God does not need you

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Sermon for Sunday, May 17th, 2020

Readings

 

God does NOT need you.

 

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

 

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

 

We are the ones who need God.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Faith is a choice

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Sermon for April 19th, 2020

Readings

 

Sermon begins at 12:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is risen

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Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020

Sermon starts at 16:08


Nobody expected good news on that first Easter Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is risen

Ordinary Things

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2020

Sermon begins at 14:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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