Faith is a choice

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Sermon for April 19th, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 12:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is risen

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020

Sermon starts at 16:08


Nobody expected good news on that first Easter Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is risen

Ordinary Things

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2020

Sermon begins at 14:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hard Way

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Mass and Sermon for Palm Sunday 2020

Readings

Sermon begins at 23:50

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Born Blind

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Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 17:41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, I said.

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

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

Yes, he said.

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

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

And then I said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when it hit me.

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

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

I once was lost but now am found

Was blind but now I see

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

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

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

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

Harden not your hearts

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Sermon for March 15th, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 16:00

 


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Salvation comes from above

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Sermon for March 8th, 2020

Readings

 

Our passage from Genesis this morning is the familiar story of God calling Abram, whose name is later changed to Abraham. God calls this man Abram, and makes him an offer: Leave behind all you have, leave your country and your kindred (at least some of them) and follow me. Follow me and I will make you great. I will make your name great. I will make you a nation. In fact, I will make you a blessing to all the families of the world.

 

Naturally, one wonders why God makes this offer to this man Abram. Abram just appears on the scene, somewhat out of nowhere. We know a little bit about his family tree from the preceding chapter in Genesis, but we know nothing of Abram’s character. That comes later. When we do learn a little more about Abram, what we find is a man that is more or less unremarkable. He isn’t the brightest man in the Middle East. He isn’t particularly good or righteous. He’s not noted for being particularly strong or handsome. I’m not sure we would call him a charismatic leader in any sense. So why Abram? Why does God offer to bless this wanderer?

 

Well I think if we would know Abram better and appreciate what makes him so special, we need to take a look at what happens in the scripture right before he walks on the scene.

 

Abram and his family are wanderers, but if we look to Genesis chapter 11, we find people that don’t want to wander. Abram takes his family on a journey, but the family in chapter 11 is immovable. Abram is willing to risk everything to follow where he is lead; but the people in chapter 11 are willing to risk everything to stay put.

 

Abram’s family is introduced at the end of chapter 11 of Genesis, but at the beginning of chapter 11 we are shown another contrasting family: the human family.

 

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the East, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”

 

The story that comes immediately before Abram is the famous story of the towel of Babel. The humans of the earth all speak one language and they all want to settle in one place. And they said:

 

“Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

 

Wandering can be a truly scary thing, and the world can be a frightening place. Fortunately for these people they had ingenuity and cleverness. They figured out that if you bake mud and clay it becomes hard as stone. They invented bricks. Now with bricks they can finally build buildings that protect them from the scary world. They are proud of this invention. They are proud of themselves. They began to think that this invention had the power to save them from the scary world. They had saved themselves. They had made a name for themselves. Is there anything they can’t do?

 

But of course, we know that what the people of Babel saw as their greatest pride, their tower, was ultimately the source of their downfall. They put more trust in their creation than they did their creator. They thought they would be saved by the work of their own hands; by their technology and their skill. We know the name of the city; you have heard of the Tower of Babel, but the names of the people, well, they are forgotten. What we find in Genesis, after the people of babel are scattered, is just a list of names. Names that don’t mean much to us. Names of people that didn’t do anything of consequence or leave anything behind. Wanderers, not builders. Just some individuals that are known to God more than they are known to us, until finally we come to a man named Abram.

 

Abram had a wife named Sarai and a nephew called Lot. They had a couple tents maybe, maybe some livestock and a few possessions that they could carry with them, but beyond that they weren’t weighed down with property. To Abram comes the promise that if he is willing to follow where God leads him, that he will indeed have a great name.

 

God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and it indeed becomes a great name. Abraham’s name is at the heart of the faith of billions of people throughout the world today. Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the God of Abraham. Abraham has become a blessing to all of us. And yet the only thing we have evidence or record of Abraham building is altars to God. Abraham travels around this Canaan land, following where his God lead, and each time he stopped he builds an altar for God, but for himself he is satisfied with just a tent. All we have of Abraham is his relationship with his God. He left nothing else behind. But what a legacy.

 

I guess if Abraham is remarkable in any capacity it is that he has no illusions of being a self-made man. You know I heard a great line this week. Someone said that so many people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. So many people mistake God’s blessings for their own skill, ingenuity or righteousness. They think that they made it on their own. Abraham has no such misconceptions. Abraham knows that everything he has and all of his hope for the future of himself and of his family, rests on God. All of the blessings in Abraham’s life, comes from above. Sure Abraham has his part. He is called to follow, he is called to respond. He makes a covenant with this God and that requires sacrifices on his part, but Abraham knows that his sacrifices are just a response to God’s promise. Abraham is always focused on blessing God’s name, not his own. Abraham blesses God’s name, because he knows that that is where his salvation comes from, not the work of his own hands.

 

Knowing where your life and your salvation comes from. That is the legacy that Abraham has left us. The people of Babel thought they could save themselves. Abraham knew better. Abraham knew that it comes from above. That is Abraham’s greatest legacy to us: the knowledge that our salvation comes from having a relationship with the one who is above us. Unless we are able to recognize that life and all of its blessings come from above, we will never be able to see the Kingdom of God. Those are Jesus’s words to the Pharisee Nicodemus. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Until the day we recognize that our salvation is not to be found in the works of our hands, but in the life of the one who is the author of life, we will not see the kingdom of God. Sure we may leave some fancy buildings behind, but eventually they will tumble too. In the end, if our names aren’t known to God, they might as well not be known by anyone else.

 

What did Abram do that made him so special in God’s eyes? Nothing, and I think that may be the point. Abraham didn’t try to climb up to heaven by building himself a tower; he was content with following the God that came down to him. I wonder if we are.

 

 

Why didn’t you leave that apple hanging in the tree?

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Sermon for March 1st, 2020

Readings:

 

One of Dolly Parton’s lesser known songs is a little number called the PMS Blues. Dolly begins the song by singing:

 

Eve you wicked woman! You done put your curse on me!

Why didn’t you just leave that apple hanging in the tree?

 

Well, I admit that I know nothing about PMS, but I do know a little about the bible and theology, and as much as I am reluctant to disagree with Saint Dolly about anything, I don’t really think it is fair to blame Eve for all our problems. I mean, Adam had a hand in it too you know. 

 

Adam and Eve were supposed to be in this thing called life together. When Adam met Eve, she was “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” The two were one. It is only after the fall that Adam starts blaming Eve for all his problems. So let’s not try to scapegoat Eve when we are talking about the fall.

 

When the Apostle Paul talks about the fall of mankind, he doesn’t scapegoat Eve. In his letter to the Romans, Paul blames Adam. So I think it is best not to try and separate the genders here. Adam and Eve both fall, they are both responsible for failing to uphold the one commandment that God gave them. But why? What was it about that fruit that was so appealing that they just couldn’t resist it? Why didn’t they just leave that apple hanging in the tree?

 

The bible tells us actually. The apple was tempting in three ways. Human beings have three major weaknesses, there are three temptations which we are always weak to resist, and this little piece of fruit hit all of them. 

 

Our passage from Genesis says: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food.” It’s the old adage that the fastest way into a man’s heart is through his stomach. Our flesh wants things. Our flesh wants to be appeased and sated. Our flesh wants pleasure and comfort. This fruit could fulfill a desire of our flesh. That is a hard thing to resist. It is especially hard to resist if you are hungry, but we have no reason to believe that Adam and Eve were hungry. They had plenty of other food to eat. This particular fruit was just a special pleasure that they wanted. It’s like that feeling you get after thanksgiving dinner, when you are so full you could explode, but for some reason you still want pie. The apple was a pleasure of the flesh, that is the first temptation.

 

Genesis goes on to say that the fruit “was a delight to the eyes.” It was pretty. We like pretty, shiny things. There is something enticing about owning something pretty. It is a rather odd desire, if you think about it. Food pleasure is easy to understand, but the desire to possess pretty things that you have to take care of and don’t really do anything, that is a bit different. Personally I would rather stand and look in a bakery case than in a jewelry case, because I get more pleasure from food, but the truth is I’m not immune from this temptation at all. For one thing, there is my dog Winston, who is pretty, but otherwise pretty useless. He’s a delight to possess but he requires care and in the end doesn’t really do much. He can’t pull a sled or ward off an intruder. There are actually quite a few things in my life that I own just because I wanted them. They are pretty. A delight to the eyes. We all do it; we don’t just want our clothes to be warm, if that were the case we could all just go cut a whole in a hefty bag and be done with it. No, we want our clothes to be pretty as well. We wash our cars. We plant lawns in front of our houses. We love beautiful things. We want to possess them. That is the second temptation.

 

Finally Genesis says that the “tree was to be desired to make one wise.” Think about this for a minute: what did Adam and Eve need wisdom for? They had everything they needed. They had almost all the food in the world. There was nothing that threatened them. There was no one else, no competition. Under those circumstances, what good is wisdom? Why not just stay ignorant and happy? Well, maybe it is because knowing things makes us feel good in a special way. Knowing things can make us feel superior, even when the knowledge we possess is useless on a practical level. Just ask the average PhD student. Now I say that as a doctoral student myself. Sometimes knowledge has practical value, but sometimes we like to know things simply because of how the knowledge makes us feel about ourselves. That is, afterall, what gossip is all about. How else am I going to feel superior to the royal family unless I dig up every piece of dirt I can on them? Sometimes we seek knowledge, just because it satisfies our pride and vanity.  Wisdom can make us feel superior to others. Wisdom appeases our vanity. That is the third temptation, vanity, feeling superior.

 

These three temptations are our weaknesses as a race: flesh, possession, and vanity. On their own these three things are good. Food is good. Beauty is good. Wisdom and self-improvement is good. The problem for us humans is what we do with them. We are so weak where these three things are concerned that we end up having a disordered desire for them and that disorder takes something that is created good, and makes it evil. Humans have tried throughout time to resist these temptations, but we always failed. That is, of course, until Jesus walks into the desert for forty days. 

 

In the desert Jesus is tempted by Satan three times. It should comes as no surprise by now what those three temptations are: flesh, turn these stones into bread and appease your appetite; possession, worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world; vanity, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let everyone see how superior you really are. Flesh, possession and vanity. Jesus is tempted by these three things. And the devil is smart. The devil points out how good these things are; he even uses scripture to defend his argument, but each and every time Jesus is tempted with pursuing one of those three things, he turns to God instead. 

Food is good, beauty is good, wisdom is good; but they will never be as good as the God who created them all. That is what Lent is all about. These next forty days we are challenged by our tradition to turn away from lesser goods and reorient ourselves toward the greatest good, toward God. To be sure, we will fail, just like Adam and Eve failed, that is why the second Adam, as Paul refers to Jesus, comes to triumph where the first Adam failed, but still if we would know Jesus better, if we would walk closer with him, we will follow him into the desert for a season and observe the ways in our day to day life, where we too have found it all too easy not to leave that apple hanging in the tree.

 

 

God is not the author of death.

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

Readings

In 1960 Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis, died of bone cancer at a relatively young age. If you want to know more about their story, I heartily recommend to you the film The Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger. In any event, Lewis, who was in my opinion one of the greatest apologists for Christianity ever, was devastated by Joy’s death. Even as a man of great faith, the pain of losing the woman that he loved was overwhelming for him. He later wrote a book about his experience of her death. But on Joy’s tombstone, Lewis had this epitaph written:

 

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,


And field, and forest, as they were


Reflected in a single mind)

Like cast off clothes was left behind


In ashes, yet with hopes that she,


Re-born from holy poverty,

In lenten lands, hereafter may

Resume them on her Easter Day.

 

You know, it is a shame that poetry isn’t as popular as it once was with the masses, because poems have the power to convey so much with so few words. This little poem says so much about Lewis’s faith, the Christian faith, and I think it might even help us appreciate what we are doing here today a little deeper.

 

Here the whole world like cast off clothes was left behind in ashes.

 

It’s as if the tombstone wants to say: This pile of ashes that you are looking at….this was once someone’s whole world. Joy’s world was experienced and Joy’s life was lived in that pile of ashes. This stuff that is just laying about here, that so many pass by and take no notice of, this dirt beneath the ground here, this was once a person. A whole life was lived in these ashes that lie about like someone’s cast off clothes. The image of a pile of cast-off clothes sticks with me.

 

It reminds me of when I was on sabbatical over the summer, because one afternoon I ventured down into the catacombs of Paris. The Paris catacombs were an old stone quarry, but in about 1780 the city started clearing out its old and somewhat dangerous cemeteries and moved all the human remains to these underground chambers. There are about six million bodies down there. Bone after bone after bone stacked on top of each other in a seemingly endless cavern. Each one slowly turning to dust. I had to keep reminding myself as I walked through there, that each and every one of these skulls was a life. A person with hopes and dreams and fears and loves. Each one of these was really like a whole world. And here they were, an indistinguishable heap of bones lying around waiting to be redeemed.

 

And seeing all those bones, it gave me pause to think to myself: the things that I spend so much time worrying about and fussing over, the things that grip my emotions on a daily basis, when my bones are added to the pile, will I care about them anymore? Do any of these people care what others think of them now? Are any of these people worried about their clothes or their possessions? Are any of them consumed by politics? A few years after these bones were moved here France saw one of the bloodiest, nastiest political upheavals in the history of Europe, but it didn’t matter to these folks. They never saw it.

 

And near the end of the tunnel there stands a little sign that reads in Latin and French: Deus mortem non fecit, Dieu n’est pas l’auteur de la morte. God is not the author of death. A reminder that we were designed to be so much more than a heap of bones or a pile of ashes. Each one of us was created to be a whole, unique little world in God’s good universe. God wants more for us than this: to be left behind like cast off clothes.

 

How does one respond to such a sight? Well, if the Christian faith was “gather ye rosebuds while ye may for tomorrow we’ll be dying,” then willingly giving up pleasures or denying ourselves anything would truly make no sense. If dust and ashes is where it all ends, then Lent would have it backwards: we would remind ourselves of our morality, then go and party. But that is not what Christians do. Our faith is a bit more complicated. Every year we remind ourselves that we are ashes and then spend a season letting go of things and pushing some things to the side. Or we might even work harder at some things.

 

Why? Why do we observe Lent this way? Well it’s because Lent isn’t a self-help or self-improvement scheme.

 

You are probably not going to be a much better person 40 days from now. You are sinners now. You will still be sinners come Easter Sunday. Observing Lent is not going to change that.

 

A little smudge of palm ash on your forehead and giving up chocolate for 40 days is not going to make everything you did in your twenties just disappear.

 

Giving up meat on Fridays is not going to make a drastic difference in your health or your weight. Putting a few extra dollars in the Good Friday offering is not going to solve the crisis in the Middle East.

 

So why bother with any of this? Why should we fast if it isn’t going to help us loose weight? Why should we give alms if it isn’t going to solve the problems of poverty and hunger? Why should we pray more if we aren’t sure that it is going to make God change his mind?

 

We do it, because we are going to die.

 

Let that sink in a minute.

 

You may not like to hear me say that. You may think that I am being morbid. But I’m not really. I am stating a very plain and irrefutable fact: each and every one of us in this room is going to die. I can tell you that with 100% certainty.

 

I cannot tell you when it will happen. I cannot tell you where it will happen. But it will happen. Maybe, hopefully, it will be a long time from now. But, it might be on your way home.

 

That is a hard fact for us to swallow. We don’t like it.

 

So we try and cover it up and mask it, but we need to face it. Our faith tells us we must face it. Why? Because we believe that death is not the end. And when the day comes for my bones to be added to the pile, what will I care about? Well I imagine that on that day the only thing I will care about is my relationship with my creator that wants more for me than just to end up a pile of ashes. The relationship I have with the God who wants more for me than death will matter more than anything else on earth. So anything that might be coming between me and that creator, will need to take a back seat.

 

That is why we observe Lent the way we do. We recognize in life that sometimes things in life start to come between us and God. In imperceptible and sometimes insidious ways. Trivial things, good things, bad things…there is so much stuff in our lives that pushes us further and further away from God, so in Lent, we take the time and push them out of the way, and focus on that relationship. Because in the end, that is all that will matter for us. Lent is about growing closer to God. That is it. We humble ourselves, we give up things, we fast, give alms, and pray, to draw ourselves closer to the God that is not the author of death. Christians believe that we will be ashes for a season, we acknowledge that our bones will some day rest beneath the earth, but we also live with the hope that that is not where our God leaves us.

That is why the epitaph on Joy Davidman’s tomb ends the way it does:

 

Here the whole world…

Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,

In lenten lands, hereafter may

Resume them on her Easter Day.

 

 

The Mystery Talks Back

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Sermon for February 23rd, 2020

Readings

 

I have decided that one of my Lenten disciplines this year will be rereading a book by Abraham Heschel. Abraham Heschel was a twentieth century Jewish philosopher and mystic. This is his book “Between God and Man.” I picked up this book this week and started flipping through it and was reminded of how insightful Heschel can be about the human response to God. Early in his book, Heschel talks about mystery and he says that there are three basic human attitudes toward mystery:

 

The fatalist, the positivist, and the Biblical.

 

To the fatalist, he says, mystery is the supreme power that controls all of reality. The fatalist believes that the world is controlled by an irrational, absolutely inscrutable and blind power that is devoid of either justice or purpose. To the fatalist, mankind has zero control over his fate, he may only be resigned to it. Resignation is a fatalist’s response to the mystery. We are just actors on the stage, reading the lines that we have been given. Puppets more like. No free will, no choice in the matter. Just part of a universe that is mystically evolving toward we know not what. Or perhaps we are merely an accumulation of chemical reactions, controlled by universal laws, laws that have no thought or feeling or purpose. A fatalist may believe in God or not, many pagan religions are fatalist in nature. I would argue that some Christians probably take that view as well. Perhaps this attitude lies behind the worldview of all those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps they are trying to say that “I believe in a mystical force behind the universe, but it wants nothing of me.” That is the attitude of the fatalist.

 

The positivist, on the other hand, takes a quite different approach. To the positivist, mystery doesn’t actually exist. Mystery is just stuff we don’t know yet. Positivists believe in our ability to figure things out, and positivists believe that once we figure things out, we can take control over them. Positivists believe that all questions will eventually be answered, not by revelation, but by research. People who believe that technology can save the human race are positivists. They believe we have control over our own destinies. Positivists believe that meaning is something that we create. A positivist responds to mystery by trying to explain it away. If your salvation depends upon you understanding and controlling everything, then mystery is a threat to you. So, you try to eliminate mystery. There are, and have been, positivists in the church too; people that want to eliminate mystery.

 

The positivist response to mystery is the opposite of the fatalist: the fatalist throws his or her hands up in despair; the positivist cracks his knuckles ready to tear the mystery apart.

 

And then, there is the Biblical attitude toward mystery.

 

The biblical attitude is that the universe is ruled not by a blind force, but by a God of righteousness. The biblical view is that the mystery has a personality and a name. Heschel says that the biblical view is that the ultimate is: “not a law, but a judge, not a power, but a father.”

 

Not a power, but a father. That is the biblical view of mystery. It is a force that creates and shapes, but does not control. The biblical view of mystery is a force that we live in relationship with. Not only does it exist apart from us, but it also calls for a response from us. It does not control us or force us to some pre-determined fate, nor is it something that we can ever have complete control and mastery over. The biblical view is that mystery is something that you live with. The biblical view is that mystery is something that you talk to, and argue with, and in the biblical view, sometimes the mystery talks back.

 

Abraham and Moses, they argued with God. Our psalm today says: “Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among such as call upon his name: these called upon the Lord, AND he heard them. He spake unto them out of the cloudy pillar” The Bible is full of mysterious burning bushes and cloudy mountains, but in the Bible individuals of faith talk to the cloud and the cloud talks back. The mystery asks people to do things. The mystery seeks a response. It isn’t a force that controls us; and it isn’t a force that we have control over. In the Bible, mystery is something that you live with; mystery is something that you can love and that can love you. That is a very different attitude than either the fatalist or the positivist.

 

The fatalist throws up his hands at mystery, the positivist uses his or her hands to tear it apart, but in the Bible, mystery invites us to put our hands in its hand and walk with it. We can touch it, we can embrace it, we can respond to it and live in relationship with it. But it will not force our hand nor can we force it.

 

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and saw the mystery of the burning bush, the mystery spoke to him. And not only did the mystery identify itself and say: I am that I am; I am the force behind the universe, but the mystery also said to Moses: do this. Live in relationship with me. Follow these commandments. Respond to my life. You are my chosen, but am I yours?

 

When Jesus and Peter and James and John ascended a high mountain by themselves, and when a cloud overshadowed them and Jesus’s appearance was mysteriously transformed, the mystery again spoke to them from the cloud claiming its identity: “this is my son. This is who Jesus is.” But the mystery also said: “Listen to him!” Respond to him; live in relationship to him. Live with this mystery. Love it.

 

To be sure, it isn’t easy living with mystery. We humans are always caught between wanting to do everything and wanting to do nothing. We either want to save the world or watch it all burn to the ground. We convince ourselves that we can fix everything or we can fix nothing. Those may seem like more reasonable options than the biblical option, but are they really?

 

If we are completely controlled by some outside force that pays no attention to what we do or what we say, then the universe is truly a lonely place and life within it, has no meaning. But if it is up to us to figure the universe out and make right choices, well if you read history, current events, and human nature the way that I do, then you would probably agree with me that in that scenario we are all truly damned.

 

What our ancestors found in Scripture, what Moses and Peter and James and John found on the mountain was a more compelling third option: a mystery that talks back. A god that neither controls us completely nor abandons us to our own devices, but lives in relationship with us. This is a god that seems to trust our hearts more than our minds. It is a mystery that wants to be loved more than understood.

 

I think Lent is probably as good a time as any to ask yourself the question: how do I approach the mystery of God in my life? Am I a fatalist, a positivist or is it something I live in relationship with? When I encounter mystery, do I throw up my hands? Do I crack my knuckles? Or to I reach out and grab the hand that is reaching out for me? When I encounter a mystery, do I have the courage to speak to it? Do I have the will to listen and obey when the mystery talks back?