Moses parted the Red Sea, turned the Nile into blood, made water come out of a rock.
Joshua, fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.
David slew Goliath. Solomon was wise and built the first temple. Elijah called down fire from heaven.
But what did Abraham do? Not much.
He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t command great armies. He didn’t possess great wealth.
I think that it is interesting that with all the amazing things done by and witnessed by Abraham’s descendants, the only thing that Abraham ever really does is listen to and follow the voice of God. When others around him, like those people in Babel, are building cities and great buildings to make a name for themselves, Abram is happy in his tent. Maybe it makes it easier to move when the Lord tell his to move. In fact, the only thing that Abram builds is an altar. Several altars actually…everytime Abram moves he builds an altar there to worship God. This, my friends, is really all that Abraham ever does: he listens to God, he follows God, he worships God.
You know, I am a great believer in celebrating the great saints of the church. There are saints and holy men and women that are very near and dear to my heart. They inspire me. And I believe that many extraordinary miracles have been performed by God through the hands of these holy people, but sometimes I need a reminder that you don’t have to be remarkable or special or extraordinary to be a jewel in God’s crown. And the ultimate reminder of that is Abraham.
He wasn’t terribly bright. He wasn’t particularly good, or honest, but he was willing to talk to God. He was willing to listen and he was willing to follow. Why?
God didn’t promise Abraham an easy life without pain, in fact if you go back and look at the missing passages in Genesis this morning you will find that God asked Abraham to do something quite painful indeed, and Abraham did it, not for his own sake but for the sake of those who would be blessed through him…his children. Abraham wanted to be a father more than anything else and he wanted God to bless his children. This is where the story of our faith begins, with an average father wanting to bless his children. This simple father put more faith in God than he did his own abilities; he was a follower before he was a leader; and he was loved by God before any commandments were ever made or broken. It was his faith that made him special, that was it.
We like to celebrate people in this world that are exceptionally gifted: the talented, the smart, the strong, the beautiful, but this man that God makes a covenant with is none of those things; he’s just faithful. Maybe we should start celebrating faithfulness a little more.
Abraham was an unremarkable, faithful follower of God, but you know what today more than half the world worships (in some form or another) the God of Abraham. If you think that one old, unremarkable, average person faithfully worshipping and following God can’t make a difference and can’t leave a legacy…you’re wrong.
One of the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the Miller’s Tale. Now they may have had you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in high school, you may know the background story that this is a bunch of pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Canterbury and they are passing the time by telling stories, but I doubt that you read the Miller’s Tale.
I doubt that they had you read the Miller’s Tale, because the Miller told a pretty dirty story. It also happens to be a very funny story, but I just can’t go into all of the details in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. What I can tell you is that the Miller told a story about a carpenter who had a beautiful wife, and this beautiful woman had two young gentlemen chasing her that were desperate to be with her and it didn’t matter that she was married. Racy stuff in the year 1387 to be sure. Anyways, one of the plot twists in this bawdy story is that one of the young gentlemen convinces the carpenter, the beautiful woman’s husband, that he has had a vision from God and that God has told him that he is going to send a flood next Monday twice as big as the one he sent in Noah’s time. So the carpenter had better prepare.
Well this sets the carpenter into a panic, and he falls right into the young man’s trap, and hilarity ensues. But you see, the carpenter would not have fallen for the young man’s trick if he read his Bible more closely. What did the carpenter forget? He knew about Noah. He knew about the flood and the ark. What did the carpenter in the Miller’s story forget? He forgot about God’s promise. The young man had told him that God was going to send another flood, but what does God promise in Genesis? What is an important part of the end of the biblical story? That “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” You see if the carpenter had remembered that, he would have known that the young man was lying. He wouldn’t have fallen for his trick.
It is dangerous to forget God’s promises.
You know we spend a lot of time talking about what God expects from us. We talk about the commandments; we talk about Christ’s summary of the law; we talk about Jesus’s teachings; we talk about the things that we commit to when we recite the baptismal covenant, and that’s all well and good, we should be working on improving our own behaviour. But how much time do we spend thinking about, or talking about, or reflecting on God’s promises.
Yes, the Lord has given us commandments about how we are to behave but he has also given us promises about what he is going to do. In our Genesis story today, God makes a promise to Noah and all of his descendants. Now I want to make clear here that this is a promise, it is not a bargain, it is not a deal, it is not an agreement. When you have an agreement or a deal, you have two side coming together: if you agree to do this, then I will agree to do this. That is a deal. This is not a deal that God is making here, it is a promise. God promises that there will never be another flood to destroy all flesh. That promise isn’t contingent on Noah doing anything. This isn’t about two side agreeing on anything. It is a commitment that God has made to us.
We get so caught up sometimes in the promises that we make to God; promises that let’s face it, we aren’t good at keeping; we get so caught up in our promises that we forget God’s promises. It is so typical of us humans, we like the focus to be on us and on what we are doing, and on how industrious or how clever or how righteous we are; we are so obsessed with our own commitments to God that I think we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that this is an equal partnership between us and God. We think we have brought something to the negotiating table. We did not. This is no equal partnership.
Here we are at the beginning of Lent. And doubtless many of you have been thinking about what your Lenten disciplines will be this year. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten disciplines and they are good traditions; I encourage them, but here is a question you need to ask yourself as you observe those disciplines: Am I spending more time thinking about what I am doing for God than I am thinking about what God has done for me? Am I spending more time thinking about my promises to God than I am God’s promises to me? Because that could be a problem. Human beings break their promises all the time, but not God. We need to focus on God’s promises more than we focus on our own. You won’t hear me talk a whole lot about the baptismal covenant in our prayer book, those questions we affirm as a part of the baptismal rite, you won’t hear me make a big deal out of all that, because the promises we make to God are never AS important as the promises he has made to us. What God is doing in baptism will always be way more important than whatever we think we are doing. I’m not saying that the commitments we make to God are not important, but they will never be AS important as the commitment that God has made to us. Forgetting God’s commitments to us, forgetting God’s promises is a very dangerous thing.
How many times did the Children of Israel forget God’s promise of leading them to the Promised Land and turn back?
How many times did their descendants forget God’s promises of providing for them and protecting them and turn to trusting in other gods or worldly alliances?
How many times did God promise in the scriptures that we would never leave us nor forsake us, and still we forgot?
And when Jesus is baptized and heads off into the wilderness for forty days, what is he tempted by Satan to do? He is tempted to forget God’s promises. With the hunger and the wild beasts and Satan taunting him, Jesus would have been tempted, tempted to give up on God, but he doesn’t and at the end of the story, God’s angels come to wait on him.
How many times in my life have I been tempted to forget God’s promises? How many times have I put more trust in the promises that I made to God than I do in the promises that God has made to me?
If you want a good Lenten discipline this year, as you read through scripture make a commitment to pay attention to the promises that God is making to his children. Pay attention to the promises that Christ is making to his disciples. Those promises are trustworthy and true. And we are so prone to forget them.
God said that he would put the rainbow in the cloud so that HE would remember his promise. Well I don’t know about God’s memory, but I do know about mine. I don’t know if God needs a reminder, but I know I sure do. I need to be reminded about God’s love and faithfulness. I need to be reminded that while men break their promises all the time, God never does.
So whatever commitments you decide to make to God this Lent, make sure you are paying more attention to the commitments that God has made to you. If the carpenter in the Miller’s Tale had remembered God’s promises, he wouldn’t have been so easily tricked by those devilish young men, but of course that wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.
Have any of you ever played the arcade game whac-a-mole?
Whac-a-mole is a game with a big rubber mallet and a box full of little holes, and when the game starts a mole will pop up out of a hole and your job is to whack it with the mallet. Then the mole goes back down into his hole. Then the mole pops up from another hole and you have to whack it again. And then another and another and the game gets faster and faster and more moles keep popping up and you have to hit them as fast as you can, because if you miss one, well that’s game over.
This, my friends, is the perfect illustration for what it is like trying to fight heresy in the church. It is like a 2,000 year-long game of whac-a-mole. You clobber a wrong-headed or misguided or misinformed idea over here, and it pops right back up over there. Old heresies never really die, not for long, they always pop back up. Not always in the same place; they don’t always look exactly the same, but it is really the same mole in a different hole.
A heresy is a denial of an important doctrine of the faith. A heretic is an individual who denies an important doctrine of the faith. Now if you think that faith and church is all just about nurturing good feelings, then you probably don’t want to hear about heresies and doctrines. But if you believe that there is real actual truth behind what the church proclaims, then doctrine and heresy are very important because they are a part of the church’s road map to truth.
The problem with heresies is that they can be very compelling or convincing; they seem like a great explanation or a good idea, but the church over time has discovered that they are dead end roads, or headed in the wrong direction. But they are nonetheless, very compelling or enticing ideas and what often happens is that you will get a charismatic church leader that latches onto one of these ideas, refuses to listen to others in the church saying “hold up, you’ve got something wrong there!” and then leads a whole bunch of Christians with them down this dead-end road. Usually we end up naming the heresy after one of these leaders. So you have Arianism, Marcionism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, all named after their leaders. Heresies are very attractive on the surface, which is why they are so dangerous. And they never really go away.
One of the first heresies that the church had to grapple with was that of Marcionism. Marcion, who lived in the middle 100s, so a very, very long time ago, was the son of a bishop, and like many preacher’s kids he must have felt the need to be a bit of a rebel. Marcion was someone who believed wholeheartedly in the love of Jesus. Jesus was the supreme revelation of the God of love. God didn’t care about rules and laws. God was a God of love. Sounds good doesn’t it? Sounds compelling right?
I like the idea of Jesus as the revelation of the God of love. But here’s the problem, Marcion couldn’t reconcile the Jesus he wanted to believe in with the God of the Old Testament or the God of the Hebrews. Marcion decided that that had to be a completely different God. Judaism had to be a completely different faith, a different religion that worshiped a different God. The Hebrew God was a primitive backwards God of laws, and Jesus was the revelation of this new more enlightened God of love. A lot of people bought into Marcion’s argument, but there is a big problem with it, and this is what was pointed out to Marcion: it doesn’t agree with scripture. The records that we have of Jesus Christ, the authoritative guides that we have to all that he said and did, shows us a devout first century Jew who told his followers that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. How could Marcion argue that this Jesus had nothing to do with the God of the Old Testament? Easy, he just cut that scripture out. Actually Marcion, went through the scriptures and cut out anything that made Jesus look remotely Jewish. The Jesus of scripture was not who Marcion wanted him to be, so the Jesus of scripture got tossed aside. Marcion created his own personal Jesus. And the rest of the church, most of it at least, stood up and said no.
That is not what God has revealed to the church. The love and the grace that we find in Jesus Christ was always present in the law and the prophets. Jesus is the radical fulfillment of God’s plan. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law that was given to Moses and the word that was given to Elijah. Jesus is not a departure from the Hebrew God, he is the embodiment of that God. And there is scripture to back this up. This is what was revealed to Peter and James and John on the mountaintop in today’s gospel. They have a vision, and this vision reveals to them that Jesus, their rabbi, their teacher and leader, is the son of the God of Moses, the son of the God of Elijah. He is in conversation with them, he is not separate from them.
Marcion would have cut this passage right out, but the rest of the church said, No! This is important. If you want to understand Jesus, the true Jesus, then you need to understand him as the Jew that he is. Yes, we believe him to be the Son of God, as it was revealed on the mountain, but the God he is the son of is the God of the Hebrews that we find in Moses and in the prophets. When Jesus quotes scripture, he quotes the Old Testament. When Paul says that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness” he is talking about the Old Testament, not his own letters. So we can’t just cut out scriptures that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t understand. We have to wrestle with them.
Incidentally, we owe Marcion one debt of gratitude: it was because he started cutting up and tossing out scriptures that the church leaders decided that it was time to start listing the New Testament texts that were considered authoritative. The fact that we have the books in the New Testament that we do, we owe in part to Marcion, who wanted to get rid of them.
Now even though Marcion was officially rejected, still as I mentioned earlier, heresies never completely go away. They still keep popping up. All the time I hear Christians talking about the Old Testament as if it is wholly distinct from and separate from the New Testament. Sometimes very well-meaning Christians will try and draw a bold line of distinction between Christianity and Judaism as if they were two completely unrelated religions that had nothing to do with each other. Misguided preachers will often only portray Jesus in opposition to the God of Moses and the God of Elijah, and not show him as the embodiment of that God. They want Jesus to be a departure from the God of the Old Testament and not the fulfillment of that God’s mission. Be aware of this kind of talk. Be suspicious. It may seem like an academic theological argument, but there are real, and dire consequences to this heresy. Misunderstanding Jesus is certainly one of them; but violence and anti-semitism follow closely behind. Trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Judaism is not an enlightened or progressive argument, nor is it a conservative viewpoint. It is just an old heresy that is popping up again in a different place like that pesky mole. Only the best way to whack this mole on the head isn’t by picking up a rubber mallet; it is by picking up the scriptures. All of them.
She had a fever. That is what jumps out at me in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is entering into the home of somebody who has a fever. Jesus is touching someone who has a fever. Now if I had read that passage last year at this time, that little detail would probably have escaped me, but now…well now it seems truly remarkable.
Maybe it is because I have been asked several times in this past week if I have a fever. Maybe it is because over this past year, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked if I have a fever, or how many times someone has shot me with a thermometer in the forehead on my way into the dentist or the hairdresser or the doctor’s office or any other number of buildings that I would have just walked into before, but now…everyone wants to know if I have a fever.
And we all know why. Because if you have a fever, then you might have covid. You might have a disease that could threaten my life. You could be spreading death and not even know it. So now, everywhere you go, someone wants to know: do you have a fever?
And in our gospel lesson today, Jesus walks into the house of Simon (or Peter) and his brother Andrew, and he walks up to and touches, touches someone that has a fever.
You know, people in the ancient world may not have understood exactly how diseases spread, but they sure knew that they did. They knew that it was risky being around sick people. The truth is, 2,000 years later we’re not THAT much better. We’ve learned a few things, but over the course of this past year I think we have also been reminded of just how much we don’t know. We still have diseases that spread and we can’t always figure out exactly how or why?
We all know that Jesus died on the cross, but Jesus had been staring death down his whole life, and he does it in the gospel today. When Jesus is touching and healing sick people, he is staring death down. Jesus was a great moral teacher; he told great stories, there is no doubt about that, but why are people searching for him in the gospel today? Because he has power. Real power. Not just the power to inspire. Not just the power to lead. Jesus has the power to heal. He has the power to cast out demons. Jesus has the power to bring people back from the brink of death, and eventually we learn that he has the power to bring back people from the dead. Jesus is demonstrating his power in today’s gospel, and we would do well to pay attention.
You see, I think we Christians have a bad habit of underestimating Jesus’s power. We also have a bad habit of overestimating our own. All the time I hear in diocesan meetings and church circles, how we all need to go out and change the world. How we need to be more missional, whatever that word means. The church likes to talk big about building communities and being positive change agents in the world. The church likes to talk about fighting for justice and equality. The church tells us how we need to be the hands and the feet of Jesus working in the world. I hear all these things time and time again, but the more I keep hearing them now, the more I keep thinking to myself: that’s nice and all, but I’m tired.
I am too tired to change the world. And I’m willing to bet, that if most of you are really honest, you could probably say the same. The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you have had covid this year or not. Many of you have, many of you haven’t. But we have all been affected by it. And if that weren’t bad enough, how many other serious illnesses have we had in our church? Cancers, serious medical emergencies, mental illnesses. Maybe you are struggling with chronic pain, or maybe you are just tired from working constantly.
Or maybe it isn’t physical illness that has weighed you down this year, but maybe it has been personal issues or family drama…there has been plenty of that too. Or maybe you are depressed from reading the news and witnessing all the fighting in our government. Maybe you are frustrated that you have been trying to make the world a better place for a long time, and sometimes it just doesn’t seem like it is getting better. We have been fighting the issues of racism and sexism and inequality for years. How many other issues could I list?
Are you tired yet? Because I am. I am tired. I am tired of social distancing and face masks. I am tired of those stupid directional lines in the grocery store telling you which way you are supposed to go. I am tired of having to learn a new piece of technology every five minutes. I am tired of constantly having to change the way we do things. I am tired of having vacations cancelled and not seeing my family or my friends. I am tired of the cheaters and the swindlers and the scammers trying to take advantage of everyone’s frayed mental state right now just for their own greed. I am tired of staring at people through zoom, but never actually touching them, Jesus touched people. He touched Peter’s mother-in-law and it healed her. How many other people just clamoured to reach out and touch Jesus, on the chance that his healing power might cleanse them? I’d be happy just to be able to shake people’s hands again. I miss that.
I miss seeing the kids walk in every Sunday. Every screaming, running one of them. I miss dinner parties at the rectory. I miss seeing the church full.
I don’t have covid, but in some way, it has infected me. It has infected all of us. You don’t have to have a fever to be sick. You don’t have to have covid, or cancer, or anything with a fancy name, to be suffering. I know that there are a lot of suffering people here. Not today obviously, because of course the weather has decided to make things even more complicated today, but this parish, this family of Christians gathered here on this corner in Rockville Centre, people may think that if you live in this community then you must have it made, and yeah it’s a nice town and a nice church and we all have a lot to be thankful for, but nobody in this parish is exempt from suffering. It may come in different forms, but I’m willing to bet that just about everyone here knows a little something about it. There are suffering people in this church. There are people that have worries and pains and concerns that you don’t know anything about. We have learned that you can’t tell from looking at someone whether they have covid or not. Well you also don’t know what else may be eating people inside.
And if someone, through the grace of God, finds the strength and the courage and the fortitude, to get up, and pull themselves together and either turn their television or computer on, or even manage to trudge through the snow or fight with traffic and parking and children and bring themselves in spirit if not in body before the altar of God, so that they can reach out and touch their saviour; if someone can make it that far, then the last thing they need when they come to this sacred place is to be told that fixing the world is all up to them. You know there are Christians that for some reason believe that God needs them and there are Christians that know that they need God. Rest assured I know that I need God.
I am too tired to fix the world. I’m guessing that most of you probably are too. Doesn’t matter if you are young or old, rich or poor, black or white. God’s children are tired right now. And you know I could blame it on 2020, but this tired has been building for a very long time. Humans have always been weak. We have always been too tired and beaten down to fix the world. That is part of the problem. What is the solution?
A long time ago the prophet Isaiah proclaimed “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is the same Lord that is reaching down and touching Peter’s mother in law in the gospel this morning. It is the same Lord that we meet in the sacrament of the altar. This is the same Lord that we pray to here in this space and in our homes, year in and year out. Day in and day out.
So if you are here or are watching this today, and if you are tired like me, then the good news I have for you is that it’s ok. God isn’t waiting on you to fix all the world’s problems. The Lord has more than enough strength and wisdom to take care of that on his own.
Now if you want to serve the Lord, that’s wonderful, but take a little advice from Simon Peter’s Mother in law and let him heal you first.
So let me make some things clear right out of the gate this morning:
Baptized Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to only one King: that is the Lord Jesus Christ. We may recognize the authority of our earthly leaders, we may show them respect, we can and should pray for them, but the moment that that water hits your head, you belong to Jesus and you become a subject and a citizen of God’s kingdom.
Baptized Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to only one country: the kingdom of heaven. We may be proud of our own homelands, we can and should celebrate our culture and our accomplishments, we may work for and pray for the country we live in, and sometimes we may even have to fight for our earthly kingdoms, but make no mistake…Saint Peter is not checking passports at the pearly gates. When you reach the gates of God’s kingdom, it is not going to matter what earthly kingdom you were born into, or which earthly king you served.
But were you born into God’s Kingdom? did you serve the heavenly king?
Christians have a higher allegiance than to just the principalities and powers of this world, but that does not mean that we can just divorce ourselves from the responsibility of serving and caring for the earthly kingdoms we are born into. In fact, if we actually believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life; if we actually believe that he is the incarnate son of God, whose birth we just proclaimed a couple weeks ago; if we actually believe that his way is THE way, and that he wants us to spread that message to the world; if we believe these things, then we have a sacred calling to show our fellow citizens on this earth, a better way. We have the responsibility, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to serve as ambassadors of that kingdom.
Now this earthly country we live in is pluralistic. There is no state church here; there is no state religion. I think that is an amazing thing. Because not only does it give me the freedom to worship my God as my beliefs and convictions dictate, but also it means that I get to live side by side with people that don’t know Jesus, or don’t believe in God, or worship God completely differently than I do. We all get to live among the heathens and the agnostics and the atheists, and faithful people who worship God differently than we do. Living with people that don’t worship the way we do, and don’t think the way we do, can be frustrating at times, but how else are we going to spread the gospel if we never interact with, or talk to, or deal with, or live beside people that are different than we are? And if we want to draw people to Jesus, if we want to invite people into citizenship in God’s Kingdom, then we need to make sure that our neighbors and fellow citizens in this world, in this country, can see in us a way of life that is worth imitating. We have a sacred calling to do better, to be better, and to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It is not enough to sit at home in smug contempt and wonder why the rest of the world just doesn’t see things our way.
Show them a better way. Make a better argument. Tell a better story.
Christians love to complain about people not going to church anymore. Well here is my not-so-spicy take on that: if we did a better job of actually living the values we profess, if we did a better job of actually showing people Jesus and if we were better ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven, we wouldn’t need to worry about church growth, because the churches would be packed. People would see in us, something worth imitating. Something attractive. People would want to know more about this God that we worship. But if you pray to Jesus on Sunday and act like the devil the rest of the week, then nonbelievers are going to be rightly suspicious about this so-called faith of yours.
Show them a better way. Make a better argument. Tell a better story. That is how the Church, that is how God’s Kingdom grows.
Now, in this church, most of us, in addition to being citizens of God’s kingdom through baptism, are also citizens of the United States of America. We are a mixed group of people here. I think one of the strengths and beauties of this parish is that it is made up of very different people with very different opinions and backgrounds, and yet the same faith. There are very few places in our country anymore where Democrats and Republicans actually sit side by side and breath the same air, but we manage to do it here. I think, and I hope, that it is because we believe in something greater than party loyalty, something greater than national loyalty even. We believe in loyalty to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to choose between loving God or loving our country, not at all. What it means is that our love for both Kingdoms should compel us to proclaim to one the glories of the other. If we truly love the United States of America, then we need to proclaim to it, and continue to proclaim to it, the vision that Christ has shown us of his kingdom. We need to show our fellow citizens, with love and respect, the better way that we have been shown. We need to make better arguments and tell a better story. No earthly Kingdom or country is ever going to be perfect, just like no human being, save Jesus, is ever going to be perfect, but we can all strive to be better.
I don’t think anyone here would dare accuse me of being a partisan hack in the pulpit. I do my level best to keep the focus here, in this space, on our citizenship in heaven. It annoys me greatly when preachers talk about politics and party platforms as if they were the gospel. But if we expect people to take us seriously when we talk about Jesus, then how we behave as Christians and citizens in the public sphere matters. What we say matters. How we act matters. People are never going to believe you when you talk about the truth of the Resurrection if everything else you say is a lie. There are plenty of opinions and issues that faithful Christians AND good citizens may sincerely disagree about; God doesn’t belong to a political party; but that doesn’t mean that God has no interest in how we conduct ourselves in our earthly kingdoms. Make no mistake, God is watching us.
I do not think that it is a partisan statement to stand here and tell you that what happened this week in our nation’s capital was disgusting and a travesty. On so many levels. It was beneath us as a country. While our nation has never been perfect, we know that, we have been better. We can do better than this. And I say “we” very intentionally, because while the blame for what happened this week may not be equal for everyone (I’m not saying that at all), but we have collectively, over time, allowed our national discourse to descend to this level. While I think that individuals need to be held responsible for their actions, I also think that we have a collective responsibility to each other. So what I say, I say to Republicans and to Democrats: We have all stopped trying to persuade and evangelize others and now it is all about winning through the power of force and not the power of persuasion. We have stopped talking to each other and we have stopped listening to each other, and that is on all of us, not just the angry mob that stormed our capital. We can do better than this.
The worst part of it all, is that so many of the people that participated in Wednesday’s debacle, most of them I would say, call themselves Christians. Now I certainly am not in a position to know who will be in and who will be out come judgement day, only God can do that. But I can say that we Christians, regardless of our political affiliations, need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than our neighbors and fellow citizens. It doesn’t matter if someone else did something wrong before, that doesn’t give us license to do it. Pointing to what other people have done wrong, never excuses your own wrongdoing. Yes, I know that Christians have done far worse things in the past; we have been worse, but we have also been better. We need to do better. If we claim to be following Jesus then we need to be looking to him to set the standards we will follow. We need to show others that truth and decency and integrity matter to us. We need to show people how to disagree without demonizing. We need to do better, so that others will look to us and wonder, what is it that allows these people to act and live differently than everyone else? Our actions as citizens of this country matter, because they have the power to point people to Jesus.
Today, we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord, and we remember Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry, heading out to meet John the Baptist at the Jordan river. I think it is interesting that the very first act of our Lord’s public ministry was an act of repentance. That is what baptism is first of all, it is a ritual of repentance, a washing away of sins. Our Lord, who knew no sin, still chose to do this before he did or said anything else. In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time we see Jesus; not in the manger, not with the wise men or the star, that is in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, but in Mark we first see Jesus down by the river, walking into the water with a bunch of desperate people that really want to start over. For Christians, your entry into the Church and into the body of Christ still happens by participating in this ritual. Even the newest little baby, who we may not think has had any occasion to sin, still is made a part of God’s holy family through an act of repentance. There is no other way…it is almost like repentance and being a Christian are intimately linked in some way…like you can’t be one without the other. That’s just it…the Christian life begins with an act of repentance: owning your own sins and your own failures, not pointing the finger at someone else, but knowing and understanding that you are prone to making mistakes and that there is no way out of this cycle without God’s help. That is where Christianity begins, with an act of repentance, and repentance must be a way of life for Christians; not a one-time act, but constantly approaching, God, our neighbors and our own thoughts and actions with humility. Confessing our sins and failures is a life-long act for Christians, but God doesn’t leave us there. Jesus doesn’t leave us to drown in our failure, but draws us back up out of the water and gives us the Holy Spirit and a chance to live our lives differently. You see, I think some people have the wrong idea about repentance. The devil wants you to think that repentance is just about feeling guilty all the time, or beating yourself up, or thinking that you are worse than everyone else. No. Repenting doesn’t mean that you are worse than everyone else, it means that you recognize that you are no BETTER than everyone else. The devil wants you to think that repenting means you are weak, because he doesn’t want you to discover the Holy Ghost power that comes through repentance. In our scriptures today we are reminded that baptism carries with it the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we participate in that act of repentance we are given power, from God, to live differently. We have to learn to draw on that power.
We have to draw on that power right now, because our country needs to witness people whose lives have been truly changed and transformed by God. Our country needs Democrats and Republicans who will stand up, as people of faith, and say that honesty, integrity, decency and truth matter. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We need to show people a better way; persuade people with better arguments; and inspire people with better stories. We can do this. God has given us the power to do this. Our country needs us to do this…because although no earthly king or kingdom is ever going to be perfect, our country, and the world, now more than ever, needs a witness to the one that is.
There are two types of people in this world that are looking for Jesus:
Those who want to worship him and those who want to eliminate him.
There are those who in true humility are seeking a divine saviour, who are searching for and following light in a dark world. In our gospel this morning we hear the familiar story of the magi, the wisemen, most likely Persian astrologers traveling from the East. They are looking for Jesus. They don’t know is name. They aren’t sure exactly where he is (they aren’t Jewish, and they need the Hebrew prophets to give them some direction), but still they have been observing the universe with a keen eye and in that universe they found a star, a light, that has led them in this direction. These wise men are looking for mystery and truth and revelation, they are looking for the miraculous, and when they find it, they are prepared to give it everything they’ve got. They offer Jesus their most precious possessions.
But they aren’t the only ones looking for Jesus in the gospel today. Herod and his centurions want to find him too. These men, who me may call clever, but dare not call wise, are looking for the exact same child that the magi are, but their intentions could not be more different. To these men, this child is a threat to their way of life and their view of the world. Herod wants complete control over his kingdom, over his own decisions, over his own life. Herod cannot stomach a divine saviour that rules the universe. Herod wants to be the judge and jury. He doesn’t want some peasant child telling him that he needs to reprioritize his life. Now Herod can put on a good show. He partners with the wise men and makes out like he is looking for Jesus just like them, like it is a shared quest, but we know that his intentions couldn’t be more different:
The magi want to worship Jesus; Herod and his centurions want to eliminate him.
This is the world that our Lord was born into. We could have made the gospel reading shorter this morning by picking one passage or the other; we could have cut parts of this story out, but I think in order to really appreciate the implications of Jesus’s birth we need to hear the whole story. We need to see these two responses to his birth side by side, because as different as these two types of people looking for Jesus are, sometimes they look an awful lot alike. Even the wise men assumed that Herod’s motives were good, until they were warned otherwise.
There are still two types of people in this world looking for Jesus:
There are still those who are looking for a sacred force to worship and respect, and there are those who see Jesus as a tool to be used or an opposition to be eliminated. The question for each of us is: which one am I? Am I looking for Jesus because I am looking for real truth and meaning that has the potential to completely turn my life upside down? Or am I looking for a prop that will simply endorse my already formed opinions that I can them eliminate the moment he becomes a threat to my way of life?
It is far too simplistic and naive to suggest that those inside the church represent one type of person and those outside the church represent another. The story of the magi should remind us that the world is filled with people that are genuinely searching for Jesus and don’t know his name. There are people seeking truth and meaning and revelation and they are willing to give it everything they’ve got when they find it. Maybe they just need a little direction. And sadly, there are plenty of people within the church that talk a lot about following Jesus, but either just use him as a prop for their own gain, or simply strip him of all his power and authority the moment he asks them to do something, give something, or truly change.
Take a close look at today’s gospel reading and when you do, pay attention to these people that are looking for Jesus. Herod is looking for Jesus, but his quest is motivated by fear and ends in rage. The wise men are motivated by wonder and their journey ends in Joy. The people who find joy in this gospel are those who seek Christ to worship him.
I was ordained priest at a church on the upper east side of Manhattan, and we had a delightful parishioner in that parish, who despite living in one of the country’s richest zip codes, was not particularly wealthy. She always referred to her home decor as “trouvé” the French word for “found” meaning that her home was furnished and decorated with stuff that she found on the side of the road.
Now I have since discovered that this is quite a thing, especially in NYC, because the difficulty and expense of moving things often leads people to abandon some very fine furniture pieces to the garbage collector. If you keep your eyes peeled and actually pay attention to what others are discarding, you can find some real treasures mixed in with the trash. That was this parishioner’s firm conviction, so her house was filled with “trouvés.”
I was thinking of her this past week as I was setting the table for Christmas dinner. If you know the character Hyacinth Bucket from the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, you will recall how famous she was for her candlelight suppers. Well, I must admit, I channel Hyacinth sometimes. I too want people to stagger back in admiration when they enter my dining room. But as I was polishing silver and setting out china, I realized that quite a lot of my treasured, beautiful things are trouvés, things I found. Sure, I have a number of lovely gifts that have been given to me by friends and family and parishioners, and there are some quality items that I have purchased myself, but a great number of my treasures, were at some point, in someone else’s eyes, trash…not worth keeping.
Growing up, I used to spend hours and hours scouring thrift stores with my Grandmother, maybe that is where my own love for trouvés started, but I have since discovered that there is more to this than just collecting milk glass and used furniture. It is a way of looking at the world. It is a realization that we humans have this tendency to cast aside things that are really of great beauty and value. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. And we all had our reasons.
Maybe we thought the leg on that chair couldn’t be fixed. Silver has to be polished. Fine china can’t go in the dishwasher. As things get older, they frequently require a bit of work and maintenance, and let’s face it, a lot of the time we just can’t be bothered. And then there are other times when we no longer see the beauty in something because we are bored with it, disinterested or distracted. We don’t just do this with furniture and Nic-nacs, we do it with houses and buildings, whole neighborhoods and cities; the church has at times done it with her prayers and rituals, casting aside things of great beauty in favor of that which is simply new or convenient. We throw treasures away; we do it with things, we do it with thoughts and ideas, and we do it with cities and we do it with people.
In the Book of Isaiah this morning we hear the prophet proclaiming “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” Why all this rejoicing? Why the exultation? Because he can see Jerusalem and the glorious temple of God being rebuilt. The temple had been destroyed and the entire city laid waste by the Babylonians. After Babylon had taken what they wanted out of the city, it and its inhabitants were rubbish as far as they were concerned. Jerusalem, the treasure of the Jewish people and the place where God dwelled, had been trashed and cast aside. Thrown away. And now, it was being redeemed. God was taking her and picking her up, dusting her off, and putting a new garment on her, a garment of salvation. God was fixing that which was broken; God was polishing that which was tarnished. In God’s hands, that which was cast aside as worthless and of no value, was now shining like a jewel: a crown, a royal diadem. But it isn’t just the walls of Jerusalem that are being redeemed; it is her people. God was saving people that the world had thrown away.
If God behaved like we do, this world would have been consigned to the dust bin long ago. The moment we humans lost our ability to shine, the moment we became broken or a little old, God could have just tossed us all out and started over. But that is not the story of our faith and that is not the God we believe in. God does not behave like us. God is in the business of redemption. The Christian story is a redemption story. From the beginning of time, God has always been looking for trouvés, treasure among the trash. God’s mission is to find the broken and the forgotten and the obsolete and to make it shine and sparkle again. That is what the mission of Christ was all about: redemption. In this world, that by human standards should have been thrown away, God still sees great beauty; enough at least to jump down into this dumpster with us, confident that there are still treasures here that with a bit of love and polish, just might be fit for his heavenly banquet.
In 1942 Bing Crosby recorded a single album of a song that was featured in one of his recent films. He didn’t think much of it at the time and he had no reason to. As songs go it didn’t seem very special to him. The lyrics weren’t profound or clever. The melody was sweet, humable, but not really remarkable.
It became the best-selling single album of all time, and it set a record that to this day has never been broken, and no one has even come close. That one little song has sold over 50 million copies. 50 million copies.
The song was White Christmas by Irving Berlin. Maybe you already knew that. It is still the best-selling single of all time.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow,
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
This is a secular Christmas song. It mentions Christmas over and over, but doesn’t actually talk about the birth of Christ. The lyrics are simple; they might even feel saccharine or overly sentimental to you, but try to imagine the song for a moment in the context of those that first heard it:
It is 1942 and all across the world families are separated and the future seems very uncertain. For several years Europe has been in the midst of a cataclysmic war and now America is coming to the end of its first-year fighting in that war and there is no end in sight, not yet. Thousands and thousands of troops know that they won’t be with their families for Christmas, and many of them probably know that there is a chance they will never be with them again. And in the midst of all that fear and uncertainty and longing, deep longing, a voice comes across the radio inviting them to dream of a happier, simpler time.
It hit a nerve, because in that moment when the future seemed so uncertain, this little song was offering people a moment of connection. A moment of connection with the past; and a moment of connection with all those that the listeners longed to be with, but couldn’t. I think this song hit a nerve, because it is a song about deep longing; and deep, deep longing, is really at the heart of what Christmas is all about.
We long to feel connected. We long for peace and happiness and stability. We long for our world to be other than the way it is. These emotions aren’t new to us in 2020. They weren’t new to the troops in 1942 either. Where does all of this longing lead us? Well longing to feel connected; longing for hope, joy and peace can lead people in all sorts of different directions, sometimes down very dangerous paths, but the Christian answer, and the story we tell tonight, is that the longing leads us here: to a simple birth in the backcountry of a Roman province 2000 years ago. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight, O little town of Bethlehem.
Here at the stable we find the connection we have been longing for. Here is our past and here is our future. Here we gather with loved ones near and far. Here, the departed gather with those that are yet to be born. Here we find the hope and courage to face an uncertain future. The answer to all of our longing is a holy child, Jesus, and he, in truth offers us more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. He offers us a new life, and a new world. Jesus offers us a connection, a communion, that is the answer to all of our longings.
Later in his life, one of Bing’s nephews asked him what was the most difficult thing he ever had to do in his career. He said in December 1944 he was doing a USO tour with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters and at the end of the show one night, in snowy Northern France, he had to stand on stage and sing White Christmas while 100,000 troops stared back at him with tears streaming down their faces. Bing said that getting through that song without breaking down was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
The notorious Battle of the Bulge was just a few days later.
Those troops weren’t wishing for snow, they had that in abundance. That isn’t really what that song is about, not really. So many of the things we associate with Christmas, things like sleigh bells, and snow and Christmas cards, aren’t really the point of Christmas at all; they are just symbols that point us to something greater. They point us to this longing that we all share: the longing to be connected. Connected to the past, connected to the future, connected to each other and connected to God. It is the longing for connection that led those troops to sing alone with Bing through their tears. It is the longing for connection that draws us together tonight.
May you find the answer to all that longing in the same place a few shepherds did 2,000 years ago: wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.
Be it unto me according to thy word.
Let it be with me according to your word.
May your word to me be fulfilled.
When our Lady responds to the Angel Gabriel she says “yes, Lord!”
I don’t understand how this is possible. I don’t know where this is going. This doesn’t make any sense; but, yes Lord. May your will for me be done. Mary said “yes.”
It could have been otherwise you know.
When that angel came to Mary and explained to her how God was going to use her for the salvation of his people, she could have said “No.”
Not me Lord.
I’m too busy. This is too dangerous. This really isn’t a part of my five-year plan. It’s not a good time for me. I’m not interested. This will be too hard. What’s in it for me? Choose someone else.
No. Mary could have said no. God didn’t create little drones or robots. God created free human beings. And free human beings, with free-will, have the power to say “No” even to their creator. Yes, we believe that God is all powerful, but we also believe that our God is a god of love. God created us out of love; God wants us to love him in return. But in order for love to be real and meaningful, it must be freely given. God doesn’t take, and God doesn’t want prisoners. Mary is not God’s prisoner. She can turn away. She can refuse God’s offer. She can refuse God’s grace. She can say no.
But she didn’t. Thank God she didn’t. But can you imagine if she had? If Mary had refused God’s offer of salvation, where would we be? What would our hope look like?
We owe so much to a brave little girl that had the courage and the faith to say yes to God. She is worthy of our utmost admiration and respect for her role in our salvation.
And yet, each and every one of us is faced with a similar dilemma to the one Mary was faced with. No, we don’t all encounter angels in quite the same way, and we haven’t all been asked to bear our Lord into the world in the way she did. Her role in that is unique. But we are all faced with the choice of whether to say “yes” or “no” to God’s salvation. There are so many moments in our lives when God offers us grace and forgiveness. Sometimes they are big moments; sometimes they may seem completely insignificant; but time and time again God offers us grace and we have the choice to say yes to it…or no.
Those who hunger and thirst for God’s grace; those who long for salvation, are unlikely to say no to it when it is offered. Those that are self-satisfied and filled with their own conceit, those that are mighty in their own eyes, the self-righteous and those who don’t long for God, well it is quite possible that they won’t recognize what is being offered them and turn away. We all have the power to turn away from God.
The popular image of hell, is of a place where God sends you for being bad. Lakes of fire and devils with pitchforks and pointy tails. Like popular images of heaven, this is far too simplistic and based on very little scripture and actual church teaching. In our scriptures, when Jesus uses the word “hell” the word he is really using is an Aramaic word “Gehenna.” Gehenna means the valley of Hinom, which is a valley just outside of Jerusalem, where scripture tells us that long before the time of Jesus, children were sacrificed and slaughtered. People, even kings, were worshipping other Gods, and this worship led them to sacrifice their own children. Jesus uses Gehenna, whenever he wants to talk about the opposite of God’s kingdom. And yes, he uses the images of fires in Gehenna, because that is how those children were sacrificed, by fire. But here is the question: who started those fires in Gehenna? It wasn’t God that lit those fires in Gehenna, it was man. Hell is something we created by trying to worship false Gods. Hell was the work of our own hands. Hell was a choice that we made.
Maybe you think it is unlikely that people would actually choose hell. I’m not so sure. When I look at history, and when I look around even now, I see plenty of evidence of people choosing their own destruction. It seems hard to believe that people would actually say No to God, but the evidence would indicate that they do. I don’t want to believe in hell, but much like heaven, I see glimpses of it all the time. The hell that I see though, is not something that God has imposed upon us; it isn’t God being vengeful towards us; it is simply the natural result of our turning away from the source of all life. If you choose to walk away from the light, you can’t be angry at the darkness.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in conclusion of my series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, we come to the subject that nobody wants to talk about: hell. We really don’t like talking about or thinking about hell. People will say that they don’t believe in a God that would allow hell to exist, but you see without at least the possibility of hell, without the possibility of turning away or saying NO to God, then a YES to God could have no meaning. Love is meaningless unless it is freely given. The truth is, what I think disturbs us the most about hell, is that deep down we know that it isn’t God’s choice, it’s ours. Hell is a choice that we make.
There was a very famous French Jesuit priest in the 20th century named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote in the conclusion to his book the Divine Milieu:
You have told me, O God, to believe in hell. But you have forbidden me to hold with absolute certainty that any single man has been damned. I shall therefore make no attempt to consider the damned here, nor even to discover-by whatsoever means-whether there are any.
The words of scripture, the words of our Lord and a faith in the free-will of God’s created children, bind us to a belief in the existence of hell, but we needn’t speculate upon its population. Nor should we speculate on who walks its lonely streets. The population could be zero for all that we know. People aren’t bound to say no to God any more than they are bound to say yes. Perhaps when the true light of God is revealed, no one will choose to walk away from it. Time will tell.
Our concern, must be to simply show the world what “Yes” looks like. What does it look like to seek God above all things? What does it look like to be humble and lowly? What does it look like to follow God even when you don’t know where he is leading you? What does it look like to invite and allow God’s grace to transform you and your life? Well, we have seen what it looks like. It looks like a little girl talking to a mighty angel and saying “be it unto me according to thy word.” That is what not looks like to say yes to God.
Very often you will see the Virgin Mary depicted slamming her foot down on the head of a serpent. That is the power of saying yes to God: it casts the powers of hell right down under your feet.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Perhaps you may be tempted to ask the Apostle Paul why. Why should we rejoice? Why should we pray? Why should we give thanks? Why is this God’s will for us?
When there is so much darkness right now, both literally and figuratively; when so many are sick and suffering; after so many have died; when there is so much division and hatred; when we cannot gather with or see many of our loved ones…how can we rejoice and give thanks?
In the Northern hemisphere, it is getting darker and colder. This time in the church’s year, Advent, is traditionally a time of penitence. It is a time when we talk about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, and in the midst of this season, in the middle of all this darkness the church tells us to rejoice. Gaudete! The Latin word for rejoice. The word that Paul uses in his epistle this morning. December can be such a difficult month. There is so much stress. There are so many demands placed upon our time and our resources. We have so many emotions to contend with: anticipation, joy, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, love, disappointment. This time of the year brings out the best and the worst in people, and in the midst of the cold and darkness, the church by tradition puts on splendid apparel, decks the altar with roses and proclaims in the words of Paul: rejoice!
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
As we sit in darkness and contemplate the end of all things, even the end of our own lives. We are told to rejoice.
Why do we rejoice? We rejoice because we believe something marvelous is coming. No matter how dark it may seem, we believe that something better is coming. We have seen a glimpse of it. We have seen a light and We rejoice to proclaim to the world that darkness doesn’t win.
Today is the third Sunday in Advent, which is traditionally Rose Sunday. The vestments are a bit brighter, we have flowers on the altar again, and on this day in the midst of a season of repentance we are told to rejoice. We rejoice because we know something wonderful is coming, but here is the thing you may not know: the wonderful thing that is coming is NOT Christmas.
The thing that Christians are told to rejoice over, to pray and prepare for and to live in hope and expectation of, is not a commercial holiday. We aren’t told to long for the presents under the tree. Our joy is not based on a party held on December the 25th. We are not here to celebrate one day that comes and goes every year. We are here to celebrate, and to long for, eternity with God. We are here to proclaim an end to suffering and pain and death. We are here to say that there is a light that the darkness cannot overcome or destroy, and it’s not the light from your Christmas tree or your front lawn light display; it is the light that comes from God.
We long to stand and live in the light of God. At Christmas we celebrate the vision, the glimpse we were given of that light in Jesus Christ. His life and more importantly his resurrection was a foretaste of the life and the light that awaits all of us. On December the 25th we celebrate our Lord being born among us, because in that moment we were allowed to see our eternal destiny: life with our God. We got to see the face of God and it was glorious. Can you imagine Christmas with all of the joy and none of the stress? Can you imagine a day of beauty and love and excitement and wonder that you didn’t have to create or pay for or make, but was just given to you as a free gift? The beauty and joy of Christmas may give us a glimpse into heaven, but what God has in store for us, is bound to be so much better than the holidays we create.
That is why we rejoice. We rejoice because we have heard the good news of the glorious feast that God has prepared for us.
We have been discussing the four last things this advent: death, judgement, heaven and hell. No doubt you have figured out by now, that today I am talking about heaven. Now popular piety has given us many images of heaven: clouds and pearly gates and angels as little fat babies with harps. Most of these images have nothing to do with scripture or actual Christian teachings. The truth is, there is much mystery for us surrounding what happens when we die, but our conviction, as Christians, is that it can be a glorious mystery and not a sorrowful one. No we don’t have a perfectly clear picture of heaven, but we have been given glimpses of it. We saw it in the face of a tiny child born on a Bethlehem hillside. We saw it again in the life of that young man as he taught the power of truth and love. We saw it once more, gloriously, after his broken body rose from the dead. Saints have seen it. Prophets have seen it. And maybe from time to time, you and I have seen it. Maybe you have had a glimpse of heaven and you didn’t even know it.
Maybe heaven surrounds us as a mystery that is begging to be seen and recognized, only we are usually too distracted by the darkness to notice. In the midst of darkness, we need something or someone to grab us and shake us, to cry out to us saying: rejoice! Something wonderful is coming! Heaven is on its way and you really don’t want to miss it.