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Sermons

 

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Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Proper 10; Year A

July 16, 2017

Fr. Jim

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.

 

Amen

 

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Sermon Based on Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:25-30

Proper 9, Year A

July 9, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Matt 10:40-42

Proper 8; Year A

July 2, 2017

Fr. Art Tripp

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Sermon Based on Matt 10:34-42

Proper 7; Year A

June 25, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on Gen 1:1-2:4a; Mat 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday; Year A

June 11, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

 

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Sermon Based on Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3b-13, & John 20:19-23

Pentecost; Year A

June 4, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

 

Amen

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 17

7 Easter, Year A

May 28, 2017

Deacon Sam

 

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Sermon Based on Acts 17:22-31;

6 Easter, Year A

May 21, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

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Sermon Based on John 14:1-14

5 Easter; Year A

May 14, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen

 

 

 

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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

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Luke 24

3 Easter; Year A

April 30, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 20:19-31

2 Easter; Year A

April 23, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.”

Amen

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 20:1-18

Easter Day, Year A

April 16, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.”

 

Amen

 

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Sermon Based on Mt. 26:36-27:66

Palm Sunday, Year A

April 9, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 11

V Lent; Year A

April 2, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 9

IV Lent; Year A

March 26, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 4:5-26, 39-42

III Lent; Year A

March 19, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

 

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Sermon Based on Gen 12:1-8, Rom 4:1-17, John 3:1-17

2 Lent; Year A

March 12, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]  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.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] David J. Risendal, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, March 16, 2014), 2, n.p. Online: onelittleword.org.

 

[2] Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, March 16, 2014), 4.

[3] Risendal, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A.”

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Sermon Based on Gen 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:7; and Mt 4:1-11

1 Lent; Year A

March 5, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Matthew 17:1-9

Last Sunday in Epiphany

February 26, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on Matthew 5:38-48

7 Epiphany, Year A

February 19, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

Amen.

[1] William J. Bausch, Telling Stories, Compelling Stories of People of Grace (Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, 1991), pp. 98-99.

[2] Donald S. Armentrout, Synthesis, (February 20, 2011)

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Sermon Based on Matthew 5:21-37

6 Epiphany; Year A

February 12, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.[1]  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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

Amen.

 

 

[1] Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: 6 Epiphany – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, February 16, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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Sermon Based on Matthew 5:13-20

Fifth Sunday in Epiphany

February 5, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on Matthew 5:1-12

Fourth Sunday in Epiphany

January 29, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 1: 29-42

Second Sunday in Epiphany

January 15, 2017

Fr. Art Tripp

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Sermon Based on Matthew 3:13-17

First Sunday in Epiphany

January 8, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Luke 2:15-21

The Holy Name of Jesus: Year A

January 1, 2017

Fr. Jim

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-hashbaz) 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 (sairi) 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).

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on John 1:1-14

Christmas Day; Year A

December 25, 2016

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve: Year A

December 24, 2016

Fr. Jim

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.[1]

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.”

Amen.

[1] Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: Christmas Day” (PNMSI Publishing Company, December 25, 2013).

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December 18, 2016

Today we enjoyed the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols which does not include a sermon.

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Sermon Based on Matthew 11:2-11

3 Advent; Year A

December 11, 2016

Fr. Jim

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.[1]

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.

[1] H. King Oehmig, “Synthesis: III Advent, Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, December 15, 2013).

 

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Sermon Based on Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10

Advent 2; Year A

December 4, 2016

Fr. Jim

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.[1]  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.

Amen

[1] Martin H. Franzmann, Follow Me: Discipleship According to Matthew (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982), 16.

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Sermon Based on Isaiah 2 and Matthew 24

November 27, 2016

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on Matthew 25

November 20, 2016

The Rev. Jim Hawk

Stewardship Sermon

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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.”[1]

“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.”[2]

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.

[1] N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Co., 1994), 68-69.

[2] Ibid, 70-71.

 

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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.’”[1]  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.

Amen

 

[1] 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.

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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.

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Fr. Art Tripp:  Sermon Based on Luke 18:9-14

Proper 25; Year C

October 23, 2016

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Sermon by Deacon Sam Based on 2 Timothy 4:1-5

Proper 24, Year C

October 16, 2016

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.                                                  Fr. Art Tripp:  Sermon Based on Luke 17:11-19

Proper 23; Year C

October 9, 2016

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Fr. Art Tripp:  Sermon Based on Luke 17:5-10

Proper 22; Year C

October 2, 2016

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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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.

 

Amen.

 

[1] H. King Oehmig, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C Reversed Destinies” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 29, 2013).

[2] Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 29, 2013).

[3] Oehmig, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C Reversed Destinies.”

[4] James Salisbury, OSB, “Synthesis: Proper 21 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 29, 2013).

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Sermon by Deacon Sam Based on Amos 8:1-12 and Luke 16:10-13

Proper 20, Year C

September 11, 2016

 

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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.[1]

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.

Amen.

 

[1] Paul Cain, “Synthesis: Proper 19 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, September 15, 2013).

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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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Luke 14:1, 7-14

Proper 17, Year C

August 28, 2016

Fr. Jim

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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Luke 13:10-17

Proper 16; Year C

August 21, 2016

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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).[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.”[2]

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].”[3]  Jesus has taken upon himself the wrongdoing of others by choosing to shoulder responsibility for their sins.[4]  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.[5]

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,”[6].  This is the kind of commitment that Jesus is looking for in his disciples and for which we will be judged favorably.

Amen

[1] 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).

[2] Ibid, 115.

[3] Ibid, 116.

[4] Ibid, 112.

[5] Ibid, 210.

[6] 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.

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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.”

 

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Sermon Based on Amos 8:1-12, Col 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Proper 11; Year C

July 17, 2016

 

Introduction:  A popular story is told that during a fierce battle two enemy soldiers were engaged in heavy hand-to-hand combat.  One soldier overpowered the other and was about to drive his bayonet into his enemy.  But suddenly the man being attacked called out, “Shema yisrael …!”

The other soldier, as it happens, was also Jewish.  So he answered the call, and the two looked at each other – realized who (or what) they were – and presumably the attack stopped.

Situation:  Hearing the Word of God is a life changing matter, “Hear, O Israel …”  This command to hear is said as an imperative, a command, and is repeated throughout the Old Testament.  The opportunity to listen to the Word of God was a privilege and a gift given to Israel – and one that was to be received with respect and joy.  Once the Word was heard, it was expected that the Israelites would act upon that word in how they lived their lives.

In today’s reading from Amos, the prophet warns the people that, since they have not kept God’s Word, they have not listened, God will cause a sort of “famine of the word” in the land (8:11).  The people may search for God’s Word, but they will not find it.  This would cause them to repent and stop their unjust and fraudulent practices toward the poor.

In our other readings for today we see various facets of the importance of hearing the Word.

The Apostle Paul also was commissioned by God to make the Word of God known (Col. 1:25).  The Gentiles have been privileged to receive this Word, the Logos made flesh, (Christ) along with the Jews.  Those who were once estranged from God are now, through the Gospel message, “blameless and irreproachable” before God (v. 22).  But the people must do more than just listen to God’s Word; they also must be faithful to it (v. 23).  They must incorporate the Gospel message into their daily lives and remain faithful to the Word (Christ) that they have heard.

The story of Jesus visiting with Mary and Martha is an especially poignant example of the primacy of hearing God’s Word.  Martha probably heard part of the conversation going on between Jesus and Mary, but her distractions and busyness did not allow her to listen with attentiveness.

The letter to the Colossians states that Jesus is the very image of the invisible God (1:15).  Therefore, what Jesus says and does reveals to us something about who God is.  Because Martha was distracted by many things, she was not aware of the immediate presence of the invisible God.

Complication:  Martha was doing necessary work to be sure; but she wasn’t listening with attentiveness, so she did not hear the Word of God spoken through Jesus.  Distractions can function like walls that create a barrier around us and prevent us from experiencing the Divine in our lives.  (“He who has ears to hear, let him [or her] hear.”) (Lk 8:8)

Being distracted is a normal part of our humanity.  Listening is hard work!  Too often we hear only what we want to hear; selective listening.  Most of us need to be trained to listen.  While we are in worship are we listening to the Lord, or are we distracted by whatever is on our hearts?  When we leave worship, do we take what we have heard and apply it in our lives throughout the week and beyond?  We cannot make ourselves listen to Jesus.  I mean, we may hear the words but without faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we will not be able to effectively apply the teachings to our lives.

Martha is an example of the Word of God falling among thorns – as in Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Lk. 8:7).  Even what she might have heard, she lets pass through her mind and is left with nothing to ponder but her own immediate thoughts and actions.

Perhaps Martha, on some level, knew what she was doing.  Perhaps she was afraid to listen to God’s Word.  If we really open ourselves to the lively, living, Word then maybe we will need to make some changes in our lives, changes we are not ready to make.  Maybe we will recognize some things about ourselves that we would rather not recognize.

Resolution:  Mary, on the other hand, is an example of the Word of God falling into good soil.  “But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Lk. 8:15).

Mary was listening with the attitude of a disciple, a follower of Jesus, who takes in every word of the Master (Lk. 10:39).  Mary allowed herself to be open to receive from Jesus, perhaps realizing that he would be with them for only a brief time.  The present moments that Mary had with Jesus might be the only ones she would have to hear his words in an intimate environment.  For Mary, to hear every word that Jesus had to offer was imperative.  To listen as Mary did is to be open to be transformed by the Word of God.

Both Mary and Martha, I believe, had faith but, of the two, Mary was focused on absorbing the Words of Jesus.

Jesus said that those who receive the Word hold it fast and bear fruit with patient endurance (Lk. 8:15).  The word endurance implies effort, stamina, persistence, strength, indefatigability, courage, guts, and true grit.  Hearing the Word comes at a cost.  Once we hear the Gospel we are compelled to follow Christ for the rest of our lives.  We are transformed and our lives reflect that transformation.  Clearly, Mary did not choose the easy path.

The evangelist Luke skillfully places his story of Mary and Martha between the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, discipleship is defined in terms of loving one’s neighbor.  In the story of Mary and Martha, discipleship is seen as attentively listening to the Word of God.  Both are necessary and complementary components of discipleship.[1]

Conclusion:  It’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for her concern for his needs and welfare.  He only reminds us that our spiritual relationship with God must come first in our lives or else all the good we do degenerates into a superficial substitute for discipleship.  As in all things in life, we need a balance between doing good things that are necessary, and sitting quietly at the Lord’s feet.  That is the lesson Martha had to learn.  That is the lesson our Lord offers us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Julian Fishbeck, “Synthesis: Proper 11 – Year C” (PNMSI Publishing Company, July 21, 2013).

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Sermon Based on Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)

Deacon Sam

Proper 10, Year C

July 10, 2016

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Sermon Based on Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

Proper 9, Year C

July 3, 2016

Introduction: We normally think that Christianity is about salvation from sin and eternal death through Christ and, of course that is true, and it is also about mission!  When we claim to be an Apostolic Church, the primary meaning of that claim of apostolicity is that we are sent, from the Greek word apostellein, meaning to send off.[1]

Situation: So today’s Gospel tells how the Lord sent seventy of his followers with His authority to heal the sick, cast out demons, and to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom.  Jesus sent them out two by two with specific instructions about what to take and what to say.  He warned them that not everyone would welcome them, there would be hostility, but not to worry because the people who reject them were actually rejecting God.

Complication: Although scripture doesn’t tell us, I suspect the seventy had their doubts and fears about how effective this mission was going to be because when they got back they were thrilled and bubbled over with excitement.  “Hay, Jesus!  You should have seen it.  Even the demons are subject to us in your name!”  What a surprise.

The fact that Jesus sent the seventy tells us clearly that this mission is not reserved for the clergy but it is the responsibility of all who follow Christ.  In today’s world, most people don’t think of themselves as heralds of the coming of God’s kingdom.  But that is indeed our mission.  The need for laborers in God’s kingdom means that all of Jesus’ followers must share in preparing the way of the Lord.  So, the Gospel for today may serve as a charter for the ministry of the laity.  Perhaps that’s what was so surprising to the seventy, that even they could do wonderful things in Jesus’ name, and, perhaps, that’s what’s so surprising to us.

Resolution:  As Jesus’ disciples we have our tasks before us.  Go, cure, proclaim.  That is our mission.  When Christ tells us to heal the sick, it may not mean prescribing an antibiotic but, instead, discovering why a neighbor seems angry all the time and then listening and caring.  Our involvement as a parish with Stephen Ministry is an ideal way to accomplish what Jesus is telling us to do.  Those who are trained as Stephen Ministers are providing distinctively Christian care to people in any number of situations who need that care.

When Christ commands us to proclaim the kingdom of God, the proclamation will probably not be preached from a pulpit but will happen when we visit a homebound person or give away old cloths, or bring food for the hungry.  Even recycling proclaims the goodness of God’s world.  Proclaiming the kingdom means treating every person (including yourself) and everything in creation with respect, as if all of creation belonged to God – which, of course, it does.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are carriers of his message of love (compassion) to the known world, we deal in the unseen, the spiritual.  Whether we are conscious of it at the time or not, in the genuine witness we give of Christ and Christ’s work, we are proclaiming the truth as it has been distilled through the experience of the believing community, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This witness is not simply a matter of words (though we must not dismiss the importance of words), or even of others hearing what we say.  Our chief witness is always our integrity – who we are in Christ.  It involves living our lives in such a way that others can see the reality of Christ, even when we ourselves are unaware of the full power of that reality and its effect.

In a Sufi tale, Nasrudin was throwing handfuls of bread all around his house.  “What are you doing?” someone asked.

“Keeping the tigers away.”

“But there are no tigers around here.”

“Exactly.  Effective, isn’t it?”

Can we dare to believe in the unseen and to tell others of its reality?[2]

Perhaps, like the seventy, what’s most surprising is that we too can cast out demons in his name.  (I know what you’re thinking; that Jim is flying off into the religious stratosphere.)  Demons?  What are you talking about?  Well, I’m talking about the demons that control our thoughts and behavior.

Often the demon is fear: fear of letting go, the fear of losing our security, the fear of the unknown, of doing something differently, the uncertainty of where we are going, or the fear of the reaction we may receive when we share our faith.  Bishop Vono talked about refusing to be intimidated by fear last Sunday.  Place yourself in the position of these two missionaries who were going door to door.

They knocked on the door of one woman who was not happy to see them.  She told them in no uncertain terms that she did not want to hear their message and slammed the door in their faces.  To her surprise, however, the door did not close and, in fact, almost magically bounced back open.  She tried again, really putting her back into it and slammed the door again with the same amazing results – the door bounced back open.  Convinced that one of the missionaries was sticking his foot in the door, she reared back to give it a third slam.  She felt this would really teach them a lesson.  But before she could act, one of them stopped her and politely said, “Ma’am, before you do that again, you really should move your cat.[3]

I imagine they shook the dust off of their feet and went on their way.

Fear can paralyze people and the fear of being perceived as one of these missionaries, which is a common negative impression of missionaries, might stop us from sharing our faith in Jesus.  But, whenever we can help someone overcome their fear we have cast out a demon and proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom which sets us free.

Henri Nouwen tell us that “compassion [the love of Christ] asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.[4]

Whenever we help someone raise his or her self-esteem we have cast out a demon.  Whenever we help people overcome their negative thoughts about themselves – thoughts like I’m not pretty enough, or I’m not smart enough, or I’m not good enough – we have cast out a demon, and proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom.

Yes, as disciples of Jesus we are sent on a mission, a mission which will bear surprising fruit and which has the power to make us and others a new creation.          Amen.

 

[1] Costello, “The American Heritage College Dictionary,” 65.

[2] Anders, Isabel, “Synthesis: Proper 9 – Year C.”

[3] Oehmig, H. King, “Synthesis: Proper 9 – Year C.”

[4] Nouwen, Henri J. M., “Synthesis: Proper 9 – Year C.”

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Sermon Based on Luke 9:51-62  Bishop Michael Vono

Proper 8; Year C

June 26, 2016

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Sermon Based on Galatians 3:23-29 – Deacon Sam

Proper 7; Year C

June 19, 2016

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Sermon Based on Luke 7:36-8:3 – Fr. Art Tripp

Proper 6; Year C

June 12, 2016

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Sermon Based on Luke 7:11-17 – Fr. Art Tripp

Proper 5; Year C

June 5, 2016

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Sermon Based on Luke 7:1-10

Proper 4; Year C

May 29, 2016

Introduction:  One of the continuing delights of life is the joy of the unexpected.  Highly scheduled as we are, and rigorously regimented, occasionally we are extraordinarily pleased with interruption and variation.  I recently was reconnected with my best friend in college, Jim Colton, as my ROTC class was preparing for our fortieth anniversary class reunion this October.  We lost contact with each other over 35 years ago and I never expected us to reconnect with each other.  I am sure that each of us has been surprised by the unexpected.

 

Situation:  Even Jesus was surprised at times.  In today’s story he is surprised at finding faith in an unlikely person.  He expected his fellow Israelites to be responsive to his word.  After all, they shared with him a common heritage and faith.  But, often they didn’t.  That, too, may have been surprising.

But a Roman Centurion was something else.  Who would expect to find a sincere faith in him?  He was a man of authority and power.  Not only was he an outsider, he represented the hated enemy.  A man of talent and intelligence, the Centurion of Capernaum, believed nevertheless. And Jesus could not contain his delight at this unexpected discovery of faith in an unlikely person.  “I tell you,” he said, “nowhere, even in Israel, have I found faith like this.”

 

Complication:  There were three things about this Centurion that surprised Jesus.  One unlikely place we find faith is in people of authority and power, unlikely because we assume that power and faith are mutually exclusive.  The more powerful you are the less you need faith – or so we sometimes say.

One problem with this view is the mistaken presumption, in our post-modern, humanist, society that we don’t need outside help.  The so-called postmodern man or woman, independent as we are, doesn’t need anyone or anything to hold him or her up.  Have any of us been guilty of thinking this way?  But irony of ironies, every Achilles has a vulnerable heel.

Jesus was also surprised to find faith in the Centurion because he was an outsider and an enemy.  He, and we, expected his insider friends to have faith, but not his outsider enemy.  Yet why should that surprise us?  God has often used outsiders to get His point across.  Joseph was thrown out by his brothers and sold into slavery, but God brought him in again to change history. In Egypt, the Hebrews were outsiders and slaves, but God freed them and gave them their own land.  Moses was meek and poor at making speeches, yet God used him as the leader.  David was the youngest and least likely of Jesse’s sons, yet God made him a king.  Isaiah was an outsider to the power of Ahab and Jezebel, and God used him to defeat the 450 prophets of Baal.  And Jesus himself was scorned as an outsider Northerner by the elitist Southern circle of pretenders to the throne.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (of the North) they asked sneeringly.  When have we been guilty of presuming that God would favor one group over another, one nation over another because one was righteous and good while the other was an enemy?

Jesus was surprised with the Centurion’s faith in his word.  The Centurion may have been exposed to the wisdom of Rome and Greece.  Undoubtedly he was intelligent and capable.  Yet he was teachable, ready to believe what Jesus had to say.  And Jesus was surprised.  He turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  Not even in Israel have I found such faith.  What an incredible statement!  Not even in the insiders, like the Disciples who left all to follow Jesus?  Greater than the faith of one healed by faith?  Does this mean that you don’t have to be a Christian to have great faith?  You don’t have to be a Jew?  Faith can come to anyone.  It is a gift of grace, which comes to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  This is, of course, Christ centered faith.

Jesus responded by healing the servant.  Do we have such faith?  We know, for instance, that God has given us physicians and medicine to cure the sick.  But, despite that, ultimately the healing comes from God, not the physicians and medicine.  It is a mystery that eludes our understanding.  I suspect that we’ve all heard of stories of people who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, have recovered and lived years beyond what they had been told by their physician.  Yet, in our rational minds, we have difficulty believing as the Centurion believed.  I suspect that we have been infected with the secular point of view that God is irrelevant.  God may be there, but God is not going to stop the inevitable.

 

Resolution:  What makes the difference is that Jesus was a man with authority.  Even the ordinary person on the street recognized this.  In Matthew we learn that “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (7:29).

The Centurion knew all about authority.  He knew that his authority came from his superiors in the army.  This authority gave him power and when he said something, when he gave an order, his word had power.  His subordinates did what he told them to do even if he was not physically present.  This man of authority had heard of Jesus, who was said to have healed many people.  This Centurion, a friend of the Jews who had built them a synagogue, believed that Jesus could heal his servant.  He asked the elders of the Jews to ask Jesus to come and heal his slave.  Having been told of the worthiness of the Centurion, Jesus went with the elders.  As Jesus approached the house, however, the Centurion sent friends to tell Jesus that all Jesus had to do was to “say the word, and let my servant be healed.”  This surprised Jesus.

You see, authority is derivative.  The Centurion knew that his authority came from his military superiors.  Jesus’ authority is derived from his Father and his freely given love, not through fear or control.  Jesus told Philip, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works (Jn 14:10b).”  His was the healing word the Centurion sought.  His authority is empowering and liberating as Jesus brings healing and salvation to all who call upon him.  He spoke and was the Word who was from the beginning (Jn 1:1).  He spoke as the Logos, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14) and what he spoke became reality.

Paul, in our Epistle this morning, knew that his authority as an Apostle to the Gentiles came from Jesus.  “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel.  For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12).”  Consider all that Paul accomplished with the authority he received from our Lord.  He came to proclaim the truth of the Gospel that Christ gave himself to free us [to heal us] from the slavery of sin and that Jesus was raised from the dead by God the Father.

Faith is called into being by a word spoken from God.  A centurion in Capernaum grasped this reality very well.  “only say the word . . . ,” the centurion said.  Luke presents this rather unlikely fellow, this Centurion, this stranger to Israel, this foreigner as a model of faith.  Are we ready to go to Jesus and say, “Only say the word?”

Amen.

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Sermon Based on John 16:5-15

Trinity Sunday; Year C

May 22, 2016

 

Introduction:  Do you ever remember being afraid of the dark when you were little?  Well, little Jenny was.

“I’m scared in the dark, Daddy.  Please come sit with me until I fall asleep”, pleaded Jenny.

“But Jenny, God is there with you even in the dark.”

“I know that Daddy, but I want someone beside me with skin on.”

Situation:  In her own childish way Jenny was expressing the same kind of fear the disciples were feeling that ominous night Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.  Jesus was telling the disciples that he was going to be with God the Father.  He was explaining to them that they would be better off after he left them because then the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, would come to condemn the world’s sin and show the world that everything he said was true.  In addition, the Spirit would lead them into the future.

I imagine that the disciples were wondering how what Jesus was telling them could be true.  What could be better than having the real live Jesus in their company?  How in the world could they be better off without Jesus than they could be with him?  For three years they had followed him, looked up to him, and put their complete trust in him.  How would they manage without him?  The disciples couldn’t imagine living without Jesus, without skin on.

Complication:  It seems to me that we’re the same way.  I think there’s a Jenny in all of us which needs the physical presence of the ones we love near us.  We need people with whom we can talk, people we can hold and be held by when we need comforting and assurance.  Like Jenny we know that God is with us even in the dark but that’s not good enough.  We need someone with skin on.

Resolution:  You see, God is so wholly other, so abstract, so remote from our experience, “skinless,” that we need something tangible to help us connect with God.  For the Jews it was the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written, and even then they were tempted to worship a golden calf.  No, we needed a person and so God sent Jesus to show us who God was and what God was like.  God sent us himself, with skin on.

But Jesus, the man, couldn’t live forever, especially the way he upset the religious and civil authorities.  So Jesus knew that after he was gone he would send the Holy Spirit who would function to make the unseen presence of the Father and the Son known in the Disciples lives, and in the lives of future generations.

So, although God the Father may be too abstract for us, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are not.  The Holy Spirit is a real person who is known and experienced as the real presence of the absent Jesus.  It’s through the internal presence of the Spirit that we come to understand Jesus fully.  When we encounter the Spirit in our lives through God’s love expressed in other people’s lives, or in a religious experience, it’s as though Jesus is beside us with skin on.  We need human contact and we receive that contact with God the Father through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

There’s a cute story about a woman named Mamie who made frequent trips to the branch post office.  One day she found a long line of people who were waiting for service from the postal clerk.  Mamie only needed stamps, so a helpful person in the line asked her,

“Why don’t you just use the stamp machine?  You can get all the stamps you need and you won’t have to wait in line.”

Mamie said,

“I know, but the machine can’t ask me about my arthritis.”

The Holy Spirit puts skin on God whenever we find the loving compassion of the heart of God which cares for each of us in our need.  I see God with skin on when I see individuals reaching out to help and comfort the sick, the disabled, the hungry, and the less fortunate.  I believe we can all see God with skin on every day of our lives if we pay attention.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the day we hold up the truth that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three persons but all are the same God.  The Trinity is not an abstraction but the way reality is, even though we can’t completely understand it.  We don’t believe in the Trinity as much as we experience it.  Speaking about God in terms of the Trinity helps capture in our language and in our imaginations a God who, when with us in the dark, will be seen in someone who cares for us, someone beside us, someone, like Jenny’s father, “with skin on.”

In his poem Trinite Sunday, George Herbert (1593-1633) pulls together for us the sense of three in one, as well as an understanding of the energy that comes from an acknowledgment of God’s hand in our lives.

Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,

And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud,

And sanctifi’d me to do good;

 

Purge all my sinnes done heretofore:

For I confesse my heavie score,

And I will strive to sinne no more.

 

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,

With faith, with hope, with charitie;

That I may runne, rise, rest with thee.

Three stanzas; one poem that brings together the Trinity of creator, redeemer, and sanctifier; the understanding that repentance and forgiveness also come from the God who loves us so that, as the third stanza of Herbert’s poem tells us, we might flow with the energy that grace gives us.

What more do we need to understand about the Trinity on a Sunday morning?

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on 1 Corinthians 12:4-13 and Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost; Year C

May 15, 2016

 

Introduction: Pentecost is one of the oldest celebrated feasts in the church and ranks in importance alongside of Easter and Christmas.  As our reading from the Acts of the Apostles retells, it was the day that the risen Lord sent the Holy Spirit upon his believers, setting them on fire with renewed energy to spread the Gospel.

Situation: Pentecost was an established feast before Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus in 52 A.D.  In fact, Pentecost was celebrated fifty days after Passover by the Jews. This joyful celebration was originally an agricultural festival in which the first fruits of the grain harvest were offered. By the first century it also commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai.  Fifty days after Passover was also fifty days after Easter, as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place at the time of the Passover feast.

Now, in those days there was no New Testament, as we know it, none of it had been written yet.  People knew about Jesus and came to their faith through the stories they heard people tell about Jesus.  Since nothing was written down, the stories and teachings were easily distorted or misunderstood.

The people knew that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost but what did that mean?  In Corinth many thought that it meant that to be a real Christian you had to have a visible spiritual gift; the power to heal, to preach, and especially to speak in tongues.  Indeed, Paul spent the entire fourteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians dispelling this belief about speaking in tongues; but doesn’t this sound familiar?  There are churches today that openly state that you are really only a Christian if you can speak in tongues, or handle poisonous snakes.  So, in Corinth there was a tendency for some people to claim superiority to other Christians based upon the gifts they possessed.  Other Christians bought into this mistaken thinking and looked down upon themselves as unworthy.  It’s this second reaction that concerns me because I see it all too often in the church and when I am with the general population.

How often have we looked upon our own gifts and minimized them?  How often have we compared our skills and abilities with others and put ourselves down because we might not do something as well as someone else, or because we might not be able to do it at all?  How often have we been asked to do something and we’ve said, “Oh, no.  I can’t.  I can’t do that, I don’t know how.  Why don’t you ask someone else?

Complication: Such thoughts and actions are very human and, unfortunately, self-defeating.  When we discount our own abilities and put ourselves down we are discounting God’s love for us.  In effect, we’re saying that what God has given us isn’t good enough, or not as good as what God has given someone else.  Such thinking grieves the Holy Spirit because God loves each of us equally and showers us all with His grace as he sees fit.  No one is better than anyone else and whatever gift God chooses to give each of us is God’s special gift to us to be used to build up the community.

Resolution: The wonder and joy of Pentecost is that on this day we celebrate the truth that God has sent His Holy Spirit upon each of us to empower us to use the gifts He has given us, to accomplish the work He has given us to do.  Catch the Spirit and share the Joy!  Sure, someone else may do what we do better but no one else can do it in our God given way, with our God given style!  And, if we don’t do it, it will never be done in our way and in our style – ever.

I would like to share a story with you called “The Rabbi’s Gift” by Francis Dorff.

There was a famous monastery, which had fallen on very hard times.  Formerly its many buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of the chant, but now it was deserted.  People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer.  A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised their God with heavy hearts.

On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He would come there from time to time to fast and pray.  No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heart to him.  So, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods.  As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome.  It was as though he had been waiting there for some time.  The two embraced like long-lost brothers.  Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain.

After a while the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter.  In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the Scriptures open on it.  They sat there for a moment, in the presence of the Book.  Then the rabbi began to cry.  The abbot could not contain himself.  He covered his face with his hands and began to cry too.  For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out.  The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs and wetting the wood of the table with their tears.

After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet again, the rabbi lifted his head.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said.  “You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”

The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Spirit is among you.”

For a while, all was silent.  Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”

The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.

The next morning, the abbot called his monks together in the chapter room.  He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods” and that his teaching was never again to be spoken aloud.  Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that the Spirit is among you.”

The monks were startled by this saying.  What could it mean?, they asked themselves.  “Does Brother John have the Spirit?  Or Father Matthew?  Or Brother Thomas?  Do I have the Spirit?  What could this mean?

They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching.  But no one ever mentioned it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence.  There was a gentle, wholehearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe but easy to notice.  They lived with one another as men who had finally found something.  But they prayed the Scriptures together as men who were always looking for something.  Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.  Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and young men were asking, once again, to become part of the community.

In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods.  His hut had fallen into ruins.  But, somehow or other, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his prayerful presence.

Catch the Spirit, and share the joy!

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on John 17:20-26

7 Easter; Year C

May 8, 2016

Introduction: One of the things that each of us has in common is that we all belong to a family, even if any of us was raised as the only child.  And, belonging to a family, we have all, undoubtedly, experienced one of the joys of family membership – family disagreements and fights.  Oh boy!  I remember mine as one of nine siblings.  Sometimes family arguments can be very serious but for the most part, once they’re over, we make up and life goes on.  We’ve all probably heard it said that you can’t divorce your family.  We may leave it, we may turn our backs on it or reject it, but a brother is always a brother, a sister is always a sister, and our parents will always be our parents, like it or not.  Even if the family splits apart, these relationships continue.  There is something more powerful at work connecting the family members than our desire to remain together.  In a real sense, blood is thicker than water.

Situation: This is true for our biological families, and it’s true for our spiritual family, the church.  In today’s reading from John we find Jesus in prayer at the end of the Last Supper.  He has already prayed for himself and for his disciples.  Now he is praying for you and me, those who believe in him because of what we have been told by his disciples.

Jesus knew that there would be differences among us, and that we would have family fights.  So, Jesus’ prayer was that the church would be united and so closely knit together, as he and the Father were united, that our unity would be a witness, or a sign, to the world that Jesus was the Son of God and that he has redeemed the world.  By that I mean that Jesus has put the world back into a good relationship with God the Father through the forgiveness of our sins.

Complication: Well, we don’t have to look very far to see how often we have gone astray from Jesus’ prayer for unity.  We often fight and split over differences.  The fact that there are so many Christian denominations (about 4,000, I recently read) has been called the “scandal of Christianity.”  Too many people over the centuries have died over religious differences, and that, in itself, is a monstrous sin.  Even within our own denomination, when we look at how often we fight over the ordination of homosexuals, the Prayer Book (there is a group called the Prayer Book Society which wants to return to the 1928 Prayer Book), the ordination of women, the authority of Scripture, and so many other issues we quickly realize that left on our own, Jesus’ prayer for unity would never be fulfilled.  If the only thing keeping us together was our own desire for unity, we would eventually fall apart.

I suspect that much of the problem stems from a lack of appreciation for the difference between unity and uniformity.  In Jesus’ great prayer for his disciples, he prays three times for unity, “… that they may be one …”(Jn. 17:11, 21, 23).  Now, He did not pray for uniformity.  Warren Wiersbe tells us, “The unity that our Lord prayed for is not institutional or organizational.  It is spiritual: ‘that they may be one, just as We are’” (Jn. 17:22).  So, unity grows from within; uniformity is forced from without.  For instance, we may obey a certain law, not because we like the law, but because we might well be punished if we don’t obey the law.  Uniformity, then, comes from the power of the state to impose the law upon us, to coerce us, not because we love the law.  Unity allows for variety and diversity, but uniformity demands conformity.  Unity is based on love and thrives on love, but uniformity is defensive and is based too often on fear.  You see, here’s the thing.  Christian unity is based upon me loving Christ enough, to love you enough, to let you be different … to let you have different points of view … to let you have different ways of seeing things.

  • David Webber in Presbyterian Record (June 2008)

Resolution: So, one might wonder as we view the broken landscape before us, has Jesus’ prayer for unity gone unanswered?  I don’t think so.  We can trust that what Jesus prays is true.  He is the one to whom God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.”  So when Jesus prays that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me; we can know that it is true, that we are one.  The Christian Church throughout the whole world is united, just as Jesus said.  What Jesus says is always true.  He said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  John 14:6

So, we are united because of Christ.  According to Christ we are to love one another, even to the point of giving up our very lives for each other.  It is true.  You only have to look around you and know how the Church is united.  Sitting in the pews around you are people who have helped you when you needed help.  God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ who are here for us when we need them.

  • We are united when we hear about God’s great love that sent Jesus to live and die and rise again for us.
  • We are united when we gather at the altar and confess our common faith, and have the gift of salvation offered to us in the bread and wine.
  • We are united as we speak the words “in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” that were spoken when Jesus united us to Himself in Baptism.
  • We are united because we have been claimed from the jaws of death, rescued from sin, and saved from our own sinful desires, through God’s grace and our faith in Jesus.
  • Our unity comes only from the work that God does and what God has done, not from anything we have done or could possibly even do.

Martin Luther, the great sixteenth century reformer, said, I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.  In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.  On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.  This is most certainly true (p. 301 in LW).

Because we are united we have a responsibility to love one another.  We have the responsibility to correct one another, and accept each other’s correction, and even to hold one another accountable.  It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, well dressed or poorly dressed, from the “right” family or the “wrong” family, Democrat or Republican.  We are united by the blood of Jesus Christ.

  • Jonathan Watt.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 14:23-29

6 Easter; Year C

May 1, 2016

 

Introduction:  The last time I bought a car, it came with the standard three year/36,000 mile warranty.  Knowing the kind of car I bought I was quite comfortable with the warranty as it was but before I left with the car, the dealer was trying to scare me into buying an extended warranty and additional body protection, as though the warranty that came with the car was not good enough.  Planting the seed of doubt and increasing the customer’s insecurity is the name of the game.

Situation:  That’s the peace which the world gives.  It’s a fragile, insecure peace.  It lasts only as long as the warranty.

We are in the same setting we were in last week where Jesus was with his disciples at the Last Supper talking about what was to take place in the very near future.  Judas Iscariot had already left the dinner and was on his way to betray Jesus, an act of which Jesus was fully aware.  What is telling about this story, and about Jesus, is that in the very midst of betrayal Jesus could calmly talk about peace, and indeed give his disciples this peace.  This is real peace, God’s peace which passes human understanding.  This is a calmness of spirit, a wholeness of being which only God can give when we are in the midst of turmoil.  It is the peace that salvation brings.

Complication:  Advice columnist Ann Landers received thousands of letters a month.  When asked what seems to be the most common topic, she answered that most people seem to be afraid of something.  They’re afraid of losing their health, their job, or their family.  They’re afraid of upsetting their neighbor, alienating a friend, and not being able to pay their bills.  Many are afraid when there is no reason to be afraid.  The peace which the world gives is not very comforting and it certainly does not last very long.  Does it feel familiar, this peace which the world gives?  Can you identify with it?

Resolution:  But the peace which Jesus brings is different.  In verses 25 and 26, Jesus tells the disciples, and us, of the coming of “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit”, who will act as counselor, helper, comforter, guide, teacher – and much more – when Jesus is no longer with them (Ascension Day is this coming Thursday).

This Comforter is the way we receive God’s peace, which, unlike the peace which the world gives, is forever and cannot be extinguished (Jn. 16:33).  The world cannot give us this peace because the world knows neither God nor Jesus (Jn. 1:10).   When we love the Lord and keep his words, our love is passed on to the Father.  When we obey him, he abides in our hearts and our fears and anxieties are put into perspective.  They don’t rule our lives because Christ, and the assurance of our salvation, abide in our hearts.  This, too, brings peace.

Lady Julian of Norwich was probably born in 1342.  She never made a lot of money.  She never led armies or built cities.  She was never elected to head a government, and she never won a prize.  She lived quietly as a sister in a Benedictine house in England.

She did write, however.  Now, what she wrote never made the best seller list.  She never had anything of hers made into a movie.  No, she wrote books about what she saw and heard when she prayed.

When she was thirty years old, she became very ill.  So ill, in fact, that she and others thought she would die and was given last rites.  Suddenly on the seventh day all pain left her and she had fifteen visions of Jesus’ Passion which brought her great peace and joy.

Jesus, she wrote, was her friend, who showed her various scenes from his life and spoke to her about her own.  Once when things looked very dark to Julian, her Friend spoke words of comfort that made her feel that no matter what she lived through, it would turn out well.

But the words were not for her life only.  They were words for all situations and for all times.

The voice of Jesus said to her, “I can make all things well, I will make all things well; . . . and thou canst see for thyself that all manner of things shall be well.”

No, Lady Julian was not rich or famous.  But when things look dark for us and for our world, when we are overcome with fear and anxiety, it is the peace from her Friend and ours, Jesus, whom we long to know in our hearts.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  Julian knew God’s peace.  I think we’ve all known God’s peace at one time or another.  We can’t buy real peace with warranties, it is a gift from God which Jesus gives us and which we experience through the Counselor, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.  It is a gift available to all of us when we put our trust in Him.

Amen.

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 13:31-35

Deacon Sam

5 Easter; Year C

April 24, 2016

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Sermon Based on John 10:22-30

4 Easter; Year C

April 17, 2016

It is reported that during World War II, a young bomber pilot, just before taking off on a critical mission, lit a match in the presence of the chaplain, and, after having blown it out, asked him, “Now, tell me, man to man, is that all that happens to us when we die?”  Peggy Lee once asked something of the same question in her plaintive song: “Is this all there is?”

Of course, the question is as old as Job and those before him, “If a person die, can they live again?”  And we are back again to the questions of what life is all about, what happens after death, and, indeed, what is the meaning of our existence – questions for which answers come hard, assurances are often shallow and, all too often, we are left with that question still burning in our mouths as we bury a father, or mother, or husband, or son, or fiend – “Is this all there is?”

We are a strange people, indeed.  Living as we do in a land of affluence, where most of us lack very little, and yet we still feel compelled to develop programs that will secure our futures.  With usual American ingenuity, we have designed insurance programs that can cover almost every calamity we can name, and even some we can’t.  We fear our futures:  What will become of me, where will I live, what is life all about anyway?  But we also fear today, so we build fancy and elaborate security systems around ourselves and around our possessions.

It can be a tragic and sad life if all we see is here and now, and all our efforts must go into protecting the “stuff” we accumulate around us.  Unfortunately, many people fail to grasp that life insurance policies can never really answer the basic existential questions that most of us wrestle with at sometime during our lives.

But there is good news for us.  Believe it or not, there is a life insurance plan available for you and me that is more comprehensive than any plan you could ever buy from an agent; there is a plan available for us that is written out so simply and clearly, with no fine print to take away what the big print promises, that a child can grasp it; and the best news of all – it’s free!  It is a plan that, as you stand before open graves in airy cemeteries under green canopies, we read from.  Listen:

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . I am the Resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

A life insurance plan that guarantees that, after the resurrection, life does not end.  A life insurance plan that offers more security than you and I can ever imagine; more peace of mind now and for those left standing beside graves years after dirt is piled on caskets.

Here is the good news for us.  Our God loves us so much that He sent His Son, Jesus the Christ, who died on a cross for us and rose to new life three days later so that we might have new life now and in the future.  The life insurance plan is free for us: the premium was already paid by Jesus with his own life!  It is not a cheap plan.  It cost our Lord; but it is complete and comprehensive and free, and offered to all of us.

So, Peggy Lee, sing your song and ask your question: “Is this all there is?”  As for me, I’ll live my life under God’s life insurance plan, not because it’s free, but because God gave it to me – signed, sealed, and delivered by Jesus the Christ.

Now, I have trouble understanding why more folks don’t “buy into” this plan for their lives.  And I’m not talking necessarily about people outside of the walls and fellowship of our churches.  If they haven’t accepted this good news maybe it’s more our fault than theirs.  Maybe we haven’t told the story clearly and plainly enough, or often enough.  Maybe we haven’t lived the story we tell.  They see us talk of love and fellowship and caring for one another, and then they see us fight over who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom as if that is our decision, or they see us fighting over whether we like the pastor or not.  Maybe we haven’t lived the story we tell – we talk of love, and live in unlove; we talk of trust and live in quiet solitude; we talk of unity and live in division.  But I can understand this.  After all, we are all sinners and our fellowship will reflect that from time to time.  We have to work at this forgiveness and grace stuff.

No, my problem is not with those out there for whom the gospel, the good news, is unclear.  My problem is with those who have heard and yet fail to grasp the message for them.  To put it into the framework of this sermon – those who want to write their own life insurance plans because they can’t or won’t accept the one God offers them in Christ.  Somehow, the good news can’t be received as good news.  To put it even more plainly: I have trouble understanding why anyone would want to work out their own salvation, to work and sweat and struggle and fret to get into the kingdom of God.  We are saved by what He did, not by what we try to do!  It’s God’s grace, His unconditional love for us, that is our life insurance plan, and all we have to do to have it is accept it as the gift it is.

Well.  Maybe that is our problem: We don’t know how to accept gifts.  Somewhere along the line we are taught that it’s not polite to accept gifts without putting up some kind of fuss, “Oh, no, I couldn’t accept that.  You shouldn’t have.”  And all the time, in the back of our minds we’re thinking, “Why is she doing this?  Why am I getting this gift?  What does he want from me?  I’d better be careful, there’s got to be a string attached here somewhere.  If I take this, then I’m going to have to give something back in return and I really don’t have time today to go shopping.”  And on and on, our untrusting, selfish minds go.

Why can’t we be like children?  Ever see a child accept a gift?  No hedging there – eyes light up as if a thousand lights had been turned on in the head; smiles stretch farther than the limitations of face and ears would seem to allow; eager hands reach out and acceptance is immediate and real and wonderful.  No complications.  No internal wrestling.  No guilt.

Maybe we can take a lesson there as we hear the good news offered to us.

You know, after reading the gospel lesson from John 10 over and over again this week, I discovered that people back in Jesus’ time had trouble too with accepting who Jesus was.  Here Jesus was walking around on Solomon’s porch in the temple at Jerusalem on the day of the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), which commemorates the rededication of the temple in 164 B.C. after it had been defiled when Antiochus Epiphanes made sacrifices to Zeus on the altar (1 Macc. 4:36-59).  At this festive occasion Jesus was standing in this portico of the east side of the temple.  And inquirers sought him out and asked him about whether he was the Messiah or not.  It was not a question asked in honest sincerity or truth.  He had been showing them all along and they still came and wanted more proof before they could accept it.

And Jesus answered them: “I have told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my father’s name testify to me.”  And there lies the tragedy which is unbelief: “I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Jesus had announced the good news in word and deed, in miracle and teaching, on hillside and in temple, and still, people could not believe.  In contrast to those who wanted to make God’s love something we must earn by adherence to law after law, ritual after ritual, Jesus claimed that God loved even the sinner.  It was the righteous, the religious of Jesus’ day who had trouble hearing that as good news.  They had developed a whole system designed around earning God’s love.  They somehow could not wrap their heads around the truth that God was greater than their systems, and more loving than they could ever imagine.  So they rejected Jesus and his teachings.

So what say you?  We have heard the good news time and time again from this pulpit and others.  What say you?

Maybe we need to hear the children sing again, “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so” for (now) there is the message as simple as the gift is for us.[1]

Amen.

 

 

[1] Glenn E. Ludwig, Sermons For Lent And Easter Walking to . . . Walking With . . . Walking Through (Lima, 1994), 75-79.

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Sermon Based on John 21:1-19

3 Easter; Year C

April 10, 2016

When was the last time you saw Jesus?  I mean really saw him?  Or, perhaps I should ask, when was the last time Jesus showed himself to you and you could claim to be a witness of his resurrection?

We know from this gospel story that this was the third time Jesus revealed himself to the disciples.  The first was Easter evening, then eight days later when Thomas was present, and now on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius.

It was now weeks after Jesus’ death and as far as the unbelieving Jews and Romans were concerned the rabble rouser heretic, Jesus, had been eliminated.  Their problem was taken care of.  Now that emotions had settled, it was safer for the disciples to move around in public.  So they went about their business, although they still were disorganized and had no sense of mission as followers of Jesus.  Jesus still had work to do with the disciples, building up their faith and teaching them.

This time when Jesus appeared to the disciples he found them doing what they had always done, what they did best, fishing.  They didn’t know what else to do.  Life had settled back into the ordinary daily routine of earning a living.  They had just spent the entire night fishing and catching nothing.  As professional fishermen they probably felt like failures.  Just before daybreak, as they were returning to shore, a man on the beach asked them if they had caught any fish.

“No,” they grumbled back.

Then the man called back and told them to cast the net over the right side of the boat.  I suspect the disciples looked at each other with some skepticism, but what did they have to lose?

So, over the side went the net.  Now it was so full they could barely haul it aboard.  This was more than coincidence or dumb luck.  One of the disciples realized that the man on the beach must be the Lord, even though there was still not enough light to see his face.

The point is that Jesus is not just a memory.  Jesus is alive, with a life of his own and he appears to his disciples whenever and wherever he chooses.  Death has no power over Jesus.  It never has and it never will.  That’s why Jesus is real for us today.  Just as Jesus appeared to his disciples in their daily lives and work, so he appears to us.  All it takes are eyes of faith to recognize him.

The following story goes back to before I felt called to become an ordained minister, but it is an example of the point that is being made in today’s gospel.

I was sitting atop a stack of bags of flower on another ordinary day in the life of a Food Service Officer in 1977.  The previous six months or so had been a period of adjusting to my job, which was to feed the crew, and learning to work for a demanding boss.  By now I knew I did not want to be a Supply Officer for twenty years of my life.  In fact I hated my job.  It was a dirty, thankless job.  Anyone who is the primary cook at home knows how difficult it is to please everyone at dinnertime.  Someone isn’t going to like something, you can count on it.  Imagine feeding close to 1,000 men.

Why, I remember the complaint I received in the suggestion box about the succotash, you know, that strange mixture of lima beans and corn?  He was upset and wanted to know why we kept mixing the lima beans with the corn, and why we couldn’t separate them and serve them separately?  Of course we did serve them separately but on that day he got succotash and he didn’t like what he got.

The three biggest headaches of a Food Service Officer are sanitation, the paperwork, and discipline.  I said it was a dirty job.  If we weren’t cooking and serving, we were cleaning.  I think I was on my hands and knees looking under deep fat fryers and into ovens more often than I was on my knees in church.  The paperwork was endless and I never got caught up.  And every week I was a regular feature at Captain’s Mast taking someone to talk to the Captain for oversleeping, or disobeying an order, missing muster, being absent without leave, using drugs, or something.

I was thinking about all of this as I sat on the stack of flower watching a work party storing provisions when Jesus made himself known to me.  Oh, he didn’t physically stand in front of me, nor did he speak to me as he spoke to Paul, but he came to me all the same.  I don’t know where it came from but a life changing thought entered my mind.  It occurred to me that as the Food Service Officer I was in the unique position to have a positive impact on the lives of everyone onboard and not just once a day but three times a day by putting out good, tasty meals at every meal time.  This was how I could spread Jesus’ love to everyone onboard.  This thought had never occurred to me before and when it did I was amazed by its power.  Well, we all know how important food can be for a positive outlook on things.

I got up off that stack of flower and I got excited about my work.  My whole attitude changed in that instant and I began seeing all kinds of ministry potential in the sanitation, the paperwork, and in the discipline.  Instead of hating my job I grew to like it.  I still didn’t want to do it for a career but while I had to do it, I could.  I believe this was a revelatory experience in my life when our Lord showed me how to follow him.  I became a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.

I suspect this was what Jesus spoke about with his disciples over breakfast of fried fish and bread – how to follow him.  Jesus appeared to them in their ordinary daily lives.  That’s where he met me and that’s where he’ll meet all of us.  All we need are eyes of faith to recognize him.  Let the scales of anger, jealousy, disappointment, or whatever it is that is blinding us, fall away from our eyes and we’ll see the Lord.  We’ll see Jesus revealing himself to us at work, at school, at play, even while we’re doing the dishes.  We see Jesus wherever we see genuine love reaching out to others.  Jesus is constantly revealing himself to us, giving himself to us, showing us how to follow him.  And, when he does, we become witnesses of his resurrection.

Perhaps, like Paul, all we have to do is stop fighting with him and just accept what we experience in life with faith, and like the disciple who recognized Jesus, even in the dim morning light, we’ll say, “It is the Lord.”

Amen.

 

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Second Sunday in Easter

John 20:19-31

April 3, 2016

Deacon Sam Stearns

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Sermon Based on Luke 24:1-12

Easter Day; Year C

March 27, 2016

 

Introduction:  Phillips Brooks, a well-known nineteenth century priest and preacher in the Episcopal Church, and who, by the way, wrote the Christmas Carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, once told his listeners that in the cities of Russia at the break of Easter Day, when the sun is just rising, men and women go about the streets greeting each other with the information, “Christ is risen.”  Everyone knows it, of course, but the fact that they want to tell it anyway illustrates how, when our hearts are full of joy, we need to tell it.  It doesn’t matter if the other person knows it already.

Situation:  Of coursed on that first Easter Day no one had heard the news, or, surprisingly, expected it.  I say surprisingly because Jesus had told them what was going to happen at least three times.  (The disciples were not known for being quick learners.)

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and the other women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried on Friday expecting to anoint his body properly for burial, something the approaching Sabbath late Friday afternoon made impossible.  But to their amazement and wonder the tomb was open and the body was gone.  When two heavenly messengers appear, the women are frightened and bow in fear only to hear the messengers ask them why they were looking for the living among the dead?  (I guess the angels were surprised by their reaction too.)  Then it hit them, “Yes, that was true,” they remembered and they went back to tell the disciples.  Amazingly, after hearing what they had to say, the disciples dismissed the women’s story as an idle tale.

It’s a familiar story we’ve all heard many times and, of course, every Easter.  Perhaps, like the women in the story, who went to the tomb expecting to find it as they left it on Friday, we awoke this morning and came to church expecting to find our friends with whom to worship, an Easter Egg hunt for the children, and fellowship as we enjoy each other’s company following the service.  But what we may not have come expecting was to find the risen Christ.

Complication:  I mean how many of us really came here this morning bubbling over with excitement, expecting to find something utterly new and different; something totally unexpected?  I think more likely, if you’re like me, there’s a part of us which wonders if indeed the Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection is an idle tale.  It would be as fantastic for us to expect Jesus to stand among us today as it was for the women or the disciples to believe that Jesus, who was as dead as a door nail on Friday, could be alive.  Why, that’s utter nonsense!

Resolution:  But it happened!  Dear friends in Christ, it happened.  It is nonsense, but it happened.

And it’s precisely because it is nonsense, precisely because it defies explanation, precisely because it is radical that our lives are dramatically changed by it.  Because Jesus the Christ lives, we too can live – I mean, really live.  Because Jesus the Christ lives, we can love our enemies; we can pray for those who persecute us; and we can give when others choose to hurt – that, my friends, is radical.  To be a Christian means to live in the nonsense of the resurrection – to live in faith – to live a radically new life because the tomb was empty.  Jesus lives and is standing here now with us.  Because of what He did, love can triumph over hate, goodness over evil, truth over lies, hope over despair.

Now, if by any chance we came here this morning not expecting to see anything new or unusual because, after all, we’ve heard it all before, then maybe that’s exactly what we’ll see – nothing new or unusual; and our lives won’t be any different after we leave church this morning.  Perhaps there is a huge stone of skepticism or materialism in our lives which needs to be rolled away.

But if we came here expecting something new and wonderful, then I expect we will find it.  All we have to do is be open and let the power of the resurrected Christ’s love fill what may be the empty tombs of our lives.

Fr. Leonard described a Holy Week which sounds as hectic and difficult as this one has been for me.  The last thing he wanted to hear at the end of the day on Friday was that he had a visitor.  Before he could respond, a young woman appeared in the doorway and asked if they could talk.  He said, “Certainly,” but he really wanted to finish clearing off his desk.  Despite that, he sat down to talk with and listen to this stranger who really needed help.  Her story was long and it was heartbreaking.  And when he realized how much more difficult it was to tell than to listen, he forgot what chores he had left undone, and listened with his whole heart and soul.

The young woman left his office several hours later, still carrying with her the same problems that she had brought in.  But she also left knowing that she was not alone and that someone thought she was important enough to listen to her.

For his part, Fr. Leonard was reminded that one of the messages of the resurrection is that Christ is among us as we embody his love for all people.  When we make ourselves consciously present to others, when we pay attention to them – we resurrect them – we give them new life, new energy, new hope just as Jesus gave it to you and to me.

So, may we hear the Easter story again this morning, perhaps for the first time, and know the joy of the resurrected Christ in our lives which, like the people in Russia, moves us to proclaim to our neighbor, “Christ is risen.”

I began this morning with a short story about Phillips Brooks.  I thought I would close with a brief passage from his An Easter Carol.”

          Tomb, thou shalt not hold Him longer,

Death is strong, but Life is stronger;

Stronger than the dark, the light;

Stronger than the wrong, the right …

 

Amen

 

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Palm Sunday

Luke 22:14-23:56

March 20, 2016

Deacon Sam Stearns

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Sermon Based on Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14

5 Lent; Year C

March 13, 2016

Introduction:  Ben Franklin is credited with saying, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  I would add change.  There is always something new coming along in technology and the way things are done.  It’s a fast paced world.

Situation:  Well, today’s reading from Isaiah is a wonderful proclamation of the impending new thing God was about to do for His people, the change He would bring by His extravagant love.  It was a needed proclamation because the Jewish people had grown not to expect any changes in their faith or their situation.  You see, Isaiah was speaking to the Jews who were in exile in Babylon in 535 BC.  They had been there for over fifty years, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and many had been born in Babylon.  They had faith in God but what had once been a lively faith in a God who did new things for them, like leading them through the Red Sea and destroying Pharaoh’s army, had become an intellectual, dogmatic faith which didn’t expect anything new from God.  God hadn’t done anything in hundreds of years, so why should He do anything new now?  Isaiah was trying to shake these people out of this kind of faith to see God working a new thing in their lives; in this case a return to Jerusalem.  They had forgotten that they worshipped a God who is continually doing new things – subtle things, things they had to be open to in order to observe.

Complication:  What new thing is God doing in our lives as a church, or in our individual lives?  I suspect we’ve all been in Babylon before experiencing times of fear, depression, pain, trauma, or injustice.  We’ve all been in Babylon before feeling cut off from God and not expecting anything new from God or that God is going to change our present situation.  Like the people of Israel, have we forgotten that we worship a God who is continually doing new things – things we have to be open to in order to observe?

Since conversion means a dramatic shift in the way reality is perceived, how have we blocked the message of Jesus and the power of the Spirit to make us new by staying comfortably within the confines of the way we see reality?  With the approach of our “revival” in Holy Week and Easter, how are we going to allow the realities of “Christ Crucified” and “He is risen!” remake our reality?  How can we allow the change the Gospel promises to take hold of our lives, freeing us to creatively serve one another in gladness and singleness of heart?

Of course there is no easy explanation of why human nature is so resistant to God’s doing a new thing in our midst – other than to say that the power of sin has infected us in such a way that we resist like mad the new insight that will make us well.  Paul can help us here.

Resolution:  The Apostle Paul reflects on God’s new acts of salvation and redemption, the change He brought about in Christ, as he writes to the Philippians that nothing that happened in the past can equal what God has done through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The crucifixion and Resurrection are symbols of God’s extravagant love.  The passage begins with a recitation of Paul’s ancestral heritage as a member of the tribe of Benjamin and his status as a Pharisee.  However, in contrast to the surpassing value of knowing Christ, all of this is as nothing (3:7) as a result of his experience of the resurrected Christ.  For Jesus’ sake he was willing to withstand the loss of all these things that he now views as “rubbish” (v. 8b).  To know the Messiah as Lord and to trust in God’s work through Jesus by sharing his sufferings brings the assurance of salvation, the effective change brought about through faith in Christ.

Before his conversion, Paul has possessed righteousness based on observance of the law.  Now he claims righteousness through faith in Christ, granted to him in God’s redeeming act of raising Jesus from the dead.  Paul hopes to know for himself the power of Christ’s Resurrection through participation in Christ’s suffering and death.  As he continues to grow into his call in Christ, he sets his sights on the future and does not look back – as he presses on “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14).  Paul himself has become a new creation as his life is being changed by our Lord’s extravagant love, transformed through faith in Christ.

God the father did a new thing with the resurrection of Jesus.  No one had ever been resurrected before.  Oh, there had been resuscitations before, like Lazarus’, but he would have to die again before being resurrected.  Never before Jesus had anyone been resurrected.  So, this was a whole new reality!  Now, through faith in Him, we have the promise of resurrection to eternal life!

This is extravagant grace.  As today’s Gospel teaches us, the extravagance of unexpected demonstration has its place.

Have you ever seen religious devotion pitted against service to the poor and needy?  Pouring money into a new church building, organ, or worship furnishing may appear extravagant and cause some people to ask that equal amounts of money be given to alleviate human suffering and need.

Judas, for instance, accuses Mary of extravagance when she anoints Jesus’ feet.  In rebuking Mary, Judas claims to speak for the poor as he points out that the ointment could have been put to better use by selling it and using the money to give to those in need.  However, Jesus comes to Mary’s defense, saying that “You always have the poor with you” (v. 8).  Jesus didn’t say this to dismiss those in need and the necessity of giving to the poor, but instead his statement points to Jesus’ impending death and the fact that he will not always be with them.  Thus Mary’s actions take on prophetic overtones that point to the imminence of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.

Extravagant grace, and helping the poor and needy each have their place.

This is the question I want to leave with you this morning.  We’ve all been in Babylon before and God has been leading us on a new Exodus through Lent.  Intellectually, all of us understand Paul’s argument that all that we have in this life pales in comparison to what God has done through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, symbols of His extravagant grace.  What new thing is God doing in your life?

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
4 Lent; Year C
March 6, 2016

There is a wonderful story out of the Middle Ages that goes something like this.

It seems people were putting pressure on the Pope, saying to him, “Your Holiness, this is the capital of Christendom. There ought to be only Christians in Rome. Let’s get rid of the Jews.” The Pope however, replied, “I don’t know. Before I do anything, I will have a theological discussion with the chief rabbi of Rome. If the rabbi says the right things, the Jews will be allowed to stay. If he says the wrong things, they will have to go.”

So they invited the rabbi in. The Pope dismissed all the Cardinals and said, “Rabbi, we are both theologians. Theologians deal in symbols. Since we use symbols in our communication, let this discussion be entirely in symbols.” The rabbi said that was fine with him.

First, the Pope made a large circle with one hand and the rabbi responded by pointing to him. Then the Pope thrust out both arms to the chief rabbi. The rabbi responded by pointing to the Pope with two fingers. Finally, the Pope looked around for an apple and held it up. The rabbi went through the pockets of his long caftan and took out a piece of matzoh. The Pope concluded, “This is one of the finest statements I have heard of. Of course the Jews will be allowed to stay,” and he sent the rabbi away.

The Pope, then, brought in the Cardinals and said, “I don’t know what you people have been fussing about. I said to the rabbi, ‘There is one church and it encompasses the world.’ And he said, ‘You are the head of it.’ Then I said to him, ‘There are two swords, the secular and the ecclesiastical,’ and he said, ‘You hold them both.’ And then I said, ‘There are foolish people who say the earth is round,’ and he said, ‘No, the earth is flat.’”

The rabbi went home to his wife and told her. “You know, I haven’t the foggiest idea what the fuss was all about. I got in there and the Pope said, ‘We’ve got you surrounded.’ And I said, ‘But we can get to you too.’ Then he said, ‘We can hack you to pieces,’ and I said, ‘We can poke your eyes out.’ Then he took out his lunch and I took out mine.’”

Communicating with our hands and our arms can be dangerous, it appears. But there are many times and in many ways that we do communicate with symbols and most of them are easily understood. For instance, what does this stand for . . . (peace)? How about this . . . (number 1)? This . . . (okay)? And what do we try to teach babies even before they can speak . . . (bye-bye)? How about this one . . . (come here)?

I think there is a symbol present in the story of our gospel for today that is worth pondering for a few moments. The story is all too familiar. There was this son who got tired of working in his father’s pizza shop, so he went to his dad and asked him for his part of the inheritance now, so he could go out on his own. The father agreed and the son was off. He immediately bought himself a Porsche 944, picked up Donna Rice, and headed for Las Vegas. There he bought drugs and booze and friends and when the money ran out, so did the drugs and booze and the friends. He ended up working as a busboy for Wayne Newton, so he could pay off his gambling debts, and he had to eat the leftover food on the plates he cleaned from the table to keep alive.

One day, while gnawing on a leftover rib, he realized how foolish he had been and wrote home to dad for help. Without a moment’s hesitation and without reading the whole letter which was full of apologies and regrets, dad sent a first class plane ticket back home. The son arrived home and was greeted by dad with the biggest pizza party ever thrown in Baltimore.

Now, your translation may be different from that, but what symbol do you see at work here? Can’t you just see the father running to greet that long lost son with arms outstretched and hands opened in welcome and love?
That’s precisely how God loves us – arms outstretched running toward us always, welcoming us home. Jesus says through this parable, “That’s how God loves us.”

You realize that we have misnamed that parable for many years. We know it as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps it would be best to rename it “The Parable of the Forgiving Father,” for that is surely what it is all about.
And we have seen that symbol of the love and acceptance of God in an even more powerful way than in parable form. What about this . . . Look at Jesus on the cross above the altar – arms and hands outstretched.  (arms and hands outstretched on a cross)

Think about those hands for a moment. They are pierced hands, bloody hands, pained hands. And they are spread in a gesture that takes in all the world. On that cross of Golgotha, to which we continue to journey these weeks of Lent, God was saying to you and me, “I love you this much!”

For, whose hands are they? God’s Son, hanging pierced and bleeding from a cross, made the ultimate sacrifice for God’s rebellious creation. “For God so loved the world (that’s us, my friends) that he gave his only begotten son, that all who believe in him would never die but have eternal life.”

We probably have trouble understanding such love. Our concept, our experiences of love, are never like that. We live in a world where we are rewarded for doing good and punished for doing bad. We grew up hearing that if you want something, you have to earn it, work for it, fight for it. That reward system of thought has always been with us. If we work and get good grades, we will get into the best colleges and get our degrees and earn big bucks. If we brush our teeth and floss everyday, we will have good teeth and gums. If we please our employers, we can get a raise. And the list could go on and on.
But God takes that system and turns it upside-down and inside-out. On the cross, the hands and arms of grace spread out to encompass the whole world. God says, “You can’t earn this. I’m giving it to you. Here is my son who is going to die so that sin and death won’t have to threaten or worry or frighten you anymore. It is my ultimate sacrifice and you don’t deserve it. But I love you this much!”

The world, you know, doesn’t understand that grace. They don’t understand the cross. For them, it is a symbol of failure, of pain, of defeat, of mockery. They thought they were doing away with a troublesome Jew and that would be the end of it. “Ha!” shouts God. “Ha!” And three days later, the world heard that shout through the echo of an empty tomb. The cross and the hands and arms of grace took on a new meaning. Now, instead of a symbol of torture and pain, we carry it as a symbol of victory, of God’s power, of hope and salvation, of love – for you and for me.

The prodigal sons and daughters of God know only too well how beautiful is the sight of the one with open arms and hands welcoming us home. I have known many prodigals, have been one a time or two, but none stands out more than the freshman coed at the college where a friend of mine served as chaplain for five years. He helped recruit her for the school. Her older sister was one of his students and actively involved in the chapel program.

When younger sister hit campus, she decided to break all ties with her sister, with my friend, with the chapel, with God. She played prodigal and she played it as well as anyone my friend had seen. She drank, did drugs, slept with any upperclassman in pants, skipped classes, held rowdy parties in her dorm room – the whole thing. My friend gave her the space she wanted. But every once in a while, he’d drop her a note to let her know that he was still around and that he cared and that God cared through him. She was in serious academic trouble in three months and her lifestyle was as low as it could get.

One day a rap came on my friend’s office door, and he opened it to find his friend with tears streaming down her face. He said that he would never forget her words to him as she rushed into his arms: “I’ve come home.”

In the embrace that followed, the arms of grace, the arms of God, encircled them both and she knew she was home – where love and grace and forgiveness are waiting. I don’t know about you, but I thank God for those arms and hands of grace, for they have welcomed me many times when I have been lost and hurting.

Look at that cross, my friends. Those arms welcome you, too.

Amen

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Sermon Based on Luke 13:1-9
3 Lent; Year C
February 28, 2016

Introduction: It is said that Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi was a remarkable teacher, poet, and prayer. One day a newly arrived searcher after truth approached him, asking, “Master, are you ready to teach me?

The master poet looked unflinchingly at the man, his eyes searching the others, and asked tellingly: “That depends. Are you ready to learn from me?”

Jesus teaches those who have ears to hear, on the level at which they can receive it. Sometimes, only a parable is capable of conveying the subtleties of the lessons he seeks to offer.

Situation: This morning we hear Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, telling us to repent and bear good fruit. Jesus was responding to a question put to him by some people wondering about why some Galileans were viciously killed by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers. Jesus told the listeners that the sin here was not that of the Galileans, but of Pilate’s cruelty. He added to this example another account of tragedy – eighteen workers were killed in a terrible construction accident while building an aqueduct not far from Jerusalem; a tower had fallen on them. Before the tower fell, there was nothing to indicate that they had been unusual sinners.

The prevailing belief among the Jews was that such things happened to those who had sinned and deserved to be punished by God. Were these people worse sinners than anyone else? Jesus’ response was that the fate of those who died was not a question of punishment. The point was that every human being has need of repentance, or turning away from their sins, and one needs to repent quickly, before something unexpected happens to prevent them from doing so. This is what we would expect to hear in the season of Lent.

Complication: “Repent,” Jesus says. Acknowledge your sinfulness. That’s the first step in beginning to live the Christian life. None of us is without fault. And yet how difficult it is for us to admit that. We know better than to openly admit our wrongs. If we want to get ahead in the world and be accepted by others we know we better smile and put up a good front for others.

I mean, who in their right mind would go to a job interview and declare to their prospective employer, “You know, I have to tell you that I have a habit of missing work, of criticizing my supervisors and others, and I enjoy office gossip?” Or, who goes on a date and confesses to their date, “Listen, I have to tell you that I tend to be difficult to live with and I can be a real bore at times.” No one, of course; at least no one in their right mind. As a little girl said to a classmate who had to sit in the corner, “To err is human, but to admit it is stupid!”

Resolution: Jesus tells us to repent and to do it soon. Jesus saw the world as ripe for judgment, with his own ministry offering enlightenment and the opportunity to receive the Good News of the Kingdom. Such acceptance would empower people to recognize and turn away from their wrongs. He illustrates his point with the parable of the fig tree. The owner wants to cut the tree down because it hasn’t produced any fruit in three years. But the gardener pleads for the fig tree and, here is the surprise, wins a reprieve for one year. The tree is spared and has another opportunity to produce fruit. Here is judgment mixed with mercy. There is still time to repent, but there is a definite time limit. That’s good news for the fig tree and that’s good news for us, but now that we’ve been warned we better not procrastinate. The one who repents, in the short time that is left, will prosper at the judgment, while the one who relies on self instead of relying on God will meet disaster.

Two men once visited a holy man to ask his advice. “We have done wrong actions,” they said, “and our consciences are troubled. Can you tell us what we must do so that we may be forgiven and feel clean of our guilt?”

“Tell me your wrong-doings, my sons,” said the old man.

The first man said, “I have committed a great and grievous sin.”

“What about you?” the holy man asked the second.

“Oh,” he said, “I have done quite a number of wrong things, but they are quite small and not at all important.”

The holy man considered the matter for a while. “This is what you must do,” he said at last. “Each of you must go and bring me a stone for each of his misdeeds.”

Off the men went. Presently, the first man came back staggering with an enormous boulder, so heavy that he could hardly lift it, and with a groan he let it fall at the feet of the holy man. Then along came the second man, cheerfully carrying a bag of small pebbles. This he also laid at the feet of the saint.

“Now,” said the holy man, “take all these stones and put them back where you found them.”

The first man shouldered his rock again, and staggered back to a place from which he had brought it. But the second man could only remember where a few of his pebbles had lain.

After some time, the second man came back and said that the task was too difficult. “You must know, my son, that sins are like these stones. If a man has committed a great sin, it lies heavy on his conscience; but if he is truly sorry, he is forgiven and the load is taken away. But if a man is constantly doing small things that are wrong, he does not feel any very great load of guilt, and so is not sorry and remains a sinner. So you see, it is as important to avoid little sins as big ones. And repent.”

Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything that we cannot produce. He doesn’t ask the fig tree to produce bananas, for instance. When we acknowledge our sinfulness and receive God’s forgiveness, God releases us from the power of sin. This is the way to the Christian life. When we turn our lives over to God and allow Christ to direct us then we become truly responsible for ourselves.

Jesus’ parable of the fig tree calls us to take responsibility for ourselves. Life is precarious, uncertain and short – we need to repent, to turn around now. Each of us is responsible before God for a life of trust, faith and repentance. So, readily confess your sins and allow the power of God to live within you.
Amen.

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Sermon Based on Luke 13:22-30
2 Lent; Year C
February 21, 2016

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Sermon Based on Luke 4:1-13
1 Lent; Year C
February 14, 2016

The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and that we know as the Lord’s Prayer, includes the phrase, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” As we begin the Lenten season, the Gospel reminds us of God’s grace that gives us the strength to overcome temptation, thus leading us not into temptation.

Following the example of Moses and Elijah (Ex. 34:28; 1 Kg. 19:8), Jesus also spent time in the solitude of the wilderness. At his Baptism Jesus was proclaimed as God’s Beloved Son and immediately thereafter spent forty days alone in the wilderness to discern his vocation. This period of preparation and self-discovery also included temptation by the devil, which we just heard about in the Gospel.

The text from Luke for today tells us that after his Baptism Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” and that it was the Spirit that led him into the wilderness. Here the Holy Spirit serves as the power that sustains Jesus during this time when his vocation as the Son of God is tested.

During the forty days in the wilderness, Jesus “ate nothing at all … and when they were over, he was famished.” His hunger left him vulnerable to the first temptation offered by the devil: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread”. These words echo John the Baptist’s earlier declaration that God could raise up “children to Abraham” from stones (Lk. 3:8).

Jesus replies from scripture (Deut. 8:3) that “One does not live by bread alone”, in reference to the experience of Israel in the desert when the Lord provided manna (Ex. 16:13-21). Jesus realized that only God can provide such sustenance and he resists the temptation to do what Satan suggested.

The temptations continue. Next Satan holds up the promise of authority over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will worship him. Jesus refuses this offer of power by paraphrasing Deuteronomy (6:13) “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”. As the Son of God, Jesus denies the lure of political and religious power. Genuine power can come only from God, and only God is to be worshiped.

Finally the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem for the most difficult test. Standing at the highest point of the temple, he suggests that if Jesus is truly the Son of God, he can throw himself down, and the angels will save him from harm. The location of Jerusalem is especially significant here because in Luke’s Gospel the ministry of Jesus points to his final trial in Jerusalem, where in obedience to the will of God he will face death. Here the devil quotes the promise of angels’ protection in Psalm 91:11-12.

Once again Jesus responds with words from Deuteronomy (6:16), “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. As the Son of God, Jesus shows us that authentic faith is characterized by complete obedience and trust in God’s promises.
At the end of the Gospel reading we are told that Satan departed from Jesus “until an opportune time.” It doesn’t say that Satan departed from him forever. No, Jesus would continue to struggle against this power throughout his ministry, as is seen in the demonic possession and afflictions of those who came to him for help. Later the devil would return when “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (22:3).

Obviously, then, we see that being chosen by God does not provide immunity from experiencing trials and temptation. So, Jesus shows us that being the Son of God means uncompromising trust and obedience to God the Father, who provides for all our needs.

But, at first glance, Jesus’ temptations seem rather innocent or innocuous. To make bread when you are hungry – whether by baking it or by transforming rocks – is a perfectly normal and even natural thing to do. To gain power and popularity by political activity is not, in and of itself evil.

Interestingly, with the exception of worshiping Satan, Jesus eventually did things very similar to those toward which He was tempted here. He changed water into wine and He transformed five loaves and two fish into enough food for an army. He healed the sick and raised the dead to the amazement of crowds who started making plans for His coronation. The difference was the motive for doing these things. When Jesus did them He did them to glorify God, not to play games with Satan.

The best, or is it worst temptations are precisely those that look innocent and innocuous! It is so easy to think that we are doing the right thing because it looks so righteous and proper that no reasonable person would criticize us for doing them. Yet, we see things through the lenses of prejudice and bias which easily lead us astray.

Remember, Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and in his times of trial Jesus turned to the Word when He resisted the Devil’s luring Him away from the way of the cross. We need to turn to God’s Word in order to know His way for us, and how it differs from the way the enemy would have us go. I have a red sweatshirt with the wording stitched onto it, “When all else fails, read the instructions” and a Bible embroidered under the words. Reading the Bible and being led by the Holy Spirit is how we can resist our temptations. But, it is all by God’s grace, not by anything that we do.
The more attractive or innocuous way is often the most dangerous to us. For Jesus, the most dangerous way was the way He went for us. The way of the cross was filled with torture, tragedy and death. Someone has said that we paved the path for Jesus. I suppose that is true when we remember that Jesus came to save us from our sins, and there was a lot of sin to save us from. Only the one who loves greater than we can even imagine would have chosen to walk that path.
Amen

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Sermon Based on Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, & Luke 9:28-43a
Last Epiphany; Year C
February 7, 2016

Introduction: In these past five weeks of Epiphany we have heard how Jesus made himself known to those who would listen. He has manifested God’s glory with the Holy Spirit descending upon Him as a dove, changing water into wine, preaching and teaching. Today, Peter, James, John, and we witness the culmination of the movement of the story of our Lord Jesus Christ from its birth to its beholding. The Epiphany of Epiphanies is about to take place. The invisible is about to be made visible. The Transfiguration is the experience through which we can see that through Christ the Kingdom of God is among us and we can see it.

Situation: The Transfiguration is not only a story about seeing God’s glory but it is a story about faith’s encounter with God.

Peter, James, and John already had faith. Only faith could move them to leave everything and follow Jesus and bring Peter to proclaim that Jesus was “the Christ of God” just before the Transfiguration. But their faith was lacking. They didn’t yet understand and they were greatly disturbed by Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering and death.

So, Jesus led them up a mountain to pray and there they experienced a life changing encounter with God. Although the story tells about Jesus’ transfiguration, the three disciples were changed as well. Through this experience their faith was strengthened by being privileged to receive a glimpse of the supernatural nature of God’s Kingdom and by the certainty that the voice from heaven gave them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” The disciples needed to be strengthened in their faith to get them through the horrible trial of Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion.

And this, it seems to me, is where today’s story touches our lives. I don’t think we’re any different than Peter, James, and John. We need to have our faith strengthened to face our trials and struggles in life. We need to know that beyond this earthly existence there is a spiritual existence that is from everlasting to everlasting and which makes our present sufferings endurable.

Complication: We need to be strengthened by an encounter with God because if we are not, then our faith becomes a series of legalistic thou shalts and thou shalt nots, or a series of moral principles that we can somehow will ourselves to obey, or our faith is rationalized and compartmentalized so that it has no practical value in our lives. It is dry and dead and cannot sustain us.

Resolution: Today’s story of the Transfiguration reveals the truth that the experience of God goes to the core of our faith. The faith that forms disciples begins as a lived reality. We undergo something, perhaps nothing as dramatic as Moses’ encounter with God, but there is an experience in which the sacred is encountered which can lead to a life changing orientation. When this happens we are no longer content to be spectators in the spiritual life but we are transfigured into disciples.

Our scriptures today relate two very dramatic stories of encounters with God. In one, Moses returned to his people with the Ten Commandments after spending forty days and nights with God. And his face shone because of his encounter with the Almighty. In the Gospel story, Jesus is transfigured. Peter wanted to freeze this experience in time by building three booths to commemorate it. But the only way to honor this revelation of God in Jesus is by giving one’s life as a living memorial in belief and dedication to Christ. This is what discipleship is about.

Such stories might lead us to think that all transfigurations must be dramatic. I’ve had a few dramatic ones myself but I also know that transfigurations are most often subtle and quiet. You see, encounters with God that change our lives and sustain us happen often and at all points in our lives – at prayer, in the sacraments, in dreams, in art, in loving another, in death and birth – to name just a few. These encounters are most often brief, lasting only a few minutes, but they bring a feeling of oneness with God and a new sense of insight. And each encounter contains a special invitation for us to move on to greater spiritual growth and a deeper sense of commitment.

The glory in the face of Jesus Christ that we see in the transfiguration can be ours, but it is not easy. We have to accept Jesus fully as the disciples did after his resurrection.

We cannot see that glory, let alone see it touch us, if we accept Jesus as the disciples accepted him before his crucifixion. If the glory of Jesus’ face is to be our joy in Lent and in Easter our commitment to the Lord has to be full and complete; our disciplines in Lent have to be for him and not, in some roundabout way, for us; our hope for that glory has to be founded on the resurrected Lord alone and not on some vanity or even the smallest tuft or wisp of vanity; our piety has to be genuine – the disfigurement of the ashes has to be accepted with the transfigured glory of that face in mind, and we have to see the glory of that face instead of the text of the prayers we recite or the food and drink we refuse. The steadiness and the determination required to keep the glory of that face before us so that we become its likeness requires supernatural assistance. They require grace. But a transfiguration is possible, and we are called to it; we are called to direct our life to it.

I’d like to share an encounter I had with God which was not dramatic but was transforming nevertheless.

How often have we dutifully said our prayers and asked God for something but heard nothing in reply? How often have we wondered “why is such and such a thing happening to me?” or “Why aren’t things working out the way I planned them Lord?” I’ve done this more often than I’d like to admit.

A while ago, I was in prayer and reading chapters 64 and 65 of the prophet Isaiah. The context of these chapters is that Isaiah is praying that God should reveal himself in power as in the days of old. The prophet, on behalf of his people, confesses their sins and hopelessness. In his final petition he pleads that the Lord relent his anger and have compassion on desolate Jerusalem and the destroyed temple. The prophet says in verses 11 and 12 of Chapter 64: Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. 12 Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O LORD? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?

Well, God’s answer was as astounding as it was revelatory. It is not God who had been silent but the people. God responds to Isaiah, I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here am I, here am I,” to a nation that did not call on my name. 2 I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices;…
In these verses I heard the Lord telling me that if I’ve been wondering where God was or why my little, selfish ambitions weren’t turning out as I hoped they would, it’s because I haven’t been seeking God in the right place or paying attention. I’ve been following my own path, my own devices, while God has been standing there all along with outstretched, welcoming arms saying, “Here am I, here am I.” If I would just turn around, repent, I would see God. I realized that I had accepted Jesus as the disciples had accepted him before his crucifixion. When I realized that my prayers were selfish I experienced a transfiguration and, accepting Jesus as the disciples did after the resurrection, I could see his glory.

Well that was my encounter with God. Our encounters with God touch our hearts and transfigure us from depression to joy, selfishness to generosity, self-centeredness to self-sacrifice, slavery to freedom, error into truth, and death into life. All we have to do is pay attention to the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

The Transfiguration stands as both an affirmation of the Messiahship of Jesus and a foreshadowing of his death and Resurrection. As we anticipate the journey of Lent, we have before us a vision of Christ’s glory that will be fully revealed in the miracle of Easter.

Amen

 

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Sermon based on Luke 4:21-32
IV Epiphany; Year C
January 31, 2016

Introduction: A German newspaper reported that a judge fined a 50 year old Italian driver for dangerous driving after he handed the controls of his car over to God. The judge heard how the man let go of his steering wheel and cried, “God, can you drive?” The man’s car ended up in a ditch, and his lawyer cited “religious dilemma” as the defense, for the bizarre action. The man could have been acquitted, but the prosecution correctly pointed out that “God is not a legally insured driver and has never passed an official driving test.”

Situation: Well, we all sense God’s presence differently, I suppose. All of our readings today speak about manifestations of the presence of God; Jeremiah sensing God’s presence in his call to be a prophet, the Psalmist witnessing to God’s sustaining presence through the trials and tribulations of life, Paul’s assertion that in love God comes to us as a life giving presence, and in the gospel we find God present, standing among God’s people, even when they don’t recognize Him.

We pick up where we left off last week at the end of Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. At first the people were favorably impressed with Jesus’ remarks and proud of this local boy’s progress.

But then Jesus blows all of this good-will by telling them something they didn’t want to hear, something they couldn’t hear. He told them that God’s love is free to anyone who is in need and who has the faith to receive it. Why, there have been foreigners and gentiles, like the Sidonian woman, and Naaman the Syrian who knew God’s help when Israel did not.

Suddenly a friendly congregation became a lynch mob, good and faithful people suddenly beside themselves with rage.

“How dare this local boy suggest that Gentiles could be admitted into God’s Kingdom?” This was not what they expected to hear, not what they wanted to hear.

This account of the rejection of Jesus is one of the strongest challenges to be found in Scripture. Ironically, this volatile response occurs from within an assembly of worship. The people of Nazareth held to their own preconceived notions of how God was to act, and this new way Jesus presented stopped them cold. They were ready for Jesus to explain the words of the prophet, but any genuine message from God must also confirm the beliefs that they already held. When this was not the case, they rejected both the messenger and the message as false.

Complication: I thought about how tempting, if not easy, it is to believe, like the Jewish people of old, that God’s favor falls on only the elect and only on good people. And, we know who we are; but what about this man?

The boy didn’t know what to do. Dad was drunk … again. Mom was at work. How was he going to get to the game? Coach said he was going to start him at forward again tonight. It was his big chance to win a permanent spot in the starting line-up. He couldn’t drive because he didn’t have a license. But, there was the snowmobile. If he cut across the lake and followed the ditch along the back road into town he would save 20 minutes and almost make it on time.

He got dressed, pushed the snowmobile out of the garage and started off down the hill in the backyard and then onto the ice. It appeared solid all the way across. He opened the throttle and felt the power as the machine surged over the surface. The wind was cold but he loved the feeling of speed as he bolted across the ice. He didn’t see the hole until it was too late. It was too wide to swerve around and he was going too fast to stop. His last thoughts might have been about the team gathering for the game and of his mom coming home in the dark.

When the woman came home she found her husband asleep in his usual spot on the couch with empty beer bottles lying on the floor. Her son was nowhere to be seen. There was a message on the answering machine from the coach asking why Jimmy didn’t come to the game. That got her worried. She went outside and saw the snowmobile tracks leading down to the lake. She knew what had happened before she walked out onto the ice and it was then that she decided she couldn’t live this way anymore. She waited until after the funeral to tell her husband – she was leaving. Despite all of his pleading, which she had heard before, this time she was gone.

The man drank three beers after she left and walked onto the ice to the hole where his son had died. His intention was to die there too but something inside of him said, “No.” He walked back to the house, got into the pickup and drove to the treatment center in town. He climbed up the steps of the front entrance and rang the bell. When they opened the door to let him in, he said, “I don’t know if there is any hope for me, but I have nowhere else to go.”

Resolution: The presence of God in Christ is available to anyone who is open to it, even the man in this story. Our faith and service and worship must be always catholic; that is, universally inclusive, or it is not Christianity; not what Jesus taught in today’s gospel.

I hear today’s lessons and gospel asking us if we will accept God’s presence or will we reject it? Are we open and able to hear what God is telling us or are we willing to hear only what we expect or want to hear? May our prayer be to sense the presence of God in all times, in all places, and in all people.
Amen.

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Sermon Based on Luke 4:14-21 (Deacon Sam)
3 Epiphany; Year C
January 24, 2016

 

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Sermon Based on Matt 9:35-10:23

Proper 6; Year A

June 18, 2017

Fr. Art Tripp

 

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Sermon Based on Gen 1:1-2:4a; Mat 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday; Year A

June 11, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

 

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Sermon Based on Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3b-13, & John 20:19-23

Pentecost; Year A

June 4, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

 

Amen

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 17

7 Easter, Year A

May 28, 2017

Deacon Sam

 

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Sermon Based on Acts 17:22-31;

6 Easter, Year A

May 21, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

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Sermon Based on John 14:1-14

5 Easter; Year A

May 14, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen

 

 

 

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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

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Based on Luke 24

3 Easter; Year A

April 30, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 20:19-31

2 Easter; Year A

April 23, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.”

Amen

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 20:1-18

Easter Day, Year A

April 16, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.”

 

Amen

 

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Sermon Based on Mt. 26:36-27:66

Palm Sunday, Year A

April 9, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen

 

 

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Sermon Based on John 11

V Lent; Year A

April 2, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 9

IV Lent; Year A

March 26, 2017

Deacon Sam

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Sermon Based on John 4:5-26, 39-42

III Lent; Year A

March 19, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

 

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Sermon Based on Gen 12:1-8, Rom 4:1-17, John 3:1-17

2 Lent; Year A

March 12, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]  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.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] David J. Risendal, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, March 16, 2014), 2, n.p. Online: onelittleword.org.

 

[2] Isabel Anders, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A” (PNMSI Publishing Company, March 16, 2014), 4.

[3] Risendal, “Synthesis: II Lent – Year A.”

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Sermon Based on Gen 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:7; and Mt 4:1-11

1 Lent; Year A

March 5, 2017

Fr. Jim

 

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.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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