So much for progress…

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Sermon for Good Friday 2019

Readings:

 

 

In one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which if you aren’t familiar with it is a somewhat crude, but very funny parody of movies about the life of Jesus, in this scene a band of Judean rebels are plotting to overthrow their Roman oppressors.

 

What have the Romans ever given us?, their leader shouts.

 

“The aqueduct”, someone sheepishly replies.

 

Oh, the aqueduct, yeah they did give us that, that’s true.

 

And sanitation.

 

Yeah, alright. I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and sanitation are two things the Romans have done.

 

And the roads.

 

Well, of course, the roads. The roads go without saying don’t they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads…

 

Irrigation, medicine, education…

 

The scene goes on and finally ends with the leader saying, somewhat exasperatingly:

 

Alright, well apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

 

Brought peace?

 

Oh peace! Shut up!

 

It is a brilliant and famous scene in that movie, and one of the things that I think this little scene pokes fun at is that it is so easy for us, when talking about the life of Jesus Christ and the world of the ancient near east to simply demonize the Romans. It is so easy to just make them the oppressive enemy or overlords, and yet, the Romans were, in truth, so much more than that.

 

The Roman Empire was the most progressive, advanced civilization in the ancient Western world. They had the most advanced technology. Without the use of calculators or computers they built some of the most splendid buildings in the world. They were cosmopolitan and multicultural. People from every race and language across the known world participated in the Roman Empire. There were vast open markets where you could buy items shipped from all over the world. Items that had been transported along Roman roads. Roads that were protected by the Roman army and that benefited from the general peace that Rome’s power had created in the region. There was education. There were social services: public baths, libraries. The Romans had official state religion, but they were mostly secular. The Romans didn’t really care how you worshipped so long as it didn’t disturb the public peace or threaten their power. They were very reasonable people. The Romans loved technology and progress and reason, and those three things brought Rome tremendous power. And what today is the most enduring symbol of Roman power?

 

What piece of technology are the Romans most remembered for today? It is about to be unveiled in front of you. The cross.

 

This civilization that valued technology and progress and reason; this splendid society of culture and educated people…where is their empire now? Ruins. Ruins everywhere. A few buildings here and there; a few walls; a few reminders of how sophisticated and advanced they were, but their empire is gone. And what we are left with everywhere you look is this; this symbol: two pieces of wood stuck together. A brutal piece of Roman technology.

 

The sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health…all brought to you by the people that gave us the cross.

 

You see, the Romans, will all of their technology and progress and reason were able to fix many of the worlds problems, except for two: sin and death.

 

The Romans could not conquer sin and death; not their own, not anyone else’s. And this thing that we hang on our walls, carry in our pockets, or wear around our necks; this little piece of Roman technology has become the enduring symbol of the two things that Roman technology could not fix: sin and death.

 

This symbol of Roman advancement and technology; a reminder that the most progressive society in the western world, a society that conquered the entire Mediterranean, couldn’t conquer its own demons: greed, lust, brutality, deception, cruelty and death. Sure the Romans may have done some great things, but if they can’t fix sin and death what good are they? What have the Romans done for us?

 

So much for progress…

 

But let’s be fair to the Romans, in every age we find some piece of technology to cling to, some symbol of our advancement as a society, some symbol of progress and the future, we use it thinking that it will fix our problems; that it will create peace and put an end to those age-old problems of sin and death. But the next generation comes along and sees that technology for what it really was: a symbol of the very sin and death that it was trying to conquer.

 

Think of the guillotine, the rifle, mustard gas, the atomic bomb, drones. In every age we come up with some piece of technology that we think will finally cure our problems and in every age we prove that we still lack the capacity to fix sin and death.

 

Every wonderful thing we create as humans all of our progress and our technology, it always gets tainted, ruined by our own sinfulness: the internet, medicine, industry, roads, commerce… we always find a way to mess up any human achievement.

 

Maybe Isaac Watts said it best:

 

When I survey the wondrous cross,

on which the prince of glory died

my richest gain I count but loss

and pour contempt on all my pride

 

My friends, I must admit to you that I don’t believe in progress, at least, not in the way we normally talk about it. I don’t believe that through time, effort, education or technology we humans are ever going to save the world. I have examined very closely the story of modernism; you know the story of modernism: new is better. Through progress, human progress, we will make the world a better place. Well I have examined the claims that human achievement and determination can and will some day fix the world. I have examined how one empire after another has risen…and then fallen. I have seen science is used to save lives…and to destroy them. I have seen people place their faith in one –ism after another: rationalism, imperialism, industrialism, modernism, communism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism. In the end what I find is the same old sin and death, still haunting us after all these years.

 

Every day I am told: “do this and change the world,” “Do that and change the world.” I am tired of trying to change the world. I am tired of being told that the future of humanity rests on every decision I make at the grocery store. I want to make good and informed decisions in my life; I want to make good choices in how I live in this world and what I leave behind, but I do not suffer from the delusion that human progress can or will conquer sin and death.

 

You may think that sounds pessimistic, but it isn’t. It’s good news. It’s the best news you are ever going to hear. You are not going to save the world, and you do not have to, the burden is not on your shoulders, because it has already been done.

 

On the cross, hanging on that grotesque piece of Roman, human technology, God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. God defeated sin and death on Good Friday and that moment when Jesus died on the cross, the world was as saved as it is ever going to get. No roads, no sanitation, no education or medication is ever going to save the world more than God did in that moment on that day.

 

Use technology, but don’t put your faith in it. Make good decisions. Let Jesus’s life and teachings inspire you to live the best life you can, but stop trying to save the world every day. It’s already been done. We can lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross today, knowing the Jesus has already saved the world more than we ever could. That is why this is a good Friday.

 

Three Questions

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Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2019

Readings:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has said in interviews that there are three big questions that any reflective person must ask themselves at some time:

 

Who I am?

Why am I here?

How, then, shall I live?

 

Science and technology don’t do a very good job of answering those questions. They are questions of faith and philosophy.

 

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How, then, shall I live?

 

These are the big questions. They are so big that many people may be afraid to ask them, perhaps for fear that they won’t find any answers. But we ignore these questions at our peril, because they are the foundation of who we are, not just as a community, but also as individuals. Our very identity is tied to those questions. Our sense of meaning, and purpose and direction are tied to those questions. Our values are tied to those questions. Our mental health, our stability, our culture…they are all tied to those questions.

 

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How, then, shall I live?

 

Those are the questions that religion attempts to answer. Religion is no hobby my friends, because if we as a society stop trying to answer those questions, we are in deep trouble. If we stopping teaching our children to ask those questions and if we stop providing them with answers to those questions, what will their lives be? What will they see, or who will they see, when they look in the mirror?

 

The church is always answering one or more of those questions in different ways, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, on this very special night of the year, we answer all three.

 

Who am I?

 

Well we are all individually many things, but together we are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are people that gather at his table, not just tonight, but week after week and what we receive is not just a piece of bread and a sip of wine, but his body and his blood. His life, that is what flows in our veins. They say you are what you eat, well this is who we are. We are individuals that have been invited, by God, to share in his life. Whoever I am as an individual, whatever my story is, as someone baptized into the life of Christ and who is called to the Lord’s table, my life is forever linked to his life; my story is linked to his story.

 

Why am I here?

 

We are here because we have been saved by God. Not just us but our ancestors before us. Our Lord’s last supper was a celebration of freedom from slavery. That is what the Passover meal is. And part of the tradition of Passover is making sure that the children there know what the whole night is all about. The ritual of Passover teaches the children the answers to those fundamental questions: who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live? Jesus was celebrating the fact that he belonged to a people that worshipped a saving God. He, and all of his people, were in the promised land and could worship at the temple in Jerusalem, because God had saved them. As Christians we are here because we have witnessed God’s saving power as well. God has saved us, Christ has saved us…why? Because he loves us.

 

How, then, shall I live?

 

Jesus makes that very clear for us tonight in his words and in his example. The God and creator of the universe didn’t think that it was too low a thing to stoop down and wash our feet. If he can do that, how can we, poor humans, think that any sort of service to our brothers and sisters is beneath us? How shall I live? Well, how did he live? He observed traditions. He worshipped. He prayed. He celebrated. He cried. He served others. He loved.

 

A wonderful life to emulate, but of course we know the story doesn’t end there, because he also suffered and died, and then three days later…rose again. You already knew that, I didn’t just give anything away. How then shall I live? As someone who already knows that his story doesn’t end in death. Make no mistake, like Jesus, death will be a part of our stories, but it won’t be the end of our stories. How shall I live? As someone that values love, more than his own life.

 

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How shall I live?

 

Our faith seeks to answer those questions all the time, but on tonight of all nights we are given some pretty clear answers. We must not neglect to share those answers with our children.

 

Who am I?

 

I am an individual loved by God. I am a part of a community, a family of people, that have been saved by God. I have been invited to a heavenly banquet, and every time I gather at the Lord’s altar I am offered a bit of his life. He feeds me, literally.

 

Why am I here?

 

I am here because God has sought me, and my ancestors before me, and saved me from the slavery I found myself entrapped in. I am here because I am loved. I was created by a loving God to share in his love, and when I have found myself trapped and suffering he has sought me out to set me free.

 

How shall I live?

 

I shall live as one who has already been redeemed from death. People will know me as a disciple of Jesus, not because of my t-shirt or my bumper sticker, but because of the love that I show. I shall live as one who knows his feet have been washed by Jesus, and who is prepared to wash the feet of others.

 

Who is on trial here?

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Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019

Readings:

The trial of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what the passion of Our Lord feels like, one long trial with a defendant and lots of interesting witnesses.

 

Judas had betrayed him. We don’t really know why. I’m sure Judas thought he was doing the right thing at the time. Maybe he convinced himself he was doing it for his people, for his country. Maybe he was mad at Jesus for some reason or another. Maybe it was greed. We don’t really know. We know when he saw the results of his actions he repented and tried to give the money back, but it was too late. The deed was done. Judas despaired and hanged himself, unable to deal with his guilt.

 

What about the other disciples? They fell asleep, during our Lord’s agony. They didn’t have to suffer as he did; he just told them to pray, but they couldn’t even do that. When they did decide to act and defend Jesus, of course they did the wrong thing. They resorted to violence. And it didn’t take long after Jesus was arrested for Peter to deny him three times. Of course, that’s the last time we hear about most of his disciples until after the resurrection. Most of them have scattered in fear.

 

The soldiers that arrested Jesus, just doing their jobs right? Just following orders? And yet, before the trial even begins they blindfold him, and beat him, and taunt him, and humiliate him. He was arrested and in shackles. He was no threat to them at this point. They probably didn’t even know him. He had never done anything to them, so why are they taking this sadistic glee in hurting this poor man?

 

The chief priests and scribes: do they really care what Jesus has to say? Is this a real trial at all? They twist Jesus’s words around and then they outright lie about what he said. They can’t let anything Jesus actually said interfere with what they want to do, so they will twist it, or lie about it. They are tired of this man calling them out on their hypocrisy, so they are going to find a way to get rid of him, preferably a way that they can blame on someone else. So they send him to Pilate.

 

Pilate isn’t a Jew. He doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. And Pilate knows that these are phony charges, but Pilate is very smart and very career minded. He will make this Herod’s problem.

 

Herod was glad to see Jesus…at first. Herod wanted Jesus to perform some miracle, or to tell him something that he wanted to hear, but Jesus just stood there. Wouldn’t act, wouldn’t speak. So since Herod couldn’t get what he wanted out of him, he decided that Jesus would serve him best as an object of derision….someone to mock. But of course, people who bully and make fun of others are often just cowards under the surface, and that is what Herod is. So he sends Jesus back to Pilate.

 

And Pilate, still seems convinced that this man is innocent, and if that is true then why is he more willing to listen to the mob than he is to his own conscience? If Jesus is innocent, as Pilate says, then why does he insist on having him flogged before he is released? If he is innocent he is innocent…why make him suffer more? Pilate doesn’t really care about Justice. Oh he knows the difference between right and wrong, even the Romans had morals, but as so many of us do from time to time, he doesn’t let those morals interfere with his actions. He condemns Jesus to die and sets Barabbas free.

 

And then the crowd. Mobs are always the same…doesn’t matter if it is 1stcentury Jerusalem or 21stcentury Facebook, mobs always act the same. One of the things I love about the Palm Sunday liturgy, is that it asks you the congregation to proclaim Jesus as your messiah and king one minute and then a couple minutes later cry out for him to be crucified. That may seem strange, but that is how mobs work. I have no doubt that some of the same people that welcomed Jesus on Sunday called for his execution on Friday morning. And you may want to think that you wouldn’t have been a part of that mob, but don’t be so sure. Don’t be so sure.

 

The enticing thing about being part of the mob is that you get all of the emotion and none of the responsibility, because once the dust settles and you realize what just happened, you can try to convince yourself that you didn’t have that much to do with it…you were just one among many.

 

And what about the others there? What about Simon of Cyrene? We always talk about Simon carrying Jesus’s cross, but Simon didn’t do that willingly. He wasn’t moved by compassion at the sight of Jesus’s sufferings. He didn’t reach out to provide comfort to a dying man, he was forced too. Simon probably would have been content to not get involved, and who could blame him?

 

And finally there is the women, who follow Jesus weeping and wailing. If anyone in this story shows some compassion it is these women, but what does Jesus say to them: “do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves.” Their hearts are breaking for this man that has been put on trial and condemned to die. Our hearts may break too when we witness again the trial and passion of our Lord. If there are any characters in this whole story that we want to identify with, it’s these women who mourn for Jesus, but he seems to imply that they are missing something, that they have gotten something wrong. “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves” Jesus says. The women don’t appreciate what is really happening in this story.

 

What did he mean by that? The next thing that Jesus says, after he is lead to the place of the scull and nailed to the cross, may give us the clue we need to figure out what Jesus means by “weep for yourselves.” As Jesus is hanging there, probably remembering his whole life, but undoubtedly recalling the events of the past week, and remembering how even his closest friends let him down, how the system let him down, how justice had been a shame and religion a pretense, and how even those with hearts of compassion couldn’t see what was really happening. There in that moment, he says: “father, forgive them.” This is a condemned man. What business does he have forgiving anyone? And yet, here in his final hour, this man whose has been tried and condemned, now starts to sound like an advocate. Forgive them? How Jesus, in that moment are you in a place to say: “forgive them?” You are the one on trial here. You are the one who has been condemned. Now you are starting to sound like a public defender, an advocate. Jesus you are almost making it sound like we have been on trial this whole time, not you.

 

Maybe, we like the women, have gotten this story wrong. Maybe this trial was about us and we didn’t know it. So many characters in this story, so many roles. I wonder how many of them I have played? The betrayer, the sluggard, the coward, the upward-moving career minded administrator, the convenient Christian, the denier, the accuser, the mocking guard, the disinterested bystander, and even the person who mourns but doesn’t understand. I thought that this trial was about Jesus, while all the while I was the one that was being condemned.

 

Jesus isn’t condemned in today’s gospel, we are. And we, like those two thieves on either side of Jesus are justly condemned. And what does out advocate have to say to the eternal judge?; what sentence has he recommend?

 

Father forgive them.

Right here, right now

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Sermon for April 7th, 2019

Readings:

All of your actions happen in the present moment.

 

That is a fairly heavy statement that probably needs to be unpacked a little.

 

Our actions, that moment when we either do one thing or another, they always happen in the present. Always.

 

You may say, well what about my actions in the past?

 

But those have all transformed into memories now, haven’t they? You may remember decisions you made this morning; you may remember actions you took, but they have moved out of the realm of action now, because you can no longer do anything to change them. You may have been hungry when you woke up this morning. You may have decided at that time that the best way to address that dilemma was eating a great big sugary donut…or two. You may have acted on that decision in the moment and scarfed down those donuts, and now that it is a few hours later you may be thinking: maybe that wasn’t the best decision. Maybe I should have had a banana instead. Too bad.

 

There is nothing you can do about it now. Nothing. It’s all a memory now. No action you take now can change the past. You can choose to think about it or not; you can choose to reflect on the memory of that donut (or donuts) with either fondness, longing, and gratitude, or with regret and shame. But the one thing you cannot do, is decide right now to eat something different for breakfast this morning. I’m sorry fellow humans, but even Cher cannot turn back time.

 

Then you may say, what about my actions in the future?

 

But those aren’t actions yet are they? They are just hopes and plans right now. Let’s just say, speaking purely hypothetically, that I did have something sugary for breakfast this morning, and that I do regret it and therefore have decided that I will make amends for that transgression by taking a five-mile walk this afternoon. Well as anyone that has ever made a new year’s resolution can tell you, deciding to do something, and actually doing it are two different things. I may get home and decide that a nap seems like a better plan. Or maybe it will be raining or cold. Or maybe, and this is always a possibility, maybe this afternoon will never come. Maybe my plans will come into direct conflict with God’s plans. What then? Hopes, plans, intentions, fears, they may all influence my decisions or my actions now, but the only actions I have real control over are the ones that are happening right now in this moment. I may intend to take a walk this afternoon, but until it actually happens it is just a plan, or a goal, not an action. It’s not a reality yet. It becomes an action when I actually put one foot in front of the other.

 

Now you may be tempted right now to put one foot in front of another and go to the bathroom until this philosophical sermon is over, but I urge you to press on through the desire to do or think about something else for a minute, because this is really important. You may use your memories of the past, be they good or bad, to influence your decisions now; and you may use your hopes and dreams, or your intentions or your fears of the future to influence your decisions now and your actions now, but ultimately, the only thing you have actual control over is your decision now, your action now. Your actions always take place in the present moment.

 

Why is this important? It’s important because the devil doesn’t want you to live in the present moment. The present moment is, in truth, the only place in your life where you have actual control or power, so the devil doesn’t want you to live there. So the devil will try to lock you away and keep you living in the past with shame and regret; he will make you relive past trauma over and over again, to the point where you become incapable of experiencing joy or love in the moment; a love that that might be right in front of you. Or better yet, the devil may try to lock you away in the future…he may do that through fear and anxiety, ruining your present life by making you perpetually afraid of something that may never happen, or he will fill you with the best of intentions and plans and dreams for the future, we all know what the road to hell is paved with, don’t we?…good intentions. Intentions and plans and dreams are no threat to the devil as long as that is all they are. Planning to read the bible, or pray, or serve God by helping out a poor stranger in need, is not the same thing as actually doing it. As long as our plans don’t affect or become our actions, the devil is in his glory. As long as we remain focused on what was, or what might be, we will never appreciate the joy and love that already is.

 

We have been reading C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters this Lent, and in this brilliant book which is so timeless it could have been written yesterday, Lewis makes this keen observation:

 

“Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.”

 

Lewis has one of his demons say this:

 

“We want a man hag-ridden by the Future- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth- ready to break God’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other- dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now; but always read to sacrifice on the altar of the future, every real gift which is offered them in the present.”

 

And don’t we do it? We get so caught up in our plans and our schemes, that we can’t even see God when he is right in front of us. And that is what the devil wants. He wants us to live in a world of perpetual yesterdays, or perpetual tomorrows, not today. He doesn’t want you to serve God now, or to be happy or joyful now; or to love the person who is right in front of you now. He wants you to plot, and plan, and scheme, and fear, and regret. The last thing he wants you to do is actually take action in the present moment and show love to someone.

 

In John’s Gospel we are told that the devil entered into the heart of Judas Iscariot. It doesn’t say exactly when, but I suspect that by the time Jesus came to Bethany and had dinner at the home of his friend Lazarus, that the devil had already been working hard on Judas, getting him to focus all of his attention on the future. He says that Mary’s jar of ointment could have been sold to help the poor. The gospel writer tells us that he had other plans in mind. But either way, Judas is focused on the future. As long as Judas remains focused on plans, his plans, the devil gets what he wants, which is to turn Judas away from actually serving the God that is right in front of him.

 

In today’s gospel there is one person who takes action in the present. The devil has not trapped her in the past or in the future. She has the opportunity in the moment to show love to the person that is right in front of her and she has the strength to push past all of the devil’s distractions and take action. Mary acted out of love in the present moment, and in doing so, she touched God. Don’t let the devil trap you in the past or in the future, because God might be right in front of you, right here, right now.

 

 

About a Father

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Sermon for March 31st, 2019

Readings:

Nowhere in Jesus’s story this morning does he say: “let me tell you a tale about a prodigal son.” That is the parable we get in our gospel this morning though, the parable of the prodigal son, one of Jesus’s most famous tales. And even if you don’t know the scriptures that well, chances are you have probably heard of the prodigal son, or you have heard the word prodigal used to describe someone who is going through a phase of estrangement or wanton living. But when we get down into the text and read the actual story in Luke’s gospel, the word ‘prodigal’ is nowhere to be found. That is a title that we Christians have given this parable; it isn’t one that Jesus uses. So we need to be careful when reading this parable that we don’t let the title we have given it misguide us as to the subject of the story.

 

Who is the subject of this parable? Who is this story about? If I asked you to tell me what the parable of the prodigal son was about, what would you tell me?

 

You would probably say something like this: it’s about a son who asks for his inheritance early, goes out and squanders it. Makes lots of bad decisions, gets down on his luck, and decides that he needs to beg his father for help and is welcomed back and forgiven. Sounds about right, no?

 

But, no. That’s not exactly right. Listen to the first sentence of Jesus’s story again: “There was a man who had two sons.” Now I need you to think back to grade school for a minute. Put on your grammar cap. I know you never thought diagraming a sentence would ever be something you needed to do in real life, but diagram that sentence. Who is the subject?

 

There was a man who had two sons.

 

The subject of that sentence is the man, the father, not the sons. So don’t be distracted by the title. What Jesus wants to talk about is a father and how he relates to his two sons…that’s right, both of his sons, because the story doesn’t end when the younger son comes home. There is another scene with the elder son and in that scene you can see that the elder son has been estranged from his father too, even though he has been living under the same roof with him for all these years.

 

So this story is about a father. It is about a father that has two children, two sons, and although these sons are very different, they are both really cut from the same piece of cloth. They have one thing in common: they don’t understand love. They both have a loving father and neither one of them understands what that means. This story is about a father with two sons that do not know how to appreciate his love. This is a story about a father that needs to teach his children what it means to love and be loved, and what it means to live in relationship with him.

 

Let’s look at the story again, a little more closely.

 

Here we have this younger son, who looks at his dad as some sort of vending machine. He starts out thinking that his father owes him something. He says I want to get what is coming to me and I don’t want to wait. Friends, a word of warning: be very careful when you start thinking that you deserve something; be very careful with entitlement and asking to get what you deserve, because you just might get it. Well the son gets the money he asks for, moves away, makes tons of bad decisions, squanders the money, hard times come and so does hunger. So this younger son decides on a plan: he will return to his father’s house. Why? Is it because he loves him and misses him? Is it because he appreciates all that his father gave him and wants to honor him? Is it because he realizes that he did something wrong and wants to be forgiven? No, it’s because he is hungry. He thinks that if he can just be one of his father’s servants, or hired-hands, then his father will feed him. It’s this for that: I will do this for you, if you do this for me. I will serve you, you will feed me. That is how the younger son sees the father; not as a creator to be loved for his own sake, but as some sort of meal ticket. Yes, he repents and comes home, but his act of repentance is all about self-preservation, not personal growth, not love of another. If that younger son’s belly had been full, would he have returned to his father?

 

But he does return home, and you know what? The father doesn’t seem to care what his son’s motivation is. This is his child whom he truly loves. He runs out to meet him and showers him with affection, before the son can even get the words “I’m sorry” out of his mouth. This father is no fool. I’m sure he knows just what has motivated this child to come home, but it doesn’t matter. And he would have every reason to treat him liked a hired hand, or a servant, to make him work for his food, but he doesn’t do that either. This is his child whom he loves, and regardless of what his motivation is, he is home now. He is back in his embrace, and that means more to the father than anything else. That is what this father’s love is like.

 

But, as I said, the story doesn’t end there, because the older son was still out working in the field. He missed this reunion scene between his father and his brother. He comes home from a long day of hard work and he hears partying and dancing. He says “what’s this all about?” And they tell him that his brother has returned and his father is celebrating and they are having a great big BBQ. And the elder son, probably stands there looking at his dirty over-worked hands and thinks “where is mine?” Where is my fatted-calf? I have been here all along working like a slave for this man and not even a roasted goat. I didn’t go out and squander my inheritance. I didn’t go out and make one bad decision after another. I have worked hard for all that I have. I have worked hard for my father all these years, like a slave. He does not deserve these blessings. He didn’t do the work. He does not deserve this party; it is so unfair. When the elder son opens his mouth, you begin to see just how alike he and his brother really are. They both see their relationship with their father as some sort of exchange of blessings for labor: I do this for you, and therefore you will owe me this in exchange. They both at some point think that their father owes them something. This elder brother may still be living under the same roof as the father, and maybe he hasn’t made all the same life-choices as his sibling, but where is the love? where is the joy? where is the recognition of the relationship that he has with his father? This child doesn’t understand love, or relationship, or joy, so even though he is living under the same roof, he really is just as estranged from his father as his brother that was living in a distant country.

Now we could spend all day talking about these two sons and their various faults and shortcomings, but who is the subject of Jesus’s story? The father.

 

Why is Jesus telling this story? It seems to me that he wants his listeners to understand what the father’s love is like. He wants them to see the great joy that the father has in his children, even when they don’t deserve it or don’t know how to share it.

 

Who is Jesus talking to? Looks like a mixed crowd to me. There are some tax collectors and sinners who for one reason or another have felt compelled to listen to Jesus; who are drawn to him for various reasons. Then there are the Pharisees, the religious and faithful, who are a little resentful that Jesus is giving so much attention to these folks that haven’t been living right and haven’t paid their dues. I think Jesus is talking to both of them.

 

He wants to tell them a story about a father with two sons. They are sons which he truly loves; they are not his hired-hands or his slaves. His love for them is not based on their good decisions or on their hours spent in the fields. His love isn’t something they deserve, it is just something that is. The father’s great desire is to be with his children, and for them to share in his joy and love, not just with him, but also with each other. The father wants his children to love each other the way that he loves them.

 

It’s an important story that Jesus tells here and we need to pay close attention to the subject of this tale, because when Jesus teaches us to pray beginning with “Our Father” it might help us to know exactly the kind of father he is talking about.

 

Take off your shoes

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Sermon for March 24th, 2019

Readings:

 

 

Have you ever stepped on a Lego in bare feet? Or managed to find that one nail in the floor? Or tried to walk across the really hot sand at the top of the beach without sandals on? Ever have someone step on your foot when you were wearing open-toed shoes?

 

You may be able to spend most of your day feeling invincible, but all it takes is one misstep in bare feet to remind you of how vulnerable you really are.

 

Feet are amazing things really. They are the reason, or at least part of the reason that we can walk upright. We spend our days putting all our weight on them. Feet are amazingly strong and tough. We use our feet to march into battle; we use our feet to spread the Gospel.

 

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.”

Says the Prophet Isaiah.

 

Feet are amazing, and yet, all it takes is one Lego, one tiny piece of glass, one little rock or shell, and you will be quickly reminded of how fragile they really are, and how fragile you really are. That’s why we wear shoes. Shoes create a barrier between our precious, fragile feet and the world. Shoes protect our feet from injury. Shoes make it a lot easier for us to get on in the world. But shoes do something else too:

 

People are very funny about their feet. If you don’t believe me, just come to mass here on Maundy Thursday. It is always like pulling teeth to get people to come up to have their feet washed. For a lot of people, taking off their shoes in public, or in a social setting, especially in church, is very intimidating. If you take your shoes off, people can see your feet, and that feels very vulnerable and very personal. Because our feet take the brunt of the abuse we put on our bodies, they often aren’t pretty. But, even if your feet are pretty and you just had a great pedicure, you know that it will only take about a minute for them to get filthy if you walk around without shoes on.

 

So we wear shoes. Shoes make us feel less vulnerable. Shoes make us feel socially acceptable. They are a tiny barrier between us and the dust God created us out of, and yet it is just enough of a barrier to completely change how we see ourselves and how we see others. You see a man or a woman walking down the street in bare feet and you will think they are crazy, but give them a tiny piece of leather or rubber and a strap on their feet, and suddenly they are perfectly acceptable, perhaps even stylish or chic. That is how powerful shoes are. Shoes can change how you feel about yourself, and that can be a good thing if you are going hiking, or going on a job interview, or maybe had a bad day and just need to treat yourself; but shoes can also be a symbol of our pride as humans, so sometimes they need to come off.

 

I am not just speaking metaphorically here. I think that there are times when it is important to quite literally feel the sand or the grass or the earth between your toes and to remember that no matter how invincible your boots may make you feel, you are still weak and fallible and mortal.

 

Walt Whitman described grass as the “beautiful, uncut hair of graves.” I always thought that was a beautiful image. Letting yourself actually touch the earth and the grass around you is a reminder that you are not that far removed, or far separated from those that came before you. It’s an important reminder. It is a humbling reminder.

 

One of the first things that God ever says to Moses, before he gives Moses the law or the Ten Commandments, before he commissions Moses to go down to Egypt and tell old Pharaoh to “let my people go,” one of the first things that God says to Moses is: “take your shoes off.”

 

Take your shoes off, because the ground on which you are standing is holy ground. Now is God worried about Moses trampling the dirt around the burning bush? I don’t think so. I think God knows what a false sense of pride our shoes can give us. They lift us up just so much from the earth beneath us, but that is just enough to make us feel superior. It is enough to make us feel almost invincible. If Moses is going to have a real relationship with God he cannot have that barrier. The beginning of any real relationship with God is true humility. We need humility. We need to understand that we are a lot closer to our ancestors in the dust than we are to the God whose name is just “I am,” the God who created the universe. You know the leather sole of a sandal doesn’t raise you up very far from the earth, but for us humans it is just enough to make us feel different, to make us feel special. So God says the sandals have to go.

 

You know, we have been reading the book of Proverbs this Lent, and Proverbs begins with the very famous line: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Now some people have misinterpreted that line because of the word fear, but fear here is not the same sort of fear we would have of a tyrant, or a spider or a rattlesnake. Fear here is humility; it is awe and reverence. It is an understanding that only God is God and we are not. Fear here is the realization that you are not all powerful or all knowing. The fear of the Lord is knowing on some fundamental level that you are not special, that you too are vulnerable, and that you need help from the outside.

 

That may sound harsh, because many of us were conditioned as kids to believe that we were all special or exceptional, but it’s simply not true. We are individuals, we may have some unique characteristics, but the universe and the world aren’t going to treat us differently than it did our ancestors. And we aren’t much better than them. That may sound like a real downer, but I think it’s incredibly liberating. What a relief it is to not be the center of the universe. Now it is not up to me to figure everything out. Now it is not up to me to fix everything. Now I can learn from others. Now I can learn that there is a power outside my tiny brain that just might have something to teach me. That realization, that awareness really is the beginning of all wisdom, and it is the beginning of our relationship with God. Before Moses could receive God’s commandments or serve God he had to be humbled; he had to remove anything that would insulate his pride or make him feel superior, so his sandals, simple as they were, had to go.

 

Now I am not suggesting that you start coming to church barefooted, however I am suggesting that if you really want to have a relationship with God, you will need to learn to be vulnerable. You will need to do away with anything that makes you feel superior to everyone around you, and anything that makes you feel superior to your ancestors, because you know what, they probably have something to teach you. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” Paul said. It is only when you realize that you don’t have all the answers and that you are vulnerable that you can finally start to grow and learn and bear fruit, and receive wisdom and grace.

 

You know, that fig tree in Jesus’s story, I can’t help but wonder why for three years the gardener never took care of it; never fertilized it or weeded around it. It wasn’t until the gardener became aware that the tree was vulnerable to be cut down that he realized he needed to take action. The tree needed nutrients and care that it just didn’t have on its own. It needed help to come from the outside in order to grow and bear fruit. The realization that the tree was vulnerable, may just be what saves it.

 

Isn’t it amazing how realizing that you are vulnerable can actually make you stronger?

God is always playing the long game

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Sermon for March 17, 2019

Readings:

If you are going to play with God then you need to know the game that God is playing.

 

If you are going to pray to God, listen to God, follow God, serve God, and ultimately be blessed by God, then you need to understand how God works.

 

There is one simple clue I can give you. It’s there in all of scripture. If you really want to understand scripture and the stories of our faith, this clue will help you. If you want to deepen and strengthen your walk with God, and if you want to see how God is working in your life, this clue will help you. It is a clue that God showed Abram towards the beginning of his walk with God. It is a clue that the prophets understood, and it is a clue that, of course, Jesus knew and taught and lived.

 

The clue is this:

 

God is always playing the long game.

 

God is always playing the long game. What does that mean, you may be asking. What is the long game? Well it’s this: there are two basic games we play in life, the long game and the short game. The short game is the path of immediate results: instant gratification, swift resolutions. If you are playing the short game, you want to visibly win and win now. The short game wants to sell you on the idea of living your best life now…oh wait, that sounds like a good book title. Sometimes the short game is the path of least resistance; it could be, for instance, paying to get into an elite college or university rather than doing your homework every day. Sometimes the short game seems perfectly sensible: selling off your stocks before there is a dip in the market. Sometimes the short game uses strength and power to achieve immediate goals without really considering long-term consequences. And here the short game can quickly move from being benign to being very destructive. Forcing yourself upon someone, rather than spending the time to build a relationship with them. Using power rather than persuasion. That’s the short game.

 

The other game is the long game. The long game is not a game you are going to sit back and watch on TV, because the long game is incredibly boring. It is just what it says it is: long. It is the opposite of the short game. It isn’t looking for immediate results. It is always focused on long-term goals. The long game isn’t so much worried about every bend in the road; the long game is worried about the final destination. And the long game takes work; daily work. The short game might ask you to exert a massive amount of force or power once to achieve something immediate, but the long game asks you to exert a little strength and will-power over, and over, and over again, with no immediate gratification. The long game is saving money. The long game is exercise. The long game is diplomacy. The long game is relationship. You can’t always see the effects of the long game, at least not quickly, so the long game takes patience.

Sometimes we humans manage to find the grace, the will-power or the wisdom to play the long game, but let’s face it, what we really like, and the game we are best at playing is the short game. We don’t necessarily need to be ashamed of that; sometimes we willfully make bad choices, but sometimes we are playing the short game because we simply can’t see into the future. We are after all humans.

 

But God is always playing the long game. God always sees things from the perspective of eternity. Hours and days and years, those things do not mean the same thing to the eternal God as they do to us little humans that lives our lives on a little ball that spins around everyday. God can always see the future. So God is always playing the long game. You can see it throughout our scriptures:

 

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him,”this man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” The he said to him, “so shall your descendants be.”

 

Today, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Abraham as our father in the faith. Yes, we Christians worship Jesus as the son of God, but he was very clear that his God was the God of Abraham. So Abraham is our father in faith too. So every Jew, Christian or Muslim is a child of Abraham. That is almost 5 billion people living today that are in some way descendants of Abraham. 61% of the world’s population, and that’s just the people that are living now, not counting all the generations that have come between us and Abraham. I would say God made good on his promise to Abraham, but it didn’t happen quickly. It wasn’t instant. God was playing the long game.

 

And God wanted to make clear to Abram just what game he was playing. So after Abram (or Abraham) makes this sort of bizarre (to us) sacrifice to God, he falls into a deep sleep, and in that sleep the Lord comes to him again and says to him: “know this for certain, your offspring will someday inherit this land I am giving you, but there is a long road ahead of them. There will be slavery, there will be suffering; oppression is not over.” In other words God made it clear to Abram: “I am making a covenant with you and will bless you and your descendants, but make no mistake, I am playing the long game.”

 

“O Tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

 

So said the Psalmist. Tarry and await. Wait patiently for the Lord. Why? Because the Lord is always playing the long game.

 

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is their destruction; their God is the belly…their minds are set on earthly things.”

 

Brother and sisters, people in the world want instant gratification. They let their hungers and their desires rule their lives. They can’t be bothered to endure suffering. They don’t want to hear Jesus’s word ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ They are only playing the short game. That is what Paul is saying to the Church in Phillipi. And he goes on to tell them that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. Our Lord lives there, he is returning from there, and ultimately all things will be put in subjection to him, so brothers and sisters…”whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” Play the long game brothers and sisters, because that is the game that God is ultimately playing. Don’t be afraid of this day’s struggles because we are here to play the long game.

 

“Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

 

Watch out Jesus, they said in the gospel, or your game may be over. Herod may kill you and then what? You will lose. They thought Jesus could lose. They thought Jesus was playing a short game, but he wasn’t. Jesus was playing the game of the prophets. The prophets play the long game, because that’s the game that God is playing, and they usually suffer greatly for it. Some people think pain and suffering are signs of being a loser, but Jesus knows better. He’s not about to lose, he’s just winning at a different game…the long game. Because that is the game that God always plays.

 

Remember that friends. Remember that God, the God of all our history and all our future, the God of eternity, remember that God is always playing the long game. When it feels like you are failing or losing in life, when it feels like God isn’t answering or listening to your prayers, when you can’t see the results of any of your labor, remember that God is playing the long game. And be careful of the call of that short game, because it is seductive. You may think you can play it well, but you can lose.

 

Playing the long game takes patience, it takes work, and most of all it takes faith. Maybe that is why God is so determined to play it, because it takes faith. For whatever reason, it is the game God is playing, so if you want a deeper walk with God, I recommend you learn how to play it too. It isn’t easy, but when you are playing the long game with God, you can’t lose.