Sermon Based on Matthew 25:14-30
Proper 28, Year A
November 19, 2017
Introduction: Those who have served in the military, or the United States Government, are familiar with the practice of spending all of the money that had been allocated to your command before the end of the fiscal year. That’s because if you didn’t use it before the beginning of the next fiscal year, you would lose it. At least that was the way it was when I was in the Navy.
Situation: That principle applies in today’s Gospel lesson. In today’s Parable of the Talents, Jesus focuses his teaching on the coming of God’s kingdom and how we are to prepare for the Son of Man who will come at an unknown time.
It will be as when a man going on a journey gives his property to three servants to look after, to be stewards of. He goes away for a long time and during this interval two of the servants use the talents, a huge sum of money. The third servant didn’t know when the master would return and, afraid of losing the money, he buried it in the ground, a common practice of saving money in first century Palestine.
When the master returned unannounced, he settled accounts with the servants. The two who used the money to make more money were rewarded and the third, who gave back every penny he was given, was punished.
I’ve always found this parable troubling because it just doesn’t seem fair. It smacks more of worldly wisdom than of Gospel grace. I mean, this servant wasn’t a bad person. If anything, he was a cautious, honest person who could be trusted with his master’s possessions; admirable traits, which makes his punishment seem so cruel. He was a good person but he was risk averse.
Complication: He was afraid of the master and, so, instead of investing the money and taking some risk of losing it, he buried it. What made this servant “wicked” was that he didn’t use the money to serve his master, important point. The other two servants knew that what their master had given them must be actively at work, must live, it must bring about something new. The third servant discovered that if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Have you ever felt so risk averse that you felt paralyzed? Afraid of making a decision? Afraid of failing? Afraid of someone else’s judgment? Afraid of losing what you have? So afraid that you buried not only your talents, but yourself for fear of doing something wrong?
Fear can be a paralyzing force in our lives. It can rob the believer of the Spirit’s power. It shrinks our capacity for obedience. It shrivels our will to serve and cripples the soul. It breeds over-caution in our reliance on God and so causes us not to trust God, and therein lies the sin.
One time a miser hid his gold at the foot of a tree in his garden. Every week he would dig it up and look at it for hours. One day a thief dug up the gold and made off with it. When the miser next came to gaze upon his treasure, all he found was an empty hole. The man began to howl with grief so his neighbors came running to find out what the trouble was. When they found out, one of them asked, “Did you use any of the gold?”
“No,” said the miser. “I only looked at it every week.”
“Well then,” said the neighbor, “for all the good the gold did you, you might just as well come every week and gaze upon the hole.”
Resolution: Fear is why a common refrain in the Gospel is “fear not,” because fear is the opposite of faith. Relationship with God – faith – means daring to risk. The challenge here is to risk our lives at whatever we are called to do as though God’s Kingdom depended on it. In this parable Jesus is making us a promise which is that when we use the gifts God gives us to serve God, those gifts will be multiplied many times over. Where God’s gift has already borne fruit, God gives in superabundance; where it has remained fruitless, it is lost completely. If we don’t use it, we lose it.
It seems that this parable on the lips of Jesus is a call to “holy worldliness.” It calls the followers of Jesus to be as entrepreneurial with the Gospel of Jesus as they would be with the businesses they might start or the real estate they would manage. It is a call to be as clever and committed and risk-taking in their work for Christ as they are in their pursuit of “mammon.”
Jesus, in the parable, seems to be saying that, in our caring, we are to “multiply” the Gospel. In our giving, in our stewardship, in our trusting in Christ, in witnessing, in our service to others, we are to “manifest” the power of the Spirit in such a way that the miracle of Jesus multiplies. We are to take this work as seriously as a businessman reading the Wall Street Journal, or as importantly as a boss would pore over the balance sheet of a company’s quarterly report.
This is the “manifestation” of the talents Jesus calls for. It is a risk-taking, entrepreneurial trust in God that causes tiny, mustard-seed faith to grow into the “largest of shrubs” for the sake of the Kingdom. And this kind of thinking and acting is for everyone, at every level.
“Manifestation” of talents, however, is not spiritual “miracle-grow” for our own personal gain – to do our own thing, for our own benefit. For those who are struggling today, as the peasants of Jesus’ day labored and sweated for their labor and perhaps could not see far beyond the day’s needs, the parable is a reminder that we all DO have gifts that can be exercised and multiplied by God’s grace. And it is always for the whole Body, not for our recovery and personal prosperity alone.
In order to discover how even our small talent or weak faith can be multiplied, we must stick our neck out.
Our purpose as Christians above all is to “express Christ.” This is the “talent” we all have been given as recipients of grace. “How” we are to do that depends on many variables. But it will not be in the spirit of sameness, because God loves variety in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
Today we have designated as Consecration Sunday. Today we are being asked to make a financial pledge to our church in the name of Christ. This can be a challenge for us to go beyond what we may feel comfortable giving and it can be frightening. It can also be an exciting opportunity to respond to our Lord in a concrete way, by pledging from the heart, out of love.
As St. Paul assures us, “. . . all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption,” in baptism.
With Christ working through us, we don’t have anything to fear and we have no reason to bury the gifts God has given us in the ground.
Conclusion: So, in the interval, while we wait for our Lord to come again, and we prepare ourselves for His coming, we pray, “O God, teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” as we use the talents you have generously given us.
Sermon Based on Amos 5:18-24 and Mt 25:1-13
Proper 27; Year A
November 12, 2017
Introduction: Three apprentice devils were preparing to come to earth to finish their apprenticeship. Satan, the Prince of Darkness, appeared before them and questioned them about their plans to tempt and ruin people.
The first said, “I will tell people that there is no God.” Satan answered, “You will deceive only a few that way, because deep down people sense that there must be a God.”
The second apprentice spoke, “I will tell them that there is no hell.” “You will fool only a few that way,” replied Satan, “because deep down people know one day they will have to answer for their misdeeds.
Finally, the third apprentice declared, “I will tell people that there is no hurry.” With that, Satan laughed with delight and predicted, “You will ruin them by the millions.”
Situation: We are now two weeks away from the beginning of Advent, the season during which we await the coming of the Christ child on Christmas. Are we ready for the Lord’s coming or do we believe that there is no hurry?
Today’s parable of the Ten Maidens is a story about being ready for the return of Jesus, the bridegroom. Jesus used the familiar setting of a wedding to make his point. You see, in those days after a day of dancing and entertainment the bride would be escorted to the groom’s house to wait for him there. Typically, the groom was delayed in coming because he had to work out the marriage agreement with the relatives of the bride. (You would think that all of that kind of paperwork would have been completed well before the wedding, wouldn’t you?) So, the exact time of the groom’s arrival to collect his bride and get on with the wedding was unpredictable. When he did come, the bride’s maids would leave the bride to escort the groom to the house by torch light. The wedding procession would then go from there to the groom’s father’s house where the wedding would take place with renewed entertainment.
In this case the groom was delayed much longer than expected, the maids all fell asleep, and their lamps burned low. When the groom did arrive, five of the maidens were unprepared because they didn’t bring any extra oil for their lamps and they were left out of the party.
Will we be ready when Jesus, the bridegroom, returns in glory? Or, like the five foolish maidens will we run out of the oil of faithfulness and be unprepared?
Complication: You see, the early Church was convinced that Jesus would return in its lifetime. But as the years passed by and people began dying, their excitement and hopeful anticipation turned to disappointment, disillusionment and finally into disbelief. Many people simply ran out of oil.
It’s been nearly 2000 years and still Jesus hasn’t returned. Do we really expect to see him return? Maybe, we believe the devil’s whisper that there is no hurry.
It’s easy to lose sight of Jesus’ promise to return. Other priorities are more pressing; raising a family, earning a living, enjoying life to the fullest. With other things on our minds, it’s easy to relax our vigilance and put our commitment to Christ and our faith on the back burner and, even, forget about it. When this happens, our faith runs low and our lamps grow dim. How can we keep our lamps from running out of the oil of faithfulness? How can we maintain a sense of urgency that the Lord is coming instead of being lulled into a false sense of security that there is no hurry?
Resolution: The Gospel message today is a call to be ready, to be prepared. I’d like to suggest several ways that we can prepare ourselves for the bridegroom’s arrival and not run out of the oil of faithfulness.
To begin with, what we’re doing right now is a wonderful start. Regular worship feeds our hungry faith with the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (John 6:35). We may come to worship feeling emptied by the challenges of the past week but leave feeling renewed to face the week ahead. The bridegroom comes to us in worship, and is here now.
But sometimes during the week we feel the need for more. So, private prayer, scripture reading, and meditation serve to replenish our supply of oil. The Lord surprises us by coming to us in the darkness of our fears and quieting our souls with the comforting light of his love.
Then, ironically, one of the ways to be prepared for the coming of the Lord and not run out of the oil of faithfulness is to serve the needs of others to burn the oil. St. James says that faith without works is dead. Amos tells us this morning that all of our worshipping and prayers, and sacrifices are worthless in God’s sight unless they give rise to justice and righteousness. Justice is doing what is right, even when that means standing all alone. And righteousness is that quality of life in relationship with others which brings justice.
This is what I call Kingdom living, or living in readiness.
But, of course, we’ll never be 100 per-cent ready. We get tired and fall asleep, like the ten maidens. But as long as we’ve done all we can to be prepared through worship, prayer and meditation, studying scripture, and working for justice and righteousness then our best will be good enough. Remember, it’s not about works. It’s about grace. From a Christian perspective we can offer our imperfect best, not because our efforts are sufficient but because Jesus’ are. It is what Jesus has already done through his life, suffering, death and resurrection, not what remains for us to do, that brings us eternal life and makes our lamps burn brightly.
Conclusion: The bridegroom is coming. Will we be ready?
Sermon based on Matthew 23:1-12
Proper 26, Year A
November 5, 2017
Introduction: I learned a long time ago while taking a management course in ROTC that money does not motivate people to work. Experience tells me that this is true. Giving someone responsibility and authority do motivate people because these instill a sense of pride in one’s work.
Situation: Motivating people is a tricky thing because we’re all so different.
Financial instructor, Dave Ramsey, talks about how to get out of debt, which the vast majority of the population in the United States finds itself in. In fact, seven out of ten households are living pay check to pay check, and many of them run out of money before the next payday. Of course, one has to realize that they are in financial trouble before they are interested in getting out of debt. Once that realization dawns upon them, however, then they start to get motivated.
Dave uses Proverbs 6:5 to illustrate his point about motivation. “Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter and like a bird from the hand of the fowler.” You see, wherever there are gazelles, gazelling around, there is a cheetah looking for lunch. Understand, the cheetah is the fastest mammal on the planet, going from 0 to 47 mph in four leaps. Every gazelle has a cheetah detector behind their ear and when a cheetah appears on the scene, they know they better run for their lives, even though they know that they cannot outrun the cheetah. The cheetah represents debt and the only way out of debt is to run for your life. You’ve gotta run, run, run as though your life depends on it, or you will be lunch. Interestingly enough, the cheetah only catches the gazelle, even though the cheetah is faster, the cheetah only catches the gazelle only one out of nineteen chases. Why is that? Motivation! One guy is looking for lunch and the other guy is looking to … STAY ALIVE!
Survival is a huge motivator.
The Pharisees were motivated by another one of our strong human needs; to be accepted by people and to receive their approval, in their case through their admirable observance of the law. But Jesus criticized the Pharisees for not practicing what they preached; for imposing burdensome religious laws on the people that they didn’t keep themselves. The small leather boxes containing the Shema and tied like bandanas to their foreheads, called phylacteries, and the long broad tassels hanging from the four corners of their cloths to remind them of the ten commandments, were symbols of their piety.
But these were only outward signs of the craving for people’s praise, approval, and esteem which ate at their hearts. Their motive was “to be seen by men,” but they had forgotten that they were being seen by God. The Pharisees talked a lot about God but their lives didn’t show God’s transforming power.
My guess is that we all know people like that, who wear their religion on their sleeve, but, if the truth be known, I suspect that often enough we’re like that. I mean our resolutions and stands on issues sound fine, our theology is pretty good. But do our lives and our life together always show our convictions or God’s transforming power? Or, are our convictions mostly recommendations for others about how they ought to live and act? Do we bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on our neighbor’s shoulders?
Complication: Like the Pharisees we need to be accepted and, so, we are motivated by this need to put on an outward display to convince others, if not ourselves, of our goodness. Our behavior often masks our driving needs which motivate us.
There was a Charlie Brown comic strip on which Linus asks Charlie, “Charlie Brown, do you want to know what the trouble is with you?”
Charlie Brown replies, “No.”
The two stare at each other. Then Linus says, “The trouble with you Charlie Brown is that you don’t want to know what the trouble is with you.”
The Pharisee in all of us shies away from honest self-examination because if we don’t like what we see, how can others like us?
Resolution: But God sees through our outward display and looks upon our hearts. The paradox is that through our Pharisaic attempt to display our goodness we discover our need for a power beyond our own, God’s grace, God’s power to accept and forgive us and, so, transform our hearts.
Jesus is speaking to all of us today and his words are not only a call to live out our convictions but a reminder that we too depend on grace. God’s love is the only motivating force in our lives powerful enough to help us live out our convictions. It’s this sense of our need for God’s grace which betrays our pretenses and pries us open to being honest, revealing our faults, and making us more lovable human beings. It’s God’s grace which makes us realize that though we are not all that we claim or even wish to be, God still loves us.
God knows our need to be accepted, and the truth is that God accepts us just as we are. It’s God’s acceptance and forgiveness of us that has the power to transform our hearts and our lives, not other people’s acceptance of us. So, it is God’s grace which has the transforming power to motivate us and bring us to renewal, a new birth of faith.
Conclusion: The closeness of Halloween, just last Tuesday, and All Saints’ Day on Wednesday may remind us that we are both saints and sinners. The 17th century French philosopher Pascal once said that, “The world is divided between sinners who believe themselves to be saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”
By God’s grace we know ourselves to be the latter, transformed by His grace.
Sermon Based on 1 Thessalonians
Proper 25; Year A
October 29, 2017
Sermon Based on Isaiah 45:1-7
Proper 24; Year A
October 22, 2017
Introduction: One of the major themes of the Old Testament is that the God of the Jewish people, and our God, is the God who acts, who works through history to accomplish God’s will. The scriptures are full of such stories: the creation, the tower of Babel, Noah and the flood, the Exodus, and so on. Then, of course, there’s the story of Jesus’ birth, when God came into our world and saved us from the power of sin and death on a cross.
Situation: Well, today’s reading from Isaiah is another account of God’s activity in the course of human affairs. What’s so exciting about it is that it shows us in concrete terms how God is at work in our lives, and often times without our even being aware of it.
The year was 539 BC and the winds of change were again blowing across the Middle East. Just 48 years earlier Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews driven into exile in Babylon. Now, a new empire was rising out of the sand lead by Cyrus, the King of Persia. Now, Cyrus was your typically ambitious warrior. Although a very religious man, he coveted a larger empire and total power. When he was ready he attacked and conquered Babylon. Interestingly enough, Cyrus gave credit for his victory to – of all the gods – the Babylonian god named Marduk, their chief god. He thought that Marduk was angry with the misrule of the Babylonian king and, so, took action out of pity for the oppressed by defeating him and, in the process, satisfying Cyrus’ selfish ambitions. Cyrus was completely unaware of any Jewish God or that he was unwittingly fulfilling Yahweh’s plan to restore the Jewish people to Jerusalem. He played right into God’s hands and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem a year later in 538. Of course, the most shocking thing for the Jews was to realize that it was a non-Israelite king who was anointed by God to accomplish this liberation, but that’s exactly what Isaiah prophesied would happen.
Complication: You know, the more I thought about Cyrus the more I began to think about how often we play into God’s hands doing things without thinking that God is in any way involved. We go about our daily lives and things happen and we’re more likely to think about chance, luck, fate, or our own skills and efforts instead of thinking that God was at work. Sometimes we think we’re doing something to help someone else but the end result is so different than what we expected that the thought that God was involved never occurs to us.
Resolution: It’s all very confusing so maybe the following true story will convey what I’m trying to say. As Dr. Megan McKenna, author and lecturer at the 65th Diocesan Convention in El Paso, Texas, told us repeatedly, “All stories are true, some actually happened. This one actually happened.
Mary and Ann were good friends who shared a miracle together. Mary was already a month pregnant when Ann discovered that she, too, was pregnant. It was as though the joy was doubled as they shared hopes and dreams for their yet unborn children. You know, “I’ll have a boy and you have a girl and they’ll grow up to get married and live happily ever after.” That kind of thing.
A month after Ann had become pregnant, Mary suffered the tragedy of a spontaneous miscarriage and all her dreams were shattered. Ann was distressed, of course, and deeply concerned that talking about her pregnancy might offend Mary. Indeed, no one wanted to talk about it, not even her husband, for fear of upsetting Mary; no one wanted to talk about, that is, except Mary.
In the following weeks and months, the two women would talk and Mary would ask Ann how she was feeling, if her cloths were beginning to feel tight, and what her doctor was telling her. In return Mary would tell Ann how she remembered feeling and about her doctor visits. You see, she thought she was helping Ann by telling her about her experiences and how she felt; comparing notes. She was also hungry to hear about everything Ann was going through, to live through Ann’s experience, but because Ann didn’t want to hurt Mary, she only told her what she asked about and nothing more; at least until the next set of questions.
Finally, the day came for Anne to deliver and her good friend Mary was at hand. Ann had shared everything about the pregnancy with her friend and it was natural to share the birth.
Later, the two friends moved to separate cities but they kept in close touch.
One day, Ann’s husband, Dave, traveling through Mary’s city, spent the night visiting with Mary and her husband. In response to something Dave said, Mary commented, “Well, you know, Ann can fix anything.”
“What do you mean?” Dave asked in surprise.
“Well, Ann helped me get over the loss of my baby. I don’t think I could have made it without her.”
A wave of relief crossed Dave’s face. “You know, you have to tell Ann that because she doesn’t know. She thinks that her pregnancy was only a constant, painful reminder of the baby you didn’t have.”
Without being aware of it, Ann helped Mary work through her grief. By sharing so much throughout Ann’s pregnancy, Mary was able to talk about her feelings and express herself. Unwittingly, Ann was the only one who let her do that. Without either woman realizing it, God was working through Ann to help her best friend overcome her loss.
Like Cyrus, God calls each of us by name to accomplish God’s will. Often without our realizing it God holds us by the right hand, guiding us, and going with us through life. And God removes obstacles and gives us the resources we need to accomplish His will.
Conclusion: God acts through history. God acts in our daily lives in concrete ways. Think about it and I believe you’ll see God working through you.
Sermon Based on Matthew 22:1-14
Proper 23; Year A
October 15, 2017
Introduction: When I was thirteen years old I went with my family to Toronto, Canada to attend my best friend’s bar mitzvah, the ceremony which marks the passage from boyhood to manhood for a young person and making him now responsible for his moral and religious duties in the Jewish religion. This was a celebration I’ll never forget. The day began with the solemn religious ceremony in the synagogue at mid-morning and the party began immediately after, lasting late into the night. The dancing, the live band, and the gourmet food were all remarkable. My friend’s parents knew how to throw a party.
Situation: The king in today’s parable knew how to throw a party. His son was getting married and, naturally enough, he wanted it to be an unforgettable affair. The palace was decorated, the musicians were playing, the fat calves and oxen were cooked; everything was ready. The only problem was that there were no guests.
Well, you see, wedding invitations today give the exact time of the wedding. In Jesus’ day, people would be invited to a wedding feast and would accept without knowing the exact time. When everything was prepared, and the bride and the groom were ready, the servants would then go out and spread the word. “Everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” And everyone would come for the grand celebration.
Well, when these guests were invited to come they found reasons not to go, some making light of the invitation and others killing the king’s servants. The king was furious, of course, and after killing the ungrateful guests, he opened the banquet hall to anyone who would accept his invitation.
Once again Jesus used a parable to make the point that the originally invited wedding guests, God’s chosen people – the Jews – had rejected God’s invitation to salvation offered through Jesus. So the king, God, invited everyone, Jew or Gentile. That’s important because it shows us that God plays no favorites. The banquet table of God is open to everyone. And around the banquet table of God there won’t be Baptists, or Catholics, or Episcopalians. There won’t even be a head table reserved for the very saintly. There will only be sinners for whom Christ died. That includes you and me. Everyone is invited. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad. Not everyone will accept the invitation.
Some time ago, I received two invitations. One was to attend the Dedication of an Episcopal Church. The other was to attend the Celebration of a New Ministry. But, you see, I had a problem. I couldn’t attend the first because it was too far away to get to by the appointed hour on a Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t attend the second because I had an important meeting at the Diocesan Office and wouldn’t have been able to get to the celebration in time. I was sure both celebrations would be great parties, and they were important, but I had to miss them both.
We can always find some excuse for not accepting invitations. Granted, not all invitations are of equal importance and I still haven’t learned how to be in two places at the same time. I could probably afford to turn down these invitations because, after all, I didn’t have to be at either of them.
But there is one invitation none of us can afford to refuse. That’s the invitation God offers us in Jesus.
Complication: The invitation is to repent, to turn away from our sins, accept God’s love for each of us as it is revealed in Christ; to let that love work in our lives through faith which influences our thoughts and actions. The question for us is this: “Will we accept the invitation offered by God in Christ by acting on it every day, living out our faith, or will we take it lightly, finding some excuse for letting it lie. This, my brothers and sisters, is the choice with which we are faced. Will we come to the wedding feast and have the time of our lives, or will we miss the opportunity of our lives?
Resolution: A Hasidic story tells of a little boy playing hide-and-seek with his friends. For some unknown reason they stopped playing while he was hiding. He began to cry. His grandfather came out of the house to see what was troubling him and to comfort him. After learning what had happened, the grandfather said,
“Do not weep, my child, because the children did not come to find you. Perhaps you can learn a lesson from this disappointment. All of life is like a game between God and us. Only it is God who is weeping, for we are not playing the game fairly. God is waiting to be found, but many have gone in search of other things.”
I suppose it hardly needs to be said, but who would turn down an invitation from God, especially one written in the blood of Christ on a cross? What in the world could be more important in our lives than to say “Yes” to God? What could possibly take a higher priority on our social, professional, or personal agenda than to drop what we are doing to respond when the invitation to God’s grace comes and go straightaway to the banquet? Our weekly Sunday Eucharist is that banquet.
Conclusion: The kingdom of God is like a great banquet and, I assure you, God knows how to throw a party. It’s a celebration and an occasion for joy. Everything is prepared; it is here and now. Let’s not miss it because of competing priorities.
Come to the party, come to the feast; for this is the feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.
Sermon Based on Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Proper 22, Year A
October 8, 2017
Introduction: A mother was preparing pancakes for her two sons, Keven, 5, and Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson.
“If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’
Keven turned to his younger brother and said, ‘Ryan, you be Jesus!”
Situation: Today’s parable of the wicked tenants is about selfishness and other ways of not giving God what God is due, of not bearing fruit in God’s Kingdom. In first century Palestine it was common practice for wealthy people to own land hundreds of miles away from home, often overseas. These parcels of land were let out to tenant farmers who worked the land for the owner and received a percentage of the crop as their pay. In today’s parable, the tenants, or stewards who managed the land, didn’t believe that the owner could put down a rebellion, living so far away. So, they decided to take what was not theirs, refusing to give the landowner his rightful share of the crop. When the owner sent loyal servants to collect, the tenants, sitting in the high watch tower, saw them coming and, instead of giving them the rightful payment, abused them, killing one. The owner sent more servants and the same thing happened. Finally, the owner sent his son believing that, surely, they would respect him. But, hoping to claim the land for themselves, they killed the son.
These were bad stewards; selfish and greedy. Now, in its context, 2000 years ago, the parable is about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, condemning them for misleading the people, using their positions for profit, rejecting the prophets, and who would eventually kill Jesus (the landowner’s son). This parable is, in truth, a prediction of Jesus’ death.
Today, the questions that this parable raises for me, and I hope for all of us, are these: Are we good stewards of what God has given us to tend, the vineyards of our faith in Jesus and the building up of our church? Do we give God what is rightfully God’s, our unqualified obedience, or do we rebel? If you’re like me, too often we rebel, as much as we would like to obey. This was Paul’s struggle when he despaired, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 8:15b).”
For instance, thinking about the vineyards of our faith and building up the church, I began to think about evangelism and welcoming those new to St. Mary’s. At the end of Matthew’s account of the gospel, Jesus tells us to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … (Matthew 28:19a). As disciples and stewards of the church, our commission is to share our faith in Jesus with other people and bring them into the fold. As disciples, whether or not we want to admit it, all of us are involved in religious work, and evangelism is our responsibility.
Complication: I know, traditionally Episcopalians don’t like talking about their faith. It’s probably heresy even to suggest it. People tell me that their faith is too personal to share. I suspect, however, that it’s more likely that we don’t want to be seen as religious fanatics. That would be embarrassing. Perhaps we’re just not sure about how to share our belief in Christ. But insofar as we refuse to share our faith, we fail to fulfill our commission to be evangelists for Christ.
Now, lest anyone become alarmed, I’m not saying that we have to stand on a busy street corner and shout about Jesus. In fact, that is not effective evangelism. We don’t have to quote chapter and verse and beat people over the head with the Bible. We don’t want to get into any arguments, or be pushy, or obnoxious. But what God wants from us is to feel so claimed by God’s love that we willingly share how Christ has blessed our lives when appropriate opportunities arise. That’s all.
Resolution: I suspect that most of us remember hearing, in the 1990s, about the Decade of Evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Unless you received mailings from the national church, that’s probably all you heard about the Decade of Evangelism, and may have even forgotten about it. This silence prompted some to criticize the church for doing nothing. But in fact if the church did nothing, then we did nothing because we are the church. By definition, evangelism is sharing the story of Jesus and what he has done for us. Like many things, evangelism starts in the home. This is our Christian calling and our responsibility.
After Jesus returned to heaven, he and the Archangel Gabriel were talking. Even in heaven Jesus bore the marks of the crucifixion.
Gabriel said, “Master, you must have suffered terribly! Do people know and appreciate how you love them?”
Jesus replied, “No; not yet. Right now only a few people in Palestine know.”
Gabriel was perplexed: “Then what have you done to let everyone know about your love?”
Jesus answered, “I’ve asked Peter, Andrew, James, John, and a few more friends to tell others about me. Those who are told will tell others about me, and yet others still others until the last man and woman in the farthest corner of the earth will have heard the story of how I gave my life for them because I love them so much.”
Gabriel frowned and looked alarmed. “Yes, but what if Peter and the others grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? Surely you’ve made other plans?”
Said Jesus, “Gabriel, I haven’t made any other plans. I’m counting on them.”
If you have questions about how to share your faith with someone else, first pray about it and think about why you believe in Jesus, how did you come to know who he was, was your life redirected or changed in any way? How has your life been different since coming to faith in Christ? Put it on paper as that tends to help people think more clearly. If you have questions you want to explore, you have Sam and me to help you. Now that I’ve volunteered Sam, I might as well include Fr. Art in this invitation. After all, I wouldn’t want him to feel left out.
Conclusion: Jesus is counting on us to work in the vineyard of his people, revealing his love in our lives, sharing his love. That is being an obedient tenant. That’s good, solid evangelism and good stewardship, giving back to God what God has given us and the fruit God is due.
Sermon Based on Mt 21:23-32
Proper 21, Year A
October 1, 2017
Introduction: In the Alcoholics Anonymous community there is an expression for those who say one thing but do another. Those people talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. What they say and what they do just don’t agree.
Situation: Well, today’s parable of the two sons puts this expression into story form. The chief priests and the elders of the people come to the temple to challenge the source of Jesus’ authority to teach about God. These religious leaders, who were the servants of God by profession, knew how to talk the talk. But their insistence upon fulfilling the law, and their limited success in doing so, filled them with pride, blinding them to their need to change their lives, or turn away from their sins. They did not walk the walk.
So, Jesus told them the parable about two sons who were told by their father to go to work in the vineyard. One son said “No” but later changed his mind and went into the vineyard. The other said he would go but didn’t. Which of the two did his father’s will? The answer was obvious, the son who said “No” but went to work anyway, and the religious leaders said so. Their quick answer showed that although they got the answer right, they missed the point. Jesus exposed the religious leaders with their mock obedience to God as the second son. The tax collectors and prostitutes who heard Jesus’ words and changed their lives were like the first son who changed his mind and went into the vineyard.
Complication: What about us? How often are we like the second son, rather than the first?
Like the religious leaders we’re all infected with a certain amount of pride, certain that we have it right. We know what’s right and wrong and as long as we do what’s right then we’ll be OK, God will bless us.
Every day there’s a good chance that we have an opportunity to obey God’s call to change. Often, like the second son, we recognize and acknowledge that call but don’t fulfill it. These opportunities may be small and seemingly trivial. Sending a card to a sick friend, or letting the opportunity slip by. Following a call to outreach ministry or social action, doing something for the poor or homeless, volunteering at a hospital or nursing home. Or, God’s call may be to change one’s career, or to change one’s life.
How many times have we said, “Yes” to God but then did nothing? How many opportunities have we missed? The Jewish leaders thought that authority was the issue. For Jesus, the issue was response. What you do is what counts.
The importance of our willingness to respond to God and change is illustrated in this little story.
There was a man who faithfully attended a weekly prayer meeting, always confessing the same tangled web of sins during testimony time. Then he would pray the same prayer:
O Lord, since we last gathered together, the cobwebs have come between you and us. Clear away the cobwebs, Lord, that we may again see your face.
At a later meeting, another person called out, shortly after the man had started his weekly litany during testimony time, “O Lord God, kill the spider!”
The Jewish leaders did not respond either to John the Baptist or to Jesus.
Resolution: The young minister had been at his new church only a couple of weeks when he received the call every new minister dreads – the call to do his first funeral. The person who died was not a member of his church. She was, in fact, a woman with a very bad reputation. Her husband was a railroad engineer who was away from home much of the time. She had rented rooms in their house to men who worked on the railroad and rumor had it that she rented more than just rooms when her husband was away.
The young preacher, faced with his first funeral, found no one who had a good word to say about this woman, until he entered the small grocery store on the day before the funeral. He began to talk to the store owner about his sadness that the first person he would bury would be someone about which nothing good could be said.
The store owner didn’t reply at first and then, in his silence, he appeared to make a decision. He took out his store ledger and laid it on the counter between him and the preacher. He opened the ledger at random and, covering the names in the left hand column, he pointed to grocery bills written in red – groceries that people had bought on credit – and then the column that showed the bill had been paid.
He said, “Every month, that woman would come in and ask me who was behind in their grocery bills. It was usually some family who had sickness or death or some poor woman trying to feed her kids when her husband drank up the money. She would pay their bill and she made me swear never to tell. But, I figure not that she has passed on, folks aught to know – especially those who benefited from her charity who have been most critical of her.”
Conclusion: In Jesus’ parable, the son who eventually obeyed his parent realized what was good and responded positively. Our obedient response to God is what God requests. Having the mind of Christ Jesus, praying humbly, and submitting ourselves to following God’s guidance will help us walk the walk as we seek to accept God’s call to change.
Sermon Based on Matthew 20:1-16
Proper 20; Year A
September 24, 2017
Sermon Based on Matthew 18:21-35
Proper 19; Year A
September 17, 2017
Introduction: We’ve all probably said it, or heard it said, “Only God could forgive him, because I can’t.”
Situation: And I expect we’ve all probably wondered, like Peter, about how many times we can forgive someone who sins against us.
Last week we heard Jesus’ lesson on how to live together in community. Inevitably all communities must deal with the issue of sin, so it’s not surprising that someone, in this case Peter, might raise the question about forgiveness. Peter learned from Jesus that forgiveness must take the place of vengeance but he was still asking about limits. In the Jewish law Peter knew so well, one only needed to forgive someone up to three times, that’s all, so his question about seven times was really quite generous; generous but he was still counting. So, it must have been a surprise to hear Jesus tell him, “seventy times seven.”
No matter how often we hear today’s reading from Matthew, I suspect it surprises us, perhaps because we are still counting. I mean, yes Jesus said this and we know he’s right, but we live in the real world where some people are vicious, or vindictive, or just plain mean. In our enlightened world, we know about the cycle of violence which produces criminals. Children born into criminal environments or abusive homes often grow up to be criminals and abusers. Forgiveness isn’t going to change their behavior. They need to be held responsible for their behavior and “scared straight.” We’ve all been hurt by someone; some of us very deeply.
Complication: So, no matter how much we intellectually agree with Jesus’ answer of unlimited forgiveness, emotionally we feel like “the Club” has been locked onto our hearts instead of the steering wheel; we feel immobilized and stuck, unforgiving.
Resolution: So, because we know that Jesus is right, the question for us is how and where do we find the power to forgive?
Well we know that it’s not through denial, although “good Christians” are often the best deniers. “Good Christians” shouldn’t be angry, or depressed, or bitter; right? And it doesn’t do any good to spiritualize our pain and become martyrs. That only suppresses the pain instead of dealing with it.
Where do we find the power to forgive? Well, I believe we find it in the loving, forgiving relationship that we have with the Lord, Jesus Christ. Now, it may come as a surprise to some that even Jesus recognized that there are conditions to be fulfilled before forgiveness can be granted or given. Forgiveness is part of a mutual relationship; the other part is the repentance of the offender. God does not forgive without repentance, nor is it required of us. The effect of forgiveness is to restore to its former state the relationship that was broken by sin. Such a restoration requires the cooperation of both parties. There must be both a granting and an acceptance of the forgiveness. Sincere, deep-felt sorrow for the wrong, which works repentance (2 Cor. 7:10), is the condition of mind that insures the acceptance of the forgiveness.
However, the offended, the wronged party, is to go even farther and is to seek to bring the wrongdoer to repentance. More explicitly Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Mt. 18:15-17). He is to carry his pursuit to the point of making every reasonable effort to win the wrongdoer, and only when he has exhausted every effort may he abandon it. The object, of course, is the gaining of his brother. Only when this is obviously unattainable is all effort to cease.
So, I suggest the way to a forgiving spirit is to go back again and again to the deep well of forgiveness we find in Jesus Christ for our sins. God’s forgiveness is conditional upon a person’s forgiveness of the wrongs done to him, not because God forgives grudgingly, but because forgiveness alone indicates that disposition of mind which will humbly accept the divine pardon. Repentance is a necessary ingredient of the fully developed forgiveness.
I know it sounds naive, it sounds idealistic. Part of us says, “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t people who hurt us be punished and held responsible for what they do?” And I say to you, “Yes.” God says to us, “Hold people responsible, yes, there must be repentance but always forgive them when there is repentance. You don’t have to live in the same relationship but always forgive as I have forgiven you.”
Today’s gospel lesson is about forgiveness and forgiveness is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. General Ogelthorp once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” “Then I hope, sir,” said Wesley, “you never sin.”
You see, the debt owed by the unforgiving servant in today’s parable was astronomical, beyond anyone’s ability to repay. His promise to repay everything was obviously ridiculous; he couldn’t. Nor can we repay God for the debt we owe, and yet our slates have been wiped clean. The debt owed by the fellow servant was 500,000 times less than the debt just cancelled for the unforgiving servant. That’s why the legal demand to “pay what you owe” rings so viciously. You see, God’s mercy contradicts all human notions of justice, leaving us shaking our heads in awe and amazement.
God’s goodness came alive in Jesus’ ministry as he forgave his killers from a cross. God’s goodness comes alive every time we allow God to work through us to transform our world. We must always remember the great forgiveness God offers each of us and extend the same forgiveness to others.
Do we still find ourselves saying, “It’s impossible! Only God could forgive him because I can’t?” Well, it does happen.
When I lived in Cleveland, Ohio I heard a news story over the radio. A pastor was working in his study when he was shot in the head by a stray bullet. It turned out that two boys were playing with a pellet gun in their yard next door. They were unsupervised and just shooting at anything. They were probably aiming at something in the pastor’s yard but the pellet went through the study window and struck the pastor. From his hospital bed the pastor told the police that he didn’t want to press charges. All he wanted was an apology from the boys and a promise that in the future they would be very careful about where they were shooting and never to point a gun at another person. He got both, the apology and the promise.
Well, they were kids and he was a minister, we tell ourselves.
In 1992, in a California courtroom, during a break in the proceedings, Reginald Denny, the truck driver beaten so savagely during the Los Angeles riots the year before, approached the mother of Damion Williams, one of the accused, and gave her a hug. Time and again, grace happens.
Conclusion: Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s forgiveness is not for decoration. It is to be used. May we hear the invitation Jesus offers us today and let God’s goodness come to life through our lives, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1982), II, 341.
 Ibid., p. 342.
Sermon Based on Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14
Proper 18; Year A
September 10, 2017
Introduction: I confess that I find the concept of “No Fault Insurance” a very appealing one. Two people get into an automobile accident and, with No Fault Insurance, both drivers are treated equally with no blame assigned to either driver for the accident.
Situation: Wouldn’t it be nice if everything worked that way? No fault, no blame, no responsibility?
Well, like it or not, the Christian community is anything but a “no-fault” fellowship. It’s a fellowship of commitment and responsibility to ourselves, to each other, and, of course, to God. As today’s readings suggest, the early church had its problems. If the argument among the disciples about which of them was the greatest, and the parable of the lost sheep preceding today’s story are any indication, it was a community composed of children and lost sheep. They were the little ones the world didn’t recognize as model citizens or as pillars of power and influence. They had no room to boast among themselves and, therefore, every reason to identify with each other and to share each other’s lives. They were a fellowship of the least and the lost who had died with Christ and, so, had nothing to hide, nothing to prove.
Yet, despite Paul’s urgent call to love as faithful followers of Jesus, disputes inevitably came up. Fights over spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:1-26) and speaking in tongues (1Cor 14), reports from Chloe’s people about quarreling over baptism with some saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ” (1 Cor 1), controversy over improperly receiving the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:17-22), and eating food offered to idols (1 Cor 8), are some examples of conflict in the early church.
Complication: So, the issue naturally arises about how to deal with disagreements in a way that honors the command to love one another and yet also calls to account those whose behavior threatens the fabric of the entire community. Today’s Gospel focuses on life in the community of believers and provides a glimpse of how the early faith community dealt with the painful issue of determining when dissent becomes disruption that requires decisive action.
Unfortunately, like the church member in today’s gospel lesson who refuses to listen to correction, we sometimes refuse to accept responsibility for our part in our relationships, and we sure don’t want to admit our guilt for anything. It’s too embarrassing. People might not like us if they really know who we are or what we are like.
It is excruciatingly difficult to admit that we are wrong. It is humiliating and shameful. Our defenses go to “general quarters” and we go to battle with anyone who brings a complaint against us.
It sometimes seems like we, and members of other churches, are congregations of individuals living out our personal religion with our personal God, instead of being “the body of Christ” living as members of a Spirit filled community, expressing the life of Jesus our Lord.
Resolution: But, in fact, the people who combine to make up the body of Christ are ideally guided by the love of Christ. So, we must walk in the same divine love which is at the center of intimacy and which can help us overcome our fear of rejection and shame. Thus, Jesus gives us a way to overcome our differences.
The process of dealing with disputes that Jesus lays out in Matthew’s account of the Gospel gives us a way to maintain the community, avoid schisms, and win back any who might have gone astray. Jesus’ system is also a healthy way of settling our differences.
First, the offended party should take the initiative to restore the severed relationship by going to the other person in private and explaining the offense. No one would need to know, and the issue can be settled privately. If both parties desire to end the quarrel, the brother or sister has been won back. Forgiveness and reconciliation begin with an intentional encounter between alienated individuals.
If that does not work, the second step is to call one or two members as witness to the fact that the offended one has sought reconciliation. This comes from Deuteronomy 19:15, which states that “only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”
If the offender still refuses to yield to the overarching good of the community, then the third step is to take the matter before the whole church, which might be represented by the Vestry in the Episcopal tradition. By this time the matter has become more than a private grievance, and action must be taken to protect the entire community.
Jesus’ prescription for reconciling differences protects the dignity of everyone involved and is a responsible, pastoral approach.
When we gather as a church we gather in the name of Jesus and in his presence. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered IN MY NAME THERE AM I in the midst of them.” Jesus’ presence doesn’t depend upon the institutional church, or the size of the community, or how sacred a place may be. It is only the presence of love that brings the presence and the power of Christ to our community for without love there can be no community. Without love there can be no reconciliation.
What a relief it is to know that we are accepted and can be forgiven by each other in spite of our offences. What a relief it is to be a member of a community in which we can be open and honest in love with each other and not have to worry about being rejected.
Conclusion: Just as we are called into community in the name of Jesus and in his presence, so we are called to be present to others as Christ is present to us and in us. The presence of the God who was unknown has been replaced by the presence of the One who is known, who can be called by name, the presence of Jesus Christ himself.
Sermon Based on Matthew 16:21-28
Proper 17; Year A
September 3, 2017
Introduction: I’m glad that a week has passed since last Sunday’s account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and today’s account of Peter’s reprimand by Jesus. Although in scripture one follows directly on the heels of the other, I suspect some real time separated the two events.
Situation: As it was however, Peter saw in Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and for a moment, however briefly, he understood. If there was ever an appropriate time to teach the disciples about what it meant to be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, and to be a disciple, now was the time when Peter was so close. So Jesus revealed his fate to his friends; suffering, and death, and resurrection. Like a dream that fades from memory almost as soon as we awaken, so Peter’s understanding of Jesus as the Christ faded into confusion about the meaning of being the Messiah.
“What? Suffer and die? No! Why would anyone want to hurt someone who only wanted to save people?” Peter’s ignorance about the meaning of the Messiah revealed his ignorance about the meaning of discipleship and of his own future.
Complication: Do we understand the meaning of discipleship? Do we understand the consequences of following Jesus; the costs?
I think that in order to understand discipleship one must first understand why Jesus had to suffer and die. Think of it this way.
When Adam and Eve were created and in the Garden of Eden, they were in a sinless relationship of bliss with God the Father. When Adam or Eve, whichever one you want to blame in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God for the very first time he, or she, broke the relationship of bliss they had with God before they sinned. Because it was a human being who broke the relationship, God the Father required that a human being be completely obedient to His will in order to heal that broken relationship. But nobody had ever been completely obedient to God’s will from the time of Adam and Eve up until Jesus was born. Nobody. Because Jesus was fully God and fully human, he had the opportunity to do what no one else had ever done before; be completely obedient to God. So, every day of Jesus’ life, he was being tempted by evil to disobey God the Father; to sin. This is because evil knew that if Jesus ever sinned, even one time, then he would be just like everyone else; a sinner. And if he was a sinner, then he would not have been able to save us.
So, when the opposing side captures a soldier during a war and wants to get information out of that soldier against his or her will, the means most often used to accomplish this is torture. The intensity of the torture is increased until either the prisoner breaks and gives the information that the enemy wants or the prisoner dies. But if the prisoner dies, there’s nothing more the enemy can do to that person.
Jesus was in a war with evil, make no mistake; a life or death struggle. So evil increased the intensity of its temptations, constantly trying to trick Jesus into disobeying God. Evil kept pushing and pushing, poking and sticking, and torturing until finally, on a cross, Jesus died. But once he was dead, evil could do nothing more to him. It had played its trump card, the death card, and lost because Jesus never gave into the temptation to disobey God; he was completely obedient. But, by dying on a cross Jesus won the eternal victory of life. By dying on a cross Jesus denied himself. His person was not as important as the world’s salvation from the power of sin and eternal death. When Jesus died on the cross he made us right with God and healed the broken relationship we had with God because of what Adam, or Eve, had done way back when. This is why Jesus had to suffer and die. Through his resurrection, he overcame the grave and the power of death was destroyed for us.
Our person is not as important as fulfilling our responsibility to following Jesus by serving him in self-denial and sacrifice by serving others. And, we do this out of joyful thanksgiving for what he did for us by dying and being resurrected. We share his ministry. To be a disciple means to follow Jesus. And following Jesus involves denying one’s self and taking up our cross. The figure of a person carrying the instrument of self-sacrifice and death is about the most powerful image of willing sacrifice imaginable.
Following Jesus means embracing a whole new set of values; a whole new life. It means that “me” is replaced by “we”; that “my will” is replaced by “thy will,” that self is subjected to others; that giving replaces getting. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. It’s not good business but it is a wonderful life. It baffles the world, but it warms the heart.
I suspect that the word sacrifice is a frightening word for many of us. Images of poverty, sorrow, hunger, even death come to mind. Indeed, there is no guarantee that following Jesus will bring us health, wealth, and happiness or change our present status. So, like Peter, I think there is a natural tendency to hold back on sacrificing; to carefully calculate what we have and sacrifice only what we feel comfortable with sacrificing. It’s called self-preservation.
Resolution: But, again, that’s because sacrifice has a negative connotation in our minds. Frederich Beuchner puts a positive spin on it. He says that to sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love. Let me repeat that. To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love. I think there is a lot of truth in what he says. Whether it be our time, our talents, or our treasure, or even our lives, whatever we may sacrifice, when it is given in God’s love it becomes holy; very special and precious.
May I suggest that the difference between self-sacrifice and self-preservation is the difference between heaven and hell – giving self-sacrifice a positive spin for a change.
A man was speaking with the Lord about heaven and hell.
“I will show you hell,” said the Lord, and they went into a room which had a large pot of stew in the middle. The smell was delicious, but around the pot sat desperate people who were starving. All were holding spoons with very long handles which reached into the pot. But because the handle of the spoon was longer than their arm, it was impossible to get the stew into their mouths. Their suffering was great and terrible.
“Now I will show you heaven,” said the Lord, and they went into another room identical to the first one. There was a similar pot of delicious stew and the people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished, talking and happy. At first the man did not understand.
“It is simple,” said the Lord. “You see, these people have learned to sacrifice their portion to feed each other.”
Conclusion: So you see, sacrificing, losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake, isn’t so bad especially when, in the end, there is eternal life.
Sermon Based on Matthew 16:13-20
Proper 16; Year A
August 27, 2017
Sermon Based on Isaiah 56:6-7 & Mt 15:21-28
Proper 15; Year A
August 20, 2017
Introduction: Mohatma Gandhi, in his autobiography, tells how, during his days in South Africa as a young Indian lawyer, he read the Gospels and saw in the teachings of Jesus the answer to the major problem facing the people of India, the cast system.
Seriously considering embracing the Christian faith, Gandhi went to a whites-only church one Sunday morning intending to talk to the minister about the idea. When he entered the church, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and told him to go and worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned.
“If Christians have cast differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.”
Situation: Today’s Gospel gives us the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The Canaanites were the people that the Jews displaced when they inhabited the “Promised Land.” As a Canaanite, she was regarded by any Jewish person, including the disciples, as a godless, hopelessly sinful, unclean Gentile whose race might just as well be exterminated. The Jews held all Gentiles in such contempt that they referred to them as “dogs.” Can we imagine how she must have felt? I wonder if she felt as badly as Gandhi.
This woman had no claim on Jesus because she was not Jewish. She had no right to expect Jesus to grant her plea for mercy let alone pay any attention to her and, indeed, at first, he ignored her. She had no leg to stand on, no hope except to argue that God is merciful and that all God has ever asked of anyone was faithful obedience.
I think that, before I go any further, today’s story needs some “unpacking.” Jesus makes an apparently rude comment about throwing bread to dogs that is as cryptic to us as an inside joke is to an outsider. We need to know that “bread” was a recognized symbol for salvation, as in Jesus’ saying, “I am the bread of life.” Also, as I just said, the Jews commonly called the Gentiles “dogs.” (I might add, parenthetically, that later Christians, believing themselves to be the true Jews, returned the complement by calling the unbelieving Jews “dogs,” as in Philippians 3:2 where Paul warns us to “Look out for the dogs,” referring to Jews who claimed to be Christian but continued to preach the necessity of circumcision. Yes, even in scripture we find evidence of what might strike us as un-Christian hostility toward others.)
So, Jesus’ comment was a metaphor, which, loosely interpreted, stated that salvation was for the Jews and his mission was to bring them this salvation. Although a Canaanite, this woman was not stupid. She didn’t skip a beat but picked up Jesus’ metaphor and extended it to say, “Yes, that’s true, but God is more generous than to deny to outsiders what the covenant people have thrown away.” Jesus recognized in this woman a combination of persistence and humility that constituted a faith exceeding that found in Israel. I think it is interesting that this woman was not put off or discouraged by Jesus, as Gandhi was by the church. I am confident the fact that she was pleading for her daughter’s soul, motivated her to persist.
Complication: Well, if you’re like me, I think we can all identify with the Canaanite woman. She was an outcast, shunned by society. I think we all know what it feels like to be an “outsider.” Shunned by others, not part of a click, made fun of because we are different, always being the last one picked for the team, even feeling ignored as though we didn’t exist.
There may even be times when, like the woman, we feel ignored by God and left alone in our misery; times when we cry out to God for mercy and we hear no answer. We feel totally alone.
Ultimately, of course, we know we are no better than the Canaanite woman. Because of our sin riddled lives we are outlaws who have no claim on Jesus by ourselves, and who deserve nothing.
Resolution: About this story, Heidi Husted has commented:
“This becomes the day that the gospel of Jesus Christ goes to the dogs. Where the traditions of the elders and the religious law could see only an outcast, Jesus sees the woman’s heart of faith. He heals her child (a long-distance, third-party healing no less). Furthermore, from this point on, Jesus does not hold his saving power in reserve, but expands the circle of God’s mercy to include those once considered outsiders. … He ‘opens himself to the whole world in mission.’ … The day the gospel went to the dogs was the day it came to us. We are some of the ‘dogs’ who have received the good news of the gospel! When Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.”
Like the Canaanite woman, our faith keeps drawing us to Christ, confident in God’s mercy. In today’s story Jesus responded to the outsiders’ faith by giving her the life of her daughter. My Friends, although we are outsiders, our Lord responds to our faith by giving us life, eternal life. In today’s story, Jesus reveals God’s nature to respond to faith wherever God finds it, and by doing so Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, that “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord . . . I will bring to my holy mountain.” In today’s story Jesus reveals God’s nature to make outsiders insiders; to love the unlovable; to do the impossible. So what if other people treat us as outlaws? God accepts us and responds to our faith, just as God did for the lowly Canaanite woman and that is really the only thing that matters. The abundance of God’s blessings still leave much for the Gentiles, you and me.
There is a story that two people met and one drew a line between them. This separated them. The other drew a circle around them both. This, of course, included both of them. The work of Jesus does not draw lines that separate, but circles that include.
As disciples of our Lord, there can be no outsiders among us. Just as God’s love has not been denied any of us, so we cannot deny that love to anyone else. It is not our love to deny but God’s love to give. It is a shame that the church Gandhi visited did not understand this. 0Any sense of superiority, advantage, or distinction has been destroyed by the cross and the Lord who, as Peter said in a sermon once, “. . . shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35, RSV).” Our God is Lord of all. Amen.
 Isabel Anders, “Synthesis Proper 15 – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, August 17, 2014).
Sermon Based on Matthew 14:22-33
Proper 14; Year A
August 13, 2017
Introduction: Richard J. Fairchild tells the story of a man who took his new hunting dog on a trial hunt one day.
After a while he managed to shoot a duck and it fell in the lake. The dog walked over the water, picked up the duck, and brought it to his master.
The man was stunned. He didn’t know what to think. He shot another duck, and again, it fell into the lake; and again the dog walked over the water and brought it back to his master.
Hardly daring to believe his eyes, and not wanting to be thought a total fool, he told no one about it – but the next day he called his neighbor to come shooting with him.
As on the previous day, he shot a duck and it fell into the lake. The dog walked over the water and got it.
His neighbor didn’t say a word. Several more ducks got shot that day – and each time the dog walked over the water to retrieve them. And each time the neighbor said nothing, and neither did the owner of the dog.
Finally – unable to contain himself any longer – the owner asked his neighbor: “Do you notice anything strange about my dog?”
“Yes,” replied the neighbor, rubbing his chin and thinking a bit. “Come to think of it, I do. Your dog doesn’t know how to swim.”
Situation: Some scholars speculate that the story of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm may derive from a Resurrection appearance. But as presented in the Gospel passage for today, the event is a further example of God’s saving actions and provides the context for the disciples to witness to the lordship of Jesus.
After feeding over 5,000 people, Jesus dismissed the crowd and sent the disciples on their way to cross the Sea of Galilee. At last, he found the solitude he wanted. While he was praying however, the weather got rough on the sea and the disciples began to fear for their safety. Can you imagine sitting in a storm-tossed boat, in the dark of night (which is scary enough), but then to see what you think is a ghost? That’s enough to scare any normal person. After identifying himself, Peter asked Jesus to allow him to walk toward him. He stepped out of the boat, and in momentary unquestioning, fearless faith began walking on the water toward Jesus. But then the realities of this life, the wind and waves, not to mention the illogical experience of walking on water, came crashing in on him, and he became afraid and began to sink.
Complication: Isn’t that like us? We have moments when we feel secure and confident in our faith in Jesus; times when we feel at peace and our attention is surely fixed on Jesus’ words and will for us. We feel like we could walk on water. But then the stormy realities of our lives distract us and we begin to worry about our health concerns, taxes, money, personal relationships, addiction, depression, unemployment, or whatever may be threatening our particular sense of security. Suddenly our fear displaces our faith and we begin to sink into our sea of problems. Like Peter, we cry out, “Lord, save me.”
Resolution: Unlike snake handlers, who believe they will not die if bitten by a poisonous snake if they have enough faith, we know that faith does not banish fear. Fear is a normal God given human emotion. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call upon, and whose hand it is that is ready to catch us. To be of little faith is to be among the disciples, struggling, doubting, asking questions, misunderstanding, fearing and starting all over again. But it is the kind of little faith that has at least gotten a glimpse of who Jesus is and, so, brings us back to our Lord and enables us to walk on water despite our fears and personal situations.
So, does it surprise you to hear me say that you can walk on water? You can, you know, if walking on water means stepping out in faith. If walking on water truly means letting the Spirit of Christ determine our steps. If walking on water truly means the storms and the floods and the disturbances of life do not finally define us, God does.
We are an odd bunch, you know. I’m talking about the church, not about any one in particular. People here, people anywhere, are sent together by Jesus to find our way to the other side. We are in this boat together, going through these uncharted waters together. We are tossed by winds and storms together, often getting stuck and swamped, going nowhere. Then Jesus appears in the distance, unshaken by wind, undisturbed by storm, walking over the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea, saying, “Christian, step out of the boat and walk to me.” Did you hear that? “Step out of the boat and walk.”
Isn’t it enough that Jesus would call Peter and the others, and you and me, to step from our familiar lifestyle into a new way of living with him? But there is more. Now Jesus is sending us – Peter and the others, and you and me – saying leave this solid ground and familiar side, and step into this boat on the water and head for the other side. How could there possibly be more? But there is. Now Jesus is saying to Peter – and he’s saying to you and me – there’s one more step to take. Step out of the boat and step into faith. Come to me. Walk by the Spirit upon the water, in the midst of storm and wind.
I believe that all of us are forever indebted to Peter for that daring step out of the boat and into faith. For in doing so, Peter has shown from the very start that the highest authority is not the storm nor the wind nor even the church. The highest authority, the true author of our lives is Jesus Christ.
I would like to offer you three life principles for ministry and for living.
First, we learn faith by doing faith.
Soren Kierkegaard nicknamed Jesus “the Inviter,” because – wherever he was, and behind whatever he was doing – he was always inviting people to faith. So, when Peter asks to come to Jesus on the water, Jesus, the Inviter, says, “Come.” Step out of the boat. Come to me. Walk on faith. Someone once said that frustration came from being in a power struggle – and losing. In calling Peter out of the boat, Jesus was calling Peter from frustration to faith. Thus, Peter was moving from reliance on his own failing wits and will, to self-surrender to the Kingdom – that alone could save him. You see, Kingdom power is greater than any gale. Kingdom power is beyond the winds and the waves and the darkness. Kingdom power is our only security and certainty. And the only way to come to Kingdom faith is simply to rely on it. Trust it. Step out of the boat on it. Make a fool of yourself, if need be, to explore its deepest mystery. And that is what Peter does. In doing faith, Peter comes to a closer dependence on Jesus.
Second, you can’t grow in faith – take risks, change, and develop – and count on looking good all the time.
In stepping out of the boat, Peter reminds us that in order to be an agent of Kingdom power, you must be willing to fail. In a way, we are lost the instant we know what the outcome of our efforts will be. Riskless Christianity – safe, stale, and stagnant Christianity – stays in the boat. It might be prudent. It might be sensible. No doubt, it looks responsible and right. But it leaves us unchanged. Gospel living means we must look to Jesus as ultimately definitive for faith. And if Jesus were interested in looking good and successful – rather than being obedient to the Father – he never would have ended up on a cross. “Christ crucified” never would have happened.
John Garvey has written: “The greatest danger of our culture, in making a religious commitment something like a consumer choice, is that we will not see that this commitment is finally a matter of life and death, for us and for a much larger community, one to which we have an obligation. Our culture allows us to take nothing seriously except what we perceive to be our needs and desires. Unless these have been informed by a relationship with the living God, they will mislead us.”
And, third, as boat-leaving people of faith, we need to know of the unfailing support of God and God’s family.
We come to deep faith, and grow in deep faith, by sacrificing the unlived life of the boat for the high seas of Gospel adventure. But we never do so perfectly. Either we try to get “too far, too fast” and overstep our creatureliness in a quest for superiority or grandiosity – or we simply fall prey to being “of little faith.” We “notice the strong wind,” rather than Jesus, and we begin to lose our footing. Focusing on the problem, not the solution, we sink. But not to the bottom.
In the Talmud it is said, “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” And we should take to heart this grace filled wisdom. For it affirms that we are a watched-over and cared-for people – more than we can even ask or imagine. Who of us has not been, or is not now, somewhere out on the waves? In our moment of need, a hand reaches down through the gale and the high seas – the hand of Jesus clasps us. And in that secure clasp we know that the demonic, destructive forces within us – and in the world about us – can never finally triumph. This is the triumphant love of Christ from which we can never be separated and that will never let us go (Rom. 8:31-39).
Faith in Jesus, faith that rivets its attention solely on the word of Jesus, is what enables us to rise above our troubles and walk on water. When we feel storm tossed and afraid and turn to God in faith and prayer, our Lord reaches out to us and helps us.
Do we doubt it? If so, then we have to try it. Like Peter we come to a point in our lives when we realize that all else has failed, that we cannot save ourselves. We come to a point when we have to put our fear aside and risk stepping out of our boats in faith and trust that whatever our situation may be, when we call upon Jesus to save us, he will – indeed he already has, on a cross. Our faith knows who is powerful over the deep of our fears as over the deep of the waters.
Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
August 6, 2017
Sermon Based on Luke 9:28-36
I find this gospel account of the transfiguration to be exceedingly intriguing because when you analyze it, it’s basically a story not only of life, but of invitation.
You take the elements of the story, which we know so well. There is the transfiguration – the sudden vision, the great glory. All of us have those moments, [what we call Mountain Top Experiences]. There’s the wedding day. There’s the first job [, or the new job]. There’s the adventure. There’s the first home, the first child. And, all of these things are there in their splendid form, and they shine forth with joy. Just try to remember all those visions that you have had.
Just try to remember – those of you who are married – your wedding day. Try to remember your first house that you bought. The first car. The first job. The first paycheck. And there is something transfigured, and life is filled, and there it is, glorious. And the transfiguration story gives us that.
But secondly, it also introduces something else which we enter into very easily. Notice what Peter said. After he sees this marvelous vision, he says, “Well, let’s build three booths here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” In short what he’s saying is: “This is so wonderful. Let’s hold on to it forever. Let’s freeze the moment.” And if you think that’s a far-off story of two thousand years ago, you’re wrong – this is our story every day. Under the pressure of the media and advertisers, we’re always asked to freeze the moment. We’re always asked to say, “and they lived happily ever after.” We’re always asked to look at the gorgeous apartments and clothes and lifestyles and say, “this is the way it is forever,” and advertising encourages that.
But, of course, realism comes along and says, “that’s impossible.” Even with the most wonderful dream house, sooner or later you have to clean the gutters. Even the most ardent kiss, sooner or later you gotta come up for air. Even the most fervent handshake, sooner or later gets sweaty. Even the most perfect wedding day, sooner or later, there’s conflict because you’re two people, and not really one, yet.
And so Peter, of course, represents the foolishness. He represents the escapism, if you will. He represents modern advertising. “Freeze the moment. Let’s build three booths. This is it forever. Let’s hold on to it.”
And then the third element comes in, which is interesting. Enter the scenario two spoilsports, by the names of Moses and Elijah. And while Peter is rhapsodizing about this moment because he’s just gotten his first car or his first house, Moses and Elijah are whispering to Jesus. And what are they whispering about? Well, they tell us. They are whispering to Jesus about his passage to Jerusalem, which is the translation for his passion, his suffering, and his death. Here they come along and mess up the whole picture. There’s Jesus in his magnificent, splendiferous glory, all ablaze and light and white, and these two come along and talk about his passage and his suffering.
But when you take that whole story, what Luke is saying is, “This is not only the Christian life, this is the story of every human journey. And every human journey unfolds in basically five steps after the transfiguration.”
The first step is always the revision of the dream. As I said before, reality sets in. Your feelings toward each other on the wedding day and ten years later are not quite the same, are they? They may be better, hopefully. They may be worse. But they’re not the same. The realities of biology come in. People do get sick. Children do throw up, and diapers have to be changed. And death intrudes.… And all of a sudden, you see, we begin to revise the dream. We don’t want it in its present form. We’d like to build those three booths and hold on to it at its best forever, but Moses and Elijah are turning out to be correct after all. There’s some kind of passage, some kind of passion or suffering or change, that’s demanded. And you almost get the full sense of the story – some change is going to be demanded in order to recapture the original ideal. And, so, you begin to revise the dream somewhat.
The second stage of the journey is, of course (it hits all of us), the temptation to escape because, in fact, the transfiguration did not freeze forever, like the advertisers promised. We become a bit cynical. So, we make all those marriage jokes, and we make all those husband and wife jokes, and the job jokes, and things like that, covering up our [scorn] that arises because the promises didn’t hold up. The job after a while got boring. The house got too small. We needed a better neighborhood. The friendship soured or was betrayed. Our darling children turned out to disappoint us. And we begin to have a sense of the loss of expectation and the loss of the wonderful. It’s in this stage, by the way, where most divorces take place.
That reminds me of the story of the man who walked into a talent agent’s office to see if there were any openings for a specialty act. The agent said, “Well, what do you do?”
And the man said, “I imitate birds.”
And the agent said, “Hey, I can’t use you. Bird imitations are a dime a dozen. You’re just wasting my time. Get the heck outta here!”
Whereupon the man flapped his arms and flew out the window.
You see, it’s that kind of thing. The cynicism, the loss of expectation of any kind of wonderful occurrence.
The third stage of the journey, of course, begins a turnabout for those who persist. That’s the time when you begin to take on and to share one another’s burdens, both in sympathy and in wisdom, because, you see, you realize that life isn’t the ideal that the television says, but has to be worked at. This stage usually requires a certain amount of reflection, a great deal of prayer, and sometimes it does require a trauma. There’s a loss; there’s a sickness; you lose your job. You’re disappointed with your children. There’s an addiction that you struggle with. But nevertheless, through this you begin to accept their weaknesses. And that begins to be a movement.
Then you hit the fourth stage, which is really an advance. As you go through life, you begin to get to the level of acceptance on your life’s journey. And you accept life – not in defeat – but you accept it in love. It’s like Jesus who looked at Magdalene, and saw possibility. It’s like Jesus, who saw Matthew, the tax collector, and said, “Come, follow me.” It’s when your vision begins to see people with the eyes of Christ.
And then, or course, you hit the fifth level. You get the ideal back. You get the transfiguration that you started out with, but now transformed. Not with all the splendor of Mount Tabor, not with all the razzle-dazzle of white robes, and voices, and clouds, but a true and sincere transfiguration of life and love that you never dreamed possible. These are the whole people. These are the people who now understand what Moses and Elijah were whispering about. It was necessary for Jesus to go through his terrible passage for his transfiguration, in glory, and it is the same for us.
The next time you listen to this gospel, just don’t think of the transfiguration as a magic show. Think of it as a profound statement about life. There’s the ideal, but to achieve it in a different dimension, you must undergo a passage. You and I balk, and you and I don’t want to go through that [struggle], but go we must, we have no choice. But we’re not alone. And above all, we have the Jesus who’s been through it all, who knows what it’s about, and turns to us in his glory and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28, 30
Sermon Based on Matthew 13:31-52
Proper 12; Year A
July 30, 2017
Sermon Based on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Proper 11; Year A
July 23, 2017
Introduction: Do you ever remember being advised not to judge a book by its cover? Or advised not to go by first impressions?
Situation: I think today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is, among other things, a parable about not judging others.
Those of us who have ever worked in a garden know about weeds. We know that they only crowd out the plants we want to see grow and rob them of the moisture and nutrients in the soil. Our first impulse like the servants in the parable is to pull them up by the roots so they won’t grow back. Unfortunately, in today’s parable, the weeds look just like the wheat, at least until the wheat matures, but by them the roots of the wheat and those of the weeds have grown together. Pulling up the weeds will only destroy the wheat also. So, contrary to our impulse the wise sower, Jesus, tells us to let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side until the harvest.
Now, well before Jesus’ time, part of ancient Jewish doctrine was that they were God’s chosen people, holy and pure. Their intent was to create a pure Messianic Community. They did this typically by refusing to mix with people of other religions for fear of contaminating their own and becoming unclean. Pious enthusiasts, like the Pharisees, whose name is derived from the Hebrew word for separatist, was such a group which strove for purity by obeying the law. The Essenes, an even stricter group of Jews, went so far as to physically remove themselves from society to live in the caves of the hills overlooking the Dead Sea.
Complication: The servants who wanted to pull up the weeds may have been pious enthusiasts like the Pharisees and the Essenes who wanted to keep Jesus’ followers pure by getting rid of the sinners. These pious enthusiasts may be like those people today who say, “I’m not going to church because the pews are full of hypocrites.” It was probably in the face of this desire to purify the community of sinners that Jesus gave this parable.
Resolution: So, at one level, I suggest that Jesus is warning us not to judge others too quickly, if at all. Life is too ambiguous and motives are hard to judge. We are the plants in God’s field of life. We grow up together side by side. Who can say today that any one of us will do something next week that others might judge harshly, something that, later, might prove to have been the right thing to do after all? We grow up side by side and who is to say which of us are wheat and which are weeds?
Before I began working with Good News Jail & Prison Ministry in October of 2000, I was laboring under what, I suppose, is a common public perception of those who commit crimes. The perception is that anyone who commits a crime must look like a criminal. You know, that you could look at their eyes and just tell that he or she was the sort of individual who would break the law. As I worked with hundreds of incarcerated men and women I came to realize that I was, really, no different than they were. The majority of them had simply made bad choices that got them arrested.
These are ordinary people; people like Laura. Laura had come to the Charles County Detention Center about a week before she appeared at the door of my office. As she stepped over the thresh hold of my office she burst into tears. I asked her to sit down and just let her cry. She must have cried for a good ten minutes before she finally got herself composed enough to carry on a conversation. I said, “Laura, why don’t you tell me your story.”
So, she told me about being a nursing student and becoming pregnant with their second child. She dropped out of school to get a job as a teller in a bank to help her husband save some money. After the baby was born, the bills began to pile up and she felt more and more financial pressure. One day, in a moment of weakness, Laura decided to take some money out of her till to use to pay some bills. Of course, she was caught and ended up in my facility.
When she finished telling me her story, I said, “Laura, I can’t change what you did. I can’t change what the judge and jury will decide to do in your case. There are a lot of things that I can’t change. However, I do have something to offer you that could change your life. Are you interested in that?” “Oh, yes,” she said. So, I told her about Jesus Christ and the new life we can have through him. By the end of our time together that day, Laura came to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She began attending all the religious programming that was offered at the detention center.
About six months later, before Laura left the facility, she told me that she wanted to go back to nursing school and eventually to become a pediatrician. I thought that hers was a lofty goal. Well, she did go back to school and Jeannine and I were privileged to be able to be at her graduation ceremony. When she applied to take the Maryland State Boards, she was denied because of her record. After she recovered from that setback, she reapplied and was given the opportunity to tell the board why she thought she should be allowed to take the exam. This time she was accepted. She took the state boards and passed the first time. She then began working at the Calvert County Memorial Hospital and worked there for about two years before moving with her family to the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina area to work on a Master’s Degree in Nursing.
Laura attributes all her accomplishments to her relationship with Jesus Christ. She believes that it is only by his grace that she has done what she has been able to do.
We are not wise enough to know the difference between the wheat and the weeds. If we were to judge, we would no doubt judge wrong and destroy much of the wheat in the process.
There is no field in God’s creation and in humanity’s activity where only grain grows tall or only flowers bloom. The weeds are always there. So it is, that on another level, in the fields of our lives where God has planted many beautiful flowers, many beautiful attributes of our individual characters, there are also weeds. In each of us are the good and the bad. Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist once said, “The brighter the halo, the smellier the feet.”
Today’s message is clear. While we continue to grow side by side, in God’s field of life may we learn from the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Instead of judging others, while we have time before the harvest, let us give thanks to the Lord our God who allows us to repent and, so, is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Proper 10; Year A
July 16, 2017
Introduction: A minister decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday Sermon about growing in good soil. He placed four worms into four separate jars.
The first worm was put into a container of Kentucky bourbon.
The second worm was put into a container that had captured cigarette smoke.
The third worm was put into a container of rich chocolate syrup.
The fourth worm was put into a container of good clean soil.
At the conclusion of the sermon, he reported the following results:
The first worm in bourbon: Dead.
The second worm in cigarette smoke: Dead.
The third worm in chocolate syrup: Dead.
The fourth worm in good clean soil: Alive.
So the minister asked the congregation, “What can we learn from this demonstration?”
A little old woman in the back quickly raised her hand and answered, “As long as you drink, smoke, and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms!”
For the next three Sundays, the Gospel passages are from Matthew’s Third Discourse (13:1-52), in which Jesus teaches the crowds a series of parables concerning the Kingdom of heaven. Today’s Parable of the Sower and its interpretation focus on the mystery of why some hear and accept the Gospel, while others reject it.
Situation: Now, if we were to take a time warp back to Jesus’ day, we would think farmers were backward in their planting methods and very wasteful. You see, in those days, the farmer carried a large bag of seed slung over the shoulder and hanging at about his waste level. As he walked along a strip he would use the broadcast method and scatter the seed all around by hand in an arc; just flinging it everywhere. In those days the farmer threw the seed (or “sowed” them) before he plowed them under. Later he would come back and turn the ground over so that the seeds would be covered with soil and grow. So he wasn’t worried about where he sowed the seed at this point as long as the ground was completely covered.
Well, inevitably, some of the seed fell on the path where the birds could get them. Others fell on rocky ground, quite common in Palestine, which didn’t get plowed well enough for the seeds to take root. Still others fell amongst the thorns which continued to grow and choked off the growth of the seeds. Most of the seed, however, would fall on good ground and grew into grain resulting in a great harvest.
Complication: Obviously, Jesus didn’t tell a parable without a point. This parable is about God sowing the word of grace and salvation in Jesus’ own ministry. And we know from the gospel accounts, and our own experiences, that the seed, the word of God, gets a different reception from different people: it just bounces off of some, it goes in one ear and out the other with others but doesn’t take root, and with still others the word gets choked by all the other things in life in which they are caught up. Yet for some – indeed, for many – the word is joyfully received, takes root and bears fruit.
Now, it would be easy to focus our attention on the soil and talk about why in some people the word bears fruit while in others it doesn’t, as the explanation of the parable does in the second half of the gospel reading. But what strikes me as most interesting and comforting in the parable is the liberality of the sower.
Resolution: Now, if it were me, I’d be sowing the seed carefully in neat rows so I wouldn’t waste any. I’d get my broom and sweep the extra seed off of the path and off of the rocks and sidewalks back into the good soil. But the sower, God, is not stingy in sowing the seed. The sower continued to sow even where it did not appear anything could grow. So the word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is offered to everybody, whether or not it takes root and bears fruit.
In human terms, that doesn’t make sense. It’s not cost effective, or efficient. We want to maximize our profits and minimize our waste. Why waste our time on people who don’t want to listen, or who don’t fit our expectations of potential? Our human concern may even prevent us from sharing the seed, the gospel, as we have experienced it in our lives and therein lies the pity because we cannot know how or if the word we sow about Jesus will take root in another person.
Once in speaking to two young people, a person was trying to convince one of them to consider a college and pre-med preparation with the possibility of becoming a doctor. He assumed that only one of the two showed such promise. Interestingly enough, the person addressed entered college but left after a very short time and never completed college. The other, in part because of the conversation, went to college, went to medical school and became a doctor.
So, who knows? I mean, I don’t know that Jesus knew for sure. Look at the disciples. One betrayed him. Only three seemed to be closely related to him in his lifetime. Not many of the disciples were prominent in the early church. So it seems that some of the seed was wasted, but for those who responded, the results were amazing.
And praise God that God spread the gospel of grace and salvation everywhere. Think about it. Looking back over our lives, I wonder how many of us at one time or another were like the hard path or rocky ground where the seed of God’s word could not take root, or like the thorny ground where the word could not grow. But God kept throwing that seed around in our lives until, one day, it took root, didn’t it? And here we are today.
God’s power to save is broadcast all over the place. Like the sun shining or the rain falling on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45), the seed of the gospel is being flung far and wide – wherever the sower goes. We are invited by our gospel this morning to fling the seed of grace and salvation in Christ now and without restraint. Forget the birds, the rocks, the thorns; they aren’t our concern. Only sow. Don’t worry, and fling! Then, mysteriously, some of the seed will come up and produce a great harvest. Don’t worry, the sowing will not be in vain. Even though some will be lost, others will produce a bountiful crop and, against all odds, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God will yield success.
Sermon Based on Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:25-30
Proper 9, Year A
July 9, 2017
Introduction: Last Tuesday we celebrated our nation’s 241st year of independence from oppressive British rule. This is something to celebrate and to be proud of since our form of democratic government is the longest lasting one in the world.
Situation: The United States of America is the beacon of freedom, justice, and hope in a world oppressed by sociopathic dictators and tyranny. Just look at North Korea, Russia, Syria, China, Iran, and too many others. Political freedom is certainly a cherished thing worth dying for, as many Americans have.
It’s appropriate then that in our reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul speaks about another kind of freedom, freedom from the flesh, which, as Paul uses the word, is radically evil because it is the source of lawless desire. He also speaks about freedom from the yoke of the law which opposes lawless desire and therefore is a good thing, though it cannot give life. A yoke, of course, is a wooden frame for joining two beasts of burden so they can pull a plow, a cart or any heavy load. As such it became a symbol of hardship, oppression, submission and servitude. The prophet Jeremiah for instance wore a yoke around his neck to dramatize his message that Judah should submit to Babylonian rule.
Complication: Now, compared to citizens in many other countries we are free. But are we really free? We probably think we are, and most of the time we don’t think about freedom. Too often, however, the reality is that we are prisoners; prisoners of the past, of our passions, of our possessions, our anxieties, the grip of cause and effect – action and reaction – in our lives, the powers of the world, and of our own willful nature. As prisoners, we are slaves of the flesh and yoked to the law which only serves to condemn us daily making us aware of how rebellious we are to God and therefore wretched sinners. These are the burdens we carry.
Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, once said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” Unfortunately, political freedom does not change the human heart. The real issue of human freedom is not situated in the “polis,” that is the government, but within each of us. The human soul is the arena in which humanity fights for true freedom. Just before our reading from Romans picks up, Paul powerfully described our situation when he said that “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” Romans 7:15b.
No matter how much we want to do right, we slip up and sin. So, we try even harder, thinking that, well, if we just try harder with more will power we can succeed, but we continue to fail. I think this is exactly our problem. We believe we can overcome our burdens, our way, all by ourselves. And, so, the battle for freedom rages on. Perhaps what it takes for us to hear the voice of our Lord is to hit our spiritual rock bottom and, like Paul, feeling like a wretched, lost person.
Resolution: Today Jesus invites each of us to surrender to him, to give up the fight. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The yoke of perfect freedom is found only in Christ. His yoke is the yoke of love and it is easy because it gives much more than it demands. The yoke of Christ does not irritate the yielding neck. The yoke of Christ is light because when we surrender our wills to His will, we become yoked to Him and He bears the weight of our burdens for us on the cross. The yoke of Christ becomes easy when we realize whose yoke it is, and to whom we are united.
Paul Tillich, a leading theologian in the 20th Century, tells us,
The yoke of Jesus is easy in itself, because it is above law, and replaces the toiling and laboring with rest in our souls. The yoke of religion and law presupposes all those splits and gaps in our souls which drive us to the attempt to overcome them. The yoke of Jesus is above those splits and gaps. It has overcome them whenever it appears and is received. It is not a new demand, a new doctrine or new morals, but rather a new reality, a new being and a new power of transforming life.
…It comes from above and grasps us with saving force; if He calls it easy, He means that it is not a matter of our acting and striving, but rather that it is given before anything we can do. It is being, power, reality, conquering the anxiety and despair, the fear and the restlessness of our existence. It is here, amongst us, in the midst of our personal tragedy, and the tragedy of history.
Suddenly, within the hardest struggle, it appears as a victory, not attained by ourselves, but present beyond expectation and struggle. Suddenly we are grasped by a peace which is above reason. …We know that now, in this moment, we are in the truth, in spite of all our ignorance about ourselves and our world.
We have not become wiser and more understanding in any ordinary sense; we are still children in knowledge. But the truth of life is in us, with an illuminating certainty, uniting us with ourselves, giving us great and restful happiness. And the good, the ultimate good (God), which is not good for something else, but good in itself, has grasped us. We know that now, in this moment, we are in the good, in spite of all our weakness and evil, in spite of the fragmentary and distorted character of our Self and the world. We have not become more moral or more saintly; we still belong to a world which is subject to evil and self-destruction. But the good of life is in us, uniting us with the good of everything [God].
That is the meaning of the call of Jesus, “Come unto Me.” For in Him this new being is present in such a way that it determines His life [and ours].
At first it may seem that taking Jesus’ yoke upon us and following him is not a light burden at all – returning good for evil, forgiving, loving our enemies. That’s not easy but it’s a lot better than our alternative which becomes an even heavier burden, an oppressive yoke, creating guilt, causing pain and leading to spiritual death.
To surrender our wills and obey God’s will means life and peace. Again, something the law cannot give. Because Jesus was among the tired and burdened, He alone can inspire us to follow His life of total openness to God and thus attain true freedom. Oh, we may receive short term pleasure and profit by following our wills, but freedom? Paradoxically, that we can only have by denying our wills. Following God’s will brings rest to our souls because when we do so we don’t have to live with any regrets and we can sleep at night.
Conclusion: This week, as we celebrate our freedom as a nation, may we celebrate even more joyfully the freedom we find in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sermon Based on Matt 10:40-42
Proper 8; Year A
July 2, 2017
Fr. Art Tripp
Sermon Based on Matt 10:34-42
Proper 7; Year A
June 25, 2017
Sermon Based on Gen 1:1-2:4a; Mat 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday; Year A
June 11, 2017
As we celebrate the feast day of the Holy Trinity, we confess the three Persons of one God: God the Father, Creator and Sustainer of the universe; God the Son, who lived a human life among us; and God the Holy Spirit, the Voice of God within us to inspire and guide. Belief in the Trinity as the full revelation of God is a mystery and a paradox: an awareness of how much more God is than we can ever begin to comprehend.
The Doctrine of the Trinity, which is the heart of Christian theology, is that the One God exists in Three Persons and One Substance. Like any true mystery, this doctrine can neither be known by strict human reason apart from God revealing it to us, nor logically demonstrated by reason after it has been revealed by God to us. On the other hand, though this mystery is above reason, it is not contrary to reason, for it is not incompatible with the principles of rational thought.
The Trinity as a doctrine, although implied, never appears explicitly in Scripture. The word “Trinity” was first used by Theophilus of Antioch about the year A.D. 180 and, as expressed in the historic creeds, the concept is drawn out of the biblical revelation underlying our experience of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
The Old Testament reading for today is the majestic Priestly creation poem from Genesis. Although the focus of the creation narrative is on God as the Lord of all creation, allusions to the Son and Spirit are also present. When God speaks, the Divine Word caused the world to be. Jesus himself is God’s Word who was with the Father from the beginning, we learn from the Gospel of John. The first three words in John’s account of the Gospel are the same first three words in the book of Genesis that we heard read, “In the beginning.” In the beginning was the Word (with a capital W), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. Then, in verse 14, John tells us, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth . . . Of course, the Word is Jesus. And, from the Christian perspective, the pre-existent Christ was with God in the beginning co-creating everything that was made. Genesis tells us, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said . . . When we read, “And God said . . .” God had to use words to say something. Not that God said anything out loud as such, but that to say anything requires words. So, the Word, the pre-existent Christ, was present with God in the beginning. In these first three verses of the Bible we are introduced to the Trinity which was even before there was time.
So, in our reading from Genesis, we heard that the Spirit (with a capital S) of God was moving over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word for Spirit is the exact same word for wind or breath; so, the passage could just as legitimately be read, “The Wind of God (or the Breath of God) was moving over the face of the waters.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; all present in the first three verses of the Bible.
The most often quoted Trinitarian formula in the Bible is that of the Great Commission in Matthew, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
From the time when the community of believers began to win the great majority of its converts from pagans who had not previously had faith in God the Father, this has been our creed or formula for Christian initiation at baptism because this is what Jesus told us to do. If the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not used when a person is baptized, the baptism is not valid.
So, how does one explain the Trinity to someone else? St. Patrick is said to have explained the Trinity to the Celts by reference to the shamrock. It is one plant with three leaves.
St. Augustine used the analogy of the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that exists between them.
The Trinity also is often explained by using the example of an individual with several roles: for instance, a woman can be at the same time a wife, a mother, a sister, – yet remain one woman.
The explanation that I favor is to talk about water, H2O, which manifests itself at various times as ice, liquid water, and steam or a gas. They are of the same essence, the same stuff, H2O, but they are different.
All of these analogies attempt to explain the apparent contradiction that God is at the same time one and three, one in three. All attempts, however, will always fall short. That’s because we are talking about a mystery, and we are talking about God. If we could fully explain God, then we would be greater than God and God would not be God. We would be God.
I want to respect the mystery, so I don’t think that I can say more than I have said about the Trinity without falling into the linguistic trap of saying more than can be said without sounding ridiculous. Without faith in Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one of God the Father, the doctrine of the Trinity is ridiculous. But, with faith, even though it cannot be fully explained, it makes perfect sense.
Jeremy Taylor, a great Anglican theologian living from 1613 to 1667, said:
“He who goes about to speak of the mystery of the Trinity, and does it by words, and names of man’s invention, talking of essence and existence, hypostases and personalities, priority in co-equality, and unity in pluralities, may amuse himself and build a tabernacle in his head, and talk something – he knows not what; but the renewed man, that feels the power of the Father, to whom the Son is become wisdom, sanctification, and redemption, in whose heart the love of the Spirit of God is shed abroad – this man, tho he understand nothing of what is unintelligible, yet he alone truly understands the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.”
This is our experience of the One God, God the Father to whom Jesus, God the Son, prays on our behalf and God the Holy Spirit which Jesus sent to strengthen us and guide us in our journey of faith.
St. Catherine of Siena, who lived between 1347 and 1386, wrote:
“You, O Eternal Trinity, are a deep sea, into which the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I seek. The soul cannot be satisfied in your abyss, for it continually hungers, the Eternal Trinity, desiring to see you with the light of your light.”
May this be our prayer, this Trinity Sunday.
Sermon Based on Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3b-13, & John 20:19-23
Pentecost; Year A
June 4, 2017
Introduction: Even as a boy I admired people who could speak more than one language. I was amazed that the words I heard, but could not understand, actually meant something to someone else. It still fascinates me.
Situation: Well what happened on that first day of Pentecost was even more amazing. The Apostles were gathered in a home in Jerusalem when a fantastic sound from heaven filled the house and the Holy Spirit descended upon each of them as tongues of fire. This must have caused quite a commotion because people from all over the city came running to the house to see what was going on. What they found bewildered them. These simple Galileans, with little education, were speaking in foreign languages so that every foreigner in the crowd heard about the mighty works of God.
Now there were many languages represented in the crowd that day; Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, people from all over the known world. But each of them heard what was said in their own language. It’s almost as though the Apostles were speaking in a new language which transcended any barriers of speech and culture. May I suggest that this new language was the language of the Spirit.
We’ve all heard about the gifts of the Spirit Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians. Well, just as the many gifts of the Spirit are to be used for the common good of the body of Christ, so the language of the Spirit is understood by everyone in the body because it transcends all barriers.
What does this language sound like? Well, it sounds differently at different times. For example, I suggest that music is a part of the language of the Spirit. We all hear the same notes the same way so that we could fill up this church with people from all over the world and enjoy the same music without any special interpreter.
And the same can be said about observing the beauty of nature; and about love; and about politeness.
My experience with the language of the Spirit takes me to the summer of 1974 when I spent three months living with a family in Besancon, France. I met the Monier family through the university where I was studying French. The night we met for dinner at their home felt like dancing with two left feet. I was in a different country, a different culture, trying to speak a different language. I knew that the only way we would be able to communicate was through the 15 year-old son who spoke broken English. Although the evening was stressful (at least for me) it was marked by the spirit of working together to understand each other and the spirit of the acceptance of each other. By the end of the evening the Moniers asked me to spend the summer with them and for all intents and purposes I was adopted into their family, included in all family activities and outings. I felt accepted and I have come to know that the language of the Spirit was that acceptance which transcended any language barrier. By the end of the summer, I was communicating quite well with my new family, and even dreaming in French.
At other times the language of the Spirit is understood differently.
Senor Martinez was doing what the great St. Francis of Assisi did; he was rebuilding God’s church. At least he was rebuilding one of them. The Church of Santa Rosa de Lima near his home in New Mexico had been abandoned years before. Built originally of adobe, the wind and weather had taken their toll, so that not a single one of its four walls stood complete.
So, Senor Martinez, along with several young helpers, took it upon himself to rebuild the historic church, using the same mud from which the bricks had been formed when the walls were first raised. The dirt was dug from the mounds that encircled what was left of the original building.
It was almost by chance that my friend, Michael Williams, and two of his friends joined him in the project. They were driving by and simply stopped to ask what was happening. They got more than they bargained for. They heard a history of the church, a description of the present project, and got a job. Before they had been there half an hour, Michael was mixing straw with mud under the watchful eye of Senor Martinez.
They were making mud bricks in much the same way the Israelites made them to build Pharaoh’s royal cities, except that they were given as much straw as they needed and Senor Martinez was not a harsh taskmaster.
One morning as they worked, their master brick maker asked them if they would honor him by coming to his home for lunch. Of course, they were delighted to be invited and accepted without hesitation.
At the home of Senor Martinez, they were treated to a generous meal of beef, rice, and beans, along with the best sopapillas Michael had ever tasted. After lunch, they walked farther up the hill behind the house to the home of Senor Martinez’s mother. She spoke no English, and their Spanish was very poor. But when she showed them the brightly colored spreads she made by hand, they needed no translator. Her handiwork spoke for itself, beyond the barrier of language.
When the summer was over, the church had not been restored. In fact, Michael doesn’t think it has been completely rebuilt to this day. But as he remembers Senor Martinez and his family, the care he took teaching them to make adobe and the respect with which he held that fallen down building, Michael wonders if they were not building a different kind of church. Perhaps it is the kind not built with hands making bricks and mortar but made as hands join other hands across all barriers of place and time.
Conclusion: The language of the Spirit is a wonderful language. Perhaps this is what is meant by speaking in tongues. Listen for it and you too will hear about the mighty works of God.
Sermon Based on John 17
7 Easter, Year A
May 28, 2017
Sermon Based on Acts 17:22-31;
6 Easter, Year A
May 21, 2017
Introduction: If any of you have ever played BINGO you know that most players play 2, 3, even 6 cards. The idea, of course, is that the more cards you play the better chance you have to win. These players are hedging their bets, reducing the risk of losing.
Situation: Well, in a sense, that’s what the Athenians were doing in today’s reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Last week, you may recall, Paul was sent to Athens from Beroea when the Jews from Thessalonica threatened his safety. In Athens Paul was quick to notice the number of religious statues and shrines dedicated to Zeus and his crew, whom the Greeks worshipped. Paul also noticed that the Athenians built an altar to an unknown god. They probably built this altar as an insurance policy to hedge their bets. After all, they’d built altars for every other deity they could name. But just in case they missed one, here was an altar to him or her.
It was obvious to Paul that all these altars and shrines revealed a deep religious hunger among the people. Yet something was missing and that something was symbolized by the altar to an unknown god.
Now, these were good people. These were not drug pushers, pornographers, spouse or child abusers, and certainly not murderers. These were moral people, people like you and me. There were Stoics who believed that life was controlled by blind fate and that the goal in life was to learn to bear your fate without complaining. There were Epicureans in the crowd whose philosophy of life was to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. There were Jews in the crowd, of course. And there were devout people, dedicated to their own deities. But serving their gods wasn’t enough. They sensed that there was something more, a god they did not know.
How about us? Have you ever felt this way? Like we really don’t know God? Like there must be something more? Like the Athenians, do we hedge our bets by building an altar to an unknown god?
- Perhaps an altar to the god of good works in hopes of earning a few points in heaven just in case;
- an altar to the god of success out of the fear of failure;
- an altar to the god of pleasing others out of our need to be accepted?
There are numerous gods we can worship and serve but all of them will leave us feeling only busier, and more fearful of failure and of being rejected.
Resolution: Well, the fact is, the Lord our God is one God and he is the ruler of life. His name is Jesus and we can know him for in him we live and move and have our being.
Borrowing a story from retired Bishop Robert Johnson of Western North Carolina, one time, at coffee hour following the 11 A.M. service, a little eight-year old girl came up and stood quietly by him. She was a patient girl as she waited for the Bishop to finish speaking with the adults.
Finally, when the adults moved on, she tugged at his trousers and asked, “Are you the Bishop?” He said yes and then she handed him a beautifully decorated note (which she had worked on during his sermon). He opened it to read, “Do you know God personally or just through business?”
He laughed and gave her a hug and said, “Why I know God personally, and so do you.”
I know God personally, and so do you.
Clearly, we know God in the sacraments and in Scripture. Indeed, God’s will for us and how we are to treat each other couldn’t be plainer than it is revealed in Scripture, and it’s all summed up in love, as God loves us.
We know God when we encounter Christ. Every day I look for moments when I am close to Christ. In the Gospel for today Jesus tells us, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth . . . you know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.…I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.…He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” The Counselor Jesus refers to is the Holy Spirit.
We also know God through witnesses who tell us about their encounters with God. We have the patriarchs, the prophets, people like the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Paul preaching to the Athenians and to us. And we have people today who tell us their stories about how God works in their lives. The more people tell us about God the more we know God.
And we know God as the God of life. We know that Jesus died on a cross and then was raised by God so that we could really live. Last week we heard that Jesus is the way the truth and the life: “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4); Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Jesus is the life because only by union with the One who destroyed death on Easter Day can we have real life, life which comes from God.
A pastor in a country parish heard that one of his parishioners was telling others that he wasn’t going to church anymore. His rebellious parishioner was advancing the familiar argument that he could know God just as easily in the fields of nature as in church.
One Winter evening the pastor called on this reluctant member of his flock for a friendly visit. The two sat before the fireplace making small-talk, but carefully avoiding the issue of church attendance. After some time, the pastor took the tongs from the rack next to the fireplace and lifted a single coal from the fire. He placed it on the hearth.
They watched as the coal quickly stopped burning and turned an ashen gray while the other coals in the fire continued to burn brightly. The parishioner looked at the pastor and nodded in understanding.
Conclusion: Ours is a living God, not a god made out of wood, stone, gold, or silver. The Athenians thought they needed to hedge their bets, so they built an altar to an unknown god. We never need to hedge our bets with God because the time of ignorance is over. Through Jesus Christ we know God, who alone can supply whatever we feel is missing in our lives, because God knows us.
Sermon Based on John 14:1-14
5 Easter; Year A
May 14, 2017
Introduction: I used to get the third degree from my fellow Reserve Officer Training Corps friends in college. Based on my navigational skills, they used to tease me about not being able to find my way across the country to report for duty after receiving my first set of orders. They were almost right when, on my way from Dansville, New York to San Diego, California, I took a two hundred mile, unintended detour in Kansas.
Situation: It’s kinda hard to get somewhere if you don’t know the way, and it’s even harder if you don’t even know your destination. That was Thomas’ quandary. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?”
Today we find Jesus with his friends, the apostles, discussing his impending departure. Since we are past Easter, and a week from Thursday is Ascension Day, we may interpret this to mean his departure from their physical presence to his place with our heavenly Father. The Apostles didn’t have our perspective of looking back and were, understandably, anxious about Jesus leaving them in a hostile and violent situation. I think Thomas’ question revealed that he would rather go with Jesus than stay behind.
Once again practical and literal minded Thomas misses the point. He thought Jesus was talking about a road or a route from one place to another, Albuquerque to San Diego for instance. Instead, Jesus was speaking about a spiritual way, the way to union with our heavenly Father. Jesus was talking about relationships and a way of life.
Complication: But it’s easy to get lost along the way. There are so many “ways” competing for our attention and loyalty. When I was the Curate at Holy Trinity Parish in Clemson, South Carolina working with university students, the most common reason given by students for pursuing their particular major was for the money. The dream of getting rich is shared by thousands.
Our society values individual rights, and for good reasons. Our liberties make our country the envy of the world, and the target of some. Yet, there are those who take their individual liberties to the point where religious values, the values that our Lord has given us, are ignored and replaced with the relative value of what is good for me.
It may come as a surprise to you to learn that we live in a postmodern, pluralist world. A postmodern world is difficult to define but it is rather easy to describe.
- It is a society in which everything is relative to the individual or group. My truth is not your truth; there is no ultimate truth.
- Facts don’t matter as much as one’s opinion or how one feels.
- Our culture is not better than another culture, and therefore should receive no more respect than another.
- The United States is not an exceptional nation but one among equals.
- There is no overarching narrative, or story, that tells the story of humanity. For this reason, the Bible is not to be regarded as any more authoritative than the Quar’an is for a Muslim or the Shinto religion is for a Japanese person.
- No one culture or religion should dominate another, they are all to be accorded equality, which is why the modern world is frowned upon as oppressive, and militaristic.
- For this reason also, there is no one way to salvation in the postmodern world.
- Truth is true as long as it is useful to the individual, and when it is no longer useful, then change the truth.
- Lies are not really lies, but perceptions of reality.
- Almost every view is to be tolerated, the only exception being a view that insists upon its own absoluteness.
We see the postmodern, pluralist view in our politics, in civil discourse, in the judicial system, our schools, the church, and in our culture. We cannot escape it, but we need to be aware of it.
Resolution: But whether it’s money or secular values over religious values, or whatever way claims our loyalty, none of them lasts or gives real satisfaction because none of them reveals truth or gives life. Only the Lord Christ can do that and that is why Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. That is why Jesus does not fit into the postmodern, pluralistic world view.
Jesus is the way to the Father because he and the Father are one. He shows us who the Father is. It is in relationship to our Lord Christ that we find communion with the Father and living out our faith in Jesus through love is the only way to the Father. His life and teachings exemplify “the way” we are to live. Indeed, there is no other way: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This exclusive claim, which offends the postmodern person, provided assurance to the disciples, and to us, as they faced an uncertain future.
Jesus has, from the beginning of the Gospel, been identified as “the truth.” In the Prologue of John’s Gospel, he is described as full of “grace and truth” (1:14, 17); and Jesus is the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (18:38). Jesus is the truth because he is God the Son who gives us God’s truth and when we know him and see his work around us, we know and see God the Father. Jesus is the truth for all mankind, another offense to the postmodern mind. As offensive as this is, it does not change the truth.
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is also identified as the life: “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:4). Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life (3:15-16, 36); Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Jesus is the life because only by union with the One who destroyed death on Easter Day can we have real life, life which comes from God. Jesus’ story applies to everyone regardless of race, sex, culture, or ethnic background
Now, I suppose it hardly needs to be said that living out our faith in Jesus as the way to the Father is not easy. You don’t need me to draw on examples of mine or other people’s individual struggles in following Jesus. Each of us has a lifetime of stories of our own to tell that would serve to illustrate this point. However, Henri Nouwen expresses well our struggle and our sense of unity with our heavenly Father.
Dear God, though I experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts and changes in my inner life, you remain the same. Your sameness is not the sameness of a rock, but the sameness of a faithful lover. Out of your love I came to life; by your love I am sustained, and to your love I am always called back. There are days of sadness and days of joy; there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude; there are moments of failure and moments of success; but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love.
I don’t think there are any biblical characters who found it easy to follow Jesus; Peter and the other Apostles, Paul, Stephen, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, Nicode’mus (a ruler of the Jews), the Samaritan woman at the well, the rich man who couldn’t bring himself to sell all that he had and follow Jesus, Zacchaeus the tax collector, blind Bartimaeus and countless others. It was not easy for them to follow Jesus, but in him those who believed in him found truth and life and the way to God the Father. The ways competing for our loyalty in our postmodern world are constantly trying to seduce us and the risk of getting lost is always present.
But “let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in the Lord Christ.” Once we have tasted the kindness of the Lord, who promises us an eternal home with the Father, the other ways simply don’t compare. Like Paul and Silas the Lord will give us whatever we need to live out our lives faithfully and follow the way of love.
Conclusion: Remember, you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
Sermon Based on Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
4 Easter; Year A
May 7, 2017
Introduction: Can you think of someone who is or was just too honest for his or her own good? If Hollywood’s portrayal of General George Patton is accurate, he was always getting into trouble because he would tell it like it was. President of the United States or private, friend or ally, Patton told you honestly what he thought.
Situation: Evidently, Stephen was such a person. The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that he was full of faith and the Holy Spirit even before he was ordained as one of the first seven deacons in the church. Stephen didn’t limit himself to serving tables but, full of grace and power, he did great wonders and signs among the people.
So effective was he that the Jewish authorities called him on the carpet to defend his ideas. They did everything to discredit him and that’s when he leveled the playing field. He honestly told them that they were stiff necked people who always resisted the Holy Spirit. From day one they had been a pain in God’s neck. They gave Moses a hard time in the wilderness and there hadn’t been a saint or a prophet they haven’t had it in for. And, of course, the way they treated Jesus only proved that not only were they always missing the boat but doing their best to sink it. Needless to say, such a speech was far from career enhancing and for thanks they dragged Stephen out to the local pit and stoned him to death. Stephen stood up to brutal criticism, intense personal pain, and death. Stephen was just too honest for his own good.
I suspect that every one of us has been Stephen at one time or another. I believe each of us has a story to tell of suffering unjustly for our beliefs but let me share this story with you about Corry Ten Boom and her sister. This is a story I’ve shared with you before but it is a story worth repeating.
Corry and her sister lived with their mother in Norway when World War II broke out. They were a Christian family. From the outset they realized that Adolf Hitler’s intention was to exterminate the Jewish people. Being led by their Christian beliefs they joined the underground network set up to help Jewish people escape from the Nazis. After many months, Corry and her family were caught by the Nazis. We don’t know what happened to her mother but Corry and her sister were sent to separate concentration camps.
Evidently, sometimes prisoners were transferred from one concentration camp to another and by luck, or I would contend by providence, Corry and her sister were reunited in the same barrack of the same concentration camp. Life in the camp was oppressive and dehumanizing. Bad food and water, starvation, cold or heat, filth and diseases killed many. I am confident that we’ve all seen WWII documentaries showing the living conditions. In their particular barrack, lice made life even more miserable.
Finally Corry complained to her sister that things were just unbearable and she didn’t know how much more she could take. Her sister said, “Corry, I know right now our lives are very hard but I also know that we must be thankful for what we have.”
Corry protested, “Thankful for what? I don’t see anything here to be thankful about.”
“Well, for one thing, we have each other,” responded her sister.
“Yes, that’s true,” Corry agreed, “But, what about the lice, the miserable lice?”
Her sister took Corry’s hands in hers and said, “I don’t know about the lice but I do know that we must always give thanks to the Lord.”
Well, as it turned out, while prisoners in the other barracks were being harassed and killed by the Nazis, the barrack in which Corry and her sister lived was so lice infested that even the German soldiers didn’t want to go into it. Although the lice made their lives miserable, the irony was that it was the lice which saved Corry’s and her sister’s lives.
Like Stephen, Corry and her family were led by their faith in Christ to speak out and to act in ways that were honest to their faith and they suffered greatly and unjustly for their beliefs. As Stephen had a vision of a greater glory so Corry and her family saw beyond their immediate safety to the greater glory of what was right and faithful. Like Stephen, Corry and her family were just too honest for their own good.
Resolution: We may suffer unjustly for our beliefs but as long as what we say or do is grounded in the love of God, then, like Stephen, Corry and her family we will find favor in God’s sight. As the first letter of Peter promises us, “One is approved if, mindful of God, he or she endures pain while suffering unjustly.”
The message I hear in this is that as long as we refuse to follow false teachers but follow the good shepherd, we shall not want. The Lord will sustain us, filling us with grace and power enabling us to do what we believe we must for the Lord is the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. We know the voice of our Shepherd. It is the voice of sacrificial love and we are called to follow him. As the gate to the sheepfold, Jesus is the way to eternal life. As the shepherd, he guides and protects his followers from a hostile world. There is a bond of mutual love and trust between the shepherd who leads and the sheep who follow. Jesus alone is the Good Shepherd who is there for the sheep, not for himself; “That they may have life, and have it abundantly” (v. 10). The image of the Good Shepherd reminds us to listen carefully for our Lord’s voice as we are called to share in God’s saving work in the world – to welcome all to abundant life in the name of our Shepherd.
Although Stephen, Corry and her family may have been too honest for their own good they were not too honest for our good. Stephen, Corry and her family knew the voice of the Shepherd. We owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to Stephen and to people like Corry and her family who suffer unjustly for what is right. It’s by such suffering that injustice and evil are stopped and those who come after benefit.
That’s the story of the cross. No matter what happens to us in this life, no matter what suffering we may endure, our Shepherd will be with us and protect us. Jesus was probably too honest for his own good but not too honest for our good. For the benefit we’ve received from his unjust suffering on a cross, his death, and his Easter resurrection is abundant, eternal life.
Sermon Based on Luke 24
3 Easter; Year A
April 30, 2017
Sermon Based on John 20:19-31
2 Easter; Year A
April 23, 2017
Situation: Today we find our “brave” disciples hold up behind the locked door of the same upper room where Jesus shared the Last Supper with them. It was Easter evening and by now the streets of Jerusalem were buzzing with the rumor of Jesus’ resurrection. Some people were thrilled by the news of the empty tomb. Others were outraged and accused the Roman authorities, responsible for guarding the tomb, with incompetence. The disciples were uncertain about what had happened and afraid that the public cry “Crucify him” could become “Crucify them.” They decided to lie low and let the situation cool off.
Once again, the disciples revealed how ordinarily human they were. Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, they consistently misunderstood what Jesus said about things. They kept falling asleep on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32f) just before his betrayal, Peter denied knowing Jesus not just once or twice but three times, and all but one ran away in his hour of need, during the crucifixion. This is hardly a group of guys you’d want on the first string of a football team. I mean, they don’t inspire much confidence.
And yet, these were the same ones Jesus came back to on the evening of the resurrection day. And Jesus didn’t say, “Thanks a lot guys for leaving me in the lurch.” He wasn’t sarcastic or critical. Instead he gave them what the world could not give them, or take away, the “peace” which surpasses human understanding, the peace of God. Instead of giving them what they deserved, which was the worst, or at least a kick in the pants, he gave them the best. They lived in fear of death; he breathed life into them and gave them the power of the Holy Spirit. They deserved to be locked up but Jesus sent them out. Jesus was raised from the dead not to judge us but to restore us. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins,” we are still locked away in the upper room. But in fact, Christ has been raised and we have been set free. Instead of beating the disciples down with criticism and sarcasm, Jesus built them up and empowered them. That’s the way Jesus, the risen Christ, deals with us. His divine compassion gently guides us in life with understanding, patience, and forgiveness. And that’s how we need to deal with each other.
In John’s Gospel, Easter coincides with Pentecost. Jesus appears, breathes, sends and commissions – all in one burst of holy energy. God’s warm and palpable presence startles and unsettles and stirs up the disciples. And they are never the same. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter captures the moment perfectly: This is Jesus whom God raised up, “having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24).
You know, the Christian faith is the only world religion that takes as its logo an emphatic symbol of death, [the cross]. And yet the central affirmation of Christianity is hopeful life. Jesus just keeps appearing – again and again – to unlock the barriers between faith and doubt, between life and death, between past and future, between fear and joy. Jesus keeps appearing, a dependable reminder of our dependable God.
Jesus breaths on us and gives us the Holy Spirit which unlocks the barriers which prevent us from fully and freely obeying him. In October of 2006, Charles Roberts shot ten and killed five Amish girls in their schoolroom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, before killing himself. The Amish community, in the midst of their grief, didn’t cast blame. Instead, they reached out with a spirit of grace and forgiveness, going to visit the killer’s family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week, the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral. In a further gesture of compassion, the Amish community raised money to help support the killer’s widow and three young children. Jesus, clearly, breathed on them and said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Most would think that the Roberts family didn’t deserve such an outpouring of charity from the Amish community, and who would blame them? But, do any of us deserve the grace we are shown by the Lord, or by others?
When we’re honest with ourselves, we know we don’t deserve anything, and have no right to expect anything, but God gives us grace, which, by definition, is His free and undeserved love. We don’t deserve anything but Jesus breaths on us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We don’t deserve anything but because of Easter believers are given eternal life. We don’t deserve anything but Jesus gives us the very best. Jesus unlocks the doors that we are hiding behind and sets us free to follow him by obeying him. And it’s in the power of the Holy Spirit that our Lord sends us out of this place today to love those who have hurt us and to do the work God has given each one of us to do. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus unlocks the doors of our upper rooms and frees us from fear. And it is God’s Easter grace which brings us to proclaim, “My Lord and my God.”
Sermon Based on John 20:1-18
Easter Day, Year A
April 16, 2017
Introduction: Christ is risen! This morning we open our service and greet each other with a cheer of victory, the greatest victory of all, Christ’s victory over the grave. And yet, in today’s story of an empty tomb, instead of thousands of cheering people, we find Mary Magdalene, Peter, and an unnamed disciple trying to understand what has happened on a very quiet, early Sunday morning. Hardly a victory celebration.
Situation: Mary, especially, was bewildered and distraught over the fact that Jesus’ body was missing. Mary had many reasons to love Jesus and to want only the utmost respect paid to his body’s disposition. He had cast seven demons out of her body and forgave her many sins. Jesus did for her what no one else could have done, and now she couldn’t even pay her respects because the body was gone. Mary was confused and openly weeping in sorrow.
Through her tears she saw a man who happened to be standing nearby and, thinking he was the gardener, she asked him if he had taken Jesus’ body away and, if so, if he would lead her to it. It was then that Jesus made himself known to her in a very special way. “Mary,” he said. It was a familiar voice she heard, the same healing voice that had commanded seven demons to leave her. It was an unmistakable voice for her because once you have heard Jesus’ voice of deliverance, and have experienced its liberating power, you never forget it. You recognize it wherever you are or whatever state you are in because it is the voice of the resurrection, the voice that always overcomes death with life. It’s the voice which knows us and calls each of us by name. Mary’s concern and sorrow vanished into pure joy.
But it wasn’t quite as neat and clean as we might think. The breaking in of God’s activity and intention usually comes not without pain, bewilderment, and ambiguity for the faithful. Let us not forget the cross of Good Friday just three days ago. I think the experience of our lives tells us that God’s activity in our lives can be painful and most confusing. As someone recently told me, “Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, God does something to turn it all upside down.”
The Easter message I hear today is that it’s by facing our problems and by going through death that we come to new life, transformed life. Our Lord Christ helps us overcome our losses in life, our disappointments, our failures, and, yes even our deaths by calling us each by name. Oh, we may not hear Jesus’ voice by our ears, but more likely in our hearts.
In a very real sense, these life difficulties are like deaths. Teilhard de Chardin believed that pain, suffering, and death in an evolving universe are inevitably woven into the creative process itself. Thus, the death and Resurrection of Jesus make sense as the power of God’s love in action, a love willing to die and be raised again.
In a strange and wonderful way, the events of Jesus’ death and Resurrection stand behind us in our history, around us in our faith, and before us now – pulling us toward the future, toward even greater transformation in love.
Jesus’ Resurrection is the watershed of New Testament history and the center of our faith. From the New Testament point of view, Jesus’ Resurrection is not a typical instance of resurrection in general. Rather, it is a unique event. Today we celebrate the unprecedented glory of God’s vindication and victory embodied through and in Christ.
Father Basil Pennington, a Catholic monk, tells of an encounter he once had with a teacher of Zen.
Pennington was at a retreat. As part of the program, each person met privately with this Zen teacher. Pennington says that at his meeting the Zen teacher sat there before him, smiling from ear to ear and rocking gleefully back and forth.
Finally the teacher said: “I like Christianity. But I would not Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!”
Pennington notes that, with his directness, the teacher was saying what everyone else implicitly says to Christians: “You are a Christian. You are risen with Christ. Show me what this means for you in your life – and I will believe.”
Perhaps the Zen teacher didn’t understand the nature of Christian faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but we do yearn to see transformed lives through faith only made possible through the resurrection.
Author Joan Chittister, in her book In search of Belief, said “To say, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who rose from the dead’ is to say something about myself at the same time. It says that I myself am ready to be transformed. Once the Christ-life rises in me, I rise to new life as well. ‘Christ is risen: we are risen,’ we sing at Easter. But it has a great deal more to do with life than with death. If I know that Jesus has been transformed, then I am transformed myself and, as a result, everything around me. Transformation is never a private affair. But it is always a decisive one.
Until we find ourselves with new hearts, more penetrating insights, fewer compulsions, less need for the transient, greater awareness of the spiritual pulse of life, Resurrection has not really happened for us. Resurrection is about [transformation] transfiguration.”
And so, in an Easter letter before his death in 1994, Bishop Klaus Hemmerle of Aachen, Germany, wrote, “I wish each of us Easter eyes, able to perceive in death, life; in guilt, forgiveness; in separation, unity; in wounds, glory; in the human, God; in God, the human; and in the I, the You.”
Conclusion: Christ is risen! This is the message Mary personally proclaimed when she said, “I have seen the Lord.” My sisters and brothers in Christ, on this Resurrection Day I hope that each of you has experienced the new, transformed life we find in Christ as he calls us each by name and we can all say, “I have seen the Lord.”
Sermon Based on Mt. 26:36-27:66
Palm Sunday, Year A
April 9, 2017
Introduction: Good Morning on this most unusual Sunday morning. We don’t normally process into church, as we just did. Of all the Sundays of the year, this one is about the strangest. We call it Palm Sunday because people waved palm branches as Jesus came into Jerusalem; and we call it “Passion Sunday” because people waving palms quickly gave way to soldiers wielding whips. A moment ago there was excitement in the air, and then there was the dramatic reading of the passion story, and Jesus’ death.
I think It is a good idea that we read these texts together, to remember how fleeting and fickle are the affections of humans, how precarious is any trust built on human approval.
Situation: And we heard the centurion say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
But where in heaven was God while his Son hung there between heaven and hell, between life and death? In less than a week Jesus moved from glory to the grave. What went wrong, or what went right?
On the day Jesus entered Jerusalem there were many admirers in the crowd. Jesus’ reputation had made him the darling of the masses because he gave them hope. But among the smiling faces of shouting men, women, and children there were faces grim with disapproval and anger. These were Pharisees who were shocked to hear people shouting, “Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” So, they sought to bring him down. As we listened to the reading of the Passion didn’t we wonder where God was in all of this?
I think we need to ask that question and pay attention to it, otherwise we end up with what could be called “pogo stick theology.” Boinging down on Palm Sunday long enough to enjoy the parade, and then bouncing over to Easter long enough to enjoy the flowers and the fun; without ever coming down to that other reality in between. Some would prefer to focus on the celebration of the Palms and miss the mess of Holy Week.
But miss the middle and we miss the point. Miss the mess in which Jesus quickly found himself, and we miss the meaning of Easter. Miss that and we will always wonder about where God is in all of this?
Complication: Where is God in your life, or in mine? As we go through the Holy Week of our lives, there are times when we experience good times and bad, plenty and poverty, adulation and criticism, acceptance and rejection. If you’re like me, sometimes we wonder “where is God while all of this is happening? Where is God when I’m sick? Where is God when I’m losing my job? Where is God when our relationships are falling apart or we’re going through a divorce? Where is God when my life is crumbling around me? ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
Like many people in the crowd, few of us can see that God was there from donkey to death. What they would soon see clearly was that the Jesus on the donkey would not “save them” the way they wanted to be saved – would not lead a military revolt. So, given the choice they chose one, perhaps, who would – Barabbas the terrorist. (Parenthetically, Barabbas in Aramaic means “son of the father,” and the biting irony here is that a revolutionary Zealot is chosen over Jesus, the true “Son of the Father.” The man released is actually guilty of the charges falsely brought against the innocent Jesus.) If Jesus doesn’t save us the way we want him to, how quickly do we turn to someone or something that might?
Resolution: Where was God in all of that? Things are not all that different now. Where is God now?
God is where God has always been; with us in all that; in the midst of all our hopes and dreams, even when they turn to despair and nightmares. The story of Holy Week is not about God waving a magic wand, but about God walking the walk, the via dolorosa, the way of sorrow, the way of life, with you and me.
To answer the question about where God is in all of that, we need look no farther than the coming events of Holy Week. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God could not be set up by force. Jesus had rejected that temptation made to him by Satan in the desert (Mt. 4:8-10). The Kingdom could come only through faith – not force. During the events of Holy Week Jesus revealed his belief that God the Father was with him through thick and thin, despite his anguished cry from the cross, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Without faith, he could not have called out to God.
The kind of faith which Jesus calls us to enter requires wholeheartedness. And it is this trait which underlies, and brings to life, the Paschal Mystery we are entering, as well as the awareness of where God is. C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters depicts Wormwood and his demonic cohorts seeking to instill among the followers of the “enemy”, Jesus, the attitude of “Christianity and . . . “
That is, Christianity and career. Christianity and personal fulfillment. Christianity and self-interest. Pretty soon, Wormwood tells them, this dividedness will give way to what they really want: a reversal of priorities, putting self first. Career and Christianity. Personal fulfillment and Christianity. Self-interest and Christianity. A half-hearted, tepid faith, resting on the wobbly stool of “cultural Christianity.” I pray that this is not where we are.
So, how can we make this Holy Week and Easter Week our personal/communal “revival?” Die with Christ to be raised with him. Re-experience “the acts of love by which God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ our Lord”: the Last Supper, the passion of the foot-washing, Gethsemane, the cross of Golgotha, the death and burial of Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Gather and pray, here at St. Mary’s as we offer these worship opportunities during Holy Week – and wait for Easter. Rearrange your life around the wholeheartedness of faith. If we don’t, we will remain “of little faith.”
Today is not just Palm Sunday – it is Passion Sunday as well. Today the Jesus-train will take us all the way to Calvary, to Golgotha, in the reading of the Passion Narrative. Although Good Friday will provide a prolonged visit to this place, we cannot let the palms of today overshadow the train’s “last stop.”
This week is about God’s presence in your life and mine, assuring us, and when necessary reassuring us, that whether it’s hope that dies, or one we love who dies, or even ourselves who, eventually, must die, death does not defeat life in the end. For in the end, as in the beginning, God is there. God is here, to guarantee it.
Sermon Based on John 11
V Lent; Year A
April 2, 2017
Sermon Based on John 9
IV Lent; Year A
March 26, 2017
Sermon Based on John 4:5-26, 39-42
III Lent; Year A
March 19, 2017
Introduction: There was a man who died and went to heaven, where he was greeted at the pearly gates by a heavenly being with a clipboard and calculator. As the man approached the gates, the gatekeeper said, “Hold it there, Mister. You can’t just walk in here. We have policies and procedures . . . and I need to see your points.
Puzzled, the man said, “Points? What points?”
“You know,” the being said, “the points you earned by the kind of life you lived on earth. You have to have 200 points to get in here. So tell me, what did you do in your life that would have earned you 200 points?
“Well,” the man said, “I was a member of my church for 47 years. And I was a Sunday school teacher for 32 years.”
“That’s good,” the gatekeeper said. “You get one point.”
“Let’s see . . . I was a good husband . . . a good father . . . I think my wife and children would say that.”
“That’s very good,” the being said. “You get another point.”
“Oh, my,” the man said. “Let me think. Well, I tithed to my church and I worked once each month at the soup kitchen. Plus I served four years on the board of the homeless shelter.”
“Excellent,” the being said, “one more point.”
By now the man was really starting to worry . . . he thought and thought: What else have I done that would earn points?
Finally, he threw up his hands and said: “My goodness, if I get in here it’ll be by the grace of God!”
“Exactly!” said the gatekeeper. “That’s worth 197 points. Welcome to heaven!”
Whenever the grace (the love) of God is revealed in our own human encounters, as well – perhaps we are saying in various ways to each other: “Welcome to heaven!”
Situation: The woman in today’s gospel story came to the well looking for water and found something she didn’t expect.
Jesus was on his way from Judea to Galilee, which took him through Samaria. On this day, it was about noon and he was hot and tired. Sending the disciples ahead of him to run errands, Jesus sat by a well. He had the same human needs you and I have, and on that day, he needed a drink of water. When the woman approached the well with her jar Jesus asked her for a drink.
The woman had come looking for water, not trouble. Convention did not permit Jewish men to talk to unknown women and Jewish teachers didn’t talk to any women in public. And good Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans, period. This woman already had two strikes against her: she was a woman and she was a Samaritan. She had her own problems, made evident when Jesus divulged her marital history and her current living arrangement.
Scottish theologian William Barclay once wrote that “there are two great days in a person’s life, ‘the day we are born and the day we discover why.’” The woman had her problems and she needed more than water to stay alive, though that was all she came for. She needed the meaning that comes with knowing why. So, Jesus offered her not a magic potion to cure all her problems, but the elixir of life itself, living water; participation in the life of God which makes life worth living.
But she didn’t “get it.” How can you give me water? You don’t even have a bucket.
Complication Like the woman, how often do we miss the point? Somehow, she understood that having drunk this water the day-to-day living of life would be taken care of. All her problems would be over. As she sought the solution to all of her immediate needs in the water, so we seek solutions to our needs, problems, and fears in the relentless human quest for pleasure, power, popularity and prestige. Undergirding this constant quest is the pursuit of money. For we suppose that money will allow us to have greater pleasure. We look for solutions to our problems in alcohol, in love (sometimes getting lost in dysfunctional relationships) and in whatever gives us some sense of security. But all of this is the worship of false gods who fail us; this is the water that only leaves us to thirst again. No matter how much we may drink from this well, we only want more and we are never secure.
Resolution: Yet, underlying all of this is a deeper spiritual need. For our real quest is not for pleasure or power or popularity or prestige. Our real quest is for God, for the limitless divine love that flows so freely from the heart of the Almighty.
This is what Jesus offered the Samaritan woman, and what he offers us. She sought love from five husbands and then from a man whom she did not marry. But it was not enough to satisfy. Only God who made us can satisfy our deepest spiritual need for love. When we accept the gift of living water Jesus offers us and participate in the life of God through the Holy Spirit (which is living water) we discover that our spiritual thirst is quenched forever and the words Jesus spoke are true. What we need then is to ask from God the nerve to trust divine goodness and to exchange the stale well-water of materialism for the Living Water of Life in Christ. It’s fine to believe because of the faith and testimony of our parents and friends but we must go beyond listening. Only by taking the leap ourselves and only by drinking this living water can we become responsible for our faith and know that Jesus is truly the Savior of the world.
Ken had his own problems, growing up thinking he was no good at anything. If you were to ask Ken’s parents, they would tell you that they were good parents. They never physically abused their children and gave them all the toys and comforts any child could desire.
The problem was the way they spoke to their children. “You’re stupid” or “Can’t you do anything right?” were often heard at the dinner table. When Ken was a teenager his parents still treated him like a child.
In his twenties, Ken still lived at home with his oppressive parents, afraid to step out on his own, afraid that he would fall flat on his face.
Then one day in a fast food restaurant Ken met Lynn. Just joking around he asked Lynn if she would like to go out with him, expecting she would immediately say no. To his astonishment, she said yes and they began dating. An amazing thing happened to both Ken and Lynn. They both changed as a result of feeling loved for the first time in their lives. Friends commented on the change in Ken; he almost seemed like a different person. Ken and Lynn loved and affirmed each other. Two years after they met they were married.
After they were married for a while Lynn asked Ken if he would attend church with her. While growing up, church had been an important part of Lynn’s life, while Ken rarely attended. At first Ken only went to church to please his wife. If going to church with her made her happy then he would go. After all, he told himself, it was only for an hour.
Something unexpected happened. While attending church, Ken discovered the Living Christ for himself. He listened to the words about abundant life, he drank the Living Water of Life in Christ, and soon claimed that life for himself. Like the Samaritan woman, once he met Christ he could not turn away. He wanted the abundant life that only Christ can offer and it changed his entire life.
Conclusion: That is what happens to us when we accept Christ into our hearts. He becomes real to us and we find a relationship that will sustain us, build us up, encourage us, strengthen us, and, in the end, shepherd us into heaven. Amen.
Sermon Based on Gen 12:1-8, Rom 4:1-17, John 3:1-17
2 Lent; Year A
March 12, 2017
Introduction: The old country preacher used to say, “There are two parts of the gospel. The first is the believing part, and the second is the behaving part.”
Situation: When St. Paul develops his great theme of the salvation of humankind by grace not by works lest anyone should boast, he reminds us that God put this great plan into motion with one man, Abraham, and “him as good as dead,” in Paul’s words. Paul’s point is that God risks the whole plan of salvation on one person.
The story of Genesis up to this point is the story of a plan gone wrong. God has made everything, including man and woman to know and love God, and to serve each other. Then there is that unfortunate business with the snake and our disobedience.
But the story goes on. God wants to win us back, to restore the original vision of the creation. God vows to renew and redeem us. But as the story goes on, the failures go on and the rebellion deepens. Cain kills Abel but God does not destroy Cain. God gives him undeserved mercy, the mark of Cain. Things get so bad that God ceases to hold back the waters of chaos. Yet God risks it all again with Noah and his family of seven. Again, we rise up in pride and rebellion and look to take heaven by storm. They cannot stand against God, and their fall is great and they are spread abroad. Now what shall become of God’s plan?
Well, God will not stop working until the plan of redemption is accomplished. That is the motive behind the calling of Abraham. There is no logic to God’s choice of Abraham, indeed it is irrational. Abraham is too old and if he is religious in any unusual sense, the Bible never mentions it. He seems to have been an ordinary, though successful, businessman. Since his ancestors moved northwest along the Euphrates from Ur to Haran, Abraham and his clan have become a prominent family in the Haran community.
Nobody in Haran – especially nobody in his or her right mind – would have ever dreamed that this mainstay of a family, at their advanced ages, would up and move away from Haran to who knows where? But Abraham did just that – by faith. So, to bring God’s plan of redemption to the world in a way that it could be freely chosen and thankfully embraced God began with one person, Abraham, “and him as good as dead.”
Ultimately it will come down to one man, one human being, naked, dead and hanging on a tree. God betting everything on one individual: on Abraham and on Sara, on Noah, on Mary and on her son Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And although Jesus has brought us salvation by his death and resurrection God continues betting on people, yes, even on you and me. How will we respond? Will we respond in faith or in trusting in ourselves? This is where Nicodemus got confused. Let me explain.
Complication: You see, for centuries, the church has encouraged its members to join in certain Lenten disciplines. Take on an extra commitment to prayer and worship. Involve yourself in some new way of serving. Give up something you cherish, and pay attention to your sense of longing for it. Try your hand at fasting or meditating. Lent is a time of lifting up these ancient faith practices, and encouraging believers to try them on for forty days or so.
Lent can be a dangerous business, though. It can give the impression that the life of faith is all about what we do. What can we do to give faith a toehold in our lives? What can we do to enhance our faith? What can we do to draw closer to God? These are dangerous questions, because they can draw us away from a faith that is rooted in God’s grace, and towards a faith that becomes one of our own making. A faith that is more dependent on us than it is on Christ.
… Like Nicodemus, we can become focused on the mechanics of it all. Like Nicodemus, we can begin to imagine that our faithfulness is what establishes our relationship with God. … Nicodemus eventually learned: that we don’t establish our relationship with God by amassing a record of good works. Instead, our relationship with God is assured by the grace of Jesus Christ. …
Resolution: Christian faith is not just a revised list of obligations from God. It is about being touched by God’s spirit, and being won over by God’s love. This text [Our Gospel] reminds us that the Spirit blows where it will, and when that happens hearts are changed; lives are reborn.
Birth from above by the Spirit is the gift of faith to believe and the empowerment of grace to persevere. It must be remembered that God’s Spirit is not under [our] control.
Something entirely new is at work here – something not before seen. And it is about life from deadness, fresh growth from dry ground, acquiring a new identity and purpose.
We identify with Christ in the waters of our baptism; we arise into a new world in which miracles are everyday possibilities. The operations of the untamable Spirit are revealed to us – in ourselves and in the reactions of those around us. And we call this new relationship to God eternal life.
Lent is a dangerous time, but it can also be an important time. I pray that during this year’s Lenten season, as you embrace new spiritual disciplines, you might not become preoccupied with the mechanics of it all. But instead, I hope that the Holy Spirit will touch you through those disciplines, and that it might shape you and mold you into the person God wants to help you become.
Like Nicodemus, may we be touched by Christ, and inspired by his love for us. When we are reborn, we respond to Christ in faith knowing that there is nothing that we can do to earn his grace and it is only his grace that motivates us to follow him.
 David J. Risendal, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, March 16, 2014), 2, n.p. Online: onelittleword.org.
 Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, March 16, 2014), 4.
 Risendal, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A.”
Sermon Based on Gen 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:7; and Mt 4:1-11
1 Lent; Year A
March 5, 2017
A priest was accosted by a mugger while walking down a dark alley. The thief demanded that he hand over his wallet. As the priest opened his coat to reach for his wallet, the would-be mugger saw the collar and realized he was robbing a priest.
He immediately apologized and said, “Forget it, Father. Keep your money. I had no idea you were a priest.”
Both nervous and relieved, the priest took out a cigarette and offered one to the stranger.
“No thank you,” the robber said. “I gave up smoking for Lent.”
I suppose by now most of us have decided what we’re going to give up or add to our routine for Lent. Lent is about making choices.
Scripture is full of stories about choices. The familiar story of Adam and Eve for instance and the temptation story of Jesus are about choices.
Adam and Eve had it made in the shade, not a worry in the world. They were placed in the Garden of Eden and all they had to do was to look after things and not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What could be hard about that? Ah, but then the serpent came and played with their minds tempting and seducing them to choose to disobey God. They did and we are cursed with physical death.
Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit led him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. What a way to start one’s ministry, a real baptism by fire. The first temptation was to turn stones into bread, perhaps to feed the hungry? That wouldn’t be a bad thing to do. But we are reminded of the story about how Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of soup. Would Jesus sell his birthright to the devil for a loaf of bread?
The second temptation to throw himself from the top of the temple would have “wowed” the people below, but Jesus didn’t need earthly glory.
The third temptation was the most transparent of all, to accept worldly power in exchange for worshiping the devil. “Be gone Satan,” Jesus ordered.
Different temptations, but the same purpose; Jesus was being confronted with a choice, either to choose God or to choose Satan. Jesus was often confronted with this choice. During Passover, he was confronted by hungry pilgrims. He had the choice to give bread, as in the wilderness, and this time he chose to give bread. His choice confused the disciples and some left because he taught that he was the bread of life.
There were always choices, choices between power and faithfulness to God’s will. But God’s will cost Jesus everything. It cost him the loss of his followers. It brought dwindling crowds, low church attendance. It brought growing confrontation with authority. It cost Jesus his family and his life. Sounds like the world we live in.
We all know about temptations and the choices they present us.
A friend of mine was searching the aisles of the hardware store for a tube of “Super Glue.” He couldn’t find it so he went up to the customer service desk to ask for help from the young man standing at the cash register. He was on the telephone and, when he saw my friend coming his direction, he turned his back toward him. My friend could tell he was making a personal call, but he just waited. The call went on and on. After some time, my friend was becoming impatient: “Pardon me,” he said, “I need to ask one question.” He let out a sigh and mumbled into the phone, “Catch ya later, Charlie, I gotta go.” “Well, what is it?” he asked of my friend.
“I’m looking for ‘Super Glue.’”
“It’s on the third aisle, in plain view,” he said with disdain.
As my friend walked down the third aisle, the farther he went the angrier he got. “How dare he treat a customer so rudely?” my friend thought. He was tempted to go back and give him a piece of his mind, if not a knuckle sandwich.
He was tempted. He had to choose whether, or not, to act on his impulses.
Gloria was thinking about how her husband, Frank, has all the luck. Frank had scheduled a mid-winter business trip to the Virgin Islands. “I could go with him,” Gloria said. “He’s got enough frequent flyer miles to take me along, and it would be nice to get away from the cold and the routine. But our kids have school, and we’d have to leave them at home by themselves. I guess I can’t go but I sure am tempted.” She was tempted. She had to choose between her desire and the care of her children.
Choices; we all have to make them. Fortunately, many of our choices have no moral consequences. But temptation hangs in the air like a flu virus. We’re tempted by greed, lust, and power. We’re tempted to cheat on our taxes, to gossip about a friend, lie our way out of trouble . . . you name it. Every day we are tempted and we have to choose between good and evil, between God and the devil.
You don’t need me to lecture in detail about temptation. Of all theological concepts, this one doesn’t need to be rescued from obscurity. Temptation we know about. There are often no clear answers but the choice is clear. We can choose God or we can choose the devil and the delusions of power and fleshy desires. Now we might think “That’s an easy choice.” But we know how hard it really is. Well, take heart in the fact that just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness and remained with Jesus throughout the ordeal, so the Holy Spirit is with us when we feel tempted. If we will but call upon the Spirit to help us make the right choices, we will not be left powerless. Call upon the Spirit and trust God to guide us.
Lent is about choices.
The choice is ours. I pray we choose God.
Sermon Based on Matthew 17:1-9
Last Sunday in Epiphany
February 26, 2017
Sermon Based on Matthew 5:38-48
7 Epiphany, Year A
February 19, 2017
Jeannine and I have lived among you now for over nine years. In that time I’ve had many conversations with many of you about loving one’s enemies and retributive justice, turning the other cheek, giving to every beggar who approaches you in the parking lot, and loving your enemies. That these conversations continue to bubble up must mean, I can only conclude, that we are not satisfied with the answers we’ve received and we want more clarity about what we are to do in these situations.
You hear Jesus’ words, “Let your light shine before others. Do not resist evil. If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, you’re to turn and offer him the left.”
If they ask for your shirt, you give the coat. If they press you for one mile, you’re supposed to go two.
“Give to those who beg from you, and love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
In a word, “we are to be perfect,” Jesus says, “as the very God himself.”
And when we hear words like these we just wonder how serious Jesus could be. In a Broadway play, a woman says, “God never made a better woman than I am, but somehow I just can’t seem to live up to it.”
And then we hear all those stories that are supposed to exemplify the ideal. The old story, for example, of the ancient Chinese warlord who ordered his general to go to a city and take the city and destroy all the enemies, no quarter, no nothing. About a week later the warlord went to the city and saw that the city gates were open, but when he went in he saw his general and the other soldiers having a banquet with all the natives there.
And furious, he asked about his order, about destroying the enemies, and of course the response was, “But I did. As you can see, they are now our friends, not our enemies.”
Or there’s the story about the man who once bought a farm and was walking the bounds of his new property when he met his new next-door neighbor.
And the new neighbor said to him, “Don’t look now, but when you bought this piece of ground you also bought a lawsuit with it because your fence is ten feet on my property.”
And the new owner smiled and said, “I thought I’d find some friendly neighbors here, and I’m going to. And you’re going to help me. You move the fence over to where you want it and send me the bill, and we’ll both be happy.”
These are the kinds of stories that seem to translate this impossible dream of Jesus’. And still, on the other hand, in everyday flesh and blood life, beyond the stories, it is hard to love your enemy, particularly when you have been hurt deeply and, perhaps, in a most personal way.
And, so, the conversations continue to bubble up.
Perhaps, just perhaps, what I offer you now may help clarify what Jesus is getting at.
Now, no doubt, this Gospel Lesson contains some of the most difficult sayings of Jesus. Here, our Lord goes beyond the Old Testament commands. We are not to limit ourselves and our love to those who would consider themselves our neighbors. We are to love even those who want to be our enemies. The only way we can live this way is to become channels of God’s love. We are not the source of such love and can never be. But we can, by God’s grace, become givers of the gifts we have received from our Lord.
Author William Neil in The Difficult Sayings of Jesus offers us his perspective on this. “Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you.” A slap on the face is merely a picturesque way of describing a personal insult and, in this event, means refusing to return the insult by ignoring it. This saying therefore has nothing to do with arguments for or against pacifism, violence or non-violence. Jesus is dealing purely with personal relationships.
And so often as in his teachings, he throws out a challenge by startling his listeners with the unexpected. They have become accustomed to his way of making people think by saying something amusing – “If someone slaps you up the side of the head (then Jesus pauses while they rake their brains as to what they were supposed to do, then comes the least likely answer) – “let him slap you up the other side as well!” We can see from the next few verses that Jesus does not mean his listeners to take him literally, for he goes on to talk of a man being sued in a law court for the recovery of his shirt. Come on! Who is going to sue someone for a literal shirt? But Jesus goes on to say if this happens, let him have your coat as well. Giving your coat as well would be more than what the man suing would have received had he won the suit; so it is an exaggeration.
The other two illustrations make it quite clear that Jesus’ language is figurative. The first is that of a Roman legionary picking on a passer-by and ordering him to carry some heavy load for a mile along the road. If this happens to you, says Jesus, offer to carry it twice as far – the proverbial “second mile” – obviously, the last thing a reluctant conscript would think of doing, and, thus, startling us with the unexpected.
So, what’s the point? It is the principle of responding to harshness with kindness that Jesus is commending. That’s the point. So, with Jesus’ last example. “Do not turn your back on the man who wants to borrow.” To obey this literally would encourage spongers and reward the shiftless and thriftless at the expense of those who work for their living. Jesus obviously is not commending indiscriminate charity … but rather urging us to cultivate the spirit of generosity. While this has strictly nothing to do with avoiding retaliation, it does show that the whole passage is not concerned with laying down laws for Christian behavior but with the attitude a Christian should adopt in dealing with people in general. We are not to be Pharisees.
Above all, being a follower of Jesus, discipleship, is defined as love that goes beyond what is required. Turning the other cheek, giving your cloak, going the extra mile, and giving generously are expressions of the extravagant love we are to offer even to our enemies.
Finally, Jesus calls his followers to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here the word perfect is used in the sense of God’s wholeness or holiness; not that we aren’t going to make mistakes. We are to be whole and holy, and what I mean by holy is that we are set apart to do God’s work in the world. We are to reflect God’s Spirit in all aspects of our lives through justice, compassion, and reconciliation. When we do these things, we have a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.
Well, for what it’s worth, I hope this helps.
 William J. Bausch, Telling Stories, Compelling Stories of People of Grace (Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, 1991), pp. 98-99.
 Donald S. Armentrout, Synthesis, (February 20, 2011)
Sermon Based on Matthew 5:21-37
6 Epiphany; Year A
February 12, 2017
Introduction: The irony struck me, as I read over the part of the Gospel reading for today about adultery and lust, that Valentine’s Day is day-after-tomorrow. Valentine’s Day is a day for sweethearts and tender expressions of affection, not the struggle with our passions. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus is much of a romantic.
Situation: Today’s readings reflect the paradoxical tension between, on the one hand, our free will, our freedom to choose to do what is right and what is wrong, and, on the other hand, our utter dependence on God for our salvation and righteousness. In Deuteronomy, Moses presents clear choices before the people: they can choose life and prosperity or death and adversity. Obedience to the commandments of Yahweh will bring life and they shall become numerous, and God will bless the land they are about to enter. However, if they turn away from the Lord and serve other gods, they shall perish. We are not to blame God for our problems because the choices we’ve made in life were ours to make, good or bad. In Matthew’s account of the Gospel, on the other hand, Jesus raises the legal standard of outward obedience to God’s commandments to a higher spiritual level, a level, perhaps, beyond our reach. Now the very intention is as sinful as the actual act. Who can comply? Our only hope is found in Grace.
To be clear, no commandment of the law is “abolished” (5:17) or broken (5:19) by these sayings. One who practices the teachings of Jesus will violate no commandment of the law. In every case, Jesus instructs his disciples to examine what is truly behind their actions. Identifying our ulterior motives is not always perfectly clear. In Matthew, this “righteousness” equates with obedience to the will of God from the inside out. This calls for a truly radical honesty in which actions are rooted in and inseparable from character. In our passage, Jesus seeks to amplify what God has spoken through Moses by reaching behind the act that was prohibited to its intent.
Jesus took the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill” and said that even the hostile anger or the insults which motivate killing are as sinful as the killing itself. I suspect that we’ve all been taught by our elders, from as far back as we can remember, that we’ve got to learn to control our anger. It’s a matter of willpower. We can choose to ignore what someone else says. Yet, as St. James tells us, words are like a double-edged sward. Words can cut both ways, they can bless or curse. They can complement and build us up or they can criticize and tear us down. Words have power and are not easy to ignore. But we think we can overcome our anger and control our emotions all by ourselves. This dependency on our own way, our own willpower, is what Paul refers to as the “flesh.” Paul is speaking in a metaphorical sense. It is not that the body is bad, but rather that in “behaving according to human inclinations” we are guided by worldly understandings rather than by God’s Spirit. Paul’s understanding of the flesh applies to all of the contrasts that Jesus presents to us in today’s Gospel.
A Zen story is told of two traveling monks who reached a river, where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated; but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued on their way, the first monk was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”
“Brother,” the second monk replied, “I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her.”
Jesus took the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” and then said that even a lustful thought in a moment of weakness condemns us. (So, the critical monk might be in trouble.) Human sexuality is one of the most powerful driving forces in our lives and is something we cannot escape. The applications of the relationship between lusting and acting are many – for both men and women. C.S. Lewis made [lusting’s] meaning especially concrete when he paraphrased it as: “He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.”
Now, there are those who believe they can control their sexuality. St. Jerome of the fourth century suggested this in his comment, “For the preservation of chastity, an empty and rumbling stomach and fevered lungs are indispensable.” This is not a very positive view of controlling our urges nor of human sexuality. Jesus wouldn’t have said that but he did say that making other people objects for sexual gratification was wrong; sinful because doing so warps and twists the good relationships God intends men and women to have.
But, as long as we think we can, and must, control our anger and other emotions, simply by our willpower, we are condemning ourselves to the tyranny of the law. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Resolution: I’ve shared this story with you before, but it illustrates our struggle with our will and grace. It could be called a Valentine’s Day story, about a hippopotamus, an owl, and a butterfly. It seems that the hippo had fallen in love with a butterfly, an affair which, I think you will agree, poses certain practical problems. The hippo, determined to pursue his beloved, sought the advice of a wise old owl.
“Well,” said the owl, “you must become a butterfly, and you’d better get on with it.”
The hippo was delighted with this idea! He crashed back into the jungle . . . only to return shortly with a puzzled expression on his muzzle.
“So,” said the hippo, “so how do I go about becoming a butterfly?”
The wise old owl replied, “Hey, I set policy. I don’t do implementation.”
Well, that hippo was never going to fly on his own, no matter what. But it may be that the hippo could charm the butterfly down to join him from time to time on the ground. And any of us who’ve ever been in love with someone knows how it is when we feel like our feet don’t even touch the ground.
So, it is with the life of faith. We don’t get to be good simply by trying to do good. We get there by slowly falling in love with a life that has more faithfulness, more gracefulness, more compassion than any other we have known. For Christians, this life is the life of “Gospel Righteousness” made possible by the One who would not let shame or humiliation stop him, or success puff him up. Not even death could defeat him. Jesus. Obedience to our Lord cannot come from our own willpower. It has to come to us from beyond us and it must then become internal if it is to bring genuine, new life. It is a gift from our heavenly Father; it is a transformational gift of grace.
You see, Jesus was the righteous One, the only One who obeyed God the Father even unto death. In doing this, because he was human, he fulfilled all of the human obligations we have in our relationship with God the Father and thereby made us righteous. This is the Biblical definition of righteousness, to fulfill the obligations in a relationship. This we couldn’t do by ourselves. But just as we share in Jesus’ resurrection, so we share in his righteousness. This doesn’t mean that life will be easy. It does mean that with Christ in our lives, and only with Christ in our lives, we can walk in faith and fall in love with a life of grace which alone holds us up and enables us to have Gospel Righteousness, fulfilling not only the letter of the law but, more importantly, the spirit of the law. John Stott wrote: “Every Christian should be both conservative and radical: conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it.”
 Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: 6 Epiphany – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, February 16, 2014).
Sermon Based on Matthew 5:13-20
Fifth Sunday in Epiphany
February 5, 2017
Sermon Based on Matthew 5:1-12
Fourth Sunday in Epiphany
January 29, 2017
Sermon Based on John 1: 29-42
Second Sunday in Epiphany
January 15, 2017
Fr. Art Tripp
Sermon Based on Matthew 3:13-17
First Sunday in Epiphany
January 8, 2017
Introduction: It’s been said that we live in a microwave world. We want what we want and we want it now. We want freezer to table meals in 15 minutes, tops; we want 0 to 60 miles per hour acceleration in 8 seconds; and those of us who use computers find we become impatient when it takes more than a few seconds to print a job. Patience is a rare virtue.
Situation: I’m not sure how patient John the Baptist was for that matter. He preached with a sense of urgency and intensity, as though tomorrow was too late. One day while he was baptizing people in the Jordan River, Jesus came up to him and told John to baptize him. Well, John sensed a problem here. You see, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and here was the one person who had nothing for which to repent. John also sensed a deep spirituality which dwarfed his own. Who was he to baptize Jesus? But it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized because his acceptance of the baptism showed that he was accepting the sins of the world. And, so, the baptism took place.
Complication: John’s problem was his sense of unworthiness to baptize Jesus. As baptized members of the body of Christ, who share in the baptism that Jesus gives us in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, our problem may be how to faithfully live in a microwave world. We know the danger of instant gratification which fosters selfishness, intolerance, and impatience. Our sense that tomorrow is too late makes it hard to accept long commitments with uncertain endings. On the other hand, of course, we are grateful for the benefits of speed. Rescue squads know the value of every second when responding to an emergency and no one would deny the benefit of rapid communications.
But the question remains, “How are we to live faithfully in this fast paced world?”
Resolution: Well, there are several approaches. Some people, like the Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio, cling to an older and simpler way of life and reject the evils of modernity. Others embrace wholeheartedly the ways of the world. For them, God and the church must adapt to the changing world and culture if they are to remain relevant.
There, however, is another way to be a Christian in this microwave world – one suggested by the title of a book by Eugene Peterson – A Long Obedience In the Same Direction. This is a life of patience and persistence in the assurance that God’s ways are true and right and just even if often-times they seem too slow for us.
So, what shape might a long obedience in the same direction take?
For one United Methodist pastor in Roanoke, Virginia, it took the shape of a 2,200 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to northern Maine. Pastor Ken Patrick began his hike – a spiritual pilgrimage really – one April, immediately after Easter Day. He concluded the journey in late September. Once en-route, he was struck by lightening. By August he was so physically wasted from malnutrition that he was hospitalized and returned home for a few weeks of rest and recuperation. With strength renewed, he returned to the point at which he was forced off the trail, and concluded his trek.
The journey was undertaken in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and was appropriately designated “a hike for the homeless.” Some folks sponsored Pastor Patrick so many cents or dollars per mile. The proceeds helped open a new day facility for Roanoke’s homeless, a place of hospitality and refuge.
That’s one shape that a long obedience in the same direction has taken for one Christian.
For us, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, our calling and our power to lead lives marked by a long obedience in the same direction comes in our baptism. For it is by water and the Spirit that we die to the old self and are reborn and made a new creation in Christ, as Paul says.
Of course we know that this doesn’t mean our task is easy. Immediately following today’s reading comes the story of how Jesus was tempted by the devil to abandon his long obedience in the same direction. He fought that temptation and in all that he did He continued His course. And then on the cross of Calvary, He followed it to its bitter end. This Jesus God raised from the dead. His long and perfect obedience in the same direction is the salvation of us all, through no merit of our own.
You see, this is why Jesus’ baptism was necessary and why it is so important for each of us. Because we share in His baptism and are members of His body, a long obedience in the same direction is precisely the sort of life the risen Christ empowers us to lead as his disciples. Author and theologian Robert Webber has defined discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.”
In a few moments we will be reaffirming our baptismal vows. I encourage you to think about the promises you will be making and never forget that you have been marked by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own, forever. This means that we can never be un-baptized, or that we ever need to be baptized again. Such is the permanence of our Lord’s commitment to all of us. This is for eternity.
Our world is and likely will remain a microwave world; instant, impatient, confusing.
Conclusion: A long baptismal obedience in the same direction is God’s gift to us, enabling us to face our world while maintaining our identity, our commitment, and our sense of value. What a beautiful gift given to us by God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, into whose eternal name we are baptized.
Sermon Based on Luke 2:15-21
The Holy Name of Jesus: Year A
January 1, 2017
Introduction: And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Introduction: What’s in a name? Apparently more than we sometimes realize. Our names are important to us. They carry the message of who we are; our heritage. Well, for instance, my first and middle names come from relatives. My middle name, Wallace, comes from the Wallace clan and is shared by my four brothers, whose middle names are all Wallace. My last name comes from William The Hunter, who was appointed by the then King David in Scotland to be his Chief Hunter in the year 1116 because of his skill at providing the Royal Court with meat and game. I would bet that each of your names carry special meaning.
So, parents think carefully of what to name a new child. How is it going to sound when that child grows to adulthood? Will it be dignified? Distinctive? Pleasant? We want names that will not be embarrassing or cause people to make jokes of them. Probably all of us have been amused by someone’s unfortunate name; one probably chosen by a parent who failed to think of the long term effect upon the child of the name they had chosen. The Hogg sisters, Ima and Yura, come to mind. A while back Johnny Cash sang about “A Boy Named Sue,” a hilarious parody of the troubles a kid had going through life with a girl’s name.
Situation: Names have sometimes been made to carry messages. The eighth-century prophet Isaiah gave his sons names which were extensions of the message that he wanted his nation to hear. He called his elder son “Shearjashub,” (shē’är=jā’shub) meaning “a remnant shall return.” So everywhere that son’s name was pronounced it expressed Isaiah’s confidence in the ultimate return of at least a remnant of the Jews to Palestine from their Babylonian exile. The second son he called “Mahershalalhashbaz,” (mā’hẽr=shăl ̋al-hăsh=băz or may’huhr-shal’al-hash’baz) which meant “seeding to the prey, p-r-e-y.” Whenever that name was spoken it reiterated Isaiah’s contention that Syria and Israel would soon be conquered by Assyria. Perhaps such names were not very fair to the children who had to bear them. I can imagine them wincing under the very statement of their names; probably wishing Dad had called them something a bit more ordinary.
And names have sometimes been used to signify some life-changing event in one’s life. You remember that Abram and Sarai (sair’i) were re-named by the Lord as Abraham, meaning, “father of many nations,” and Sarah, to commemorate the covenant which the Lord established with Abraham, together with the promise that Sarah would bear a son. (Genesis 17:5f, 15-16). In the New Testament, Saul became Paul, significant of his life-changing conversion on the road to Damascus. And Jesus called Simon, the fisherman, “Petros,” or Peter, meaning “rock,” significant of his strength. But later when Peter showed signs of weakness Jesus reverted to calling him Simon again, the significance of which the disciples could not have failed to note.
Before being referred to as the Divine Physician, the Good Shepherd, the Son of Man, the Bread of Life, the Suffering Servant, Christ, or the Resurrection and the Life, he was known simply as “Jesus.”
In Matthew 1:21, Joseph was told in a dream that he was to name the coming child Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” He is named to be our savior and deliverer; and so he is, saving us and delivering us from the ultimate power of sin and eternal death by dying on a cross and being resurrected by God the Father. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, Gabriel too declared that the baby was to be called Jesus (Lk. 2:22-24).
To the world into which this eight-day-old infant was born, it was one of the most ordinary and common of names – like John, or Joe. Nothing about this name suggested exceptionality or distinction or holiness, despite the meaning of his name because it was so common.
The chronicler of the ancient world, Josephus, said in his history, the Works of Josephus, that so many men claimed the name “Jesus” that it lacked any individuality at all. But it was the name that the angel told his mother Mary to call him, and she and Joseph did.
You have to wonder what kind of congruence a garden-variety name like “Jesus” would have for one referred to as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Maybe the secret to understanding the naming of Jesus – and the Gospel he would live and die for – is that the extraordinary is always expressed through the ordinary. The spiritual is always expressed through the material.
The hiddenness of grace most often lies in the place we are least likely to look for it – under our noses. Grace happens in the very place where we live and move and have our being – day in and day out.
We know Jesus’ first name and what it means, God saves. What was his last name? I can confidently tell you that It wasn’t Christ. Contemporaries would have called him Yeshua Bar Yehosef or Yeshua Nasraya. (That’s “Jesus, son of Joseph” or “Jesus of Nazareth.”) Galileans distinguished themselves from others with the same first name by adding either “son of” and their father’s name, or their birthplace. People who knew Jesus would not have called him Christ, which is the translation of a Greek word meaning “anointed one” or messiah.
Names in Scripture have great meaning as an indicator of who an individual is and what that person is called to do. Mary and Joseph did not name this child; the naming was part of God’s unfolding plan of salvation.
As we invoke his Name – especially today – we proclaim that he embodies all that God intends for us: blessing now and life eternal.
On this day of celebration of the Holy Name of Jesus, we can rejoice with the words of the Psalmist as we proclaim:
“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1a, 9).
Sermon Based on John 1:1-14
Christmas Day; Year A
December 25, 2016
Sermon Based on Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve: Year A
December 24, 2016
Introduction: Most fairy tales begin with, “Once upon a time,” which means that they never really happened. But we love fairy tales because of the messages of truth they carry.
Situation: Tonight’s story of Christ’s birth in a stable is so full of wonder that it almost sounds like a fairy tale; I say “almost” because we know this story is true. Jesus’ birth is set in the pastoral tranquility of the tiny town of Bethlehem and we have to read between the lines to fill out the story. It’s so concise. Yes, Joseph and Mary have trouble finding a place to stay but in the space of a few lines Luke puts them comfortably in a stable where Jesus’ first bed was a stone feeding trough for animals. It’s a serene, romantic setting. There’s no mention of the threat to Jesus’ life by Herod and the terrifying flight into Egypt. Stories of threats and violence don’t fit into this night.
But Jesus was born into the real world and it is in the real world of violence and suffering that he does his saving work. Now, it’s only when we understand and accept this truth that we can receive any comfort from our Gospel story. Otherwise it is reduced to a fairy tale.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is so perfect that it has been said that all a preacher has to do is to simply tell the story, the original story, preferably in the King James Version, and then sit down. All anybody really wants to hear is the story of Joseph – the biblical one . . . and his betrothed Mary, making their way to that stable behind the no-vacancy inn, welcoming the newborn Jesus into the world with some help from a host of angels and a ragtag band of shepherds. But there is more to tell.
You see, God has always been at work in the world to bring about our salvation. From creation, to Jesus’ birth, to the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has been in our company giving us what we could not get by ourselves. God has been in our company when we were troubled and all we had to do was recognize God’s presence, Emmanuel.
For instance, over 700 years before the birth of Jesus, Ahaz, the wily king of Judah, faced the armies of two kings threatening to attack Jerusalem. Both he and the people were on the verge of panic. Into this climate of fear came the prophet Isaiah who met Ahaz one day as he was inspecting the water supply of Jerusalem in anticipation of the siege of the city.
Isaiah counseled Ahaz to have faith in God to save the city. The sign Isaiah promised him was that a child would be born whose name would be called Immanuel, which means, God is with us.
“What nonsense,” thought Ahaz. “What could a child do against two armies?” So, he ignored Isaiah and took the more practical course of asking the Assyrian king for help and in the process made himself and his people servants of Assyria. In the end, Israel lost everything.
But God was with Israel and amid the hard realities of life Isaiah whispered words of hope. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given . . . and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
God often whispers hope in desperate times.
Complication: But like Ahaz, when we face hard times it’s difficult to listen to anything other than what’s facing us. So, we put our trust in armies, banks, the government, and our own abilities to do something – anything. We want something more tangible than the sign of God’s love in Jesus. After all, what good is a sign unless it can fix whatever has gone wrong in our lives or reclaim our lost fortunes and dreams?
Resolution: But that’s just the point. Because God was born in the midst of suffering, we know that God can help us through our suffering. I suspect that some of us here tonight are suffering. Oh, I may not know how specifically, but we are here. We have come because we have hope in a child who brings the grace of God to all people – even to you and me. We have come this holy night because God became flesh and God’s name is Jesus, which means “God saves.” Jesus is savior because he is God and human by nature. He saves us by enabling us to become children of God the Father by grace.
Our God has the power to bring hope and light into the darkness of our despair. God’s nature is to constantly affirm life and, whether we recognize it or not, new life is one of the most powerful signs of the presence of God among us – Immanuel.
How can we be made to recognize and appreciate the wonder of the incarnation, the miracle of God taking on human flesh? By realizing that God is always with us. You see, the people who followed Jesus didn’t follow him because they first knew of his divine birth. It was only after they had been with him, listened to him, saw others healed by him or were healed themselves; only after they experienced his suffering, his death, and his resurrection that they came to believe who Jesus was and where he had come from.
Jesus’ story is no fairy tale. It’s the story of real love in the face of the hard realities of life. It’s the story of hope. That’s what is so wonderful about Christmas. In the middle of our real struggles and shattered hopes we can once again feel the spirit of God’s love. And when we claim the gift of God’s love in those difficult times, then we really do know what Christmas is all about.
So we are here tonight not to take refuge in a fairy tale but in the truth that God took on human flesh to experience life as we know it. We come to believe in Christmas by experiencing the reality that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. How he lifts us up and strengthens us and makes us new. How he releases us from the power of sin and the tyranny of death. He enables us to become who God wants us to be and to live sober, upright, and godly lives – even in this world.
He is called “Wonderful Counselor” because he rules with wisdom. He is called “Mighty God” because he is an expression of God’s power and presence. He is called “Everlasting Father” because he can be depended on to look after the welfare of his people. And he is called “Prince of Peace” because he brings reconciliation. His reign will establish endless peace, with justice and righteousness until the end of time. This is God’s plan – God’s “zeal” – to bring salvation to the world.
Conclusion: It’s in this experience of Jesus that we are converted and from which we can give a resounding “YES” to the angel’s announcement, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
 Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: Christmas Day” (PNMSI Publishing Company, December 25, 2013).
December 18, 2016
Today we enjoyed the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols which does not include a sermon.
Sermon Based on Matthew 11:2-11
3 Advent; Year A
December 11, 2016
Introduction: As many of you know, before coming to St. Mary’s I worked in the Charles County Detention Center in La Plata, Maryland and for one year simultaneously at the Calvert County Maryland Detention Center as a Good News Jail & Prison Ministry Chaplain. The environment inside of these jails was crowded, stark, bare, and impersonal though clean and professional.
Situation: The jail John the Baptist was in didn’t compare with our modern jails. Tradition holds that John was imprisoned in Herod Antipas’ castle dungeon at Machaerus, thirty miles southeast of Jerusalem on the other side of the Dead Sea. It was no better than a dark hole in the ground. No windows, cold and damp, with rats as an inmate’s company. Even John’s simple lifestyle of wearing rough cut camel’s hair cloths and eating locusts and wild honey was much better than the dungeon.
Just a week ago, John was confident, boldly warning sinners to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. Now, doubts, like the rats at his feet, began to gnaw at his soul. A week ago he proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God but now, in the dark, dank reality of prison, he may have wondered “what kingdom?” and “how near is it really?” What he heard of Jesus’ ministry didn’t match up with the message of repentance and the wrath to come that John expected. So he sent some followers to ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
What changed John? I suspect his changed circumstances and many unfulfilled expectations of the Christ. Sitting in his cell, hearing about Jesus’ ministry, it didn’t quite make sense. Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host of a banquet. Where John said people better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said, it was God who saved their skins. Where John ate locusts and wild honey in the wilderness with a church going crowd, Jesus ate whatever he wanted to and kept company with the dregs of society. And John probably expected the messiah to free the Jewish people from Roman domination. Jesus was not what John expected.
Complication: I believe that, like John, we have expectations of Jesus. Don’t we wonder sometimes, especially when our circumstances change from good to bad, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?”
I have little doubt that most of us have known good times; times when we had it all, so to speak. We may have been financially well off, but not necessarily. They may have been happy times with family, or times of good health, or times when we didn’t seem to have any real problems.
Then, suddenly, times changed. We suffered a loss or a tragedy and all of a sudden our relatively comfortable worlds became painful and difficult. We find ourselves imprisoned. You see, there are other prisons than John’s dungeon. There are psychological prisons of suspicion, jealousy, cynicism, dependency, depression and fear which confine us and keep us from growing. Drugs and crime imprison many people who may languish and die. Some feel imprisoned in economic jails where they can’t afford health care or pay bills. Others are imprisoned in their bodies as they live with daily pain.
Whatever our prison is, it can be as dark and frightening as John’s was, and in the dark we may lose our confidence and wonder about Jesus also because we expected someone different. Did we expect Jesus to sweep all of our problems away? Do we expect, or even just hope, that knowing Jesus will protect us from the realities of life? If we expect that knowing Jesus will tell us why things happen in life as they do, then we may continue to wonder about Jesus.
Resolution: “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Jesus answers us the same way he answered John. Look around you. “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the sick are healed, and the poor have the good news preached to them.” In effect Jesus is telling John that although he is in a physical jail, these people are the real prisoners and he has set them free.
Jesus is coming to set us all free from the darkness of our prisons. Jesus comes to bring light and life and thereby to free us from the dark, dank dungeon of sin and death. Jesus comes to comfort all who suffer and mourn and that means you and me. If this isn’t liberation, what is??? What could be more liberating than to hear the good news that we don’t have to be victims anymore? What could be more liberating in life than to no longer fear death; or to know that God in Jesus suffered like us and, so, is with us in our pain?
As I worked with inmates in jail, I often told them that although the authorities could lock them up, they could not lock Jesus out of their hearts. Once the Kotzer rebbe (or rabbi) surprised a group of learned scholars by asking them: “Where is the dwelling place of God?”
“What a thing to ask!” they replied. “Is not the whole world full of God’s glory!” they exclaimed.
“Yes,” the rebbe said, “but God dwells wherever people let him in.” There is freedom in this little story.
I’m not saying that Jesus is going to come and sweep all of our problems away. I offer you no illusions or false expectations. But Jesus can and does unlock the doors of our prisons. Jesus comes to love us with God’s love, to bring us compassion, justice, mercy, forgiveness, and new life, all of which work to build us up and to guide and instruct us in life. Jesus comes not to answer so much the whys of life but to teach us how to live life, and in living life freeing us from our prisons.
All this takes time, of course. As James said in the Epistle today, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”
And, rejoice in the freedom Christ brings. Amen.
 H. King Oehmig, “Synthesis: III Advent, Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, December 15, 2013).
Sermon Based on Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10
Advent 2; Year A
December 4, 2016
Introduction: Today, as we continue to prepare ourselves for the coming or Advent of the Christ, we have a message of both repentance and hope. It’s an important Advent message because we can’t be ready for Christ without first turning away from the things that only lead us toward hopelessness instead of toward union with Christ.
Situation: Now, I don’t know about you, but prophets often make me uneasy. It’s not that they dress in funny cloths, or do strange things that bother me. I think it’s because they are very intense people who seem to see through me and expose my flawed character.
John the Baptist, for instance, came with a message for all people, including you and me. Knowing that we are all sinners who disobey God, John tells us to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. No good Jew needed to be told what the kingdom of heaven was. They knew that it meant that the reign of God was near. This was good news and it was bad news; the good news was the hope of receiving what they had been waiting for (the Messiah), but the bad news was that they had to repent of their sins. This was how they were to prepare the way of the Lord. By turning away from the way of sinfulness and the things that separate us from God, and turning back toward God in faithful obedience to the way of the Lord. To repent is to realize that the road we are traveling down is the wrong road and we need to turn around. The question was, would they? The Pharisees and the Sadducees proved that they would not and John, seeing their heard hearts called them a “brood of vipers!”
Here are a couple of stories that illustrate what I mean about repenting. As Amy Campbell, a member of my parish at the time, and I were returning from the diocesan convention held at Kanuga Camp and Conference Center in the mountains of Western North Carolina, some years ago, we were riding in my car talking about the convention when, without paying any attention to the signs, I turned onto I 26E going toward Spartanburg, South Carolina. We were supposed to be going East on I 40. Well, after going a good distance I realized that the road looked rather strange to me. “Amy,” I said, “this road just doesn’t look familiar. Something isn’t right.” She said that she didn’t know, so she logically pulled out a map to see where we were. I pulled off at the next exit, which happened to have a Welcome Center. It still hadn’t dawned on me that I was going south. I went into the center where I discovered to my dismay that we were in South Carolina going in the wrong direction. I couldn’t believe my mistake and was embarrassed. Here I was supposed to know the way, but Amy was gracious and good humored about seeing a part of the country she hadn’t seen before. That’s what repentance takes. When we think we’re going down the wrong road in life, we need to stop, listen, get our bearings straight, and turn around, if need be.
Albert Speer’s story was not so amusing. In the beginning he believed Hitler. He believed in Hitler’s plan to raise Germany from the ashes of the Great War to end all Wars and in the beginning it all looked good. Germany was rising. The economy, once a wasteland after the Great War, was coming back to life, well on the road to recovery.
Albert Speer was an architect who was seduced by Hitler’s dream of building a new Berlin on a grand scale. He was blinded by the architect’s dream come true, having been the one chosen to oversee the great building program. Speer buried himself in his work and was very successful. His success made him one of Hitler’s favorites and when the war began to turn against Germany, Hitler rewarded Speer by making him the Minister of Armaments. Speer was successful at this as well but his new position confronted him with the horrors of war. He could no longer bury his head and pretend that the war didn’t matter. He was confronted with the brutality of Nazi Germany, Hitler’s heartless campaign of genocide against the Jewish people and his determination to destroy Germany rather than surrender. In time his heart could no longer stand it and he joined the growing support in the Army to stop Hitler. He used his position as the Minister of Armaments to foil Hitler’s destruction of Germany and save what he could.
After the war, at the Nuremberg War Trials, Speer quietly, remorsefully, willingly accepted the prison sentence pronounced by the court, believing he deserved much harsher punishment.
Resolution: Speer’s story reveals the hope that John the Baptist speaks of today. For God raised up this stone, Albert Speer, whose faith was as inert as a stone, to be a child of Abraham. Speer knew that Hitler had to be stopped and that the road on which he was traveling with Hitler was a dead end street. He repented. He turned around to follow the road of compassion and justice, risking his own life, preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight.
What I hear in the Baptist’s cry and in Speer’s story is the hope that the coming of kingdom heaven in the Christ brings. I hear that nothing is too great for God who can raise up children to Abraham from stones; that God can transform our hearts and move us to repent. How? By the Advent of the Christ. It is only because God came to us first, that we are able to come to God. Repentance is possible because we are redeemed and forgiven, and thereby transformed, if our hearts are open. Repentance is possible because God first gives each of us a new heart and a new spirit, without which we would be stones. John promised us that the one who came after him would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, which would purify our hearts, give us hope, and embolden us to stand up against injustice and sin.
- We can have hope when opposing evil because we look to God for the meaning of our present situation.
- We can have hope because, even when we don’t understand the present situation, Scripture reveals that the way of the Lord always overcomes evil and so encourages us to pass through the situation in hope.
- We can have hope because we are baptized with fire and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Advent is a season of hope and, as Paul said, ours is the God of hope. During the coming week, may we heed the Baptist’s cry and take some time to stop, look, and listen to see whether or not the road we are on is the way of the Lord. When we do that we will be living into Isaiah’s prophesy,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain
of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths (Isaiah 2:3).”
And may the God of hope fill us with all Joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.
 Martin H. Franzmann, Follow Me: Discipleship According to Matthew (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982), 16.
Sermon Based on Isaiah 2 and Matthew 24
November 27, 2016
Sermon Based on Matthew 25
November 20, 2016
The Rev. Jim Hawk
Sermon Based on Luke 21:5-19
Proper 28, Year C
November 13, 2016
Introduction: The last time I had my microwave overhauled, it really wasn’t broken, the repairman commented that the model I owned was an earlier one and, although older, better than most models on the market today. “They just don’t make them the way they used to anymore,” he said. How often have we cursed products we own that break the day after the lifetime (but limited) warranties expire? Things just don’t seem to last the way they used to.
Situation: For example, in contrast to the way homes are often built today with walls only inches thick and that rarely last six or seven decades, the Temple in Jerusalem was built to last for centuries. The two previous Temples, built on the same location, lasted four to five hundred years apiece and would have lasted centuries longer if they hadn’t been destroyed by conquering nations. The present Temple had walls, not six inches thick, not twelve inches thick, but twelve feet thick. This Temple was the glory of Israel, the face of which was plated with solid gold so that when the sun rose in the morning people had to turn their eyes away because of the blinding reflection of the sun’s rays. It was a Temple to admire. This Temple was the religious heart of Israel, the place of God’s presence.
Imagine the people’s shock and disbelief when they heard Jesus tell them that it would be destroyed. They may have thought that Jesus was crazy. Such a mammoth Temple represented stability; something that the people could trust in because they knew it would always be there.
Complication: I suspect we all like things that last; things that are durable and trustworthy. We like them because we feel like we can rely on them; they will work when we turn them on or they will be there when we need them.
But today’s reading is a warning for us not to put our trust in things, or even the outward adornments of our religion, but to trust in God. And yet, these are often the things we depend upon and trust because they are material, tangible, and, therefore, real. It’s hard for us to put our trust in something or someone we’ve never seen before.
Several years ago I was at a Cursillo meeting at which a man said that he didn’t believe he was a Christian because he found it hard to believe in a God you can’t see, or touch, or speak to as we can with each other. I don’t think he is alone. I expect many of us have difficulty trusting in God. By that I mean trusting that God saves us from sin and death through the cross of Christ, and it is believing that we have so much more to be thankful for than we have to resent or to hold against others.
It’s hard to forgive our enemies and let go of the hurt they’ve caused us. It’s hard to believe that love can overcome death and estrangement because the only way to find out if this is true is to die to ourselves. It’s hard to let go of all of the things that give us a sense of security and trust that God will provide for our security. But we must, because all it takes is a natural disaster like hurricane Katrina to blow our homes away and we realize how vulnerable we are. Even the almighty dollar isn’t trustworthy. I heard recently that a dollar in the 1950’s is worth about 18 cents today. We’re just making more money so the illusion of stability is maintained.
It’s hard to trust in God because God doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Often we don’t want to hear the truth. We’d rather listen to someone else, a false prophet, who will give us words of comfort, like this tourist.
A tourist was standing too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon. He lost his footing and plunged over the cliff, clawing and scratching to save himself. On the way down, he desperately caught hold of a bush growing out of a crack in the rocks. Filled with terror, he called out toward heaven, “Is there anyone up there?” A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky, “Yes, there is.” The panicked man screamed, “Can you help me?” The voice replied, “Yes, I probably can. What seems to be your problem?” “I fell over the cliff and am dangling by a thread, please help me!” The voice from above calmly replied, “I’ll try. Do you believe?” “Yes, yes, by all means, I believe,” the man yelled. “Do you have faith?” the voice then asked. “Yes, yes, by all means I have faith!” the man emphatically said. Then the voice from above said, “Well, in that case, simply let go of the bush and everything will turn out fine.” There was a tense pause, then the tourist yelled, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Resolution: False prophets are all around us who will tell us what we want to hear when we cry out of our personal fear. God hasn’t told me what I want to hear, so, “Is there anyone else up there?”
You know, “The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. Fear not. Don’t be afraid. The irony of this surprising command is that, though it’s what we all really want to hear, we have as much difficulty in obeying this command as any other. The person who is hanging by a thread is naturally terrified that they will fall. . . . Every one of us has something on her or his mind about which we badly need a voice to say: ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s going to be all right.’ As the Lord said to Lady Julian of Norwich: ‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ Make no mistake about it: until you [and I] learn to live without fear you [and I] won’t find it easy to follow Jesus.”
“The resurrection of Jesus issues the surprising command: don’t be afraid; because the God who made the world is the God who raised Jesus from the dead and calls [us] now to follow him. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a matter of believing that certain things are true about the physical body of Jesus that had been crucified. These truths are vital and nonnegotiable, but they point beyond themselves, to the God who was responsible for them. Believing in this God means believing that it is going to be all right; and this belief is, ultimately, incompatible with fear. As John says in his letter, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). And the resurrection is the revelation of perfect love, God’s perfect love for us, his human creatures. That’s why, though we may at any stage in our lives grasp the truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, it takes us all our life long to let that belief soak through and permeate the rest of our thinking, feeling, and worrying lives [to come to really trust God and obey the command to not be afraid]. . . . Ultimately, being a Christian [is] a matter of . . . living with human failure – and with the God who raises the dead. That’s what following Jesus is likely to involve.”
Jesus cautions us that there is only one source from which we derive our security – God almighty, no matter how frightening or risky this might seem. All guarantees, insurance policies, and empty promises will only fail us and leave us stranded; but not our Lord. In the face of hurricanes, personal disaster, family disaster, economic or religious crisis, our Lord Jesus stands with us and over us so that we will not perish but gain eternal life. I submit that for many of us, there comes a point in our lives when we are hanging by a thread and we finally realize that the new life God offers us in Christ is the only thing that will last for God is the only one who is trustworthy. For some of us, hanging by a thread is what it will take to make us understand this truth.
Trust God by following God, by obeying God, and we will find the inner peace of God which will overcome any hardship or calamity. And in this world, the Church – the body of believers – is the new temple that will stand until the end of the age. Amen.
 N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Co., 1994), 68-69.
 Ibid, 70-71.
Sermon Based on Luke 20:27-38
Proper 27; Year C
November 6, 2016
Introduction: Have you ever gone somewhere expecting to find one thing but actually found something quite different; sometimes worse, sometimes better than you expected?
Situation: Well, I think the Sadducees in today’s Gospel story found themselves in this situation. We need to know that the Sadducees were the priestly, aristocratic party in Judaism who differed greatly from the Pharisees – the other party in Judaism we hear so much about. I won’t go into all the differences but a couple of them are important. In contrast to the Pharisees, the Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament, the written Law of Moses. They put no stock in the form of literature called the writings or in the prophets. They did not believe in the coming of the Messiah, or in spirits, or in angels, and they did not believe in life after death – the resurrection.
So why, we might ask, did they ask Jesus this question about whose wife this woman would be after her resurrection? Well, quite simply, it was a trick question. It was a question based on a completely ridiculous scenario of a woman marrying seven brothers in succession because the previous brother who died didn’t sire a son, according to an old Levirate marriage law, which by Jesus’ time was no longer even enforced and rarely used. They were trying to smoke Jesus out. If he believed in the resurrection, then they expected him to tell them which brother the woman would be married to in the afterlife and they would also know that Jesus was a Pharisee, which they suspected anyway. Their question, however, revealed some assumptions about what life in the hereafter might be like, if such a thing existed.
They expected one thing but they got another as Jesus proved to them based on Mosaic Law, the only law they would accept, the reality of the resurrection. Now, I suspect that what’s important for us this morning isn’t the Sadducees question about the reality of the resurrection, since our faith assures us it is true. But, like the Sadducees, I think we have certain ideas about the nature of the afterlife. The Sadducees assumed that if there was such a thing, which (again) they doubted, than it would be a continuation of life just as we know it. Specifically, the relationships we have with certain people would continue forever. So, whose wife would the woman be since all seven were married to her at one time or another?
I think it would be impossible for us not to have some ideas of what the afterlife, or of what heaven, is like. And I’m not here this morning to say which ideas are right and which are wrong, because I surely don’t know, though I have my own ideas. Some of our collective ideas come from scripture itself. For example the white robed multitudes standing before the throne of the risen Christ and the mighty angels flying around heaven blowing trumpets that we find in the Revelation to John. We think that heaven is “up there,” and, like the Sadducees, we assume that we’ll have physical bodies and be reunited with certain people we loved in this life.
St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 that the body we have in the resurrection is not a physical body, as we know it, but a spiritual body. It will be a resurrection body, the same kind of body the resurrected Jesus revealed to Mary on Easter morning, to the disciples on Easter evening, on the road to Emmaus, the body that Thomas touched in the Upper Room, and the disciples witnessed by the Sea of Tiberias.
Paul tells us in Philippians 3:20-21 that “the Lord Jesus Christ, . . . will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Romans 8:9-11 is the clearest and strongest passage in which Paul says, “If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit (a Greek way of thinking), not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but ‘to your mortal bodies also.’” A resurrection body.
The book of the Revelation to John gives us a vision that makes most ideas of future hope look pretty tame by comparison. It is the Easter vision of a world reborn:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ (21:1-5)
Most Christians would express their future hope in terms of leaving this world and going to another one, called ‘heaven’. But here, at the climactic moment of one of the greatest New Testament books, the heavenly city comes down to earth. Sure, God’s people go to heaven when they die; they pass into God’s dimension of reality, and we see them no more. But Easter unveils the truth beyond the truth of mere ‘survival’, beyond the truth even of ‘heaven’; the truth that God’s kingdom shall come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Our ultimate destiny is not a disembodied heaven (again, a Greek way of thinking), just as the ultimate destiny of this created world is not to be thrown away, abandoned as secondary or shabby.2
Jesus points out that resurrection life is not meant to be a mere continuation of earthly existence. Rather, it is a radical transformation into a completely different, state of being. In this eternal life, God’s reign would be fully established, his will be done. We have many hopes and ideas about life after death.
It’s for this reason that Jesus’ response may be as surprising to us as it was to the Sadducees. Today is All Saint’s Sunday and we are remembering before the throne of grace our loved ones who have died and are now with the Lord. We will mention them by name during our Eucharistic Prayer.
In effect Jesus tells us that human relationships in this life do not exist in the same way in the afterlife. Jesus distinguishes between two ages and two kinds of existence. We are part of this age by the fact of our physical births, and we participate in the age to come by resurrection. Because this is the difference between the physical and the spiritual, we already participate in the spiritual age to come by virtue of God’s grace through our faith, or our trust in Jesus to keep his promise to give us eternal life. So when our physical lives end, our spiritual lives continue in the resurrection with resurrection bodies. But what will that life be like? Well we know, again from scripture, that it will be a life where there is no more pain, or sorrow, or sickness. A life of peace and joy in which the one relationship which will last forever is our relationship with our Lord. This much we can know because the new life we have in God has already proven itself to be stronger than death; proven on the cross of Christ.
This question about the nature of the resurrection, and our ideas about what it’s going to be like, reminds me of the day in my Old Testament class when a classmate piped up with a question just as class was beginning. Our Old Testament professor, Murry Newman, was also our Hebrew instructor and my classmate wanted to know if the rumor was true that Murry had said that in order to get into heaven, a person had to know Hebrew. Our professor chuckled and said, “No, that’s not quite right. What I said was that when we get to heaven, we’d be better off knowing Hebrew because all of the road signs are in Hebrew.”
What’s heaven going to be like? I suppose only God knows but we can be certain, and take comfort in the fact that, as Jesus proved to the Sadducees, the resurrection is real and that it’s going to be far better than we could possibly imagine.
 N. T. Wright, SURPRISED BY HOPE: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2008), 149.
2 N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 61.
Sermon Based on Luke 19:1-10
Proper 26, Year C
October 30, 2016
A friend told me of the hours he spent as a child in a large cherry tree in his grandmother’s backyard. The tree was very large and high, at least as he remembered it. He remembered the very first time he climbed it. He had to jump to catch hold of the lowest branch, and then pull himself by sheer muscle power up onto it. Then he could work his way up the tree. The tree seemed so high, that he got dizzy looking down, and yet, scary as it was, he couldn’t resist climbing higher and higher. Finally he got very close to the top where the branches were thinner, and he could climb no higher. He stayed there, straddling a limb and holding tightly to one above it, swaying in the breeze with the leaves fluttering around him. It was an exhilarating moment for a seven-year-old. He was on top of the world.
But when the time came to climb back down, he was terrified. As long as he was on his way up, his vision and his focus was on the branch above him. But on the way down, all he could see was how far below the ground was and how many protruding limbs there were between him and the ground. Very gingerly, he made his way down, branch by branch, and when he finally got on the ground, he discovered his knees were trembling with the excitement and fear of the whole experience. Like a typical small boy, however, he knew he could conquer the tree, he couldn’t stay out of it, and before long he went up and down it like a monkey. Somehow, the risk of being out on a limb high in the tree became as routine as brushing one’s teeth.
Years later, long after he had grown out of his tree-climbing days, he was visiting his grandparents and happened to notice the old cherry tree. The lower limb that had been his first step up into the tree, the limb that he had had to leap to catch hold of, now was at shoulder height. It wasn’t nearly as large as he remembered it. The thin branches near the top, where he had spent many a summer hour swaying in the breezes and feeling himself to be on top of the world, were no more than 20 feet from the ground. He laughed as he saw the tree through adult eyes, but he remembered and relived for a few moments, his feelings as that seven-year-old boy with trembling knees taking a daring risk to climb up among the clouds.
The gospel lesson for today is about another tree-climber whose name was Zacchaeus. He too experienced the risk and exhilaration of being “out on a limb.” Zacchaeus’ life was transformed as he sat on his tree limb, and at the time, it must have been a thoroughly scary experience, though perhaps later, as a mature disciple, he may have wondered why it ever seemed risky or frightening at all.
Jesus is just passing through Jericho, Luke tells us. He apparently didn’t have any pressing engagements there. He wasn’t on a preaching mission or there to heal anyone. He was just passing through. He was going to Jerusalem where he had a rendezvous with destiny. So Jericho is just a place one had to go through to get to Jerusalem. Yet, it becomes the place of a significant encounter.
This is often the case, isn’t it? The places and situations that we consider temporary or simply way stations turn out to be the places or situations that hold the most significance for us.
If Jericho did not figure prominently in Jesus’ plans, however, Jesus’ transit through Jericho certainly loomed large in Zacchaeus’ mind, as well as in the mind of other citizens of the town. We’re only told two facts about Zacchaeus: he was the chief tax collector, and he was short.
As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was a traitor to his people and nation. He was a collaborator and agent to the imperialist Romans who had imposed their rule on Palestine by military conquest and occupation. Zacchaeus may have seen himself as a practical person simply doing his job, but his countrymen saw him as a thief and a traitor. Though Rome required a certain amount in taxes from its colonial subjects, it also turned a blind eye to how much the tax collector was able to gouge for his own pockets above and beyond the required sum. Zacchaeus was not exactly the most popular fellow in Jericho, though undoubtedly he was one of the best known.
The other fact also is important – that he was short. His size prevents him from seeing over the people lining the street to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes through Jericho. The people were out to see this man whose reputation has preceded him from Galilee. They’re not about to make way for this shrimp of a tax collector.
So Zacchaeus is forced to do something he probably hasn’t done since he was a boy. He climbs a tree. He gets up into the tree, and eases his way out onto a limb so he will have a good view of Jesus when he passes by.
When Jesus comes along, he stops beneath the tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And, so, he does joyfully.
Now one thing is certain, the people in the crowd were clearly unhappy. Here they are, all good, law-abiding, patriotic citizens who know whom to despise and whom to approve. Jesus’ attentions to Zacchaeus are not appreciated at all by the other onlookers. Why should he single out Zacchaeus to provide the honor of hospitality rather than some of them who remain steadfast in their hatred of the Romans and in their support of nationalistic aspirations. Why go stay in the home of a sinner? It’s one thing to love sinners in the abstract; it’s another to sleep in their houses. Jesus, by inviting Zacchaeus to provide him with hospitality is paying Zacchaeus honor and respect. He is, quite literally, gracing Zacchaeus with his presence.
But if Zacchaeus was “out on a limb” in the literal sense, he’s even more “out on a limb” when he stands before Jesus. Jesus’ invitation to come down out of his tree, and his unexpected and gracious offer to come stay in his house calls forth from Zacchaeus a similarly unexpected and grace-filled response. It’s a response that is far more risky and scary than his climb up into the branches of the tree ever was. “Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Now that’s a conversion!
Jesus has not demanded anything of Zacchaeus. Rather he has offered him the opportunity to play the magnanimous host, giving Zacchaeus stature far beyond his natural height. Yet this offer of grace, for that’s what it is, calls forth a willingness on Zacchaeus’ part to respond in kind. Jesus hasn’t censured him for being a tax collector. He hasn’t said a word about his sinful gouging of his fellow citizens to enrich his own coffers. He hasn’t breathed the word “traitor.” He’s just announced his intention to stay with Zacchaeus. And yet that offer presents Zacchaeus with a demand that is far more fraught with risk than anything he has ever done or dreamed of doing. Or perhaps, he has dreamed of doing it. Perhaps that’s where this blurted out promise of generosity comes from – from Zacchaeus’ dreams of being a better person than he is. As he stands before Jesus, perhaps he sees himself, not as he is, a morally-stunted and hated tax collector, but as the benefactor of the poor and the righter of wrongs that he may become.
That’s really being “out on a limb,” isn’t it – to see ourselves as we might become, and to commit ourselves to begin living by that vision rather than by what we think of ourselves or what others think of us? It’s a scary risk to catch a vision of what we might become with the help of grace. It’s risky to let go of our comfort zones, our status quo, our familiar sins, our cherished self-images, and stand before Jesus exposed for what we are, and exposed to what we may become.
I suggest to you that the encounter with the living Christ produces just that effect in us. We see ourselves in a light we never saw ourselves in before. We see that we are as unworthy and sinful as we admit in the privacy of our own hearts, and that we may become better and more useful than we hardly dared to dream. This encounter with the living Christ which calls forth from us qualities of character and behavior we never knew or allowed, but perhaps always hoped, we had, is nothing less than a miracle of grace. It is, in fact, what salvation is all about. When Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house,” he is responding to this “blurted out” new self that Zacchaeus has just discovered – this self that is concerned about justice and restitution. Salvation is becoming who we really are in Christ, and then living that new self out in concrete ways that manifest God’s redeeming work in the world.
The crowd of good people who grumbled at grace that day don’t seem to have profited by their encounter with Jesus. It is they who hear Jesus’ reminder that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. For those who grumble at grace never experience it. Those who risk accepting it discover that their lives are changed forever. So salvation came to Zacchaeus because he was willing to go out on a limb to see Jesus. And salvation comes to us when we are willing to go out on a limb and risk becoming all that we can be through the grace of that same Jesus Christ.1
1Larry Kalajainen, Extraordinary Faith for Ordinary Time (Lima, Ohio, 1994), 35-41.
Fr. Art Tripp: Sermon Based on Luke 18:9-14
Proper 25; Year C
October 23, 2016
Sermon by Deacon Sam Based on 2 Timothy 4:1-5
Proper 24, Year C
October 16, 2016
. Fr. Art Tripp: Sermon Based on Luke 17:11-19
Proper 23; Year C
October 9, 2016
Fr. Art Tripp: Sermon Based on Luke 17:5-10
Proper 22; Year C
October 2, 2016
Sermon Based on Luke 16:19-31
Proper 21; Year C
September 25, 2016
Introduction: Today’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a story of reversed fortunes. Is a story about the misuse of wealth and material possessions. In this short story we have a packed scenario of just deserts, precise spiritual realities, and timely moral advice.
Situation: This parable is a study of contrasts and reversals that is unique to Luke. Whereas the rich man dressed in fine clothes and “feasted sumptuously every day” (v. 19), Lazarus longed to eat even the scraps from the rich man’s table. He lay outside the gate of the rich man’s home and was covered with sores instead of purple linen. The fact that dogs – unclean animals – come to lick his sores added to his wretchedness and outcast status.
When both men die, their situations are reversed. Whereas the poor man “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” (16:22a), the rich man found himself tormented in Hades. Lazarus now resides in comfort, while the rich man is cast out and endures agony.
Lazarus once lay alone at the gate, longing for scraps of food; now the rich man looks across the chasm from Hades and begs for mercy. As the rich man begs for relief from his torment, he tells “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue (v. 24). The rich man still has not grasped the significance of what has occurred and acts as though his former status remains. He asks Lazarus to do for him what he himself never did for Lazarus.
The rich man’s plea to Father Abraham is a reminder of John the Baptist’s earlier warning that it is not enough to claim “Abraham as our ancestor” (Luke 3:8). The chasm that now exists between the two men is so wide that it cannot be crossed. In death the rich man is now as powerless as the poor man had been in life. The rich man finds himself
in this position because he misused his wealth and position. He could have helped Lazarus, but he didn’t.
The rich man wants the rules of earth to remain the same in the afterlife: he is used to getting what he wants, and surely a little cooling water is the least he can expect to make things bearable. But the “great chasm” between how he has lived and how Lazarus has endured makes his desire for instant gratification impossible.
Next, he wants Lazarus to “go” to his brothers – as though the rich man is privileged enough to command even the dead to do his will. But again, it is not to be. Lazarus “abides” now in the honored presence of the patriarch Abraham. His earthly journey is complete; and perhaps implied is the fact that his faith has made him whole.
The rich man finds himself in torment because he did not heed the words of Moses and the prophets in Scripture. He was so blinded by the wealth and power that had been given to him that he disregarded his obligation to the poor and the oppressed. He did not understand that his lack of compassion toward Lazarus was against the will of God. The last sentence of the story reveals the punch line, “if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Here is a clear reference to the fact that after Jesus’ resurrection, there are many who are not convinced of the truth of the gospel, the good news, of our deliverance from sin and death.
Complication: We can only guess why the rich man did not respond to Lazarus. Was it because he was afraid that what he might give would be misused? Was it because he was swamped by pleas for financial assistance from numerous charities and he refused to respond to one more? Or, was it because he secretly feared becoming a Lazarus himself, homeless and in poverty, and wouldn’t give any money as if he held his wealth with a clenched fist? Or, there may be some personal reason.
Perhaps we could find our answer by examining our own lives. Do we act like the rich man, and, if so, what might we be afraid of?
Resolution: If it is fear that prevents us from helping Lazarus, what can we do? Well, the question I hear this parable asking us is whether or not we are listening to our Lord. The rich man wanted Lazarus to go warn his five brothers to stop living their selfish, self-indulgent lives before they ended up like him. Abraham’s reply was that if they wouldn’t listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn’t listen, “if someone should rise from the dead.”
Are we listening? How many times have we heard the one who has risen from the dead, Jesus Christ, tell us how much he loves us? Do we really believe that and do we let Christ’s love for us direct our lives? We have a choice. We can either trust that our fears will become reality and let fear rule our lives or we can trust what our Lord tells us and let his love rule our lives. John the Evangelist tells us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18b). Our Lord not only tells us he loves us but he showed us that he does by becoming a Lazarus for us and dying on a cross to save our souls from eternal death and sin. And it’s all free. Lazarus, who had nothing, ended up in Abraham’s bosom. This is the love that draws us into Christ’s Body, the Church, through baptism.
Because Jesus became a Lazarus for us, died, and was raised, we don’t need to fear becoming a Lazarus. And when we do become a Lazarus in death, we believe we will be raised with Christ to life everlasting.
Archbishop James Salisbury, Order of Saint Benedict, of the African Orthodox Church in America said, “Most days I pray ‘Lord, let me see your face today’ and I get an answer of a Lazarus. I always thank the person for asking even when I don’t have anything to give at the time. I pray that each of us ask God to open our eyes to see Lazarus all around us even if he or she is dressed like the Rich man.”
Conclusion: So let the love of Christ dispel our fear of becoming a Lazarus as we rely on our faith and the love of Christ to guide us in our giving and throughout our lives.
 H. King Oehmig, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C Reversed Destinies” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 29, 2013).
 Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 29, 2013).
 Oehmig, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C Reversed Destinies.”
 James Salisbury, OSB, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 29, 2013).
Sermon by Deacon Sam Based on Amos 8:1-12 and Luke 16:10-13
Proper 20, Year C
September 11, 2016
Sermon Based on Luke 15:1-10 and Exodus 32:7-14
Proper 19, Year C
September 11, 2016
Introduction: When I was going to school as a boy in second grade, and for as long as I can remember, the Lost and Found was located in the school nurse’s desk. It didn’t matter if it was money; a lost handkerchief; or a watch, if anyone had one, it was probably with the nurse. Now that I am older, the place to come is the parish office where Cat has a box with several items in it. I believe today’s lessons have much to say about the lost and found.
Situation: As you probably remember, before today’s story in Exodus Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to talk with God, leaving his silver tongued brother, Aaron, to watch over the people in his absence. At first there were no problems as the people patiently waited for Moses to return. But soon the days stretched into weeks, and the weeks into over a month and the longer they waited the less and less likely it appeared that Moses would return. The people became increasingly restless and fearful. Here they were camped at the foot of a rocky, barren mountain in the desert (sound familiar?) and as far as they knew their leader had either deserted them or he was dead.
In their fear they turned to Aaron and demanded that he make a god for them who would lead them out of their wilderness into safety. These people were frightened because they felt lost. They had no idea where they were! All they knew was that Moses brought them here and it would take a god to get them out safely.
Complication: I’d bet that each of us has felt lost at one time or another, perhaps even now. We all know what it feels like. It’s the fear of not being able to find our way back home, the confusion of finding ourselves in a strange place, or in an uncomfortable situation. It’s not where we want to be, but here we are.
By now you probably realize I’m not talking about being physically lost. I’m talking about being spiritually lost. We look at the world around us and we see war and strife and needless hunger. These are political problems we say. True, but at the root of them is the profound spiritual sickness of hatred and bigotry and fear. We look at the youth in our country and we see the destructive drug problem and teenage pregnancy and, my friends, at the root of these problems are the spiritual crises of the need to be accepted and loved and low self-esteem.
And there are times when we look at our own lives and we feel empty, confused about which way to go or what to do, lonely, and afraid; lost. These are spiritual issues which bore into our souls and cause us to look to some golden calf, some god that will lead us out of our spiritual wilderness. But, my friends, our golden calf will only lead us astray because it is lifeless and, therefore, cannot give life.
Resolution: Although we feel lost, sometimes we are in the right place. Think of the church as the “Lost and Found” for our souls. We have all the answers to our spiritual problems, right here. And, make no mistake about it, all of our problems are spiritual in nature when we get to the bottom of them.
We need to be loved and accepted and through the love of Christ, this is the place we can find it. We need guidance and direction to help us through the wilderness of life and this is the place to find it through scripture and the church’s teaching. We say that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, and so it does. Do we have a question about our lives? Take it to the Lord in scripture and prayer and I promise you that eventually we will find our answer. This is the lost and found where we find answers and where we are found by God.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a book in 1879 called A Confession, which tells the story of his search for meaning and purpose in life.
Rejecting Christianity as a child, Tolstoy left his university seeking pleasure. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, he drank heavily, lived promiscuously, and gambled frequently. His ambition was to become wealthy and famous, but nothing satisfied him. In 1862, he married a loving wife and, eventually, had thirteen children; he was surrounded by what appeared to be complete happiness. Yet one question haunted him to the verge of suicide: “Is there any meaning in my life which will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death, which awaits me?” This sounds like the situation in the book of Ecclesiastes where the teacher bemoans, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Eccl 1:2b).”
Tolstoy searched for the answer in every field of science and philosophy. As he looked around at his contemporaries, he saw that people were not facing up to the first order questions of life (“Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” “Who am I?” “What is life all about?”). Eventually he found that the peasant people of Russia had been able to answer these questions through their Christian faith, and he came to realize that only in Jesus Christ do we find the answer.
What was the answer for Tolstoy? The same answer that was given to Paul and Timothy. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. …
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, including sheep, coins, and prodigals. … We need to be reminded of that because we are all sinners in need of grace, just like St. Paul.
Paul said, I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. … [And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.]
Paul does not hide from his past sins. He openly confesses them. He openly confessed that he was a poor, miserable sinner long ago and was forgiven. His slate was wiped clean. He was reconciled to Christ Jesus by Christ Jesus. Saul the Pharisee and persecutor of Jesus became known as Paul the Apostle and proclaimer of Jesus.
I can tell you that this is my story. Is it your story? I was the lost sheep that Jesus left the ninety-nine to find. I believe that I was never lost to Jesus, it just took me a long time to find him.
Now, we may wonder, how do we know we are found? Well, the times when we feel lost may be times when we are consciously aware of our sins. We are confused about our broken lives and our broken relationships. The things we do that we commonly call sins, are only the outward, visible signs of what is going on inside of us and inside of our relationships.
So, we know we are found when we repent, turn away from our sins, accept God’s love and forgiveness and, by the power of God’s love, change what is going on inside of us and in our relationships. Ironically, it is often when we feel the farthest away from God that we are the closest to Him. And God is always looking for us like the shepherd for his sheep and the woman for her lost coin. And, yes, God will find us, if He hasn’t already.
 Paul Cain, “Synthesis: Proper 19 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 15, 2013).
Sermon Based on Luke 14:25-33
Proper 18, Year C
September 4, 2016
Introduction: There is a well-known expression used to describe someone who is so concerned about the cost of something that the value of it is not recognized. We say that person is “penny wise and pound foolish.”
Situation: I think that in today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is talking to those in the crowd who are spiritually penny wise and pound foolish.
Jesus was continuing his journey to Jerusalem, his ultimate destination in Luke’s Gospel. As he walked, more and more people joined the crowd already accompanying him. By now Jesus’ reputation as a healer and speaker had preceded him so many people in the crowd were curiosity seekers wondering what miracle Jesus would perform next, or what he might say next. There were, of course, believers in the crowd, people of varying degrees of faith from the half-hearted to the committed. It was a mixed crowd of all kinds of people, following Jesus for all kinds of reasons.
Suddenly, Jesus stopped walking and he turned to talk to the following masses. Jesus has something important to tell us, something which may startle us. Jesus tells us about the conditions of discipleship. He tells us quite plainly that if we want to follow him then we must be willing to sacrifice everything; willing to leave family ties, willing to face radical self-denial, and willing to give up material possessions. Jesus is telling us that the cost of discipleship is high and unless we are ready and willing to pay the price, then we cannot be his disciples – not because he doesn’t want us to be his disciples but because we will have chosen not to be his disciples. As followers of Jesus, we are to be loyal to him.
To reinforce his point Jesus spoke of the builder of a tower who must first count the cost of the building materials before starting the project to be sure that the tower can be completed, and of the king who must calculate the risk of war and take counsel as to whether or not 10,000 soldiers can defeat 20,000. Jesus is asking us whether or not we have calculated what it will cost us to follow him. Jesus is talking about commitment, wholehearted, consistent commitment to walking in his footsteps.
Complication: What is the cost of discipleship? Well, it may mean taking an unpopular stand on an issue, a stand so unpopular that we might even lose some friends. It may mean losing a job if we disagree with company policies or the way business is conducted. It may mean being kicked out of the family if we tell the big secret that everyone in the family knows but has been too ashamed to mention and which is controlling their lives and driving the family crazy. I’m confident that each of us can calculate the cost of discipleship for ourselves.
Jesus wants it all, or nothing. I mean to tell you that the cost of discipleship will be the price of our lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who wrote a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. He was opposed to the Nazi movement in the early 1930’s and he sided with the Confessing Church against the German Christians who supported Hitler. After serving as the Chaplain to a Lutheran congregation in London, he returned to Germany in 1935 to become head of the seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde. He was forbidden by the Nazis to teach, banned from Berlin, and dismissed from his lectureship there in 1936. In 1937 the seminary at Finkenwalde was closed by the government.
Bonhoeffer was in America when World War II began in December 1941. He could have stayed in America. He knew the danger to his life if he went back to Germany, but go he did, feeling it was his duty to fight the Nazis.
In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested because he tried to mediate between Germans opposed to Hitler and the British government. During his imprisonment, he was hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenburg in 1945, just days before he would have been liberated by the advancing allies. Bonhoeffer followed Jesus to the cross.
Not everyone will be asked to sacrifice the same amount, or experience the same amount of loss, or the same level of suffering. Not everyone will be required to give up all possessions but we must be ready and willing to do just that because if we are not, then, like the crowd in today’s lesson, when the time comes we will not follow Jesus.
Earlier I said that the cost of discipleship will be the price of our lives, and so it will. You see, we are to count nothing as valuable as following Jesus, which is to say that real discipleship is to spend our lives, until the day we die, serving our Lord.
Resolution: Now, we might wonder, why would we pay the cost of discipleship? Why would we follow Jesus in faith to the point of dying for our faith? I suggest that we would pay the cost because the value of a loving, everlasting relationship with God our heavenly Father is priceless. What we spend doesn’t compare with what we receive. This brief life on earth is but a blink in the eye of eternity.
Bonhoeffer was not spiritually penny wise and pound foolish. He knew that his relationship with God was much too valuable to throw away by compromising his faith. He knew that the price he would pay for that relationship was a bargain.
We have the same priceless, loving relationship with God that Bonhoeffer had. Let’s not be spiritually penny wise and pound foolish and throw it away by not doing what we know is right and just. Indeed, it is the priceless value of God’s love for each of us, abiding in our hearts, which will enable us to pay the cost of discipleship.
Sermon Based on Luke 14:1, 7-14
Proper 17, Year C
August 28, 2016
Introduction: Fulton J. Sheen is quoted to have said that, “Humility for the Christian is like underwear. You should always wear it, but you should never let it show.” Some youths and young adults today haven’t gotten that memo.
Situation: In today’s gospel story, Jesus has gone to a politically correct dinner party at the home of a leader of the Pharisees and, of course, all of the right people were there. The Pharisees, as you may recall, were Jewish lay people who were experts in interpreting the Jewish laws. They not only interpreted the laws but they endeavored to achieve perfection in observing the legal code and anyone who didn’t measure up to their standard was rejected. Anyone, including any Jewish person who was not a Pharisee, was unclean, and to be avoided. This is how strict they were.
So, here is Jesus, in this nest of Pharisees, and he notices how they are all jockeying for the positions of honor among themselves. Palestinian feasts were typically arranged in a way whereby guests reclined at table in groups of three. The grouping in the middle was considered a position for the esteemed, and was reserved for persons according to their power, wealth, or social status. If a more eminent person arrived late for the feast – the politically correct thing to do – the one who had taken the prominent place would be asked to step down. What Jesus was observing was quite common and he would have known of a true story about someone thinking more of himself than he ought and making the embarrassing mistake of sitting in a place of honor, with the punch line that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Like the Pharisees, I suspect that we have all vied for the place of honor before. Oh, we might not like to admit it but I think we are more sophisticated in our sin than we are obvious.
At a dinner party, a friend of mine was impressing a group of guests with what she thought was a most forceful argument, but in the process, she was offending several at the table. One person in particular was quite bothered, and she followed the host to the kitchen where my friend overheard part of a short conversation.
“Don’t be bothered,” said the host. “She (referring to my friend) likes to be right.”
My friend later confessed to me that the host was right on target. You see, she thought that being right, always being right, gave her status, and made her valuable for others to look up to.
Complication: Like my friend, we need to get in touch with our less obvious pride and empty ourselves of our need to occupy the position of honor. By that I mean our need to always be right or to know everything, or our need to always win, or to be the prettiest, the strongest, the funniest, the best.
What are we afraid of? What tempts us to act this way? Are we afraid that if we aren’t these things then people won’t like us, or we won’t be attractive to them? Is this our way of guaranteeing our value to others so that they won’t reject us? If I’m even getting warm as to why we do these things, then we need to understand that we’ve got things turned around. Often it’s these very things which we think will endear us to others that actually pushes them away from us. We need to understand the paradox that the way down is up and the way up is down, or, as Jesus put it, those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Or, said yet another way, someone once told me, in all love, “Jim, I like you better with egg on your face.”
Why? Because no real person is always right, or always wins, or is perfect. We would rather be around a real person who has emotions and who makes mistakes, and who is as imperfect as we are. Our humanness makes us lovable.
Resolution: We should note that on the lips and in the person of Jesus, the paradox of the exalted being humbled and the humble being exalted, is brought to life. Jesus was God made man. He humbled himself to take our form but he never expected people to treat him any different than anyone else. Instead he took the lowest place, penny-less and homeless and died on a cross. And God raised him up on the third day. The one who humbled himself became highly exalted.
I know. It’s crazy. That might have worked for Jesus but not for me.
But the truth is that if we cling to any notion of perfection as it manifests itself in pride, we will indeed be alone. We need to empty ourselves of this belief, as Jesus emptied himself on the cross of any claim to distinction or position of honor.
We need to remember that if any one of us was the only person on the face of the planet, God loves us, you, me, so much that He would still die for the one person on the planet. That’s how valuable each of us is to God. That is our worth in God’s estimation. We don’t have to have the position of honor. We are highly honored by our Lord. No place of honor is better than that.
Few people have [had] the privilege of a private audience with Pope John Paul II. One who did was journalist Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief, Meet the Press moderator, and former altar boy. In the St. Anthony Messenger, James W. Arnold relates Russert’s story:
I’ll never forget it. I was there to convince His Holiness it was in his interest to appear on the Today show. But my thoughts soon turned away from NBC’s ratings toward the idea of salvation. As I stood there with the Vicar of Christ, I simply blurted, “Bless me, Father!”
He put his arms around my shoulders and whispered, “You are the one called Timothy, the man from NBC?”
I said, “Yes, yes, that is me.”
“They tell me you are a very important man.”
Taken aback, I said, “Your Holiness, there are only two of us in this room, and I am certainly a distant second.”
He looked at me and said, “Right.”
Arnold, who related this story, closed by saying, “It is always wise to know your place.”
May we present ourselves to our Lord Jesus as empty vessels to be filled with His love, and thereby make us feel secure in our places of honor at His Holy Table.
Sermon Based on Luke 13:10-17
Proper 16; Year C
August 21, 2016
Sermon Based on Luke 12:49-56
Proper 15; Year C
August 14, 2016
Introduction: I find today’s passages of scripture some of the most disturbing passages to hear. Disturbing because they carry the message of God’s judgment, a message which I confess makes me a bit uncomfortable.
Situation: In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of casting “fire” upon the earth. Among other things, fire is a common Biblical symbol of God’s purifying judgment no one can escape.
Complication: People today do not like to hear about the judgment of God. It is widely thought to be synonymous with condemnation, which some consider to out of character with the God of love. Many would agree that we are not to judge others, as Jesus taught us, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mat 7:1).
So we wonder, what brought on these hard, and surprising, words of judgment from Jesus? Partly, I suspect, Jesus was jarring the disciples and the multitudes out of any romantic ideas that discipleship would be easy or that it guaranteed anyone free passage into God’s Kingdom. I think we all know this but it is a hard message for 21st Century Christians to accept because we have grown accustomed to the easy gospel of an all loving, all accepting, ever forgiving God who lets us do whatever we want as long as we can justify our behavior or our views. But we all know that we fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). We all have feet of clay and often enough we put our needs and desires ahead of God’s will for us. Since God is a just God, the sin of humankind must be judged. When we examine the readings for today, God’s judgment falls on those who stubbornly, consistently put their wills (sin) before God’s will (justice).
Resolution: Well, Jesus speaks about being able to understand the signs of the times. In his characteristic way Jesus spoke of spiritual matters by using an illustration from daily life with which everyone could identify, including us. He said that we can look up into the sky and tell whether or not it is going to rain fairly accurately but we often fail to recognize the spiritual storm clouds which surround us. Spiritual problems like despair brought on by overwhelming personal problems, anger which boils in some of our personal relationships, fear which can paralyze us and prevent us from growing, and greed which chokes our willingness to give.
Are these signs so difficult to recognize? Not when we look at other people. It’s easy to watch others and pass judgment, as though we were judges. It’s easy to pick apart other people’s behavior but when it becomes personal, when it comes to looking at ourselves, that’s a different matter. It is often hard to recognize the signs of spiritual crisis within ourselves; anger, apathy, indifference, selfishness, well, you get the idea. But this is exactly what God is judging and about which Jesus is warning us to pay attention. We can look around ourselves and pretend to have the answers for the world’s problems but we won’t be able to change anything until we look into the mirror and deal with our own spiritual crises and change what is going on inside of us. Only then will we be able to change the environment in which we live for the better.
I want to take a moment and talk about judgment.
“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! (Lk 12:49-50).”
Fire is a biblical symbol of God’s judgment, as I mentioned at the start. Jesus is saying that he has come to judge our sin. Jesus is both God and man, and, as God, his rightful place is to declare what is right and good. As the judge, he is the one who creates order and restores what had been destroyed. What had been destroyed? Why, our relationship with God the Father through our sin.
Yet, immediately after this, he says that he has a baptism to be baptized with, which is a reference to the cross. It is on the cross that the judge is judged by Judas, Israel, Pilate, and us, and by God the Father as Jesus humbles himself under the judgment of God. It is on the cross that he is able to take our sins upon himself, as man, and offer himself up to God the Father as a sacrifice for our sin. “The judgment of God in Jesus Christ is … the judgment of the sin of all in the one who was without sin but who took it upon himself to be the one great sinner and to be judged in the place of sinners.”
The significance of his death lies in the person who dies. Karl Bart says, “[I]t is the eternal God Himself who has given Himself in His Son to be man, and as man to take upon Himself this human passion [suffering].” Jesus has taken upon himself the wrongdoing of others by choosing to shoulder responsibility for their sins. By his death, because he was human, the sin of humanity is judged, and those who believe in Jesus, who trust in his promise of eternal life, are ultimately released from the power of sin because Jesus (God the Son) died for us.
This is GOOD NEWS!!! Judgment, which we so often view negatively, is, in this instance, a positive judgment. It is the means by which our relationship with God the Father is healed and we are restored to full health. Judgment is the whole process of bringing about God’s justice in an unjust world. It is to be understood as a means of bringing about salvation and therefore as an act of grace, as an expression of God’s love and not the withdrawal of it. Judgment is brought to bear in order to remove the corruption of a sinful world so that the kingdom of God may be established here, and all his [God’s] gracious blessings enjoyed.
How can we recognize or interpret the present time?
The signs of the times are not hard to recognize. All it takes is a willingness to look within, to recognize what is going on within ourselves, and to call upon God’s loving support to help us overcome our spiritual crisis. In essence we assess (judge) ourselves and humbly submit to our Lord, as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer says “earnestly repent, [being] heartily sorry for these our misdoings,”. This is the kind of commitment that Jesus is looking for in his disciples and for which we will be judged favorably.
 Justin Terry, The Justifying Judgement of God: A Reassessment of the Place of Judgement in the Saving Work of Christ (Eugene, Oregon: WIPF & STOCK, 2007).
 Ibid, 115.
 Ibid, 116.
 Ibid, 112.
 Ibid, 210.
 John Wallace Suter, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: And Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (New York: The Seabury Press, 1928), 75.
Sermon Based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-16
Proper 14; Year C
August 7, 2016
Introduction: In 1966 I went to Summer Camp in the beautiful, green, mountains of Vermont. It was a different kind of camp because it was actually a working farm complete with chickens, goats, pigs, horses, and other animals. And, of course, all the campers had our chores. One of the wonderful things about this camp was that every so often the director of the camp would load us up into her VW Van and take us on a “mystery ride.” We never knew where we were going until we got there. One time we even went to New Hampshire to visit a train museum with real trains. Although we, the children that is, didn’t know where we were going, the driver of the van did, and, of course, we didn’t doubt that for a moment. We only looked forward to where we were going, wherever that was, with hopeful anticipation.
Situation: Well, in today’s Old Testament story, Abram, later renamed Abraham, was on a sort of “mystery ride of faith.” It was ten to fifteen years before our story takes place that God had appeared to him and promised him a vast land of his own and a son for an heir. Ever since then Abram patiently waited, and waited, and waited, and waited for God to fulfill His promises. Waiting wasn’t easy.
In his first talk with God, Abram was told to move from Haran to Canaan, the promised-land. But then a famine hit the region and he decided to move with Sarai to Egypt where there was food. But there, you may recall, he got into trouble with Pharaoh because he told Sarai to tell Pharaoh that she was his sister instead of his wife, fearing that Pharaoh would kill him if he was married in order to take his wife. When Pharaoh learned the truth, he was angry with Abram and kicked him out of Egypt. From there he went to live in the Negeb desert with Sarai where he waited some more, and years passed.
Complication: During all these years, and all these trials, Abram must have wondered about the promises God made him. Was God going to keep them? Where was God taking him on this mystery ride of faith? After all, it had been ten to fifteen years and he was now about 85 years old, and Sarai wasn’t getting any younger either. Abram only had God’s word to trust because, by all outward appearances, there was no hope to have children at that age, let alone possess any land.
Haven’t we felt that way at times? We’ve heard God’s promises, promises of love, and peace on earth, and of the marvelous miracles Jesus performed. But the hard reality in which we live shows us something else. Love isn’t easy, there doesn’t seem to be much peace on earth, let alone in our town, or our own homes sometimes. “So when, O Lord; when are you going to fulfill these promises? Where are you taking us on this mystery ride of faith?”
Resolution: But, maybe, these are the wrong questions to be asking. You see, God is faithful to us, and good, and just. The question isn’t about God’s faithfulness, but about our faithfulness to God. God has already brought us to the end of our mystery ride, and yet we await with hopeful anticipation the final destination, the Kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke. God has fulfilled His promises in Jesus who kept his promise of salvation from sin and death by dying for us on a cross and being raised from the dead. God has already given us all the assurances we need, and His Kingdom.
Instead of looking around us and blaming God for what we see, the real issue is taking responsibility for our own behavior and admitting that many of the problems we face are problems we have made for ourselves. God doesn’t want them to happen and He doesn’t cause them to happen.
Mark Mendenhall, professor of Business Leadership at the University of Tennessee, tells this story of his friend Ray who helps feed the homeless at a community kitchen. One day Ray noticed a woman, named Carla, coming through the serving line but who seemed somehow out of place at the shelter. That is, she seemed educated, intelligent, had a warm personality, and showed some real spark. So Ray asked her, “Why are you homeless?”
Carla was straightforward with him. Her husband had deserted her and left her with a house, a daughter and no way to pay the mortgage. She tried to make ends meet but couldn’t. The only job she ever had was as a waitress, and she couldn’t get Social Security or unemployment benefits – or any benefits for that matter. Somehow she had fallen through the government’s safety net. After endless tangling with the bureaucracy, she simply gave up. The bank foreclosed on her house. She had no other family and she found herself on the street.
“There are always choices,” Ray told her. “Why don’t you get a job?” Carla laughed. She had tried but no one would hire her. “I can’t believe that. You didn’t try hard enough,” Ray said. She laughed again and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Ray said that he did.
Carla looked at him and said, “Alright, I’ll try again. I’ll do what you tell me to find a job.” He told her to put a resume together. With resume in hand he told her to start visiting restaurants that had job openings. She visited twenty, but none would take her because, though she had experience, she didn’t have an address or phone number. She asked Ray what she should do. He told her to offer the restaurants a week of free work to prove her reliability. She did this three times and each time, at the end of the week of work, she was told that they couldn’t offer her a job. She came back to Ray and asked him what she should do next.
Ray was enraged by such open exploitation, but Carla didn’t seem surprised by it. Feeling like he was on thin ice, having asked Carla to do all that she could be expected to do – and more – Ray took a deep breath and told her to visit ten more restaurants. If nothing came from that, he told her, he would leave her alone and admit that she was right and he was wrong.
The next restaurant Carla went to, hired her. She was able to earn enough money to share an apartment with another family, send her daughter to public school, and live a rather normal life.
“Mark, you’ll never believe who hired her,” said Ray to his friend. “A Vietnamese family who run a local restaurant. I went to the restaurant one evening and asked the owner why he had hired her. He told me that he had once been in a labor camp, and that his family had suffered many trials before they were able to escape to America. He told me that he knew what it was to be down and out, to lose everything, to trust in God, despite all doubts and hardships, and to step out in faith. That is why he hired Carla.”
Like Abram, there were times when Carla wondered if she could ever hope to find a job, but she kept trying. She climbed aboard the van and trusted that God knew where he was taking her.
Today God is calling on our faith as His disciples. Like Abram we have to trust that the driver of our mystery ride of faith knows where He is going because we really have no other viable choice. We have to trust that God is with us throughout our trials and that God will keep his promises. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”