Following Jesus On the Way

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

Jesus was never one to have a lot of patience with our attempts to split the world into “us” and “them.” I saw a meme on Facebook this past week that said, “As soon as you draw a line to exclude people, Jesus goes to the other side of the line with them, and invites you to join him there. Every time.”

The four Gospels are check full of accounts of people trying to get close to Jesus, with those already close trying to keep them out. Jesus, without fail, crosses the lines set up by the disciples and others.

In today’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples have been in Galilee, and are travelling to Jerusalem.  Now, there were three routes you could take from Galilee to Jerusalem. The most direct route was through Samaria, but there were problems with this.  First of all…Samaritans…Eeyew. It’s a 3-day journey by foot, so somewhere along the way a traveling Jew would have to interact with people that they did not like at all. Plus we know from the historian Josephus that there was sometimes violence between Jews and Samaritans. So…maybe not the safest route.

Another way was to go south along the coast, then turn east toward the hill country and Jerusalem. This avoided Samaria, but it took a long time to get where you were going. Not the best option.

The third route was to travel east, just north of Samaria, and cross the Jordan River, turn south, then cross back to come to Jericho. You could then take a direct route from Jericho to Jerusalem. It took 5 to 7 days, but it was shorter than the coastal route and safer and less…well, icky…than the Samaritan route. This apparently is the route taken by Jesus and his disciples.

It’s when they left Jericho that they happened to pass by a blind beggar, Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus obviously knew who Jesus was. He couldn’t see him, but he could hear what people were saying. And he called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Notice that he called him “Son of David,” a title usually reserved for the Messiah.

But people started drawing those exclusion lines right away. Like people have always done, like we still seem to want to do.  In this case, people tell Bartimaeus to just. shut. up.

But as usual, Jesus was not having it. He told his disciples to have the man come to him. He said to Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Evidently Bartimaeus had once been able to see, because he said, “I want to see again.”

In an earlier episode, Jesus went through a ritual of spitting in the dirt and making mud to daub on a blind man’s eye, but he didn’t do that here. He simply pronounced that Bartimaeus’ faith has healed him, and it was done. He could see.

Preachers in the Anglican tradition will often try find some common theme between the Old Testament reading, the Epistle reading, and the Gospel. And it would be easy to take that way and say that this whole day is about Hope. And on some level, it is. Jeremiah sings a song of hope for the restoration of Israel. The Psalmist sings of the restoration of Israel. In an alternate Old Testament reading Job’s fortunes are restored. Bartimaeus’ sigh is restored. This is all good news. Israel, Job, and Bartimaeus have passed through darkness into light.

When I started this sermon, I thought the point was going to be that we shouldn’t be drawing lines to exclude people. Then, having thought about all the readings together, I though it should be about hope. But as I thought, and wrote, and realized just where Jesus was going at the end of this story, it began to dawn on me that that wasn’t what was going on at all. The Holy Spirit will do that to you. Sometimes your own ideas get overridden.

There’s a little detail in this Gospel story that I think we need think more closely about. Something a little different from the other stories of Jesus’ healing. In his previous healing activities, Jesus has generally sent the healed person on their way, free to continue their normal lives. Often he tells them not to tell people about him – not that they listened to that part. But he doesn’t do that in this story.  He doesn’t tell Bartimaeus to go home. He doesn’t tell him to keep quiet. And Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way.”

And we have to ask…on the way to where?

At the beginning of the passage, we are told that Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho. In the context of Mark’s gospel, they are headed to Jerusalem.

Jesus is heading to his crucifixion.

He is going to his death.

And Bartimaeus has become a Jesus-follower.

Jesus sees us and invites us to come to him. He heals us. He brings us out of darkness, yes. But for that healing to have real, lasting meaning, we must follow him. We must follow him on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. We must follow him to his crucifixion…and beyond.

You see, our hope – our Good News — is not just in the healing. Healing is wonderful but, in itself, it’s nothing. Our hope is also in his crucifixion and his resurrection. In his death he conquered the powers of evil, and in his resurrection he vindicated all he had done and shows us that it is all very, very real. He shows us that the Kingdom of Heaven really has arrived. And his resurrection is the down payment on the redemption of all creation.

From darkness, to healing, to following, to crucifixion and death, to new creation. That is our journey as Jesus-followers.

Amen

Get Out of My Way!

Isaiah 5:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-39

Today’s Gospel is set in a place that was fairly famous in the ancient world. Or perhaps infamous, in some eyes.

It’s ancient name was Paneas, named after the god Pan. Pan was worshipped there for centuries before King Herod the Great built a temple to the god there, and dedicated it to the Emperor Augustus. Herod would actually build three temples in Paneus. One of Herod’s sons, Philip the Tetrarch, founded a new city there that became his capital. He named it Caesarea in honor of  Augustus, and it was called Caesarea Phillipi – basically “Philip’s Caesarea”– to distinguish it from the other Caesarea, over on the Mediterranean coast (Caesarea Maritima). There’s a spring there that is the source of the Jordan River. There was also a cave at the temple of Pan that was supposed to lead to the underworld. It was even sometimes called “The Gates of Hell.”

So here is the scene. Jesus and his disciples are on the outskirts of Caesarea. I like to picture him on a hill overlooking the city, possibly looking down on the temple of Pan, which sat at the base of a mountain, thinking about what and who that temple was dedicated to. And he asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”

Now, the disciples had kept up on the popular gossip. They’d been keeping an eye on Facebook and Twitter, glancing at the tabloids in the checkout line at the grocery store. “Some people say you’re John come back from the dead.” “I saw an article in the Enquirer that said you’re Elijah, or one of the other prophets.”

And Jesus accepts this without comment. He’s probably heard this stuff before. But then he says to them “All right, then. Who do you say I am?”

I can actually picture a couple of the disciples looking down, kind of shuffling their feet, the way you do when you’ve been asked an embarrassing question and don’t really want to answer. Maybe a couple believe one of the stories they’ve heard.

But Peter jumps right in and answers “You are the Messiah.” That’s pretty definite. We’re not sure exactly what Peter considered the Messiah to be —opinions at the time varies as to what he would be like, if he showed up at all — but Peter was sure Jesus was the one. And Peter was usually pretty enthusiastic about things like this.

Mark the Evangelist always seems like he’s in a hurry to get to the next event, so he gives you the short version of Peter’s affirmation. The scene is over, and Mark moves on. But in Luke, Peter is a little more forceful.

“You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

 “Christ,” or “Christos” is just the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah,” so there’s not really any difference there. But calling someone the son of God was treading on dangerous ground. “Son of God” was a name reserved for the Emperor, at this time Tiberius. Calling someone the son of God was probably also a good way to get yourself hauled up before the Jewish authorities. These are words that it was not wise to use where anyone in power could hear you.

Virtually in sight of Caesarea Philippi, this monument to pagan religion and imperial power, Peter is ascribing that level of power – or greater — to Jesus. That’s pretty revolutionary. It’s an amazing thing to say.

But the gospel reading doesn’t stop there, and I’m glad. The folks that created our lectionary could have ended on a high note. But they let the story continue to Jesus telling the disciples that he’s going to have to die.

Now Peter takes a different tack. I can picture him pulling Jesus aside and demanding to know just what he was thinking, talking like that. As my Dad the Baptist preacher used to call him, “Good old wishy-washy Peter,” the guy who just risked an accusation of treason in claiming that Jesus was the son of God, actually tells the person he claims is the Messiah what he should or should not say.

And Jesus puts Peter right in his place, calling him “Satan,” which actually just means “adversary.” Imagine how Peter must have felt after that.

Jesus, in effect, tells Peter “Get out of my way.”

You see, while Peter said he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had his own ideas about what that meant, and how things should play out. He may have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but evidently he didn’t believe that Jesus knew what he was doing. A dying Messiah just wasn’t in Peter’s world view.

Jesus had other ideas on how messiahship worked. And by taking Jesus to task for talking about what he had to do, Peter was getting in his way. Remember back when Jesus was in the wilderness, and Satan came to him and tempted him with things that would divert him from his mission? In this passage, Peter is taking Satan’s place and tempting Jesus not to go through with his plan. And Jesus calls him on it.

So…I ask the question that preachers always seem to ask when preaching on this story from any of the gospels in which it appears: Who do we say that he is?

And if the answer is the same as Peter’s: he is the Messiah, the son of the living God, then I have ask the next question: do we really believe that? Because if we do, if we sincerely believe that Jesus is the son of the living God, why don’t we act like it more?

Why don’t we put aside other petty allegiances – allegiances to the powers of this world — and treat him like the Lord of Lords that we claim to believe he is? Why do we continually put other “lords” before him?  We may say, “Well, religion should stay out of these other areas.” I have some bad news for those who say that. Allegiance to Christ should affect how we behave in every area of our lives.

Do we have the courage to stand in centers of power and say “My God is bigger than you?” Do we have the courage to stand up to our friends? To the people we associate with because we may agree with them about some political issue? To people who may have temporal authority over us?

Why do we, like Peter, constantly let our preconceived notions of just what we think Jesus should be override our obedience to what he said? Our obedience to what he told us to do. Our obedience to what he still says to us when he speaks to us in the silence of our hearts? When we see chances for the Holy Spirit to work in our church and in the world, do we come up with objections? Do we bring up reasons why that’s just not a good idea? Or do we trust that Christ and the Holy Spirit will make God’s work prosper through us?

Why do our agendas constantly get in the way of HIS agenda? How often does Christ have to tell us to get out of his way?

If we truly, truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God, then his agenda – the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven and the remaking of the world in God’s image – must always be ours. If it is not, then Jesus will constantly be telling us, “Get out of my way.”

Amen.

Love One Another As I Have Loved You

Sermon delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Poplar Bluff, MO on The 6th Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021

Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17; Psalm 98

In our movement through the church year, we are now at the Sixth Sunday of Easter. This is a significant point in the year, because this coming Thursday we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, the day that Christ left his disciples and returned to his Father.

Our Gospel today comes from what is sometimes called the “Farewell Discourse” in John, where Jesus is essentially telling the disciples good-bye, because he knows he will soon be crucified. It doesn’t take place after the resurrection, but it is fitting to read it today, because time when Jesus will no longer be with the disciples physically is approaching quickly. In this speech, Jesus is giving the disciples instruction in how they are to behave when he is gone.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus is repeating the commandment he gave the disciples after he had washed their feet. We read it just a few weeks ago, on Maundy Thursday: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

In other words, we are to use Jesus – the very image of God – as a model for our love for one another.

Yesterday we celebrated the feat of St. Julian of Norwich. St. Julian lived in the 14th and early 15th century and spent a good deal of her life as an anchorite. An anchorite is a religious living under vows, who lives alone, often in a small room attached to a church. They’re not very common these days.

Julian’s most famous legacy is her book Revelations of Divine Love, and one of her most famous illustrations of divine love was through a hazelnut:

“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

God made, loves, and sustains the entire universe even though, to Him, it is no bigger than a hazelnut.

How can we imitate that? If we are looking at Jesus for an example…well…we don’t seem to do a lot of resurrecting of dead people these days, or feeding huge crowds with just a couple of fish and some bread.

We must remember that “love” here is not some dreamy attraction. It’s not a nebulous notion of having good will toward others. It’s not a vague feeling of fondness. No, love here is an active verb. Loving someone means work.

God made us, loves us, and keeps us. Without Him we cannot even exist. We exist because of His love. His love is active and upholds us, as we are to love and uphold others.

And God loved us before we were even aware of Him. According to St. Catherine of Siena, we can never love Christ the way he loves us, because he loved us before we even existed, before we could even know that we should love him.

St. Catherine was correct. We can’t love Christ – and by extension, God – in the same way that he loves us. But we can use his love for us as an example. We can love those we do not know.

Not only that, but love like God’s means loving people that you may not feel are worthy of your love. People you feel don’t deserve it.  We are not equipped to decide who is worthy of love and who is not. But we are not told to make that judgement. We are simply told to love.

St. Peter and the other Jewish Christians certainly felt that the Gentiles were not worthy recipients of the message of Christ until they were taught differently.

From today’s passage from Acts: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

These Gentiles, these unclean people, had received the Holy Spirit! How was that possible? Could it be that God loved them as much as he loved the Hebrew people?

And from the Epistle: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”

We are to be one community. A community of love.

The Psalmist says “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” And he has indeed done marvelous things. Through Christ, God has created a new family. A family not dependent on ancestry, political philosophy, or ethnic origin; a family not based on likes or dislikes; a family whose members do not pass judgement on each other; a family that is based simply on Love. And he invites us all to become members of that family, to participate in His love.

All we have to do is say “Yes.”

Amen.

Our Victory is Certain

Homily delivered to the quarterly meeting of Religious in the Diocese of Missouri, April 10, 2021

Psalm 104; Exodus 13:7-14:4; John 16:16-33

“I have conquered the world.”

Think how extraordinary these words are.

“I have conquered the world.”

Jesus was going to Jerusalem, where he knows he will be arrested, tried, and executed.  He was warnign the disciples about these things. And yet, here he was claiming victory.

“I have conquered the world.”

Jesus knew what was coming, but he was telling his disciples not to be afraid. Because even before he was crucified, Jesus had indeed conquered the world. At this point, he had done all he needed to do. He had shown the world what the Kingdom of Heaven was like. He had made sure the message of that Kingdom would keep going. All that was left was the coup de grâce, the conquering of death and sin in crucifixion and his vindication in the resurrection.

“I have conquered the world.”

This week in our Lesser Feasts and Fasts lectionary we celebrated Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German clergyman who actively resisted Hitler’s regime. After being arrested for taking part in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was confined to a concentration camp, and then executed. Before he died, he wrote to a friend, “Our victory is certain.”

Even knowing he was facing death, Bonhoeffer claimed victory. And so can we all. As Christians, we do not have to fear death, it’s already been defeated. One of the most wonderful parts of the burial liturgy to me is one that comes from a 9th century Eastern Byzantine rite: “All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, Alleliua, Alleluia.

There is a story told by N.T. Wright in a sermon delivered while he was Bishop of Durham. Wright recounted a conversation with a cab driver about the kerfuffle over the ordination of women:

“The way I look at it,” the cabdriver said, “is this: if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, all the rest is basically rock’n’roll.’”

Now, the cab driver was talking about the doctrinal differences between Christians, but I think it can be looked at as having a deeper meaning. If indeed God raised Christ from the dead, the battles have all really been won. What remains is living into the Kingship of Christ as bearers of the image of God to the world. There is nothing we need to fear.

God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Everything else is rock ‘n roll.

Our victory is certain.

He has conquered the world.

Amen

Everybody Doubts

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Easter is often called “Low Sunday.” Some clergy I’ve known have said that the name refers to the fact that attendance on this Sunday is much lower than the attendance on Easter Sunday. After doing some checking, though, it seems that it’s called “low” in comparison with the “high” feast that we celebrated last week. This Sunday was, evidently, considered relatively unimportant.

But I object to that. First, we consider every Sunday to be a “little Easter.” Every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection. And the propers, the scriptures we read on those Sundays, are important too. From now until the Feast of the Ascension on May 13, we read about Christ appearing to believers after his death and resurrection. Every appearance has an important message for us. The gospel writers didn’t put them in just for fun!

Today we get the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Now, Thomas is a really great character, but he gets a bum rap. He was also known as “Didymus,” which simply means “the Twin.” Unfortunately, we don’t know if he actually was a twin or if maybe he just looked a lot like someone else. We call him “Doubting Thomas,” but he wasn’t any more of a doubter than the other disciples. We don’t see it in John’s Gospel, but in Luke, the women go to the tomb, and instead of Jesus find “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning” who tell them that Jesus has been raised. They run to tell the remaining eleven apostles. And what do the men do? According to Luke “…they did not believe the women, because their words seemed like nonsense.” In Mark we read that Mary Magdalen told the disciples that Jesus had risen. And, of course, “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.”

So let’s not be too rough on poor Thomas today. A friend of mine in Montana likes to call him “Brave Thomas,” because when Lazarus died and Jesus announced he would go to Bethany – a place very close to Jerusalem, a place that was dangerous for Jesus — Thomas said, “Well, then, let’s go and die with him.”

And Thomas was perfectly willing to admit he was wrong. When Jesus showed up and offered to let Thomas put his hand into the wound in his side, Thomas immediately said “My Lord and my God!”

And when Jesus responded “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” I can’t help thinking that he said it with a knowing, sidelong look at the other disciples.

Who has not seen and yet has come to believe? Well, most of us. And yet we still doubt. Of course we do. We’re human! Even Mother Theresa sometimes doubted that God was real. We have doubts about that, we have doubts about our salvation, we have doubts about a lot of things. So what do we do with doubt?

Well, first, of course, we need to realize that it’s not a mortal sin. It’s just something that happens to us. You might notice that Jesus didn’t berate Thomas for not believing that he had risen. He just loved him.

There are schools of Christianity that tell us that having doubt means a lack of faith and that is just not true. Many people who begin to have doubts in this kind of environment can be pushed away from Christianity as guilt sets in and they no longer feel they can belong.

At the same time, we can’t just ignore our doubts or treat them as something that don’t need to be addressed. That is a good way to give doubt a permanent home.

In point fact, doubt, when handled properly, can actually increase your faith.

My Dominican brother Kevin Goodrich, a traveling priest and former Master of the Order of Preachers, recently outlined 5 specific things you can do to deal with doubt.

First, Pray. Pray about your doubts. If you haven’t had a regular prayer life, start one. If you don’t know how, I will be glad to try to help you get one started. And don’t just pray about your doubts, thank God for blessings. Pray for others. And get others to pray for you. It’s OK to admit to others that you have doubts. Really.

Second, Think it through. You’d be amazed at how many issues have already been discussed to death by philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Read them. Do the mental work. Many people who have wrestled with these problem have become believers after wrestling with the issues.

Third, Feel it through. If some kind of trauma has caused your doubts, don’t keep those feelings in. Connect with them. Pray about them. And, perhaps, seek help. A pastor, counselor or spiritual director may be of service.

Fourth, Doubt the doubt. Just because something popped into your head doesn’t mean you have to dwell on it or believe it. One good practice is to reaffirm your core beliefs. Another is to ask God to help you resolve your doubts.

Fifth, Feed your faith. A lot of the time, we start looking or things that back up our doubts. But if we feed our doubt, we need to spend just as much time feeding our faith. Keep worshiping. Stay connected with your faith community. Talk it over with them.

As Episcopalians, we believe that it is OK to question our faith, that questioning can lead to greater faith. We believe that God still loves us, even when we question Him.

And faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is what you do even when there are doubts. Just ask Mother Theresa.

Amen.

Christ and the Temple

Preached on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, 3/7/2021

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22; Psalm 19

Today’s Gospel passage is an interesting one, not the least because of where the various writers place it in the timeline of Jesus’ ministry. All four gospels include it, so we can safely say they all considered it pretty important. The synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke, put it at the end of Jesus’ ministry, right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. But John’s Gospel, which we read today, puts it at the beginning of Jesus’ career.

There’s a popular Facebook meme that shows today’s scene, with the words “Whenever I think ‘What would Jesus do?’ I remember that flipping over tables and whipping people is an option.” There’s a kernel of truth in this. Certainly we are to be ready to take direct action when it’s called for. But I really don’t think we are supposed to go around flipping over tables and whipping folks like Jesus is supposed to have done.

But why Jesus took this kind of drastic action is important, as is what he said afterward, because it speaks to exactly who Jesus said he was, and who we profess him to be. It has implications for what we are called to be. And in order to understand that, we have to take a look at exactly what the temple was in the world of Second Temple Judaism.

The first Temple was built by King Solomon. His father King David had wanted to build a temple for God to dwell in, but God had told him no, because David had blood on his hands from all the wars he fought. God told David that his son would build the temple. So when David died and Solomon became king, he began the building of a grand edifice to be the center of worship for the nation of Israel. According to the books of Kings, it took about 7 years to build, and stood for over 400 years.

And God did make his presence there known.

According to 1 Kings chapter 8: “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

The Temple became the place where God lived, where his presence was directly felt on earth. This first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE after God removed his glory from the temple. The prophet Ezekiel provides a vivid description of God’s throne-chariot rising up out of the temple with the cherubim and leaving. And many of the people f Judah were taken as captives to Babylon.

This was devastating to the people of Judah, but in 516 BCE the Persian king Kūruš, who we know as Cyrus, allowed Jewish exiles to return and rebuild the Temple, even allowing them to bring back plundered holy vessels.

He temple continued to be central to the faith of the Jews. By the time of Jesus, Jews had even staged a revolution over a Greek ruler sacrificing a pig in their temple and, amazingly, they won. You can read about it in the books of Maccabees.

Fast forward a few hundred years. King Herod the Great, wanting to show himself a good Jew, spent a lot of time and money refurbishing this Second Temple into the grander structure that Jesus knew.

For most of the Jews in 1st-Century Palestine, the Temple was still the point at which Heaven and earth were supposed to intersect – literally the holiest place on earth. But the Shekinah, the glory of God, had never returned to dwell in the new temple. To some, this — and the fact that they were still under foreign rule — meant that they were still in exile, waiting for God to return.

And here comes Jesus, like the proverbial bull in the china shop, flipping over tables and lashing out with a homemade whip. The Church has tended to teach that he was angry at the merchants, but Dr. Amy-Jill Levine offers a different perspective: that he was angrier at the people at the people who sinned all week, then came in, bought and animal, sacrificed it, and went away feeling justified. John says that Jesus said to stop making the Temple a marketplace, but the other gospel writers have him put it differently, “You’ve made my Father’s house a place where thieves hang out!”

Sounds like many people today, doesn’t it? We do whatever we want during the week. We join in worship, say our confession, hear absolution, then go home convinced we’re OK. How do we think God feels about that?

Jesus had every right to be angry at people misusing the Temple. In essence, Jesus in this story was taking ownership of the Temple. John is very clear in his Gospel that he identifies Jesus with the Creator God. And if Jesus is indeed the living Word of the Creator God, then the Temple is HIS house. He certainly has the right to decide how it’s used!

At the same time, Jesus is predicting the temple’s destruction. We can understand perhaps understand how upset Jesus’ hearers might be by this statement. The destruction of the first temple was a disaster of monumental proportions and threatened a complete loss of national and religious identity.

The second temple was in fact destroyed by the Romans a little under 40 years later, the result of repeated Jewish uprisings. The only piece remaining s a section of the western wall that is now commonly called the Wailing Wall.

But John says Jesus is pointing at something else. He is pointing at his own crucifixion and resurrection. A destruction and restoration, with his own body being the temple.

But couldn’t he be pointing at both? In his Incarnation, Jesus himself became the new point at which heaven and earth intersected, the new focal point of Creation. The physical temple may be destroyed, but Jesus, as our new spiritual temple, is resurrected and still lives. In Jesus, the glory of God — the Shekinah — has come back. He has come to us.

And we are invited to join with Christ. We are invited to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, allowing us to show the glory of God to the world. We also are invited to become temples of God. We are invited to take our place — the place that was intended from the beginning — as bearers of God’s image within Creation.

Be Like John

Homily delivered at Evening Prayer at the annual retreat of Eckhart House, Anglican Order of Preachers, February 26, 2021

John 3:22-36

You gotta love John the Baptist. The guy lived in the wilderness. He dressed in clothes that were not anywhere near the latest fashion. Too be honest, he may have smelled a bit. And he ate weird food. Not somebody you’d invite to a polite dinner party, for sure. To top it all off, he called people names. One of my favorite advent memes on Facebook is a picture of a hairy, disheveled man with the caption “HAPPY ADVENT, YOU BROOD OF VIPERS.”

Yeah, he called people snakes. And he told Jews that being a descendant of Abraham was pretty much worthless. These don’t seem like a great way to win converts. As the saying might go back in the hills where my father grew up, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

The strange thing is…people were eating it up. John attracted crowds. He was a prophet in the Old Testament style, and the people of Judea were touched at the core of their being by his message – repent and be baptized. So the crowds came.

In this evening’s Gospel reading, John’s followers were worried. For quite a while, he’d been the center of attention, the big news. He’d attracted huge numbers of people, and had great response. People were being baptized right and left. John has been the center of attention. Now this other guy had come along. “Master, that guy you pointed out to us? Everybody’s following him now!”

I’m struck here by the way in which John the Evangelist portrays John the Baptist’s humility. In essence, John told his followers to calm down, that he had completed his task, that his time in the limelight was over. John recognized that he had done what he had set out to do. He had pointed people toward Jesus, the Messiah.

As Dominicans, as preachers, we can take some lessons from John. Preachers can often become the center of attention. And let’s face it: we kind of like it. It feels good. It makes us feel like we’re contributing something, like what we’re doing is worthwhile. But we need to remember some things. For instance we can fall into the trap of preaching sermons that people like, rather than sermons that channel the Holy Spirit. We can become too in love with being in the limelight. And we can try to hog the stage.

John shows us a better way.

First, we have to remember that we are not called to please people. When the Holy Spirit leads us to preach happiness, that’s all well and good. We should certainly follow. But there are times when the Holy Spirit tells us to speak out, to demand justice, to bring things to light that have been kept in the dark. To tell people things that aren’t comfortable. When this happens, we must have the courage to do so. We may be less popular because of it, but the Old Testament prophets – and John the Baptist for that matter – didn’t seem to be particularly worried about popularity. And neither must we be. We are called to preach the Word, not make people happy. John had no problem telling people what was what.

Second, we must remember that it isn’t about US. John recognized this. John said all along that his message wasn’t about him, it was about the one who was coming, the one who was greater than he was. We need to remember what – or who — our sermons are pointing to. In one way or another our sermons must always point to Jesus, and to the kingdom of God. Not to our ministry, our parish, our Order, or to ourselves. To Jesus.

And lastly, we have to know when to fade into the background. There will be times when someone else’s message is more important than ours. Like John, we need to be prepared for that to happen. In fact we should want to happen, because it means the kingdom is working and will continue to work even if we are not there. We must have the humility to let someone else take the lead.

John didn’t try to please people. John did think it was about him. John pointed to someone greater than he was. John was ready to fade into the background. May we all seek to follow John’s example in our service to God, and in pointing people to Christ. May we always be ready to point at Jesus and say “Listen to him.”

Amen.

Is Not This the Fast That I Choose?

Joel 2:1-2,12-17/Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21; Psalm 103:8-14

Well, it’s Ash Wednesday. And we can’t be in the church. We couldn’t even get together for pancakes yesterday. That’s upsetting. It’s something we look forward to every year.

But hey, at least it’s not COVID this time, right? It’s just run-of-the mill winter weather. A longer spell of winter weather than our area has seen in quite a while. Maybe it’s kind of a metaphor for Lent. Once again, we give things up. We do without. Lent is a season that’s kind of…different. Most of our time in the church year doesn’t have specific personal practices that we are called to take on. But Lent certainly does. Let’s look at the things we do on Ash Wednesday and during Lent.

First, we fast. Well, I don’t fast. I’m diabetic and fasting is not a really good idea for diabetics. Our bodies generally don’t regulate glucose well enough to get away with it. But I might abstain from rich food and keep my diet very simple.

Another thing we do is give things up. I’ve given up various things for Lent at various times. I’ve given up beer. I’ve given up chocolate – not sure I’ll ever do that again.

I think one of the most important things we do on Ash Wednesday is take a good long look at the fact that we are mortal. We will die. When ashes are imposed on our foreheads we are told, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s some pretty heavy stuff. It’s actually one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church. We don’t shy away from death. We look it square in the face.

But I was reading today’s Gospel and the thought suddenly struck me. Today, many Christians – including many Episcopalians – will do something that Jesus told us specifically not to do.

Today, many people will have gone to an early service and had their ashes imposed. Then they will wear their ashes all day. When I was a young Southern Baptist I worked as a counterman for McDonald’s for a couple of years. I usually worked evenings, and one Wednesday a year, I would see people coming in with a smudge on their forehead. After fasting all day, people would go to Ash Wednesday service, have their heads marked with ashes, then break their fast by stopping for some fast food. In the Southern Baptist church, we didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent, so I was totally confused by this.

And people wore their ashes proudly. I’ve done it myself – got my ashes and then gone out into public.

But we really shouldn’t do that. It’s something Jesus warned about – taking your personal piety public. From today’s Gospel:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And later:

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Fasting was a common practice throughout the history of Israel. It was done to show repentance. People would put on rough cloth as clothing and pour ashes on their heads. But it often became a show for others. “See how pious and repentant I am?”

The reading from the prophet Joel echoes the gospel reading: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

You see, people had missed the whole point. Repentance is not to be a show. It’s meant to be an inward change.

To paraphrase Jesus, personal piety is a good thing as long you keep it personal. When we practice our piety as a show for others, we receive no spiritual benefit.

And I have nothing against giving something up for Lent, but think that doing that is often kind of like making New Year’s resolutions. It seems like a good idea at the time, but it doesn’t tend to make any lasting difference in most of our lives. Either we fail to keep it up, and then feel guilty, or we manage to get through Lent but then go right back to whatever we gave up as soon the Feast of the Resurrection comes around. No lasting difference. Honestly, how often do you hear someone say, “Giving up cheese for Lent really changed my spiritual life!”?

Lent isn’t about giving things up. It’s about spiritual growth. The goal of Lent is not to tear ourselves apart. It is to build ourselves up.

So how do we celebrate Lent? What can we do to discipline ourselves spiritually so that we are ready to celebrate the resurrection of the Son of God?

Here’s a weird idea: Rather than picking something to give up during Lent, something that God doesn’t actually seem to object to, maybe we could practice doing the things God wants us to do. Something that will actually help us to grow spiritually.

The book of the prophet Isaiah contains my absolute favorite reading from any of the Prophets. It’s an alternate Old Testament reading today and gives us a clue to what really makes a holy Lent. In chapter 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Here is something we can do to make our Lent truly holy. Instead of fasting by not eating or by giving up something we love, we can fast from injustice. We can fast from selfishness. We can fast from being hard hearted.

Perhaps, every day during Lent, we can consciously look for opportunities to work toward justice. To help the oppressed. To clothe the naked. To shelter the homeless. To feed the hungry. Something that will not only benefit others but through which we can improve our own spiritual lives.

Perhaps we can challenge ourselves, rededicate ourselves to be what the Prophet was calling Israel to be. A center of God’s love and justice. A light to the nations. This is how Holy Cross can be God’s church here in Southeast Missouri. We can be a beacon, showing God’s light to everyone.

Here’s how Isaiah continues:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Can you imagine that? Can you see it?

Even our gloom could be as bright as the noonday. That’s quite a vision. Quite a promise.

And God always keeps His promises.

Amen.

Telling the Truth

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

I believe there have been at least three times when all of creation was hushed to observe what was happening here on earth. The first time, of course, we celebrated a couple of weeks ago: the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity taking vulnerable mortal form. We have a big celebration at Christmas.

The third, by my reckoning, was at his death on the Cross, completing the work of the redemption of Creation, which was followed by his vindication in the Resurrection. We celebrate pretty big for Easter, too.

Today we celebrate what I believe was the second time all creation hushed: Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan River.  We don’t seem make as much of this celebration as we do of others, but it’s a pretty important event. In the Old Testament reading for today older translations say that “the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” In today’s Gospel, that same Spirit – the Spirit that was present at the Creation of the universe — descends on Jesus like a dove. Add in the voice of the Father and we have the entire Trinity represented at this event. That’s pretty major. So why don’t we spend more time on it?

My personal theory is that we’re always just a little bit tired by this time. We’ve had a whirl of events starting in Advent, followed by Christmas then the Wise Men arriving on Epiphany. We’re burned out. A simple baptism seems somehow…anticlimactic.

But this particular baptism is anything BUT anticlimactic. The baptism of Jesus, the redeemer of all Creation, could hardly be more important.

But Jesus having to be baptized seems so silly. John baptized for repentance of sins right? What did Jesus have to repent of? 

There are a lot of theological ideas about why Jesus wanted to be baptized – that he was setting an example for us, for instance. I think there are three reasons.

First, Jesus was standing with us. No, he didn’t need to repent and be forgiven of sins, but he knew that WE do. In accepting baptism from John, he showed that he understood OUR need for repentance. It wasn’t an example so much as a sign that he was jumping into human life right alongside us. He showed that he would continue to live as one of us, sharing everything about being human. That he would experience everything we do.

Second, Jesus’ baptism pre-figures his death and resurrection, just as our own baptisms pre-figure our own death and resurrection. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul said “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In baptism, we essentially die to a worldly way of life and take up the way of the kingdom of God. 

Third, Jesus was exemplifying God’s new Creation – the work that he had come to do. The Jordan had special significance for the people of Israel. At the end of their exile in the wilderness Joshua led them across the Jordan River, as an end to their wandering. Jesus knew this, as did John. I’m sure John’s baptizing people in that particular body of water was significant. Both John and Jesus were signaling a return from exile, a return that many were still waiting for. You see, the Persians had allowed the Jews to return from their exile in Babylon, but many felt that they were still in exile, because they were still living under the thumb of a foreign power. They were still waiting for God to fulfil his promise – his Covenant. For many, that fulfillment of the promise would involve a new creation. God would set everything to rights. Exile would be ended. Jesus was signaling the beginning of that end, and the beginning of something new.

It’s natural for us to look at Jesus’ baptism – joining in solidarity with our need for repentance and forgiveness, inaugurating his ministry here on earth, and prefiguring his death and resurrection, and wonder what it means for OUR baptism. What does it mean to know that Jesus stands with us, that we died and were given a new life, and that Christ brought us new Creation?

Now, if I had written this sermon a week ago, I would probably be going a totally different direction at this point. But stuff happens. It’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room – the events that unfolded in Washington D.C. on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. I imagine a lot of preachers are desperately trying to find something to say, to find some positive message to give 

A mob broke into the Capitol while the Senate and the House were working to certify the electoral vote count. A perfectly normal process that happens automatically every four years. But this time an armed mob broke in with the intent of overturning the results that had been duly and legally certified by their respective states. The mob vandalized the capital. Some among them had previously stated the intention of doing harm to elected officials.

In watching the news coverage, I was horrified to see that some people in the mob carried signs or flags that made the claim that they were followers of Jesus. Seeing those signs on the news, the question occurred to me “Is it any wonder people see Christians as hypocrites?”

I am not going to approach this from a political perspective. But let me be crystal clear. This was not the work of Christ. It was in no sense the work of the kingdom of God, no matter what anyone claims. 

You see, there are consequences to following Christ and for claiming his name. 

Claiming Christ means we claim the things he did. It means that every decision we make must be made in the context of our faith. Regardless of what we want, what our politics are, we must act as if we are already living in the kingdom of God, because we are.

We must live our lives – every part of our lives – as if Jesus is walking beside us. Because he is.

We must live our lives as if we have died to the way the world does things and have been reborn into the way GOD does things. Because we have.

We must live our lives as if we are part of, as if we are participants in, God’s new creation, in which he sets everything to rights. Because we are.

Anyone who claims the name of Jesus and does not do their best to show God’s image to the world, or who uses Jesus as a pretext for violence is, to put it bluntly, lying. As Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”

When we bind ourselves to Christ, we take upon ourselves humankind’s original vocation as bearers of God’s image in the world. We cannot, we must not lie to the world.

We must bear God’s image as seen in Christ, who walks with us. 

We must bear God’s image as seen in Christ, who died and rose again. 

We must bear God’s image as seen in Christ, who began the new Creation. 

If we do these things, we will be telling the truth. We will show to the world that Jesus’s death was not the end, that just as he came up out of the water at his baptism, he came up out of the grave. That he still walks with us and helps us to continue his work. That he offers new life and new Creation.

People will see God in us. 

Amen.

This Changes Everything

Delivered December 27, 2020 on Zoom Morning Prayer, Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Poplar Bluff, MO

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147

Well, it’s over. We’ve sung Christmas carols.  We’ve opened all the presents. We’ve eaten ourselves into a stupor, basically repeating what we did on Thanksgiving Day, although possibly with a different menu. Many of us have taken down the tree and all of our decorations by now. We’re back to normal.

But wait just a minute. If we were in the church this morning, all the decorations would still be up. We wouldn’t notice anything had changed. We’d still be singing Christmas carols. We’re still saying “Yo us a child is born” in the liturgy. What’s the deal? Isn’t Christmas over with?

Not exactly.

It’s true that Christmas Day is over with, but in the Anglican Communion and among our brothers and sisters in other liturgical churches, Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. That’s 12 whole days of celebrating Christmas. Remember the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Christmas Day is only the FIRST day of Christmas.

Why would we do this? We spent all that time in building up to Christmas Day, putting up with the stress. Shopping, cooking, wrapping presents. We’re exhausted. We’re ready for it to be over with.  Why do we need to celebrate for almost two whole weeks?

Could it be, perhaps, that there’s something more to Christmas than we’ve thought about so far? On Christmas Eve we celebrated the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, we sat with Joseph and Mary, sang to the child in the manger, and with the shepherds we gazed in wonder at the angels singing in the sky. What else is there?

Let’s take a look at today’s Gospel reading, the one we always read on the first Sunday after Christmas. This year it’s even more appropriate, because today, December 27, happens to be the feast of St. John the Evangelist. In the first chapter of his Gospel, he wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

Where Luke, whose gospel we read on Thursday night and Friday morning, focuses on a baby born in a stable, John goes back just a little bit further than Bethlehem to begin his story. He goes back to the beginning of time. He goes back and begins with the same words as the Old Testament book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible: “In the beginning.” I’m positive he did this on purpose; it wasn’t an accident. By echoing the very first verse of the Torah, John is making a point. “Go back to the beginning,” he says, “Back before anything was created.  You know who was there? Yes, Jesus the Christ was there.”

He continued: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

Jesus was not only there, but he was a principal actor in creation. So, where Luke’s story is earth-bound, John’s viewpoint is cosmic.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” This cosmic being, this Son of God, took on humanity and lived as one of us.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God had told the people of Israel that he was going to do “a new thing.” A new thing.  Something exciting, something wonderful, something nobody would expect. Our Old Testament reading today says, speaking of Israel, “The nations shall see your vindication…”. Isaiah may not have been able to see what that meant, but for Paul and other New Testament writers, the coming of Jesus was no less than the vindication of Israel, the culmination of the long story of redemption that began with the Creation.

And here it is. The new thing: God’s son, who was present before the beginning of time and who made everything, confined himself to a human body and came to live with us. Not just to pay us a visit. To live with us. The Greek that is usually translated “lived among us” literally means “pitched his tent among us.” He came to set up housekeeping. To be born. To grow up as a child. To go through puberty. To become a man. To laugh. To weep. To die. To share everything about what it means to be human.

Many mythological figures had been said to mix with humans before. The Greek gods apparently did it all the time, but they never left anything behind to do it. They always kept all their godly powers even when they appeared as human. They never sacrificed anything. They never “pitched their tent” among us.

Christ, on the other hand, came to us as a tiny baby who would have died if humans had not taken care of him. Ponder that for a second.

This is important. Christ’s birth to a young girl in a tiny little village in Palestine changed everything. Christ came down at Christmas, and nothing would ever be the same again. God was no longer a powerful being that held himself at a distance. Now he was with us. He was one of us.

And this is the best reason I know to continue to celebrate Christmas even though Christmas Day is past. There’s just too much. The Incarnation of the Son of God is too immense an event to fit into a single day. We need more time to take in both sides of the story, the earth-bound and the heavenly. Not just the humble birth, but also the cosmic significance of that birth.

“The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” Christ became one of us. God did a new thing, and everything changed.

So what do we do? How do we respond to a love that would give up so much, give up everything to show us that he understands our lives?

What have we given up?

Have we given up our prejudices, our most precious preconceived notions? Have we given up our tendency to decide who is worthy of love? Have we given up our complacency? Our cynicism? Our bigotry? Have we given up our time? Our treasure?

Have we given up anything?

Have we changed…anything?

To respond to God’s love, we have to admit that for God to change everything by becoming a man means that each of us is changed. God doing a “new thing” means that WE are changed into something new, something we may not be entirely comfortable with, at least to start. But that change is necessary if we are to carry God’s immense love into the world. We simply can’t do that if we’re carrying a bunch of baggage.

In his birth, Christ put aside his divinity to change everything. As St. Paul tells us in an exquisite bit of poetry, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” We don’t have to put aside anything nearly as big. We don’t have to put aside anything even close to godhood. Just our fears, our hates, our prejudices, our idolatries, our selfishness.

But that would still change everything.                

Amen.