Symbol or Idol?

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Sermon for March 11th, 2018

Readings:

 

Around the year 715BC, a new king came to the throne of the Kingdom of Judah. The King’s name was Hezekiah; a young man, a reformer, and by the account of our scripture, a good king. Hezekiah could see how his people had over time drifted away from the right worship of God. They had slipped into various forms of idolatry and they were worshipping in various high places around the country in ways that maybe resembled their pagan neighbors a bit too much…at least too much for Hezekiah. So he went about tearing down these other altars; he encouraged his people to worship only the God of their ancestors, to obey his commandments, to trust in him, and to make their sacrifices at his temple in Jerusalem. But there is an interesting footnote to Hezekiah’s reform is this little half verse that we find in the Second Book of Kings:

 

“He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”

 

He broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses made. We can’t really date Moses in the same way that we date Hezekiah. We don’t have the same historic artifacts, but what we can be sure of is that he would have lived a long time before Hezekiah. So this bronze serpent would have been at least 500 years old. Think about this: this was an artifact of the great prophet Moses; something he actually touched and made; still there, in the same place. It is the kind of thing that Indiana Jones would have risked his life for, but Hezekiah has it destroyed and broken into pieces. That should have shocked people; it should be shocking to us; you would think that the scribes would have condemned Hezekiah for this bit of destruction but they don’t; they applaud him for it. Why? Why was Hezekiah so intent on destroying this sacred relic?

 

The clue is there within the verse: “…the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” Because it had become an idol. It wasn’t an idol when Moses made it; God told him to make it, it was a powerful symbol. But now people were bowing down to it and serving it; they were breaking God’s second commandment and treating this piece of metal as if it were a God itself: making offerings to it and treating the statue as if it had magical powers. The people no longer understood where the true power of the bronze serpent came from, so as far as Hezekiah was concerned, it had to go.

 

If the bronze serpent didn’t have magical powers, if it didn’t have power in itself, surging up and down the metal, then where did its power come from? How did it save the children of Israel? Why did Moses make it?

 

Well let’s review for a moment what is happening in our passage from the Book of Numbers today. The children of Israel have been freed from bondage in Egypt, they have received God’s commandments on Mount Sinai, and now they find themselves wandering in the desert for 40 years. And almost every step along the way is another complaint: it’s hot, why did you bring us here, where are we going, we’re thirsty, we don’t like this food. It doesn’t seem to matter how many miracles Moses performs, his followers are never happy for very long. You would think that with all they have seen that they would trust God by now, but No. “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food.’”

 

Well, yes, people that are hungry and thirsty can get a bit cranky, but I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here. In the first place they do have food (by their own admission) they just aren’t satisfied with it. God has been feeding them with manna from heaven since they have been in the desert, and they don’t even have to work for it. They just have to pick it up. So they aren’t starving. And if you look in the last chapter you will find that when the people were thirsty Moses was able to make water come from the stone, so they have had water. Still these people just don’t seem to be satisfied with anything that God has done for them. They don’t trust in God’s promises, they have a loose adherence to his commandments, and worst of all they don’t like his food. How insulting!

 

There is another biblical story that comes to mind when God’s children didn’t trust him, didn’t obey his commandments and weren’t satisfied with his food. It seems to me that Adam and Eve had a pretty good thing going: all the food they wanted that they didn’t have to work for, comfort, security, God’s protection and only ONE commandment. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. And who was it that convinced them that their food wasn’t good enough? Who did Adam and Eve decide to trust more than they trusted God? Oh yeah….a serpent.

 

The serpent’s punishment for his deception is to forever eat the dust of the earth and to live in enmity with the children of Eve. “He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” Adam’s punishment was that he shall now have to work for his food.

 

So here we are gathered in the desert, the children of Israel are not trusting in God and they are complaining about God’s food that they didn’t even have to work for. So I imagine God looking down upon the children of Israel, who also happened to be children of Adam and Eve, and saying: “so if you would rather trust in the serpent and where he is leading you, then so be it. Let the serpent feed you.” Sometimes you have to let people make their own choices, even if they are the wrong ones. And the people quickly discovered the mistake they had made: the age old curse was still true; the serpent did bruise their heels and instead of offering them food, feasted on the children of Israel instead.

 

So what is God’s solution? He is, after all, a God of mercy and surely doesn’t wasn’t his children to suffer. If that were the case he could have just left them in Egypt. How does he get these people to recognize the destructiveness of their own behavior? How does he remind them of his own faithfulness and their own propensity to ignore his promises and become impatient and ungrateful? He tells Moses to make a symbol. Put it up high where everyone can see it. And what should that symbol be? Something glorious and beautiful? No. Something grotesque. Make it a symbol of death. The very thing that is attacking them, the symbol of their own sin, the serpent. Put that on a pole and when they are suffering from that serpent’s sting, let them look on that symbol and they will be saved.

 

Was there some kind of magic in that bronze pole? I don’t think so. Hezekiah didn’t seem to think so either. The real power of the bronze serpent was that it forced people to confront their own failure. The Israelites had been untrusting of God, impatient, ungrateful; they listened to their own desires more than they listened to God’s promises and the ultimate symbol of that was this snake. In gazing upon the snake they realized, inside, how much they still needed God. The power of the snake was not in the metal, it was in the change of heart that it caused inside those that looked upon it. Symbols have great power, not by magic, but by how they direct our souls to truth and reality that we often ignore or simply cannot see. When the symbol stops causing us to look within, and becomes an object of devotion in itself, then its true power has been lost. That’s why Hezekiah tore it down.

 

Even though that statue was long gone by the time that Jesus walked the earth, its fame lived on. The people still needed a symbol. People still needed to be confronted with the reality of their own sin; humanity still needed to look its own failure square in the face, and individuals still needed to turn their hearts back toward God and his promises. Jesus predicted that there would be a new symbol. It would take its place high on a hill like the last one, it would be held up for all to see, but this time it wouldn’t be a bronze serpent on the pole, it would be his own flesh. The grotesque image of death would be his own, but the message would be the same: turn your hearts back to God. Don’t hide from God like Adam and Eve, cowering in the darkness, unable to face the reality of sin, but look it in the face; come into the light and trust that the God in the garden, the God in the desert, and the God on the cross have all come not to condemn, but to save. Eat the food that God has given you, and trust in where he is leading you. The symbol may be different, but the effect within us can be the same. It still has the power to give life to those that are dying.

 

What do you see when you look at a cross? Do you see a magical talisman? A good luck charm? Protection against vampires and evil spirits? Do you see a reminder of someone else’s sin? A relic of Roman oppression or religious hypocrisy? An innocent man put to death? Is this symbol only about someone else, or is it also about you? Does the symbol force you to confront something within yourself that you would rather not look at? Do you see your failures, your sins? Do you see God’s mercies? Is anything happening within your heart? Does the symbol change something within you? Does it have power and if so where does that power come from? What do you see when you look at a cross?

 

 

 

 

Written on our hearts

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Sermon for March 4th, 2018

Readings:

We began our service today with the Decalogue, or the recitation of the Ten Commandments. In olden times that was done a lot more often. In the old prayer book the priest was instructed that the ten commandments had to be recited at least once a month, now that is optional. We do it once a year here, which is still more than many churches, but most masses begin with Our Lord’s summary of the Law:

 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

 

Critically important words. And of course, if you look at the commandments you will see the truth in that statement: God’s Ten Commandments are focused on either our love for him or our love for each other, that’s true. But maybe sometimes it is better for us to see what that looks like in action.  Maybe we need it spelled out for us. I do wonder if we hear these laws enough for them to be truly written on our hearts.

 

I like that phrase from the end of the Decalogue: “write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.” Make adherence to these laws a vital part of who we are. Have them reside in our hearts where we hold everything that is most dear to us.

 

I have to admit that I am not crazy about the response “incline our hearts to keep this law.” It’s traditional, but it doesn’t seem strong enough to me. “Incline” is just too weak a word here. Maybe it is just a language issue; perhaps it is meant to have a stronger connotation, but when I hear incline or inclined I think preference. I am inclined to have a cup of coffee in the morning. I am inclined to have fries with my hamburger. I don’t want to be inclined to keep God’s commandments, as if they were about my pleasure or convenience; I want them to be something that I am compelled to do even when they are difficult or inconvenient, because my love for God won’t allow me to conceive of anything else. I want them to be such a part of who I am, that even when I break them because of my own weakness that my heart cries out for me to repent and turn back to God. I want to be appalled at the idea of breaking God’s Commandments, not resigned to it.

 

Let’s be honest, I think most people, if they care about the commandments at all, are only really appalled or horrified when one of them is broken. Lying, adultery, theft, we may disapprove of those things but they are common enough that they don’t really trouble us or disturb us. It is murder that we find truly appalling, so much so that we judge other sins in comparison to it: “I’m not perfect but I’m no murderer.” Or “He may have done a few bad things but he’s no murderer.” It seems like that is where we are setting the bar for being a decent human being…not being a murderer. I may have ignored most of the other commandments but at least I haven’t done that, so I must be ok…I wonder if that is what we tell ourselves sometimes.

 

I am all the time listening to great preachers and just recently I heard a sermon by Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of the last 40 years. He was preaching on the Epistle of James and he quoted an English essayist and satirist that I had not read before: Thomas De Quincy. Thomas de Quincy wrote a satirical essay in 1827 called “On Murder Considered as one of the fine arts.” Well you know some people never appreciate satire and he must have received some accusation of actually approving of or condoning murder, so he wrote a follow up essay in which he said he was completely against murder because…in his words:

“For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta …that’s my rule.”

In other words: “Nip it in the bud” before it becomes serious.

Thomas de Quincy was joking of course, but when you hear it put like that you realize how inclined we are to make light of some sins or commandments and focus intensely upon others. We weigh sins according to what we think is more serious and we judge others by whether we think their sins are more serious than ours. We can focus so much on one commandment that we lose sight of all the other ones we might be breaking and we don’t take them as seriously. This is a shame, but it’s nothing new.

When Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he saw the money changers there in the outer court, exchanging Roman money for the temple currency. They didn’t want to have any graven image in the temple, which of course the Roman currency had, so they exchanged it. Trying to keep that second commandment sacred, which is admirable enough, but I have to think that their focus on one commandment must have blinded them to others. Were they charging a bit too much interest? Were the scales a little off? Did they maybe take a little more from the faithful pilgrims than they should have? In their attempt to preserve the sanctity of God’s temple, were they in fact defiling it with behavior and attitudes that were not fit for this holy place? Jesus seemed to think so. He famously drove the money changers out, but that wasn’t the first time that something like that happened.

More than 600 years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God into the Temple with a message for those gathered there:

“Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

The temple periodically needed to be cleansed. People regularly needed to be called to a renewed awareness of all of God’s commandments, not just their favorite ones. The temple was very sacred for Jesus, but protecting that sanctity meant more than just avoiding having a graven image in your pocket; it meant having God’s laws and the love of God engraved upon your heart.

Saint Paul would later say to the Church in Corinth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” I for one believe that the temple in Jerusalem is still sacred and holy, but I also believe that we Christians are called to be travelling temples of the Holy Spirit. If people could look into our hearts they should see a place where God is worshipped and adored. A place where God’s commandments are written, not as pious ideas or suggestions, but as truths at the core of our being. But like any temple, our hearts need periodic cleansing as well. Our eyes need to be opened, not just to the sins of others or to our own favorite sins, but to the other commandments that we violate by not taking them seriously or by forgetting them altogether. Maybe there are a few commandments I haven’t broken, but there are others I have. Maybe there aren’t any murderers here (maybe), but we all know that’s not the only commandment. It is fitting that in our Decalogue we ask for mercy after each commandment. We need God’s mercy and we need to be merciful with one another, but we also need to take God’s commands seriously. If Jesus were to look into our own temples, I wonder what he would find?

 

Cutting Words

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Sermon for February 25th, 2018

Readings:

 

 

In our passage from Genesis this morning, if you look in the bulletin you will notice there is a large section in the middle that is printed in italics. While our lectionary has assigned Genesis 17 and God’s covenant with Abraham as our reading today, it also suggests that we skip over verses 8 to 14 and move on to God’s promise to Sarah. So, plenty of churches this morning will hear about God’s promise, God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, but they won’t hear what God is asking of Abraham. It is a shame, because I think those verses are critically important. If we want to understand and appreciate Abraham’s faith then we need to understand what he is being asked to do, even if it makes some of us a little uncomfortable…especially if it makes some of us uncomfortable. So bear with me gentlemen, let’s hear it again:

 

And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’ God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’

 

There are several things in those verses that might make you feel uneasy, but let’s just focus on Abraham for a second. Poor Abram (as he is known in the beginning), the man is 99 years old, and he longs for a child with his wife Sarai. And God says to him if you will follow me, and be faithful to what I say and trust in me, then I will give you a son. Not only that I will make you the father of nations. You will have land and more descendants than you can count, only as a sign of your faith and your commitment I need you to do one little thing for me first. Abram probably eagerly said anything Lord, just say the word. And the Lord said: circumcise. Every male among you shall be circumcised. No doubt that is not the word Abram wanted to hear. This was no token gesture that God was asking for, this was a sign of real commitment. But think beyond the pain of the procedure for a moment and think about some of the deeper symbols here.

 

What Abram wants most is a child; he wants to live on through a son with Sarai and God has just asked him to take a sharpened stone to the very organ that he needs to make that happen. I may not have children, but I know how they are made, and this little procedure seems like the very last thing I would want to do if I was hoping to father a child soon. This was the ancient world mind you, not some sterile hospital. They may not have understood exactly how infection happened, but they certainly knew that wounds were dangerous, so if Abram wants to have a child, this thing God is asking him to do isn’t just counterintuitive, it is crazy. It is dangerous. It is risky. But he does it…that day. That is some kind of commitment. That is some kind of faith.

That is the faith that Paul is referring to in his letter to the Romans when he is talking about the righteousness of faith that Abraham demonstrated. It isn’t faith that is just an intellectual exercise; it is faith that is committed…really committed to God. That was no token gesture that Abraham performed; it was a sign of true commitment. It demonstrated a faith that trusts in a God that “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” That God is able to do what he promises; most of us think it is up to us to figure out how to make things happen, to make things happen the way we conceive and according to our own abilities, but thankfully there are people like Abraham that have such trust in God, that they will hold back nothing from him. People that know that God is faithful to his promises. Yes, Abraham was obedient to God’s commands, but that obedience was born out of a genuine trust in the goodness and power of God. Abraham held nothing back from God, and although his end of the bargain may have left him permanently marked, and a bit sore, the legacy he received was far greater than any temporary discomfort. God was faithful to his promises. He did become the father of nations and the father of a faith that still look to him for guidance on how to walk with God.

 

Many centuries later, some of Abraham’s promised descendants were on a mission to call God’s people to deeper faith and a closer walk with God. But what at least one of those descendants, a man named Peter, wasn’t prepared to hear, was just what that faith and that walk might cost, not only to his leader, Jesus, but also anyone that might follow him. Peter didn’t want to hear that following God might come at a cost. His master’s words made him uncomfortable; the idea of willingly accepting suffering didn’t make any sense to him. But I’m sure Peter wasn’t alone. Humans always want to put faith in their own power and abilities; they want to be strong, but God wants us to put faith in him and to find our strength in him. The more we try to save ourselves, the farther away we get from his salvation.

 

That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t ask us to do anything, quite the contrary. God asks us to do some pretty profound and difficult things. We are still asked to sacrifice things, but perhaps the greatest thing we have to sacrifice is thinking that we can save ourselves. Our faith we have in our own intellect, our own reason, our own power…that is really hard to let go of. But learning to hold on to God, means learning to let go of ourselves and that is a lesson that both Abraham and Peter had to learn. Maybe it was hard for Peter to hear his Lord’s rebuke, I’m sure the words made him a bit uncomfortable, his feelings may have been hurt, but the cutting words probably didn’t trouble him as much as the realization that trusting in God comes at a cost.

Now Peter would later argue, along with Paul, that it wasn’t necessary for the gentile believers to bear the same mark in the flesh that Abraham did, but it was still necessary to have the same sincerity of faith that compels us to go where God leads and give what God asks.

 

“If any want to become my followers,” our Lord said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Words we needn’t be ashamed of. We don’t need to cut words out of the text that make us uncomfortable. We need to hear them and in our discomfort resolve to put more faith in God’s love and power than we do in our own feelings. Trusting in God comes at a cost.

Not by the opinion of others

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018

Readings:

Before bibles like this were easily printed and readily available, if you wanted to hear the scriptures, if you wanted to know the stories of your faith, if you wanted to know the commandments and the promises of God, then you needed to gather together with others in a public assembly. The written word was precious and rare. People gathered together to hear it proclaimed and in those gatherings, in those communities, they also shared the unwritten traditions of piety and devotion. The learned how to interpret and understand what had been read. They were challenged to greater faithfulness. They learned that they needed each other. They needed to pray, not just for themselves, but for each other. They needed to help each other; to pick each other up when they are fallen and to help those who are too weak to approach God on their own, from the elderly to the nursing infant. As the prophet Joel says: “assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast.” The priests are instructed to weep and to plead for God on behalf of their people. There is an interconnectedness here. There is a recognition that in our walk of faith we need each other: for instruction, for comfort, for challenge, for strength, for inspiration.

 

Some things change, some things stay the same. We no longer need to gather in communities or assemblies to hear the word of God. The Bible is cheap, it is very often freely given away, you can download it on your phone if you want. Johnny Cash even recorded it on CD if you would rather listen to it. But even though the text of scripture is readily available now, we still need to gather in community for everything else. We need the community of faith for tradition, interpretation, love, support, guidance and even to challenge us from time to time.

 

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is the second commandment we hear in the summary of the law that Jesus taught. We as Christians are the body of Christ; we gather together as a community at the altar to share in his meal, we share in his promises, and we have responsibilities to each other.  The second half of the ten commandments deal with our relationships with each other in this world, so we dare not ignore that, but…they still come second.

 

The first commandment is: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other Gods before me.” Jesus summarizes the first five commandments as this: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul…this is the first and great commandment.” This is the first and the great commandment.  The second is like it, the second is important, but this comes first. It is our belief in and love for God that fuels our faith and makes obedience to all the other commandments a desire of our heart.

 

You see, communities are important to our faith, but there is also a danger to practicing your faith openly. I don’t think it is any accident that the church has assigned two very different readings to this important day in the calendar. From the prophet Joel we have the instruction to gather a solemn assembly of the faithful, and then from Jesus we have a warning about the pitfalls of public worship: specifically self-satisfaction and the approval of others. Whenever we gather in community we are prone to become aware of how others see us, and that often affects how we see ourselves. We can get caught up in that. It can easily become a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety about what others are thinking that eventually shuts out the only person whose opinion really matters: God’s.

 

We are here to worship and adore God. That is where we must begin. That must be the fuel that gives energy to our faith. Our relationship with God, our love for God must be the driving force behind our actions. Our love for him should overflow into a love for his people; our obedience to his commandments will compel us to love others, but we must start with God.

 

Jesus makes it very clear that there is no substitute for a private, personal relationship with God. If all you really want is the approval of others, you can get that rather cheaply, but beware…you get what you pay for. Real devotion to God, like any living relationship, takes time and energy. It takes practice, until it becomes a part of who you are.

 

This bible has some wonderful commentary underneath the verses of scripture written by Matthew Henry, a seventeenth century divine, and in today’s gospel passage, underneath verse 4, that says: “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” it has this little gem: “When we take the least notice of our good deeds ourselves, God takes most notice of them.”

 

It isn’t those deeds that we are cataloging; it isn’t the deeds that others notice or pay attention to; it is what we do purely out of our love and devotion to God; the things that we ourselves fail to notice because our eyes are fixed upon God and not our own hands.

 

In our gospel today, Jesus discusses three important actions, sometimes we call them the “three notable duties”: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are ancient forms of piety that people of faith have practiced to nurture their relationship with God. Not just Christians, but Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths as well. I would point out that Jesus, when he is speaking to his followers, does not say “if” you do these things…he says “when” you do them. Jesus doesn’t tell us to avoid acts of piety, he assumes that we will do them, he just wants us to understand why we are doing them. They are first and foremost about strengthening our relationship with God. It doesn’t matter if anyone else sees our devotion, in fact it is probably better if they don’t.

 

Lent is about falling in love with God again. It is about taking the time to nurture and strengthen that relationship. Yes, there are times like this when we gather as a community of faith, but nothing, nothing can replace the private time you spend with God and the personal relationship that you have with Jesus. We must always remember that in the end, we are saved by God not by the opinion or the approval of others.

Meaning and Purpose

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Sermon for February 4th, 2018

Readings:

 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.

 

So says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians this morning. Paul, was certainly one of the most enthusiastic proclaimers of the gospel of all time. He began by opposing the Christians, and ended by spreading their message all across the known world, and dying for the sake of that message. Paul makes it very clear that he will do whatever it takes so that the message about Jesus Christ will be made known to everyone: Jew, Gentile, Strong or weak…everyone. Paul wants everyone to know that God is alive and active in the world and he wants to draw people to that God. He finds God and the story of Jesus so compelling, so meaningful that it becomes the center of his existence and he cannot imagine suppressing it, or not sharing it. Proclaiming the gospel is in his DNA. It is a part of who he is. And it isn’t because he has something to gain from it. He actually has much to lose in this world. But what makes the gospel so compelling for Paul is what it has already given him: a vision of the glory of God and a glimpse of the personality that is responsible for all existence. That gives Paul’s life more meaning than anything else in this world ever could.

 

Christians…or perhaps I should say humans in general, but Christians in particular as worshipers of God have a really bad habit of lassoing the spotlight back onto ourselves. We become so concerned with whether or not we are worthy, whether or not we are sinful, whether our church or our preacher makes us feel good about ourselves, that we lose our primary focus which should really be the glory of God. Recognizing the grandeur and the majesty of the force that created the universe and gives meaning to all existence, that should be the first objective of any person of faith, not being obsessed with ourselves. That is the God that Isaiah is proclaiming when he says:

“It is he who sits above the the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing…to whom will you compare me, or who is my equal says the Holy One?”

Recognizing the supreme power of God, recognizing that there is a force in this world, compared to which we are but grasshoppers…that is the first step for those of us who are people of faith. Not focusing on ourselves, but focusing on God. Realizing how great God is how we receive the gospel, helping others to see how great God is, is how we share the gospel. Paul has seen a vision of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ and it is so compelling that he cannot imagine not sharing it with others.

 

We often have a very lopsided view of what it means to share the gospel. We have images of people standing or sometimes shouting in the subways and public squares, we see televangelists with big hair and even larger bank accounts, we think of the people knocking on our door inquiring about our eternal destiny. Well those may be forms of evangelism and I don’t want to doubt the sincerity of those individuals who practice such things, but I think there are more effective ways of sharing the gospel and they begin by keeping our own hearts and minds focused on the glory of god and not on ourselves.

I just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and spending time in one of my favorite places in the world: Jerusalem. There is a power and an energy in that city that is almost impossible to describe. The holiest place within the holy city, for me at least is the temple mount and the remains of the temple where Jesus himself worshipped and prayed and taught. I can stand in one place there by that temple, and witness hundreds of Jews dancing and singing and praying with complete strangers all to glorify God. I can hear the Muslim call to prayer, calling the faithful of Islam to stop whatever they are doing and direct their thoughts to glorifying God. And I can hear the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and numerous other churches, ringing to remind those within earshot that God has triumphed over the powers of this world. There is something very compelling about being surrounded by people that are alive for God, and say what you will about the middle east, there are people there that are alive for God. Their lives are centered on the worship and adoration and glorification of God. Yes, there is conflict. Of course there is conflict, wherever humans gather there will be conflict, but there is also meaning. People make huge sacrifices to live there, because the worship and adoration of God, particularly in that place gives their lives meaning and purpose, and meaning and purpose will always win over material comfort in the end.

 

We live in a very comfortable world. Now you might be very aware of some pains and struggles in your life, you may not think of yourselves as comfortable, but if we take an honest and close look at how the rest of the world lives, and how people in history have lived, we have it pretty good. Our culture is pretty good about selling us comfort, but what it’s not good at is giving that comfort meaning. We are good at finding and pursuing things, but we aren’t always good and finding and pursuing purpose. Think about this for a minute: we live in a culture, where at the supercenter down the road people will trample another person to death, just to get a few dollars off some cheap electronic appliance. We live in a culture where people will kill another person, will kill many other people, not for their land, or their property or even their religion, but for no reason at all. And I’m not trying to beat up on our country, the same could be said for much of the world we live in. I only say this to point out that our pursuit of material pleasures has not saved us, and more and more people are recognizing that. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things, and I have no issue with anyone that wants to improve their circumstances, but I think we have to recognize that there is something in the world far more valuable than any of the stuff we collect. There is God. More and more people are discovering that the rat race doesn’t really get them where they want to be. More and more people are longing for their lives to have meaning and purpose…and guess what…that is what our faith should give us: meaning and purpose.

 

If you want to share your personal testimony of faith with others, by all means do so. If you want to talk about Jesus and how he was crucified, died, and rose again, God bless you. Go out and do it. But far more compelling than any argument you can make is simply living a life that is alive to God. People are watching you. More than anything you say they are looking at your life to see if there is anything to this religion business. Most importantly, I think, people want to know if God and this Jesus person give your life greater meaning and purpose. That is and always has been my vision for this parish; it is my vision for myself, not just as a priest, but as a Christian and a person of faith: to be someone that is alive for God; to find such meaning and purpose in adoring the creator of the universe that others who may have found the promises of this world empty, may wish to know more.

I once was lost, but now am found

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Sermon for January 7th, 2018

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, a day when we traditionally remember the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. I have a very special place in my heart for the wise men. They are so mysterious, they ride into the story of Jesus, place their gifts before the child and then ride back out again. We know almost nothing about them; they could be anyone. What we know is that they came from the East, and they were not Jewish.

 

This would be a critically important detail, as it was another sign, early in the life of Jesus that his life would have profound effects, especially to those that were not born as a part of God’s chosen people. To all the gentiles that did not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, this child would be a beacon; a “light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel” as the priest Simeon would later say when he blessed Jesus in the temple. So this child was to be an invitation to seekers everywhere, of every background or race: come and be a part of God’s family.

 

It is important for us to remember that the Magi didn’t make it to the manger all on their own. The Magi, the wise men, were led to Jesus. They didn’t find him solely through their own calculations; they didn’t find him because somehow through their studies they managed to figure out how God works; they found him because God chose to reveal himself. They may very well have been wise men, but it was God that was leading them.

 

In the first place, he led them by the star; a mysterious sign in the heavens that something momentous was happening, but that isn’t the only way that the Magi were led by God. At some point, the star’s directions must have been unclear, because when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem they went about asking: “where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” They had seen the star at its rising, but it hadn’t yet directed them to Bethlehem. It was then that they sought the counsel of the tradition. They went to the scribes and to the religious leaders asking the same question: “Where is the child?” And it was those scribes and religious leaders who looked to their tradition for direction and advice. And there they found the Prophet Micah. The prophet Micah had foretold that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Here again God was leading them, through a sign or a prophecy that he had revealed centuries before.

 

And so it was through both witnessing God’s power first hand, and listening to God speaking through tradition, that those wise men were able to eventually find the babe lying in the manger. Yes, they were seekers, and they should be honored for their courage and strength and for their willingness to look for God in a world where many people just can’t be bothered, but we must always remember that it was God’s own act of revelation that made their journey and their discovery possible.

 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, when we remember an event that happened many years later in the life of Christ, when he was baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan. It is fitting that as a part of this service today, we are also performing a baptism. Now I must admit, I love baptisms. It is one of my favorite things to do as a priest, but I do sometimes fear that when it comes to baptism we have a tendency to focus a little too much on what WE are doing, and not enough on what GOD is doing.

 

In a few minutes these parents and Godparents will come forward and make vows on behalf of this child. They will reject Satan and accept Christ. They will promise to bring this child up in the Christian faith and life, and then they will affirm (and we will reaffirm) their belief in this faith as it has been received by the Church in the Apostles Creed. We also reaffirm our commitment to live a Christian life. That is a lot for us to do.

 

But none of that would be possible if God had not acted first. Baptism is not about us finding God; Baptism is about God finding us. Baptism is about celebrating the fact that no matter how far we humans wander away from the heart of our creator, our God is willing to go that far to find us; to reclaim us and to invite us to be a part of his life again. We never come to the waters of baptism on our own. We can never come to any understanding or knowledge of God through our own intellect. It is only through God’s love for us that he chooses to show himself to us.

 

God reveals himself to us. We don’t climb up to heaven; God comes down. That is what the Christian faith is all about: believing that God loves us and chooses to reveal himself to us. We have not figured God out, but he has revealed himself to us, and now it is up to us to respond to that revelation.

 

That is what today is all about: responding to what God has done. We are responding to God’s revelation, just like the wise men responded by following the star, or listening to the prophets and turning towards Bethlehem. We have seen glimpses of God’s light and we follow because we want to see more. We want to live in that light.

 

God reveals himself to us in so many ways: in the people he sends into our lives, in little miracles that often go unnoticed, in our traditions, in the voices of prophets and saints, in our sacred scripture, and most completely in the life of his son Jesus Christ, who leads us to the waters of baptism, invites us to repent of our sins and accept the new life he offers.

 

To be baptized is not to say that I have found God, it is to recognize that God has found me and to rejoice in that Amazing Grace.

 

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

 

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind, but now I see.

Born in a cave

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Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

If you have ever been to a service of benediction of the blessed sacrament, then you will IMG_0327have seen one of these. This is called a monstrance. Now this one is rather modest, but they can be quite large and they are usually gilt with precious metal and expensive stones. A monstrance is designed to catch your eye and grab your attention, but what is at its heart, the point to which your attention is drawn during the service is a little piece of bread, held inside this little chamber. Despite all of the gold and gilding, the part of the monstrance that is actually holy and worthy of our adoration is the very simple wafer, it doesn’t look like much (and most of you know that it doesn’t taste like much), but when blessed by our Lord, it becomes his body, his very life, given for us and given to us. We may surround the sacrament with all sorts of costly adornment, but that which has true value is really the simplest thing touched by God.

 

A Christian Church can be a monstrance of sorts. The holiest thing in this building is the bread and wine that is held in the tabernacle on the altar. It is the focal point of this building. It is what all the gilding and the architecture draws your eye too. It is to that bread and wine in the tabernacle that we genuflect. The chalice may be far more expensive than the altar wine, but in the end it is the wine that becomes holy. Bread is such a common and inexpensive thing that plenty of restaurants give it to you for free, and we think nothing of skipping it or leaving it untouched, but here it is given the highest dignity, here it is adored. Maybe that’s why the fancy tools are helpful: they do at least catch our attention, and make us notice something that we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. We may build great churches and decorate them lavishly, but at their heart the thing that makes them holy is something that God has done with something very common. The gold may catch our eye, but God lives in the bread.

 

Tonight, on the other side of the world people will gather in one of the greatest churches ever built. It isn’t great because of its size, which isn’t particularly large, nor is it great because of its beauty, which frankly isn’t that remarkable. No, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the oldest churches in the world, is great because of what lies in its heart. Situated underneath the high altar is an ancient cave. It doesn’t look much like a cave anymore, it has been decorated and embellished through the centuries, but here and there you get glimpses of the bare rock and you remember that once this was just a common cliff dwelling. What makes this cave so special, is not what men and women have done to it or built around it, the decorations are just there to grab our attention; what makes this cave holy is what God has done with it. God has taken something quite common, and done something amazing.

 

Now you may be wondering: “what is all this talk about a cave? Wasn’t Jesus born in a stable? Didn’t we just sing about ‘a lowly cattle shed’? What about the manger?”

 

Well if you travel in the middle east, one of the things you learn quickly is that there are a lot more rocks there than trees. There are caves everywhere and caves would have been commonly used to shelter livestock. Plenty of people lived in them as well, and why wouldn’t they? It only made sense. Our hymns and our nativity scenes aren’t wrong; they just don’t give us the full picture. But there in that common cave in the Bethlehem hillside, people have been gathering since there very first centuries after our saviour’s death to tell the story of his birth and what God did in that humble place. The Roman emperor Hadrian thought that he could put an end to the worship of Christ in that place. He had the cave covered over and even had a pagan temple built on top of it, in the hope that people would forget, but they didn’t. Years later, when Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine came to explore the sites associated with the life of our Lord, the local Christians led her to this temple. Hadrian wanted his temple to erase the memory of where Jesus was born, but ironically it just helped to mark the spot. The Christians hadn’t forgotten.

 

And then when the pagan temple was cleared away, there beneath it was the holy cave and off in one little corner, in the warmest part of the cave, a little trough cut into the stone for feeding the animals; a manger. This was the site; an unimpressive little cave, where God had performed his great miracle. Helena had a great church built over the site, decorated with rich mosaics, some of which you can still see today, but sadly most of her church would be lost to fire, only to be rebuilt by another Roman emperor, Justinian. Although Justinian’s church is still standing, it is the church we know today, what makes it holy is not it’s age or its decoration; what makes it holy is that small cave beneath it and the memory of what God did in that place.

 

On the floor of that cave is a silver star, to mark the place of Jesus’s birth. A whole war was fought once when someone stole that star, but it needn’t have been. How easy it is for us to forget that it isn’t the star that is actually holy; it’s the rock beneath it; just like this monstrance isn’t actually holy, only the bread within it. The decorations and the churches, they can be helpful in getting our attention, but ultimately they should always be pointing to what God has done and is doing in the world. God can take something so simple as a common cave or a little piece of bread, and he can fill it with his life. From the poorest shepherd to the greatest emperor, we are all saved and made holy by something that God has done.

 

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his magnificent book on the life of Christ wrote:

 “Because he was born in a cave, all who wish to see him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a babe on his mother’s lap, with the world poised on his fingers.”

 

If you want to see the Church of the Nativity, you will have to stoop…the main door is only 4 feet high; but it is the humble in spirit, those that can stoop in their souls, that will actually see Jesus.

 

I love Christmas, but at its heart it isn’t about what we do in the world; it is about what God has done. I love churches: the decorations, the vestments, the hymns, the incense, the candles, all of it, but not because they demonstrate what humans can accomplish. No, I love those things because they continually point my distracted mind back toward Jesus, and they remind me that no human in the grandest church or palace, will ever accomplish what he did in the tiniest cave; no artisan will ever craft from the finest gold, something more precious than he created from the simplest bread.