Boldness and Humility

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Sermon for July 24th, 2022

Readings:

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

The dialogue between God and Abraham in our passage from Genesis this morning could almost read as a Monty Python sketch. The back and forth between them over how many righteous people were worth saving the town for is definitely absurd and the repetitiveness of Abraham’s questions treads the line between tedious and amusing. 

God has heard that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are filled with the most heinous, awful sinners. What were they up to? People love to speculate, but the truth is we don’t really know, but that is a bible study for another time, because it doesn’t really matter for my argument this morning. You can appreciate this passage without knowing how this particular story begins or ends. 

God says he has heard bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah and is going to see if it is as bad as he has heard. He is coming down as the great divine judge. Abraham asks him a question: What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will you sweep them away with the sinners? And God says: no, if I find 50 righteous I will forgive them all. Then Abraham says, well what if it is 45? And God says, OK, 45. Abraham: How about 40? God: alright, 40. Abraham: do I hear 30? 20? 10? 

And God says, OK, OK, OK! 10. If I find 10 righteous people I will forgive the whole town. The exchange is very amusing.

Now how this story ends is a whole different sermon, although since the air isn’t working in here this morning I am probably missing a great opportunity to preach about some hellfire and brimstone, but that’s not really what this passage is about, so I’ll skip it. Forget about Sodom and Gomorrah for a minute. Stop fantasizing about what you think those folks were doing and pay attention to this relationship that we see between Abraham and God right here. 

Abraham knows that he has no business questioning God this way. As he says, he is but dust and ashes. What business does he have trying to negotiate with God? Why should God even be talking to him or listening to him? Why should God care what Abraham thinks at all? God doesn’t have to justify himself to Abraham. He is God. End of argument. You could say that Abraham is almost being impertinent or disrespectful, except that he’s not. Not really. Abraham understands his position in relationship to God. He is dust and ashes and he is speaking to the Judge of all the earth. Abraham knows that he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on, so he is very respectful each time he approaches God, almost to the point of being obsequious or annoying, but he is still bold enough to do it. He is still bold enough to speak to God. Abraham knows that he has no business talking to God, but he talks to God anyways. He is humble and then he is bold. He is bold, and then he is humble. Balancing boldness and confidence with humility and reverential fear, that is a tough call. That is what makes Abraham so remarkable. He isn’t just some jerk who tells God what to do; but neither is he so self-effacing that he refuses to believe that God can be spoken to by mere humans. Abraham is both: he is bold and he is humble. And that is remarkable because it is always so tempting to just be one or the other. 

We all know people of faith. We all know Christians who are better at being one or the other. There are people out there just brimming with confidence and boldness. 1000% sure that they know what God’s will is for their life, and for yours, and not afraid to tell you about it. They are not a bit afraid to talk to God, but you have to wonder sometimes if they ever stop talking long enough to listen to what God has to say. We know those Christians, but on the other hand there are Christians who are so meek and mild that they don’t really appreciate how much God loves them, don’t believe that God can use them, or they may be so afraid of giving offense that they just cannot stand up for anything. We know those Christians too. As people of faith we need to balance boldness with humility. We may not ever get it to be a perfect balance all the time, but the people who veer off too far one way or the other are gonna miss God speaking to them and their going to miss God’s will. People that are too bold are going to confuse their voice for God’s voice and their will for God’s will. People that are too humble are going to think that God doesn’t speak to them at all or doesn’t have a will for their lives, or that God won’t act here and now. 

This is a perennial problem that we need to be aware of. Paul was aware of it. Jesus was aware of it. Paul warned the Colossians about being “puffed up without a cause by a human way of thinking.” He knew that some people get caught up in their own philosophy and traditions and ways of thinking that they end up leading others astray, often in the name of God and Christ. He warned them about being too bold. But Paul also wanted the Colossians to know exactly who they were in Christ, how they had been forgiven and saved at a great price, and just what grace they had received when God saved them. They couldn’t be too bold, but they shouldn’t be too humble either. 

And our Lord, when he taught the central prayer of our faith, he taught us to come before God boldly, addressing God as Father, asking for our daily needs and asking for forgiveness, confident that God can and will supply both to us in unlimited measure, but at the same time we are reminded in that prayer that it is God that is truly holy, it is God’s kingdom that needs to come, God’s will that needs to be done. The forgiveness we have been promised, we must be willing to share with others. And although we may be bold and confident, we too may be tested and tried and we live in constant need of God’s grace and protection. It takes boldness and humility. It took boldness for Jesus to say to the crippled man “your sins are forgiven”; it took humility for him to help him to stand and walk. It takes boldness to hold the bread and say “this is my body,” it takes humility to get down and wash your disciples’ feet. Jesus had boldness and humility. It takes boldness to ask God for what you need, especially when it requires great persistence; it takes humility to trust that God IS giving you good things when what you get is NOT exactly what you asked for. 

The life of faith takes boldness and humility. It takes boldness to follow Jesus; it takes humility to know that you aren’t the first person to do so. It takes boldness to speak to God; it takes humility to listen to him. It takes boldness to stand up for what is right in the world; it takes humility to know that even in trying to do what is right, you might do the wrong thing or come to the wrong conclusion or make a bad decision. It takes boldness to read the scriptures as the word of God; it takes humility to know that your interpretation of what is written may not be the only one or the correct one. It takes boldness to share this faith with others; it takes humility to learn how to share it in ways where people feel more loved than judged. It takes boldness to talk about God’s anger at sin and unrighteousness; it takes humility to know that it is only by God’s forgiving grace that any of us are saved. 

Boldness and humility. Knowing that you are unworthy to talk to God, but talking to him anyways. Knowing that you are dust and ashes, but dust and ashes that God has already raised from the grave. Knowing that you are a sinner, who makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and at the same time knowing that you have a place in God’s kingdom and a share in Christ’s righteousness. Knowing that you can ask for forgiveness and knowing that you need it. Knowing that God speaks and also knowing that God listens. Boldness and humility. It cannot be either or. As Christians we need both.

Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things…

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Sermon for July 3rd, 2022

Readings:

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Throughout the bible there are many places where God is depicted as a parent and we his children. It is an image that occurs over and over again. Obviously, “father” is how the Lord Jesus refers to God many times, especially in the central prayer of our faith, the Our Father, but Jesus wasn’t unique in this. The image of God as a father or a mother is woven into our scriptures, especially in the prophets and in the psalms. In our passage from Isaiah this morning, God says: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Of course, I have read these passages many times before, but when you have spent the past several weeks literally comforting your child, feeding him, changing him, and looking into his eyes and knowing that he depends upon you for everything, and also knowing that you would do just about anything to protect him, well that just gives that image of God an extra depth of meaning. It stands out to me a little more right now for obvious reasons.

Now I should say here, I don’t like it when preachers talk about their kids all the time. In the first place, it’s just not good preaching. There is a fine line you walk as a preacher between using personal stories and experiences to illuminate the gospel, and using them just as an excuse to talk about yourself and your family. Preachers cross that line all the time, and cute kid stories are a trap. In the second place it is bad practice because it is unfair to the kids themselves. You, the preacher, signed up to be in the public eye. Your kid did not. Not everyone wants to be a sermon example. And not everyone wants to be on display.

I say all this because I want you to know that I don’t intend to speak about our son Robbie very often from this pulpit. Nor do I intend to yammer on incessantly about what it’s like to be a father. You can have a wonderful, meaningful, purposeful, grace-filled life without being a parent, as I did until just about 4 weeks ago. So as I said, I’m not going to talk about being a dad or my kid very often from up here. 

But, this IS my first time back in the pulpit since Robbie was born, so I am going to indulge myself just a little today. 

What I have learned over the last few weeks is that it isn’t just responsibility you feel looking into eyes that desperately need you, and it isn’t just a sentimental love. There is also a powerful, almost inexpressible, joy. Pure joy. Now I’m not naïf, I know that infants become toddlers, and teenagers, and adults, and that along with the love and joy comes heartache and frustration and maybe even disappointment. I know that it isn’t just sunshine and lollipops and rainbows everywhere. But, you know, it isn’t that way for God either, is it? If we pay close attention to the stories in scripture, then we will know very well that God’s relationship with his children is NOT an uncomplicated one. God’s children are not well behaved. Heartache, and frustration and disappointment are all a part of our relationship with God too, aren’t they? According to our faith they are. But you know our faith also tells us that for some reason God keeps loving us, and caring for us the way that a mother or a father cares for a child. God still finds joy in us, even when we cry and scream and struggle and make a mess of ourselves. That is the power of that image of God as a parent. That is what it can teach us about God’s love. Kids are a lot of work, but parents still seem to find joy in them and care for them. Human beings are a major headache, but for some reason God keeps loving us and finding joy in us and caring for us. It is true that there are plenty of bad parents in the world that don’t care for their kids the way they should, and even the best parents in this world are still broken sinners who make mistakes, but when a parent-child relationship is at its best, it has something to teach us about God’s love and God’s persistence in caring for us in everyday simple ways. Understanding that God loves us like a parent means understanding that God’s love isn’t just shown to us in big showy miracles that happen once in a while; God’s love is shown most powerfully in little everyday things that just happen over and over and over again.

As a new parent, it would be easy for me to get overwhelmed thinking about the future, and everything this kid is going to need and all the times he is going to try my patience. Yes, I have moments where I think and dream about what he might become and the things he might do, but I don’t have a whole lotta time right now to think much further than the next bottle or the next diaper change. Now, do I have an overall vision for how I want to raise my child? Yes, but there is also an immediacy to his needs right now that forces me to actually get up and do something, seemingly every few minutes. No vision or philosophy ever changed a dirty diaper. And parents, I am sure you know this well or can at least remember, it is mind-numbingly exhausting. It is some of the hardest work I have ever done. I know that there are plenty of parents out there that have done this right by themselves and I can’t imagine how. There are two of us taking care of this kid, we have had the blessing of time off, we have just about every convenience and gadget that has been gifted to us to make life easier, and thanks be to God and all of you for those blessings, but even still with all of that, it is incredibly hard work. There have been a few mornings at 3am, and a few times when he wet through a sheet that I JUST changed, where I have said “you know kid, it is a good thing you are so darned cute!” It is such hard work, but somehow you keep finding the strength and the energy to just keep doing the things that need doing. And they usually aren’t big things, they are little things that just need doing over and over and over: feeding, changing, burping, laundry; trying never to forget to take the trash down to the curb lest your garage start to smell like a superfund site. Little things that just need doing over and over again. No one thing that is super hard to do, just a constant repetition of little things that become the hardest, and most joy-filled work that you have ever done. That is what makes the parent-child relationship strong. It isn’t one moment. It is a million tiny moments. Choosing to love; choosing to put someone else first; choosing to do what needs doing, over and over and over again. It is hard work, but it is also filled with joy.

It’s the joy that makes all that hard work possible really. It’s the joy that gives you the strength to do the little things that need doing. It is an immediate joy that is about a miracle that is happening right here, right now and not just about some future dream or vision. It is a joy that is hard to explain, but you can feel it. And reading the scriptures I am reminded that it isn’t just a joy that I feel for my child; it is a joy that God feels for me, and it is a joy that God feels for you too.

Most of you know that our son’s name is Robert David. Robert for king Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and David for both King David the psalmist and Saint David of Wales. Now you may not know much about Saint David, Saint David of Wales was a Welsh bishop and missionary in the 6th century and he is responsible for some of the early evangelization of Wales, kind of how Saint Patrick is credited with evangelizing Ireland. In Saint David’s last sermon which he gave right before he died, David said “Lords, brothers and sisters, be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.” Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things. Joy, faith, and little things, that is what David saw as essential to the Christian life. Not huge miracles and big programs and grand schemes. Joy, faith, and little things. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning, he says: “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” 

Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. In other words, we need to keep doing what needs doing. Doing what is right is often doing little things. Keep working for the good of all, but especially for the person that is right in front of you. Especially for the family of faith, but not just for them. To be a Christian, it isn’t just about making a one-time big commitment of faith and receiving a one-time major reward. Now I believe in making a commitment of faith, and I believe that there is a heavenly reward, but those are big things, and so much of the Christian life is really about little things. Little decisions that you make over and over again. Stopping right now to say this prayer. Not worrying about a philosophy of prayer or cultivating a style of prayer, but deciding to pray right now in this moment. Not worrying about implementing a major feeding program but deciding to feed this person who is right in front of you. Not talking about love endlessly as an idea, but deciding to love and show love to the people that God has already put in your life. Our relationship with God, like the relationship of a parent to a child, is not built so much on the big things that are done once; it is built on the little things that are done a million times. And you know, you don’t have to be an actual parent to understand this. People have been calling me father for 18 years before I actually was one. Not everyone is called to actually give birth or even raise children, but that is still a model for how we care for one another, because it is a model for how God cares for us. The church is a family. It is the family of faith, and the beating heart of family life are little acts of love and care that are done over and over again. 

Paul was right to warn the church about growing weary in all of this. It would be so easy to grow weary if we stop looking for and stop finding joy in it. Even though it is small things that need doing, it is still hard work. It is joy that will give us the strength to do it. There is nothing worse than a miserable Christian. We need joy as Christians to do the work that God has given us to do. We need to look for and find joy in the simple everyday signs of God’s love for us, God’s joy over us, as his children, and we need to share that joy with God’s other children. The Christian life is work, yes, but it should be joyful work. And it can be joyful work if we stop worrying so much about all the big things and just pay attention to the small things. There’s that old saying “mind your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves.” Well pay attention to the small things in life, do them, take care of them, and let God worry about the big things. 

I don’t think this is just good advice for the life of faith. I think it is important for life in general.

You know, whenever I look at the news I am confronted with huge problems that I personally can do very little about. It is overwhelming, it steals your joy, and it leaves you feeling powerless and hopeless. Politics, gun violence, war, disease, the environment, not to mention all of the nonsense that people share on the internet. It is enough to drive you crazy and it is driving people crazy. Because people are only looking at the big things, big headlines, and they aren’t paying attention to the small things. Most of the time we don’t have control over big things, but we do have control over small things. Don’t underestimate the power of those small things. Don’t grow weary in doing them. Because from the very beginning, life really is about little things that happen over and over again. Look for joy there. Look for joy and meaning and grace and God’s love in little things. Let God worry about the big things. Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things. Something I have learned from both Saint David, and from Robert David.

One with God

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Sermon for May 29th, 2022

Readings:

I want you to think back to Christmas for a minute. Think back to the gospel reading at Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the gospel reading you always hear on Christmas Eve, the one where “…it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” That’s the gospel that Linus recites holding up his blanket in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, that is from Luke’s gospel, and although Luke is my favorite gospel, that’s not what we are talking about today. Today, I want to talk about how John tells the story of Jesus’s beginning, and that is in the gospel we hear on Christmas Day, and on the Sunday after Christmas, and in this parish at least, we hear it at the end of mass on Christmas Eve as the Last Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John’s gospel wants to make something clear right out of the gate: this man Jesus that we are going to be talking about, is ONE with God. This is not just a prophet, or a good teacher, or a really nice guy. No. In John’s gospel to have an encounter with Jesus is to have an encounter with God, that is setup right from the beginning with the prologue: “the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him.”

Throughout this gospel we get little reminders of just who exactly we are dealing with when we are dealing with Jesus. This is God. And then we get to the gospel passage that you just heard, when Jesus himself makes it very clear. Let me set the scene for you: It is Maundy Thursday. Jesus has just finished his Last Supper. He has washed his disciples’ feet; he knows that he has been betrayed and that his hour has come. In the morning he will be tried and put to death. Now Jesus is divine, but you wouldn’t have to be God in this moment to see the handwriting on the wall: the end is near. Jesus only has a few friends left in this world, and they have already proven that they aren’t good for much.  Jesus knows what’s coming, but before he walks off to the Garden of Gethsemane, he offers a prayer. 

He begins right before this passage by saying: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Jesus was one with God before the world ever existed, just like the prologue says “the Word was with God and the Word was God,” and that is the glory that he is returning to: the glory of being one with God in God’s presence. But this prayer of Jesus’s isn’t going to be just about the love and unity that exists between him and God; No! Watch what Jesus does in our gospel passage today: 

Jesus prayed for his disciples. 

Which disciples? Who is Jesus praying for?

That useless bunch of friends of his who can’t ever seem to figure anything out? 

Well, yes, but not just them. Jesus prays for everyone who will ever believe in him through their witness. All of his future disciples too. They are on Jesus’s mind as he is about to go to the cross.

Jesus was just looking back to being in God’s glory at the beginning of creation, and now Jesus is looking forward to being in God’s glory again, only in that future glory that Jesus sees, he’s not alone. Jesus doesn’t want to be alone when he returns to God’s glory, he wants to bring folks with him. He wants his disciples to be there, and he wants everyone they preach to to be there, and everyone they preach to, and on and on. That means that Jesus is praying for people like Paul, who probably never heard Jesus preach in person, and for people that would come to believe in him through Paul, like that Roman Jailer in our passage from Acts. You know, let’s think about that jailer for a second. It is astounding to me, and it should be astounding to you to that Paul cared at all about that Roman. He was his jailer and his oppressor. Most of us would probably have just run off not cared at all about what happened to that Roman. But not Paul. This man’s life still matters to Paul. What is this Stockholm syndrome? No. It’s Christianity. This is what Christianity looks like: recognizing that Jesus died for your enemies too. Sharing his love with them. Forgiving folks, Inviting them into the Kingdom. That’s what Paul did, he recognized that this man who was his oppressor had a place in the kingdom too. And that Roman Jailer, he brought his family with him, so I guess Jesus was praying for them too.  Who else was Jesus praying for? Was he praying for you and me? Was he praying for people whose lives may be transformed by our witness to Jesus? 

As I said, Jesus was one with God at the beginning of this gospel, and Jesus is going to be one with God at the end of it. Jesus was in God’s glory at the beginning of this gospel and Jesus is going to be in God’s glory at the end of it. But the difference between the beginning and the end, is that in the end, Jesus is bringing a whole lotta folks into God’s glory with him. This oneness that exists between God and Jesus, Jesus wants others to be a part of that; we are invited to be a part of that. 

 “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”

“The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

“You loved me before the foundation of the world.” That relationship that God and Jesus had in the beginning, when the “Word was with God and the Word was God,” we are invited to be a part of that relationship. We are invited to share in that glory. But we aren’t coming into that glory alone. We aren’t just sharing it with God and Jesus. We are invited to be one with them, but that means being one with everyone else that is being drawn into this relationship. Hold up! You mean, it’s not just me and Jesus? Nope. There is a great Tom T Hall country song called “Me and Jesus.” I’ve mentioned it before, and I actually like the song a lot; it’s catchy, and I think it is important for folks to have a strong personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But I also think that it is important for us to remind ourselves that it’s not JUST me and Jesus. Jesus is praying for more than just you in this prayer he is praying today. He’s praying for more than everyone in this room or in this church. There are other people that he wants to be united with. He might even be praying for people you don’t like. We love to split ourselves up into little parties and denominations and factions and cliques, but that is our own sinfulness at work. We aren’t seeing ourselves the way Jesus sees us when we do that. We often have a hard time looking at another human being and seeing them as a part of Christ’s life or a potential part of Christ’s life, but that’s really what they are. Maybe someone isn’t a part of Christ’s body now, maybe they aren’t a Christian or don’t believe in God, but they could. Jesus is still praying for them and loves them; was willing to die for them. We see people as right-minded or ignorant, Catholic or Protestant, Liberal or Conservative, Rich or Poor, Black or White. When we look at other people, we don’t always see someone who is called to share in God’s glory, but that is what Jesus sees. That is the challenge of this gospel passage: learning to see others as people that Jesus is praying for; learning to see people the way Jesus sees people. 

John’s gospel makes it very clear that you can’t split up God and Jesus, but he also makes it clear that you can’t split up Jesus and his followers. We may have remembered Jesus ascending into heaven on Thursday night, the Feast of the Ascension, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus is now absent from us. No. It means that we are now present with him in the Glory of God the Father. You can’t split up Jesus and God, and you can’t split up Jesus and his followers. If Jesus is present with God, then so are we. We are a part of that relationship now. All of us who are believers in Christ. All of us.

John began his gospel with this majestic description of Jesus’s relationship with the Father, but he also added there that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In Jesus’s final prayer, he makes it clear that this glory that God has given him, is not something he covets, it’s something he shares. This relationship that Jesus has with the Father, this oneness, is a relationship that we are invited to be a part of too. We are invited to share in it, AND we are invited to share it. Jesus isn’t going back to God empty-handed; he’s bringing folks with him. Well, who are you bringing with you? Who are you inviting into this relationship? I don’t just want to make it into God’s kingdom by the skin of my teeth and alone; I want to bring folks with me. There is a hurting world out there that needs to hear Jesus’s invitation to be a part of God’s glory. Are we showing them what that grace and joy looks like? On Thursday night I talked about Ascension Joy and how important it is to share that with a world that seems to be overcome by death and evil. Now as I said, it’s not up to us to save the world, Jesus did that on the cross, but what we can do, what we must do, is share with others the love that God has shared with us. In your words and in your actions, how are you showing other people God’s glory? Are you showing them grace? What about those people you don’t agree with and don’t like? Jesus is praying for them too you know.

A strange sort of joy

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Sermon for Ascension Thursday, May 26th, 2022

Readings:

You know, I find it so odd, that after Jesus ascends into heaven his disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy. Joy. They just spend hours in the temple in joy, blessing God. 

It’s odd to me that they are so filled with joy, because Jesus just left them…again. Now, the last time Jesus left them he was dead. A little more than forty days before he disappeared into the cloud he had been crucified and buried. He had been brutally murdered. And when he rose from the dead and returned to them, well it just turned their entire world upside down. Their loved one, their friend, their teacher, their master, he had died and come back to life, so of course the disciples were joyful on Easter Sunday, when Jesus came back to them. That joy makes sense to me. That is a joy that I think most of us long to experience ourselves. We long to see loved ones again. That is Easter joy and Easter joy makes sense to me. Easter joy is about seeing and touching, someone or something that you thought was lost. Easter joy is about hope fulfilled.

But in our gospel passage today, Luke isn’t talking about that kind of joy. He isn’t talking about Easter joy. Luke is talking about Ascension joy. Ascension joy is very different. It’s a little harder to understand. It’s still joy, but it is a joy that walks hand in hand with a huge measure of faith. It is a joy that forces us to look beyond this world. It is a joy that requires patience. It is a joy that requires humility. 

Once Jesus disappeared from their sight, the disciples couldn’t touch him anymore, they couldn’t see his body. They knew that he had been resurrected, they had witnessed it, but now the physical evidence, his body, wasn’t standing in front of them anymore. But still they have joy. They have joy that Jesus has gone to the Father. The world that Jesus leaves behind is still broken. There is still brutality and murder and sin and darkness. There is still pain and suffering, but they have joy. They have joy that there is a presence at the right hand of God that knows all about that pain and suffering. They have joy that they have an advocate in God’s kingdom. They have joy that Jesus has entered into the heavenly realm. They don’t necessarily understand what that realm is any more than we do. They see Jesus disappear, but they know that he isn’t just floating around on a cloud somewhere; he is in God’s realm, God’s kingdom that exists outside our understanding of time and place. But the disciples don’t walk away feeling abandoned. As hard as it was, I am sure, for them to see Jesus disappear, they still recognize that it is a good thing. It is still good news. It is still reason for joy, even though it now has to be joy coupled with faith. 

The disciples rush to the temple to bless God when Jesus ascends into heaven, because that event confirms for them something that Jesus had told them on many occasions: that his life and ministry was about more than this world. It didn’t begin here. It doesn’t end here. Jesus is still alive. Jesus is still hard at work, but his work isn’t just about fixing this broken old world of ours; it is about making us a part of something new. It is about more than this world. There is joy in knowing that this broken, horrible world is not the end of God’s plan and our final destiny, but there is also joy in knowing that even in this horrible, broken world God has mighty power. God is at work. And God can change people, and transform lives. Ascension joy, is about living in the knowledge and faith that there is a link between the world we are living in and God’s eternal kingdom. There is a link between heaven and earth and that link is Jesus Christ. The Ascension isn’t about being abandoned or left to our own devices to figure out how to fix the world that Christ left behind, oh no. It is about being eternally linked to God through the grace that comes from the risen and ascended Jesus. It is about knowing that Jesus is at work in us AND Jesus is at work for us. It isn’t one or the other, it is both, and that is reason for joy. Ascension joy.

You know, I think what a lot of Christians really want is for God to either teach us to fix this world or to snatch us out of it. So some folks want Jesus to just be a good teacher who tells us to be nice to one another and share and do nice things, and heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race…that’s what some people think this is all about. An eternity of social work. The salvation of the world waiting on us. These people are exhausting for the record. I’m too tired to save the world most days. But then other folks really want to lean into Jesus as a saviour who wants us to give him lip service but not much else. Sign on the dotted line, call me Lord and saviour, and when the going gets ugly I will helicopter in and snatch you out of this ugly world, no personal transformation required. No change of heart. Nothing you do really matters. These people are exhausting too, but in a different way. I mean, what’s the point of having faith if you are the same miserable person you were before? I know plenty of Christians who are on one side or another of this divide, and they all have a few scriptures to back up their position, but in order to be on one side or another you have to leave plenty of scriptures out. But we have to look at the whole Jesus. 

Because Jesus does heal folks in this world, and he does instruct us to care for others, and to share and to love, and to be compassionate, and yes, I’m going to say it, to sin no more. The Jesus who teaches us to do nice things to others, also teaches us, first and foremost, to address our own sinfulness. Not just the sins of society, or the sins of history, or the sins of the system, or “the man” but our own personal sinfulness that is our own fault and no one else’s. Jesus does teach us and his teachings aren’t always simple and easy. But Jesus does more than teach us. What is happening on the cross isn’t just God teaching us a lesson. The resurrection isn’t something that we can achieve on our own through good works and right opinions. And the Ascension should remind us that there are things that Jesus does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus goes someplace that we cannot go on our own. There is no stairway to heaven that we can just climb up by being better people. We need Jesus. We need a saviour. We have a saviour. But it just so happens that the saviour we have is a saviour who also teaches us. Jesus is both of these things, there’s no getting around it.

It strikes me that Ascension joy, the joy that the disciples experienced on this day, comes from the realization that while I am standing here on this earth, trying to do what my Jesus has commanded me to do, that even now (right now) a part of me stands before the heavenly throne. Jesus is my teacher, yes, but he is also my Lord and saviour. He is my advocate. He pleads for me. My pains are his pains, and his joy is my joy. There is work for us to do in this world, but this world is not the end of the story. Thank God this world is not the end of the story. Thank God there is a link between this world and the world to come. Like the disciples on Ascension Day, it is right that we should come to the temple and bless God for that living connection between these two worlds, it is right that it should bring us joy, because if the Jesus who died on the cross in this world wasn’t seated on the throne I would despair. I would despair. 

Maybe it seems odd to spend so much time talking about joy at a time like this. How dare we talk about joy when we have had yet another mass shooting of children? And cue the stock responses from everybody (and they are stock responses now because at this point they have been used so many times). The liberals say this, the conservatives say that. And nothing really happens. Joy? How can we talk about joy, when one half of the country hates the other half of the country? How can we talk about joy when human lives, which scripture tells us means so much to God, means so little to us? Oh yeah and there’s also all that other stuff: inflation and covid and war. How dare we talk about joy? How dare we not!

I promise you, people in the world are well acquainted with suffering and sorrow. We need to talk to them about joy. People need to hear about Easter joy, the joy of knowing that death doesn’t have the final word; that we have hope of reunion with those we love, but they also need to hear about Ascension joy. People need to know that right here, right now there is a power in heaven that knows their name. Knows their sorrows; knows their pain; knows their struggles. I promise you, people already know about death, and darkness and evil. But do they know about grace? Do they know that the Jesus who taught us about living in this world, do they know that that same Jesus lives to intercede for us even now? There is joy in that knowledge. People know about the power of death, but do they know about the power of God? How can we not talk about God’s power at a time like this? 

So many people right now have no hope for heaven and no fear of hell, just a lot of pain and no place to put it. People are angry at everything and at nothing. Let’s find someone to blame. Let’s project our anger onto everything and to hell with anyone that wants to find joy, and goodness, and happiness and innocence in the world. 

If I thought that it was up to the politicians to fix this, I would despair. Man, I would despair if I thought the solution was waiting on us. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have sensible laws in this country, but in order to get sensible laws, you have to have sensible politicians. In order to have sensible politicians you have to have sensible voters and in order to have sensible voters you have to raise up people whose primary motivation in everything they do isn’t anger. You need people who still believe in the power of joy and goodness even in the midst of pain and suffering. That power is a grace that comes from God, it isn’t something that comes from us.

That is the power of Ascension joy. It is joy that is in this world, but not of this world. It is a joy that gives us the courage to try and follow Jesus even when we know that it is only by his grace that we will be saved. It is an odd, peculiar joy that can only come from knowing that the Jesus who sits on the throne in the next world is the same Jesus who hung on the cross in this one. It is a strange sort of joy, but it is a joy that the world very much needs right now.

The Tree of Life

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Sermon for May 22, 2022

First Communion Sunday

Readings:

You know, when you wake up from a dream or a vision, it is often very difficult to explain to others what you saw or what you experienced, because dreams are full of images and symbols and they don’t always make sense. That is part of the struggle that people have with the book of Revelation. John has a miraculous vision, and in that vision God speaks to John about some things that are going on in his own day, so many of the symbols have to do with the persecution that Christians were experiencing in the Roman empire, but God also speaks to John and shows him visions of the distant future, so we get these glimpses of the heavenly kingdom.

You know, the Bible doesn’t give us a detailed explanation of heaven. What we get are images here and there that reveal little bits of heaven to us. I guess God knows that we could never comprehend or appreciate the true beauty of God’s kingdom, so what we get are postcards from the other side. Maybe postcards isn’t the best analogy, since I’m not sure people actually send postcards anymore. Maybe we will call them Instagram shots. Pictures that are sent to us from someone far away. But pictures, no matter how good, never fully capture just how beautiful something is in real life. So while the images in John’s book about his vision do reveal glimpses of heaven to us, that’s why we call his book the book of Revelation, it doesn’t show us everything; heaven will always be more glorious than we can imagine and we won’t truly know it until we see it ourselves.

But John’s vision is very important, not just because of what it reveals about heaven, but because of what it reveals about the God of heaven. We are going to be giving the kids that are graduating from their communion class today a Bible later. Now kids, you might think: “well, why is this old book important? What difference is this going to make to my life?” Here is why it is important: because the God of this book is still God. The God who interacts with people in all of the stories in this book is the God that is still alive and active in the world today. So if we want to understand the God who is at work in our lives right now, it helps to understand who God is, and how God acts, and the best way to do that is to study the record of how God has revealed himself to people in history. That is why studying the bible is so important to us. It doesn’t just tell us what God did in the past; it helps us to understand what God is doing now. 

This morning we just heard a reading from the Book of Revelation; John’s vision that I was just talking about. In that reading John talks about the heavenly Jerusalem, the Holy City. And what does he see? Well, he sees a river that flows from the throne where people can drink from the water of life; God quenches their thirst. What else does John see? He sees a tree of life that produces fruit that feeds people. Right in the middle of heaven people eat and drink; they are given food from God. There is another place in the Bible where we find a tree of life. It is all the way on the other end. Revelation is the last book in the Bible, but all the way back in Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden when God first created the world there was another tree of life. God always planned to feed us. But in Genesis we learn that humans, boys and girls, men and women just like us, we disobeyed God, we turned away from God, we hid ourselves from God, so we couldn’t eat from the tree of life anymore. But God still wants to feed us. So God sends us his son, who is a human who does not disobey God, that’s Jesus. And he invites us to be a part of his life, first by being baptized like he was, and then he feeds us by offering us his body and blood, his life, in Holy Communion. 

In John’s vision of heaven, what is one of the most prominent images that he sees in the middle of the city? It is a tree that feeds people AND that offers them healing. John says that the leaves of this tree heal people’s wounds and hurts. I want you all to take a moment and look around this church. Symbols are very important in scripture, and symbols are very important in church as well. Symbols tell us things about God. What is everything in this church directed towards? What is right in the center? Some might say this big candle, which we call a paschal candle, but this is only here during Easter season. What is always the highest place and most prominent symbol in the church? It isn’t this pulpit, I’m tucked off to the side over here. The most important thing in this church is the altar. Where we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember Jesus’s last supper there and we pray special prayers over the bread and the wine. Then what happens? People come forward and eat. People are fed, and you know what, people are also healed.

That is what you will do today. You will come forward and you will be fed, not by me, but by God. I will hand you a little wafer of bread, but it isn’t really me that gives it to you; it is God. Holy Communion is NOT just about remembering something that God did a long time ago. I will say that again: Holy Communion is NOT just about remembering something that God did a long time ago. It is about what God is doing for us now. He feeds us, and he heals us. Likewise, the Bible is NOT just about what God did for people a long time ago. It helps us to see what God is doing for us now. John saw a glimpse of heaven and what he saw was God feeding his children. When you come to church what you see is God feeding his children. This is a glimpse of heaven too. This is a vision and it is a vision that you are invited to share in and to participate in. Remember that. Every time you come forward for communion, I want you to remember that what we are doing around the altar is never as important as what God is doing. God feeds us here and now with spiritual food. God is present with us, and offers us his life in the bread and the wine. Even when we have turned away from God, even when we have disobeyed him, God keeps feeding us.

You will see this throughout the Bible and you will see it again when you come into church: we worship a God who feeds us…not just in the past, not just now, but forever.

Finding Jesus’s Body

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2022

Readings:

Mary Magdalene is looking for the body of Jesus. 

She assumes that it must be buried in the tomb. That is where she left it on Friday. Broken, bloody, and completely lifeless, she had helped his mother Mary, and his dearest friend John and a couple good men named Joseph and Nicodemus, she helped them wrap his body in linen cloths, and they had left him there on the cold stone. She saw it. Now she had come back to that spot. 

She had some fragrant spices and flowers that she wanted to leave there. Of course, the truth is, she also wasn’t ready to let go just yet. Love never lets us off the hook so easily. She still wanted to be with Jesus for a while, even though she knew he was dead. Even though the light that had filled his eyes had now gone out, still she wanted to be with him. Even if just for a few more minutes. 

So she went to where she assumed he must be. Everybody assumed that Jesus was in the tomb. Who could think otherwise? He was dead, wasn’t he?

But she didn’t find him. What she found instead was an open grave. She ran to tell Peter and John. Jesus isn’t in the tomb; someone has stolen his body. His body is missing. They run to the tomb and verify that his body isn’t there. Just the linen shrouds lying on the ground. Mary was telling the truth, but what did it mean? Where is Jesus’s body if it isn’t here? Peter and John go back home confused. Jesus isn’t where they thought he was. But Mary lingers. 

And after wiping some bewildered tears from her eyes, she looks into the tomb again, and this time she sees two men, or at first she thought they were men; Two figures sitting nearby in garments of white that just seemed to sparkle and shine. Didn’t make sense how their clothes could be so white. If these men had been moving the gravestone or touching Jesus’s body they would have gotten dirty or bloody. But these clothes were white. Really white. If they hadn’t moved Jesus, somebody else must have.

Why are you weeping? They ask. 

Who are you looking for? 

I am looking for my Lord, but he is not here. Someone must have taken him away. I don’t know where he is. I need to find him. Can you help me find him?

And then behind her comes a voice from just outside the door. She assumes it’s the gardener. Why are you weeping? The man says. Who are you looking for? 

I am looking for Jesus she says. Please tell me where I can find him. 

“Mary,” the man says. And her world turned upside down. Here he was, standing right in front of her. She found the body of her Lord, only it wasn’t in the tomb it was outside it; and Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive. She had been looking for Jesus in the tomb. But that isn’t where he said he would be. Do you remember Mary? Do you remember where he said he would be? Do you remember where he said you would find his body? 

She was stunned at first. Terrified. But Jesus’s words started coming back to her like a flood. She started to remember the words that Jesus had said. Jesus had told her and all the disciples where his body would be found, but they were all looking in the wrong place.

They were looking in the wrong place. Mary and Peter and John can’t find Jesus because they are looking in the wrong place. At least they ARE looking, some of the disciples aren’t even doing that. But they were looking for Jesus where the world assumed he would be. They were looking where all the disciples assumed he was. They were looking for Jesus where Pilate put him. But they weren’t looking for Jesus where HE said he would be. 

He said he would rise again. He said he would rise again. He even said he would meet his disciples in Galilee. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his disciples a number of places where his body would be found, and could be found, and not one of them was the grave. And now Mary had found his body, but it wasn’t in the grave. It was outside it. Don’t hold on to me here, Jesus tells Mary. My work isn’t done here. You can’t keep my body in one place. Go and tell my disciples what you have seen. And she does. For forty days people see Jesus. They see his body, just like Mary did. They touch him. They eat with him. Mary and the other disciples, they find Jesus’s body alright, but it wasn’t in the tomb. It was in the places where he said it would be. 

So maybe, and this is just a suggestion, maybe if you are looking for Jesus, if you are looking for the power of God in your life, if you are looking for peace and forgiveness, and grace and eternal life and hope, if you are looking for Jesus, you might save yourself some time by starting your search in the places where Jesus promised that he would be. Seriously, where did Jesus promise that he would be? Where did he say that we would find his body? Where did Jesus promise us that we would meet him?

In Baptism. We actually become a part of Christ’s body when we are baptized.

In fellowship. Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. Jesus is with us when we come together with other Christians in his name.

In service. Truly I tell you that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sister of mine, you did for me. Jesus is present with us when we serve others. 

In Communion. Take Eat. This is my Body. We meet Jesus here in the blessed sacrament. 

Jesus’s body is in the bread. Jesus’s body is in the baptized. That’s where he told us his body would be. So look for his body here. Look to meet Jesus here. If you are struggling to find Jesus in your life, you might be looking for him in the wrong places. You might be looking for the living among the dead. You might be weeping and perplexed outside an empty tomb. But his body’s not in the grave. It doesn’t belong there. Not for long. And you see that is a part of our hope as Christians. Jesus said he was ascending to the Father, but he also said that he would come again so that we can be where he is. He said that he would lose nothing that belonged to him but would raise it up on the last day. We believe that Jesus is going to come some day to raise our bodies up just like his, because they are his body too. Our bodies are a part of Jesus’s body and Jesus isn’t going to let any part of his body rest in the tomb for very long. That’s not where it belongs. 

Yes, Jesus is God, and if he can climb down into the grave to find you, he can find you anywhere. He can find you weeping outside the tomb, just like he found Mary. The Lord and his angels can find you where you are. The Lord can show up out of the blue, and no locked door or tombstone is gonna keep him away. But if YOU are looking for him. If you are the one who is searching for God and trying to find the Lord in your life, if you are looking for peace and grace, and guidance and strength, and hope, if you are looking for Jesus then start looking for him where he promised he would be. Jesus never said he would be in the tomb, but he did say he would be in the church. 

A Sign of God’s Power

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Sermon for Good Friday 2022

Readings:

It would be easy to look at the cross, and to listen to the story that we tell today, and to think of it as just another example of man’s inhumanity to man. Humans, after all, have a long history of brutalizing other humans. In that sense, Jesus’s crucifixion wasn’t a unique event in history. Despite the fact that the cross is now universally recognized as a symbol of Jesus Christ and his followers, Jesus wasn’t the only person to be put to death by being nailed to a wooden beam on a post. He wasn’t even the only person to be tortured that way on Good Friday. There were others right beside him. People had been crucified before Jesus; People were crucified after him. It would be easy then to look at Jesus’s cross as a symbol of human cruelty. A reminder of how we often treat each other. A sign of our sinfulness.

Here is an innocent man that is put to death. And not just put to death; he is killed in this way, so that he will experience the maximum amount of pain and humiliation. A crucifixion isn’t just an execution of a criminal, you know. It isn’t just about maintaining peace and order. It is a warning. It is a demonstration of power. The Roman authorities can do what they want, when they want, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is what this is meant to say. That is power. Humans love to have power. Not just the Romans, all humans love to have power. There are two types of people in the world: those who have power and those who want power. You might think that sounds very cynical, but I’m not so sure. We aren’t half as enlightened and reasonable as we like to think we are. We all have untaught desires and emotions. And the thing we probably desire most is power. It might be our worst addiction. We want power more than sex, money, or food. Why waste your time chasing after those little pleasures, when you can have them all if you just pursue power? Think about how the devil tempted Jesus: all of those temptations in the desert were about power.  Oh and when we get it, if we get it, we want to make sure that other people know that we have it. What good is it to have power if nobody knows you have it? 

Do you not know, Pilate asks Jesus, do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?

This is about power. Humans do these things to each other to demonstrate and assert their power. It’s not always this extreme though. It’s not always about death and torture. Sometimes it can seem totally benign. We build huge skyscrapers, buy fancy cars, tell juicy bits of gossip, and we also invade other countries, wave around guns and shoot innocent people, flex our muscles, threaten, lie, shame, accuse. How much death, how much suffering, how much sin can we directly attribute to our thirst as human beings for power; to our addiction to having and demonstrating power?

So as I said, it would be easy to look at the cross and see it as a reminder of our propensity as humans to brutalize others all in the name of power. Part of me wonders if we really should need such a reminder: we have the news after all. And most of the world don’t even need the news to remind them of suffering, they just have this thing called life. Still, somehow we all keep forgetting that humans have a lust for power, so maybe we do need a reminder, but I’m not sure that that is all that is going on here on the cross.

I could stand up here all day and give you one example after another of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s not exactly what is happening here. Or at least, its not all that is happening. That’s not the full story. Because the story that we retell today, the story of the cross, isn’t just about a Roman governor demonstrating his power over a Jewish preacher. That may be what it looks like on the surface, and maybe that is what some of the bystanders on that day thought was going on, but we know better. This story isn’t about a contest for power between two men. This is a story about humanity, all humans and God. We didn’t just try to put to death some itinerant Jewish preacher. We tried to kill God. The Lord of all creation was born and lived among us, and we put him on trial and sentenced him to death. Pilate didn’t know who was really standing before him, he thought he had power over him. 

Pilate thought he had power, because he couldn’t see God’s power.

Pilate had the power to put Jesus to death. Jesus had the power to overcome death. Pilate had the power to condemn; Jesus had the power to forgive. Pilate had the power to wound. Jesus had the power to heal. Pilate had the power of the greatest empire on earth; Jesus had the power of the kingdom of heaven. 

Pilate would like nothing more than for you to look at a cross and think of his power, and of what he did. It seems like even today, there is a tendency to want to tell this story in such a way that it is entirely focused on what we as humans do. We are so impressed and enamored with our own power, that even when it is sinful and brutal and cruel, that is what we want to focus on. We want to turn the spotlight back onto ourselves. But the cross isn’t just about what we do, or what we have done. That is not where this story ends. The cross is about what God does. The cross is about God’s power, and God’s faithfulness. It isn’t just a story about human sinfulness; it is about human sinfulness AND what God has done about it. It isn’t just about inhumanity and death; it is about God taking on humanity and conquering death. The cross is a sign of power, but it didn’t quite work out the way that Pilate planned. 

Pilate thought that the cross would be a symbol of his power. But it’s not. It’s a symbol of God’s. 

The Lord comes to meet us

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Sermon for Palm Sunday 2022

Readings:

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Liturgy of the Word

As Jesus rides his donkey down the Mount of Olives, riding out to meet his people, there is this moment recorded in Luke’s gospel where Jesus stops for a minute, he looks at the Holy City just across from him, and he cries. He weeps. It is a glorious moment. There is a crowd of people that is following him down the mountain and they are waving palm branches and even throwing their cloaks down on the road, and they are hailing him as a king. They call him Son of David. The successor to the great king. It is a triumphant moment, but before Jesus crosses over the valley and enters the Eastern gate of the Temple, he stops and he weeps. There is a little chapel on the side of the Mount of Olives today called the Dominus Flevit, the Lord Wept, and it is in the shape of a teardrop. It is meant to mark this moment.

And Jesus says to his beloved city in that moment: “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes. You are going to be crushed by your enemies; your glorious stones will be cast to the ground, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” You did not recognize God’s presence in your midst. Not only were people unable to identify and appreciate the presence of God, but they could no longer recognize the ways of God. 

Now some people surely did. There were righteous and holy people in Jerusalem and Jesus even points some of them out, but as a society there was a problem. People had gotten so used to the Temple in all of its external glory and grandeur that they were beginning to lose sight of what it signified: God’s presence in their midst. What happens when we lose sight of God’s presence? What happens when God’s existence is no longer a reality to us? Well, in short order we stop recognizing the ways of God. Right and wrong. Moral and Immoral. If you think Christian cultures have a long history of doing bad things, take a good look at some of the horrors that atheistic cultures or pagan cultures have wrought on the world. We Christians, we may sin and do bad things, but our God calls us out on it. Our own tradition calls us to repentance. We still make mistakes, but at least we recognize that they are, in fact, mistakes. But what happens when we stop recognizing that? What happens when all things become relative or subjective and we lose the ability to recognize truth and goodness and God? 

Our enemies will crush us. That is Jesus’s harrowing prediction. Jerusalem will be destroyed because it has lost sight of what has always saved it: God’s presence. The Temple and Jerusalem are so precious to Jesus, because they are a symbol of God’s relationship to his people. The Temple was a reminder that although God is omnipotent and the creator of the universe, that nonetheless he desires to live in relationship with us humans. It is an amazing, wild assertion if you think about it; the idea that the vast, boundless cosmos, cares about any one individual human being, much less all of them. That is a wild, crazy assertion. But here is this building that says God wants to live with people. And when you really think about what a wild claim that is, then it makes sense that if people believed that, that they would be treating the temple with the utmost care and respect. It would be the focal point of their lives. A place where they have communion, relationship with God. But here is what happens when you hold something holy in your hands for too long: you are very liable to forget and lose sight of just how holy it is. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he found in the holiest place on earth, a lot of people treating the temple more or less as a place of business. A market; a place of transactions. And not just everyday transactions, but even semi-divine transactions: I will do this thing for the God, if the God will do this thing for me. I will give this, sacrifice this, say this prayer, if this God will give me some material benefit that I desire. Things like growth, holiness, conversion, transformation, peace, communion, the simple presence of God in your midst…those things don’t matter when God becomes (when people believe in him at all) some kind of vending machine. 

This is what Jesus finds when he rides into Jerusalem. Not with everyone certainly, but with a lot of people. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The prophet Jeremiah had witnessed the same thing and Jesus uses Jeremiah’s words: “my house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” His words struck a nerve. Jesus has been saying challenging and difficult things throughout his ministry, but now as he comes to the end of it, both publicly and privately, Jesus says words that come to the heart of the matter: we do not recognize God’s presence when it is right in front of us. We fail to appreciate God’s saving power. God’s life, which is shared with his people, becomes something we turn to, not for daily strength and holiness, but something we turn to when everything else has failed. Like Samuel Johnson’s description of patriotism, it becomes the last refuge of a scoundrel. 

Our Lord, who promised paradise to the thief on the cross next to him, no doubt saves scoundrels too. But if we believe that the Jesus who offered such compassion and such hope to a man who was so unworthy of it, if we believe that that Jesus is encountered here in some way, whether it is in moments of silent prayer and reflection, in studying and hearing his words in the scriptures, in the grace that is given to us in the sacraments, most especially the sacrament of his body and blood, his real presence in the bread and the wine, if we believe that Jesus is present here, then shouldn’t that be reflected in our lives? In our priorities? 

Have we become so used to the idea of God dwelling among us, that we fail to see, fail to recognize, what a revolutionary belief that really is? I hope we don’t. We have come to the holiest week in the year for Christians. Every year we proclaim in spectacular ways a truth that changes everything. The God of all creation, the God of the universe, comes to meet you. Your salvation, your hope, your life is coming to meet you. You personally. This God is coming to meet you in sacred spaces like temples and churches, this God is coming to meet you in sacred texts and sacred rituals. This God is coming to meet you in bread and wine. This God is coming to meet you in the cross, not only in his cross and suffering, but in your cross and suffering to. This God is coming to meet you in moments of triumph and in moments of defeat; in moments of new life and in moments of death. Most of all this God is coming to meet you in a resurrected body that is going to turn everything you know or that you think you know about life and death upside down. The God of scripture, which is the God of Jesus Christ, this is a God which we encounter. This is a God who comes to meet us. Even though we ignore him. Ignore his house. Ignore his commandments. He still comes to meet us. We will misunderstand him. We will say that he said things he didn’t say. We will crucify him and kill him. And still he comes to meet us again. What a remarkable thing; we should never take it for granted. The Lord still comes to meet us, even when we aren’t looking for him or don’t recognize him. The Lord comes to meet us, even when he is hidden from our eyes.

Opposing Jesus

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Sermon for April 3rd, 2022

Readings:

The gallery of European Paintings from 1250 to 1800, and the Medieval Art gallery, are my two favorite galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love to wander through them, and I go back to them again and again, I think in part, because the subject matter of most of the artwork in those two galleries is the life of Christ. One moment in the life of Christ after another. One snapshot after another, and one artist’s impression of Jesus’s story after another. All hanging there on the wall in a series of images that we walk past and take in. Yes, there are the occasional nature scenes and portraits of fancy Lords and Ladies, but the majority of the paintings in those galleries depict various scenes from the life of Jesus or other famous stories from the Bible.

 Say what you will about life in the pre-modern world, many people may not have been able to read the words of the Bible, but Biblical literacy in terms of knowing the stories of the Bible, well that was probably better than it is now. The stories of the Bible surrounded people in the visual arts. There, in those galleries, is the proof.

So as I walk through those galleries, what I see are moments in the life of Jesus as each artist has depicted them. Impressions really. They are telling me a story through the use of images. The paintings point to and direct me to a fuller story of the life of Jesus Christ, but they each only tell a portion of the story. There are things that the artist wants me to see that are painted directly on the canvas, but then there are always many, many more details that the artist doesn’t paint. There is always more going on that just what is shown. The artist often assumes that I know some of the background to the story. Sometimes there are images or symbols painted within the scene that are there to direct me to another part of the story. And sometimes the artist relies upon me to fill in some details myself. Artists are crafty like that. 

The way I feel walking through a gallery of religious art at the Met, is very similar to how I feel when reading through the gospels: you get lots of snippets, scenes and vignettes, but you also realize that there is usually a lot more to the story than the artist has set before you. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they give us images or depictions of moments and stories in Jesus’s life. And like at the Met, I can go back to these images or depictions again and again, and very often I will discover something new. A detail that I hadn’t noticed before. 

Look at the image that John has painted in the gospel passage you heard this morning: Jesus is the guest of honor at a dinner. Martha is there in the background, serving up dinner as usual, but her sister Mary is doing something rather strange. She is at Jesus’s feet with a bottle of perfume. She has poured the perfume all over his feet and she is wiping them with her hair. Such an odd thing to do, that is almost uncomfortably intimate. And we are told that there is this smell that just wafts up from the perfume and fills the air. And as we are thinking about this sweet smell of perfume we notice that the person sitting next to Jesus is Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother. 

Suddenly our minds are transported back to the last scene, because the last time we saw Lazarus in the last chapter, HE needed that perfume. He was four days dead and people could smell him outside the tomb. That is why that perfume of Mary’s was so strong, it was meant to cover up the smell of death. That is what that anointing oil was for. But Mary isn’t using the perfume on Lazarus, he is sitting at the table next to Jesus. Hopefully he’s had a bath since they took the burial cloths off him, but there he is alive and well. No, Mary is using the perfume on Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense, because if you remember from the last scene, the last picture John painted, Jesus proved that he had power over death. He raised Lazarus back to life, and there Lazarus sits reminding us that Jesus has power over death…and yet, Mary is on her knees anointing Jesus’s body like it is about to be buried. It just doesn’t make any sense.

And standing next to Jesus, leaning in to his ear is Judas. There he is pointing down to Mary disapprovingly, and pointing to Jesus too and saying, “don’t let her do this.” Stop this Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense. This is wasteful. Maybe Judas’s motives weren’t pure, but he did have a point: why should we waste burial perfume on a man that has proven he has power over death? Judas seems reasonable to me. But Jesus insists.

It seems a bit strange. What other pictures does John paint in his gospel? Well let’s walk on to the next one. We are in chapter 12 now, but as we enter chapter 13 we find ourselves in another dining room, only this time Jesus is the one on the floor on his knees and he is washing his disciples’ feet. And as Jesus comes up to Peter, Peter pushes back and says “No! Stop this Jesus. You will never wash my feet. You are our Lord and Master, what are you doing groveling on the floor like a servant? This doesn’t make any sense. And you know, Peter seems very reasonable to me. I wouldn’t want Jesus to see the ugly and dirty parts of me either. But Jesus insists. 

Strange. You know it occurs to me as I look at these two episodes or scenes in John’s gospel side by side, that very often throughout this gospel, John is careful to include somewhere in each scene he paints, someone that is opposing Jesus. In just about every scene, there is someone saying: “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen!” Stop Jesus! You can’t talk to me, I’m a Samaritan woman. Stop Jesus! You can’t heal on the sabbath. Stop Jesus! We don’t have enough food or money to feed these people. Stop Jesus! Stop saying you came down from heaven. Stop talking about your flesh as if it were bread. Stop Jesus! Don’t go to Bethany. Lazarus is dead. There’s nothing you can do there. It’s too dangerous. Jesus, stop this woman from washing your feet. Jesus, stop trying to wash my feet. Stop Jesus! Don’t go away. Don’t leave us. Don’t go to the cross. Stop Jesus! Don’t die! You don’t have to die do you? 

In all of these scenes there is someone that is trying to stop Jesus. There seems to be this theme of resistance to Jesus. One of the things about John’s gospel that can be a problem is that in many scenes John simply labels Jesus’s opposition or resistance as “the Jews.” It’s a problem because we are quick to forget that Jesus was a Jew, all of the disciples were Jews. Facts like that don’t matter when you are looking for a scapegoat. Throughout history, Christians have used John’s use of the generic term “the Jews” as an excuse for horrid persecutions. We have used it to paint Jewish people as enemies of Christ, because we always want someone else to be opposing Jesus. For two thousand years we have been looking for someone to blame for his death. But what I see, as I pass by all these images that John has painted of Jesus’s story, is that it’s not that simple. You know, just about everyone in this gospel, at some point or another, has a conflict with Jesus. Just about everyone at some point or another, says “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen. This doesn’t make sense.” And you know, sometimes they seem pretty reasonable.  Even his best friends. Peter, Judas, Martha, Jesus’s brothers, Thomas, all of the disciples resist Jesus. It would be so easy to just look at today’s scene from the gospel, and think, “ah, there’s Judas, he’s the bad guy.” But what I notice as I pass from one scene in John’s gospel to another, looking at the pictures he has painted, is that the people who are opposing Jesus, whether John calls them “the Jews,” or the Pharisees, or the disciples, or Peter, or Judas…I notice that in the right light, they look an awful lot like me. 

Just Like Us

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Sermon for March 20th, 2022

Readings:

The Bible has more to say about human nature than it does Divine nature. We learn more about mankind by reading the Bible, than we do about God. 

Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me here. I do believe the scriptures to be divinely inspired books, and I do believe that God reveals himself to us in them. They are a record of God many revelations of himself to us, and for us Christians, the supreme revelation of God was in the person of Jesus Christ, who we encounter in scripture. God is revealed to us in the Bible, but there is, as I suppose there should be, always an element of mystery surrounding God’s self-revelation. 

When Moses encounters the voice of God in the burning bush, he can’t wrap his head around it or figure it out. It is a mysterious thing to him, and he can only get so close. And when Moses asks God who he is, the response that he gets is “I am who I am.” Moses is told that this “I am” is the God of his ancestors, and Moses is told what this God is going to do for him, and Moses is eventually told what this God expects of him, but there is much about who this “I am” really is that remains shrouded in mystery. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who reveals so much to us about God’s nature, and who often refers to himself as “I am,” well much of our Lord’s life, particularly his interior life, remains shrouded in mystery as well. This is of course to be expected when encountering a being so much greater than ourselves, God is bound to be mysterious to us. So God is revealed to us in scripture, but it is always in a cloud of mystery.

What the scriptures are far less mysterious about, and what they have even more to say about, is human beings. The Bible has a lot to say about human beings and human nature. I’m sure there are plenty of atheists and unbelievers out there that think they have no use for the Bible because they question God’s existence, but let me tell you, the Bible has even more to say about who we are than it does who God is. And in case you don’t already know, human beings are a mess. 

We are a mess and we always have been. Now it would be easy to read the scriptures from a point of extreme condescension, looking at all the characters and going tsk, tsk, tsk, look at all these silly people making the same mistakes over and over again. All these Israelites are petty and argumentative, and God saves them and they forget, and God saves them again and they forget, and God tells them to do things and they don’t do it, and God saves them again and they forget again. It would be easy to sit back and be real self-satisfied and be all proud of ourselves that we are so much superior than them, more enlightened, more educated, more progressive, that is, until the moment comes, and it can come quite suddenly, when our illusions and delusions are shattered and we realize that all this time when we were looking down on our ancestors in the scriptures, we were actually looking in a mirror. 

You realize that you are the same mess that they were. You are not better than your ancestors. Please get that. You may think that you are more enlightened or more educated, or less superstitious, but the truth is that you are the same mess that they were, only worse because now you have this layer of arrogance poured on top that makes you think you are superior. I think this has gotten worse in modern times, because we like to think that ancient people were extremely ignorant and primitive and lived in a completely different world than we do, but human beings have always been prone to thinking that we are somehow superior to those that came before us. 

In the gospel today, there is this discussion between Jesus and his followers about two terrible tragedies that were fairly recent history: one a brutal massacre of some Galileans by Pilate and the other a building collapse that killed a number of people. And Jesus asks his followers: do you think you are better than these people? Do you think that you have so figured things out that these same things can’t happen to you? And his response is, NO! You are not better than these people. 

Paul says something similar in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul talks about the Israelites travelling through the desert and the mistakes that they made. Now here is something that Christians often do when reading the Old Testament, we like to think that we are inherently superior to the ancient Israelites or the Jews, we like to think that we are more faithful and that we have figured life out in a way that they haven’t, and Paul’s advice to some folks that are thinking that way is: watch out! If you think you are standing, mighty and proud, watch out! You might be about to stumble and fall yourself. Don’t put God to the test by thinking that you are superior to your ancestors.

The answer that both Paul and Jesus give, the solution to this dilemma, is that we are to live lives of continual repentance, always remembering that our salvation comes from God, not from ourselves. We may learn from our ancestors mistakes, but we can only truly do that when we remember that we are not superior to them. The Bible becomes so much more meaningful to read when you finally realize that the stories it contains aren’t about some mythical God dealing with a primitive and foreign people, they are about a living mystery that has a long history of saving people just like us.