely understand every word just yet), well as far as I am concerned, that’s good enough, let’s find some water and get you baptized. We don’t need to make joining Christ’s body needlessly hard for people. Now following Jesus, that is a life-long endeavor. And I would expect that if you are a sincere follower of Jesus that prayer, and serious study, and scripture reading, and acts of charity and mercy will feature prominently in your life, but God didn’t wait for us to love him before he loved us. If we are waiting for people to become expert Christians before we encourage them to join the fold, then our churches are going to be very empty indeed. God is already at work in people’s lives, leading and directing them to his son long before they figure it out and respond. God wanted that Eunuch in his church, that is why he leaned on Philip and tipped the scales to make that encounter happen. God wants people in his church and we can either facilitate that process or we can be a barrier to it. 

You don’t need a master’s degree to become a baptized Christian, and guess what, you don’t need a master’s degree to become an evangelist either. You don’t need every answer to every question about theology and scripture. You just need the conviction that Jesus is the answer and the conviction that he wants people that are outside the church to be inside it. Don’t worry about knowing what to do or what to say. The truth is, it may not be your job to bring someone to the beatific vision of the heavenly throne. It may not be your job to bring them to a complete understanding of God and Holy Scripture. Your job might be just a momentary encounter with someone, planting a seed, redirecting someone, setting them down a path, telling them that I think the answer is this way, this is where I found God, this is who the messiah is. That may be all that God wants you to do. You have to trust that God has a hand in this too. 

What do you need to make a new Christian? What you need is some clean water and a person with a desire to follow Jesus. That is what you need. That is when you graft a new shoot onto the vine that will give them life. What do you need to be an evangelist? You need faith that Jesus is the answer and you need the courage to listen to the Holy Spirit. That’s it. 

Friends, we as the church, are all called to be evangelists, not all in exactly the same way, but every one of us is called to connect and direct other people to Jesus Christ. We, the church, have one job to do, and we had better get busy doing it.

Not in word or speech

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Sermon for April 25th, 2021

Readings:

 

 

 

There are 4 people in the world that you never want to trust, or at least I should say, you don’t want to trust them completely. Not really people actually, but professions. There are 4 professions that you would be wise to be very cautious around and I’ll explain why. Here they are: politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists. I’ll say that again for those of you who are taking notes: politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists. You have to be very careful with these people. It’s NOT that you can’t trust ANY of them, there are good, honest people working in all 4 of those professions that do amazing things, it’s just that you have to be very careful because the potential for abuse is so high. As we are sitting here right now, you can probably think of multiple scumbags in every category I just mentioned. Please don’t embarrass anyone by saying them out loud though.

 

Why are those 4 professions so tricky? Why are we rightly suspicious of politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists? It’s quite simple really: all 4 of those people get paid to use words. Words are their raw materials, their product and their currency. Politicians, preachers, lawyers, and journalists all make their living by using and manipulating words. They aren’t the only ones, most professions use words to some degree, but those 4 especially do. And your success in one of those 4 professions is quite often linked to how cleverly or how skillfully you use words. People in these jobs become masters of word use. We know which words will make you laugh; we know which words will make you cry. We know which words are going to make you angry. We know how to make you feel proud of yourselves. We have an arsenal of words, because that is how we make our living. If we don’t have the right word, rest assured we will make one up. And just so that you don’t forget that we are masters of words, every now and then we will throw in a Latin word just to remind everyone that we know more words than they do. And you know what, sometimes, a lot of times, knowing lots of words is not a bad thing.

 

When politicians use the wrong words, they can cause great harm, but a politician that uses words effectively can make good trade agreements, settle shaky markets, calm public emotions, pass good laws and create peace treaties. When a preacher uses the wrong words, he or she can get people hoping or believing in the wrong things, but when a preacher uses the right words, to direct people to God and to Jesus Christ, well that has the power to save peoples’ lives as well as their souls. Those words have the power to give meaning to a meaningless world. Lawyers? Well we all love to pick on lawyers, and it’s all fun and games until you need one. In a world where people do NOT always have the best intentions, a good lawyer can protect you and defend you with their carefully chosen words. And yes, we all know how manipulative journalists can be with the information that they convey and how they convey it, and yet we also know that some journalists go to extreme lengths and take huge personal risks to share important information with us. The words of a good journalist have the power to reveal truth and connect us to the rest of the world.

 

There are good and trustworthy people in all of these professions, but whenever you encounter someone who uses words for a living you need to be very careful. Because words are so cheap and easy to use. It is so easy to manipulate people just by using words. You know, there once was a time when the printed word was quite costly. Certainly in the ancient world and the medieval world, not everyone could read or write, paper, parchment, vellum and papyrus were all expensive, so writings, the written word, that was a precious thing. Our word scripture, comes from the Latin word for writing. (See what I did there, I used a Latin word. I am earning my money this morning).

 

But even long after the invention of the printing press, the written word was still highly regarded and trusted. So was the spoken word on radio and television. Words, themselves, have always been cheap, but broadcasting those words to people who aren’t standing within earshot of you, well up until very recently that has been very expensive. But not so anymore. Think about this: this service is being broadcast on the internet this morning, we have been doing this for over a year now. Lots of churches have had to do this over this past year. We had to make an initial investment in the equipment, but beyond that it doesn’t cost us a whole lot to do this. My words can be heard anywhere on earth by anyone with internet access and a computer or phone. That should kinda scare you. Because what if I were a crackpot? What if the words I used up here had no relationship to reality or truth? Words are cheaper now than they ever were, not just for politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists, but for everyone.

 

You have in your pocket or in your purse, or if you are watching at home, in your hands, a device capable of sending words around the world. You can put words in print and you can broadcast them in ways that even our grandparents never would have imagined. Now everyone is discovering what politicians and preachers and lawyers and journalists have known for a long time, everyone is learning just how easy it is to use and manipulate words and how cheap they really are. Anybody can go online and say anything they want. A teenager can create graphics and memes and webpages that say anything. Doesn’t have to be true. Words are cheap. The internet is cheap. Why shouldn’t I share my opinions about molecular biology, epidemiology, or economics? Does it matter that I am in no way qualified to talk about those things? Doesn’t everyone want to know my opinion on everything? Does it matter if the things I say and share, either in person or online, are in any way connected to the truth? If I type in the right words to form the correct opinion that is sure to gain approval from my very carefully cultivated group of friends, can I go home and congratulate myself for a hard day’s work?

 

Some people are so courageous these days…some people will even go to the length of changing their Facebook profile photo, adding a few words to show the world that they support a particular cause. I mean, if I don’t go out of my way to tell people that I think something is wrong on my Facebook page, then how would anyone possibly know what I stand for? And if I do that, and if you do that, and if we all just agree to use the right words and say the right things, then we can solve all of our nation’s problems overnight right? Does it matter if the words we say are true? Does it matter if we ever back them up with action? It is so much easier to take moral stands on issues when all it involves is issuing a public statement with a few carefully chosen words. So there will always be this temptation to just use words.

 

Well for the average online pundit, words may be enough, but they are NOT enough for a committed Christian. Manipulating words might make you successful as a politician, a preacher, a lawyer or a journalist, they might even make you socially popular in person and online, but words alone will not make you a follower of Jesus Christ, because Jesus taught us using more than words.

 

 “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, NOT in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

 

 Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

 

Words are great. Words are wonderful. Words are powerful. I love words; I’m a preacher and I get paid to use them, just like politicians, lawyers and journalists, but words need to be connected to truth and action. Not just for those of us in these sketchy professions, but for all of us, especially for those of us who bear the name Christian, because our words and our lives need to bear witness to the truth of the gospel. All of our words. The words we say in person, the words we share online or in print. People need to be able to trust that when we are talking about the love of God, we really mean it. People need to know that we aren’t just using words to manipulate them, but are actually sharing truth that is reflected in our actions and in our lives. In John’s epistle he’s talking about the word love, and he says how can you go around saying that you love people or using the word love if that word doesn’t seem to have any relation to truth or action in your life? If someone says that they love you with their lips but then mistreats you with their hands, where is the truth? It’s great for someone to say they love you, but if you have to choose between someone that says it and someone that shows it. Pick the person that shows it, because words are cheap, and they are getting cheaper all the time, not just for politicians, preachers, lawyers and journalists, but for everybody. Christians have no business using love, or any other word, unless those words are connected to truth and action. Before you post something or share something or say something, online or in person, ask yourself “is this true?” “Do I know this for a fact to be true” AND “am I willing to actually DO anything about it?” “Am I willing to put my money, my time or my life on the line for this?” Am I using my words to spread actual truth, not just uninformed opinions? Am I using my words to inspire real action, and not just self-righteousness? Because words are cheap. The word “love” is cheap, but true love, the love God shows us in the gospel, well that can cost you everything.