I Am Making All Things New

Delivered at the Memorial Service for Claude Malone, June 8, 2022, at Whidby Presbyterian Church, Oak Harbor, Washington.

Revelation 21:2-7

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.”

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get nervous about death. It’s scary, even though we know our whole lives that it’s coming for us. Maybe because we know our whole lives that it’s coming for us. It’s inevitable. And when you lose both parents within a year of each other, it really brings it home. You and your brother and your sisters are now the oldest generation in your family. Sorry, siblings, but it’s true. And we’re mortal.

I’m fairly ignorant of Presbyterian liturgy, but in the Episcopal tradition, on Ash Wednesday we take out our mortality and look it square in the face. We have ashes smeared on our forehead in the shape of a cross, and we are told “Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It’s pretty heavy stuff. But we also remember that returning to dust is not the end of things. It’s not. There is something after. We don’t have a lot of details about it, but we are told that we will be resurrected. Our dad had an unshakeable faith that he would see our mom again. And he was right. As Christians, this is our hope. This is our promise.

One of the things our traditions – and several others — have in common is the Apostle’s Creed, one of the oldest statements of faith we have outside of the New Testament. In a few minutes we will sing a lovely metrical version of this creed set, I believe, to the tune “Ebenezer.” In the Episcopal church we’re more likely to say this creed or chant it — because that’s how we roll — but in the spoken version of this creed, we claim:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I think those specific words “resurrection of the body” are important. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we claim Christ’s promise of “the resurrection of the body.” We do expect a time of “rest and refreshment” after death, and I believe that is what Dad is enjoying now. But St. Paul was very clear on this point: Christ’s physical resurrection was the “down payment” on our own. Our ultimate destiny is to be resurrected just as Christ was resurrected, and to live forever in his new creation. “See, I am making ALL things new.”

“All things” includes us. As Christians, we have been made new. We are being made new. And we will be made new.

Like pretty much everyone else on earth, we all understand that some day we will die. It is our destiny. But unlike some, we have a hope, and a promise.
We will be resurrected. We will be resurrected in the body. That’s the promise. I will be able to take a walk with my Dad. I’ll be able to talk to my Mom. We will be physically present to each other. Our destiny is not some disembodied existence, floating around like ghosts throughout eternity.

No, our destiny is bodies like Christ’s. C.S. Lewis, one of my Dad’s favorite authors, suggested in his short novel The Great Divorce that our transformed bodies would be somehow more real than our current bodies, more solid, not less.
That seems appropriate for a people who are destined to live in a transformed and renewed Creation.

If we believe the promise of the resurrection, that promise that we at least pay lip service to in the Creed, then we believe that we and our loved ones will be resurrected. When Christ returns, we will all be changed to be like he is now. And we will see those we love again. And that is why, even when a loved one — a mother, a father — is taken from us, we can still sing, and laugh, and rejoice.

There is a short canticle in the Episcopal service for the Burial of the Dead that I love

All we go down to the dust,
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Amen.

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen

Preached at the Great Vigil of Easter, April 16, 2022 at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross, Poplar Bluff, MO

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]; Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac]; Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]; Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all]; Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit]; Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]; Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 114; Luke 24:1-12

Well, we made it.

We made it through Lent.

We made it through the wilderness.

We have come through our forty days of fasting, our forty days of wandering, and have arrived at a land flowing with milk and honey.

This week, as it should be, has been a special week.

On Thursday, we sat with Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper and heard him tell them and us to “Love one another.”

On Friday we watched as Christ was condemned, crucified, and laid in the tomb.

On Saturday, until sundown, we live in that horrible, horrible Saturday, that in-between time, when we can’t be sure there will ever be a Sunday.

Tonight, we have listened to the old, old stories, from the story of Creation, to God’s salvation of Israel at the Red Sea, to the Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Israel. We have heard Israel’s story of God’s grace throughout history. We have heard Paul tell of what Christ’s resurrection means for us. And we have heard the story of the women at the tomb. As yet, all we have is an empty tomb. We have been told he’s risen, but we haven’t seen. We haven’t met the resurrected Christ yet. Be patient, I have a feeling we’ll meet him in the morning.

Many of you know by now that my Dad died on Maundy Thursday. Earlier in the week I was kind of floundering as to what I would preach about this evening, but my Dad’s death brought it into clear focus. And this is why the sermon is coming at this point in the service, when I could have preached right after the Old Testament passages we read tonight. There’s a lot of material there for sure, but since the phone call from my Sister on Thursday I have wanted to preach AFTER we read the Gospel reading. I wanted to talk specifically about the Resurrection and what it means to us.

You see my father had a rock-solid belief in resurrection. When my Mom died, he talked about how he wasn’t heartbroken, because she was out of pain and he knew…KNEW…they would see each other again. This is the faith we should all have, the faith that we should show in our lives every day. Because with his Resurrection, Christ showed it to be true. In his Resurrection, Christ showed that Resurrection could really happen, would really happen. 

When we hear the Exsultet, when we hear the readings of God’s saving deeds throughout the ages, when we respond with psalm and canticle, and when we then declare that Christ has indeed risen front the dead, we are doing something incredibly important. We are declaring that death itself has been conquered. We are claiming that we do not have to be afraid of it anymore. We are claiming that death has no power over us. And that’s why I can stand here tonight with joy in my heart, instead of overwhelming sadness.

Because this is the night. This is the night. This is the night when everything that Jesus said was vindicated. This is the night of which every other church service is just an echo. We make a huge deal of Christmas, and rightly so. Easter Sunday is important, sure. But this night, this holy night, is the most important, most holy night of the year. We have all those Old Testament readings because we need to see the whole story. We need to feel the power and depth and sweep of the history that led up to this night

This special night is the climax of a love story that began in the depths of time before Creation. This night is prefigured by the ancient stories of the salvation of Noah and his family from the Flood, and the Israelites salvation at the Red Sea. This night was hinted at by the prophets.  The events of this night were set in motion with an announcement to Mary and the birth of a small child. This night was made possible by an arrest, trial, and execution. This night is the completion of all those bits and pieces. It’s what history was headed toward from before the beginning of time.

This is the night when Christ made the down payment on our promise of resurrection. That’s resurrection. Not a disembodied ghost-like existence after we die, but a real, physical, resurrection of the body. When Christ rose from the dead, he didn’t come back as a ghost. He came back fully alive, and that’s what is in store for us.

And even though we can’t celebrate Eucharist this year, we can still celebrate what has happened. We can still come together. We can still read the stories. And we can still shout our alleluias to the heavens for the saving work that God, through Jesus Christ, has accomplished this very night.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

New Creation

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 2 Corinthians 5:17–19 (NRSV)

When you grow up in the White American Evangelical branch of Christianity, as I did, you end up with a lot of baggage. One of the pieces of baggage you can easily end up with is a morbid focus on the “End Times.” You can’t see it, but those two words are capitalized. I was a teenager during the heyday of Hal Lindsay and “The Late Great Planet Earth.” Lindsay was the first to really popularize the theology that was later taken up by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their “Left Behind” series of novels. As Young Upright Christians™, we were expected to read Hal Lindsay’s books and take them to heart. Telling people about them, about their coming doom, was how we would bring the lost to Christ.

I used the term “morbid” because there was so much attention paid to the horrible things that were supposed to happen to unbelievers during the “Tribulation” — also capitalized. There is a kind of schadenfreude baked into this worldview. Hey, look! Those non-Christians (or sometimes, “bad” Christians) are gonna get theirs when Jesus comes back! And there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, for sure.

Unfortunately, this approach, based mostly on misreading the Revelation to John and parts of the book of Daniel, totally misses the point of Jesus coming and dying in the first place. There is often little attention paid to the real mission of Christ.

You see, Christ didn’t come to save a few people and to torture and destroy the rest. He came to redeem all of creation.

Not destroy but redeem.

A large part of Old Testament theology was the faith that God would, at some point in time, set everything right again. That everything that is now broken would be corrected, that Creation itself would be made new. That everyone, not just Israel, would become the recipients of God’s grace, so that in the words of the prophet Amos, justice would “roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

St. Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews as he called himself, picked up on this theme, and it flows throughout his letters. And if we look at the life of Christ, we can see him work toward redeeming the world. So often we tend to focus on the creeds, and they are important, but they only focus on a few things: The nature of God, Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit. Don’t get me wrong — in his death, Christ took the step necessary to redeem all Creation and begin the reign of heaven on earth. And in his resurrection, that work was vindicated.

But what is missing in the creeds is the period of time in which he was simply…living. In his life and teachings, he taught us what it was like to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. To live as if that kingdom has already been completely realized.

“If anyone be in Christ there is a new creation.”

I like this translation better than some others. First, it redresses the male-centric language used in earlier translations. But I also like it because it subtly moves away from the focus on individual, personal salvation and piety that has been the focus of much of modern Christianity. It gives us a more expansive view of that new creation. It describes a person who, in Christ, has become connected to the new Creation, to the giant “reset” that has been promised. A person who is in Christ becomes a part of the new creation that Christ is in the process of building.

I was taught that having people come to Christ out of fear of Hell was a valid tactic for saving souls, but over the years I have become convinced that God doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want people to come because of terror at what might happen if they don’t. He wants them to come out of love.

We are called to be part of Christ’s new creation. We are called to take our places in God’s Creation as caretakers of and priests in that Creation. We are called to come to Him in love and then show His love to the world, not try to frighten the world into obedience.

That is the invitation that Christ extends to each one of us. Come be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of love. Take your place in the New Creation.

Piety in Public

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

It was back in my youth, when I worked the counter for our local McDonald’s, that I first learned that Ash Wednesday even existed. One Wednesday a year, we’d get people coming in with a smudge on their forehead. I had no idea what was going on. I was raised Southern Baptist, and we had exactly two special days: Christmas and Easter. That was it.

Finally I asked someone what was going on. It seems that there was a church service, and a priest would smear ashes on people’s foreheads (mostly Roman Catholics), people who, evidently, had been fasting all day. By the way, Southern Baptists don’t fast either. After church, because they were hungry, they’d go out and get something to east, often fast food.

It wasn’t until several years later that I encountered the Episcopal Church and finally found out what it meant. At the time I first learned about it, it seemed like just another meaningless ritual, and all we Southern Baptist kids knew the Roman Catholic Church was just chock full of those.

But it turns out it wasn’t meaningless. I learned that Ash Wednesday is the day of the year — of every year — when we take out our mortality, the knowledge that we are going to die, and look it square in the face. When the ashes are placed on our forehead with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” it’s a chilling reminder that our time in this world is limited.

Confronting our own inevitable deaths is a good thing. It makes us place ourselves in our proper place in space and time, and pushes us toward understanding our proper place in relation to God.

But, as with all things that can be good, we have to be careful. In this evening’s Gospel reading we hear “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.” 

Some of the people I saw coming into that McDonald’s seemed…proud of their ashes. Like it was more of a tribal mark than a sign of penitence.

It’s the same with Lenten disciplines. We are told we are supposed to “give something up” for Lent. So we do. We give up something like chocolate, or alcohol. Sometimes it seems like we try to outdo each other in our disciplines. And we look for loopholes, like the fact that every Sunday is actually a feast day, even during Lent, so extending our discipline to Sunday is inappropriate. Great.

How does this square with “Beware of practicing your piety in public?”

Let’s face it, we American, with our huge revivals and our National Prayer Breakfasts, are really big on our performative piety.

We really look down on the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, who were really trying to do better in obeying God. But Jesus said that they would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” That they “ignored the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faith.”

And isn’t that exactly what we do? We love our little rules and traditions and loopholes, and we forget what really matters. We abstain from carbs, from meat, from sweets, and we ignore the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves. Lent is not about giving up some thing that we like. It’s about getting rid of the baggage that holds us back in our relationship with Christ.

This morning I saw the following tweet:

“This year the performative side of Lent that turns it into a kind of Suffering Olympics feels deeply unnecessary. If suffering is the only thing bringing you closer to God, I invite you to imagine a God who suffers for us, not one who desires us to suffer.”

My challenge to you this Lent…for all of Lent, is: let’s fast from “performative Christianity,” from the “Suffering Olympics.” We can start by not making our Lent a show for all to see and wonder at. If you have been fasting all day today, great, go straight home for me the church and eat. Don’t visit a restaurant with your ashes showing. Keep it to yourself. The same with your Lenten fast, your discipline. It’s between you and God, and it’s not a competition.

If you’d like some suggestions on how to accomplish a true Lenten fast without announcing it to the world, how about this from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints; contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words. Be silent and listen.

AMEN.

Pray for a Miracle

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

I hate it when this happens.

Once again, events have changed the course of my sermon preparation. This happens from time to time. You will think your sermon is going to be about one thing, but then horrible events in the world completely change what you need to say. You have to address the ”elephant in the room.”

This sermon may not be as uplifting as I had planned to be. I did not enjoy writing this.

 This week, Russian forces rolled into Ukraine in what can only be described as an invasion of a sovereign nation. The invasion has been roundly condemned by the international community and is even unpopular among the Russian population. Thousands have turned out in Moscow to protest “Putin’s War,” risking arrest and imprisonment. This sort of thing has happened before. One man has taken it upon himself that he, and he alone, can decide whether a nation should even exist. And he has put the military might of the country he controls to work.

And we are left to wonder what we can do. It’s frustrating. It’s depressing. And it’s difficult to find a connection with the scriptures we read this morning. Something that will interpret those scriptures in the light of the evens in Ukraine.

But I think it’s important to do that, because it’s not every Sunday that the Old Testament lesson, the Epistle lesson, and the Gospel all align, and today is one of those Sundays. In the Old Testament lesson, we read about Moses coming down from the mountain, his face shining so brightly after his meeting with God that the Israelites can’t bear to look at him. He has to wear a veil to hide his face. In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul picks up this theme but says that with Christ, the veil can be removed and all people can see the face of God. Today’s Gospel, as it always is on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, is the Transfiguration, where Jesus shows his true glory to three of the Apostles.

It is hard to preach about a mountaintop experience when the world is in danger like it is today. But this day does cry out for these Propers to be examined, and for us to contemplate what they mean for us today.

Jesus and St. Paul were both very familiar with a giant militaristic power: Rome. The Roman Empire also had absolutely no qualms about marching into a sovereign country and just…taking over. And whether we like it or not, the Word that Jesus and Paul proclaimed had political ramifications. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Paul acclaimed him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All of these titles were claimed by the Emperor, and using them for anyone else was tantamount to treason.

But their message was clear. While it may seem bad, evil does not win in the end. God wins in the end. God’s glory will shine through.

Even now, when all looks dark, evil will not win in the end. I was thankful that today Josh played the Ukrainian National Anthem, “Ukraine is Not Yet Lost,” as our prelude. I will ask him to play it again at the end of my sermon. Let it be a reminder for us of the courage of the Ukrainian people in standing up to Putin’s aggression, and that evil will not win in the end.

But there is suffering in the meantime. We can help with that, at least a bit. We can “put our money where our mouths are.” Donate to a relief organization. I might suggest Catholic Relief Services.

We can do our best to show the glory of God in our lives. Moses’s face shone with God’s glory. Christ showed forth his own glory. We can do our best to show forth God’s glory and love, without any veil to hide it. This is something we should do, particularly this week: think on today’s scriptures and ask ourselves, “What can I do today to show God’s glory and love?”

We can keep faith with the people of Ukraine, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or any other faith, or even no faith at all. 

And we can pray for a miracle.

Every religious order in the Episcopal Church must have a Bishop Visitor, a person who is already a bishop, and who oversees the religious life of the order. For the Anglican Order of Preachers, that person is the Right Reverend Jennifer Brook-Davidson, the Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia. Yesterday on Facebook she posted this poem by Ann Weems.

—————-

“I No Longer Pray For Peace”

On the edge of war, one foot already in,

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn
to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn
to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be
astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the “God talk”
will take bones,
and stand up and shed
its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might
sit down together and share
its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on
the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God……
that we can truly love one another.

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

——

I ask you to stand and pray with me now.

Let us pray that our lives may shine forth with God’s glory and light the way for others. 

Let us pray for the people of Ukraine, as they unite to oppose this threat to their very existence as a nation, as they put their lives on the line to defend their homeland.

Let us pray for the people of Russia who oppose this unjust attack, that they may continue to protest and move their government to right action.

Let us pray for the leaders of our nation, and for the leaders of all nations, that they may find an effective way to confront and stop this madness before it leads to more destruction.

Let us pray that God may turn the heart of Vladimir Putin from this reckless and heartless choice, and that Russian forces may be removed from Ukraine.

Let us pray for a miracle.

At this point I asked the organist to play Ukrainian national anthem again

Amen.

We Must Do Better

Genesis 45:3-11,15; Psalm 3:1-12; 41-42; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38:42-50; Luke 6:27-38

Before I begin,  I want to thank my Brother James for inviting me to preach here. It’s kind of a weird feeling. Although my wife Kim and I attended an Episcopal parish in Rhode Island before we moved to Missouri, we really found a church home here at All Saints. We loved it enough to drive the 20 miles from Thomasville every Sunday. We were confirmed here. Our youngest son was baptized here. We sang in the choir, we were Lay Readers (as they were called then). I was choirmaster for a while, I served on vestry, was a convention delegate. Together Kim and I taught the little kids in Sunday School. I don’t even remember what else. Kim and I both worked up on the square, she at Aid Hardware, and me at a small software company just a couple of doors down. So after over 30 years, to be able to come back and preach here is a very special experience. And more than a little scary.

I have to tell you, I really love the way Luke portrays Jesus. Each Gospel writer has a unique way of presenting our Savior. In Luke, Jesus is pretty radical. He not only tells his listeners how to live — things they’ve really known since they were children — he tells them to take it even further, going beyond what they were taught. Going BEYOND what Torah required. And he turns things upside down. He’s all about happy are the poor, and the rich are gonna get theirs. The starving will be fed and those who have enough to eat will feel the gnawing of hunger.

In our gospel today, Jesus does it again. Now, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is straight out of the Torah. But Jesus, never satisfied with the letter of the Law, says “Love your enemies. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt. If someone takes away your goods, just let them go ahead.”

I can just picture his disciples thinking “Wait a minute. This is crazy. Love…your ENEMIES? Give away our clothes? Just like that, we’re back in topsy-turvy land! I thought we were done with this stuff after the Beatitudes!”

And I have to admit I sympathize. That’s the way I tend to think, and I’d be willing to bet that’s the way MOST of us tend to think. Why should I take that kind of chance? I could get hurt! And I might end up owning nothing at all.

But get Jesus’ point. If we just love the people who love us, we’re not doing anything special. We’re just doing what everyone does. If we lend to people and expect to be paid back, we’re only doing what everyone does. How do we behave as children of God that makes us different.

For Jesus, love is a lot more radical. Jesus always wants to go one better.

A couple of weeks ago for our Epistle we had the “Love Chapter” from 1st Corinthians. I based my sermon in Poplar Bluff on that passage. The point of that sermon was that we tend to cheapen this passage by overusing it and applying it to ROMANTIC love, to what a Greek would have called ερος. But the Greek word that Paul uses throughout that passage and the word that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel is αγαπε. Αγαπε is not a word that describes a feeling. Αγαπε is an ACTIVE verb. It’s something we DO, not something we feel. And it’s something we do because of what we have become – what we are still becoming – through Jesus Christ.

In this week’s passage from 1st Corinthians, Paul is hitting the theme of the resurrection. People are asking ”What sort of bodies will we have?“ When Paul says we will have a “spiritual body,” he is not talking about some weird, spooky, disembodied existence. We’re not leaving matter behind and going on to live a non-physical eternal life. That’s a doctrine from the gnostic tradition, not Paul. Paul is talking about a new body – a PHYSICAL body – that is animated by the spirit. Our new bodies will be powered by the Holy Spirit. And that power — power we can already tap into NOW if we claim it — that power can guide us in how to live.

Which brings us back to what Jesus was saying. Aside from his ultimate purpose to die and be resurrected to destroy the power of Sin, Jesus’ ministry was all about introducing the kingdom of heaven to the world. He spent a lot of time doing this, showing us how to live NOW, while we’re waiting for his inevitable victory. In today’s Gospel he is once again telling us how we need to act as a part of the kingdom of heaven. Notice: not how we will act someday, after we are resurrected, when the kingdom of heaven has come to fruition, but how we should be acting NOW.

The world may behave one way, but we are products of new creation. We are part of the kingdom of heaven already, the kingdom that is here and now as well as in the past, but also is not complete yet. And we are expected to behave like it’s already here. We are called to the life of the Spirit NOW.

So, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, we can’t be satisfied with acting according to the rules everybody else uses. We can’t live a “Least Common Denominator” Christianity. We must do BETTER. We are called to the life of the Spirit, and we must act like it.

We are not called to the life of the Spirit to act like everyone else. We must do better because Jesus did better.

We are not called to the life of the Spirit to talk about “those people” — whoever they may be this week — and how they need to straighten up and behave the way WE think they should. Or worship the way we think they should. We are called to recognize that there are no divisions when Christ is in charge.

We are not called to the life of the Spirit to pretend we are persecuted, when in fact we have it easier than just about any other Christians in the history of the world. We are called to recognize when OTHERS are persecuted, or put in harm’s way, or made to think that they are less than the Children of God.

We are not called to the life of the spirit to keep our good material fortune to ourselves. We are called to share with those who have not been as fortunate as we have.

We are not called to the life of the Spirit to keep this new life in Christ to ourselves. We are called to share it with everyone we meet. Because that is how the kingdom of heaven grows. It grows because love is contagious. It grows because when we love the way Christ loves, people will look at us and think “These people have something, and I want it too.”

We must do better. God loves us — God loves EVERYONE— without reservation. While we can never aspire to love exactly the way God loves, we are still called to give it our best shot. I doubt we will ever get it completely right, at least not until Christ returns and finishes the work he began so long ago. 

But in the meantime, we are still called to do better. We are called to love in action, not just in words. We are called to love everyone, without exception, without reservation. We are called to love without regard to race, nationality, age, gender identity, sexual preference, political party. We must love everyone. In loving like this we will show ourselves to be, in Jesus’ words, “children of the Most High.”

Amen.

Ring Out Your joy!

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Today…is just a weird day all around.

It seems like everything is going to be about Joy. We begin the service by lighting a rose-colored candle – the candle of Joy — and talking about rejoicing. We have a special name for the Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” Some churches even have a special set of rose vestments to use today.

Our first readings do a good job of mirroring this theme. The Old Testament Lesson today is from the prophet Zephaniah:

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion:  shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

Zephaniah even speaks about God “rejoicing…with gladness.”

The Canticle, the First Song of Isaiah includes the line

“Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy…”

And from St. Paul we hear,

“Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.”

It would seem that rejoicing…that JOY…is the order of the day.

And then…we come to the Gospel Lesson, and John the Baptist:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Whoa! That doesn’t sound much like rejoicing!  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be very joyful if someone called me a poisonous snake.

But I do love John. He was never afraid to call things as he saw them, no matter who took offense. I wish I was that brave.

The beginning of this speech doesn’t seem to be designed to draw a large crowd. John was certainly no Joel Osteen, telling people that they should live their best life and living in an expensive mansion (sorry, pet peeve). There’s no mention of John asking for support, of claiming that unless a certain fundraising effort meets its goal that something terrible is going to happen. Or of claiming that sending a donation would assure you of God’s favor (another pet peeve). 

No, John just got up there and told people how terrible they were. And they still came. Because they were hungry. They were hungry to hear what he said, and he gave it to them with no sugar coating.

But look at the last line of the Gospel reading:

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Luke seems to think that John’s message was good news! And actually…it was. How is this possible?

To get an idea, an inking, let’s look a little more closely at the Old Testament reading for today and see why Zephaniah thought there was reason for rejoicing.

“I will save the lame
and gather the outcast, 

and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth. “

Good news for the lame and the outcast, for sure.  No mention of the well-off and comfortable, though. And seriously, the well-off and the comfortable were the people that John was yelling at. The people who already thought they were right with God.The people who were happy resting on the accomplishments of their ancestors.

No, this good news John was preaching was not good news for the rich and powerful, but good news for the downtrodden and the destitute.

So when people came to John asking what they needed to do, how did he answer?

“If you have more than enough clothing, share with someone who doesn’t have enough.  And if you have more than enough food to eat, share with those who don’t.”

To the tax collectors who came to him: “Don’t cheat people by taking more than you are supposed to.”

To the soldiers: “Don’t extort money from people.”

Is there anything in these instructions that we wouldn’t assume to be proper behavior toward others? So why does John feel he needs to tell people?

I’m guessing its exactly because he saw that people weren’t sharing their clothes and food with the poor. Because tax collectors did take more than they were charged with collecting. Because soldiers did practice extortion to augment their pay. So eliminating these things would certainly be good news!

Isn’t there someone else who told us to behave this way? To love your neighbor the way you love yourself? To treat others the way you want them to treat you? Sound familiar?

And this really is good news! John was calling people to repentance. Repentance literally means turning around, going the other way, and not just in our heads. It means turning our actions around. Often it means turning and doing things we know we should already be doing, or stopping things we know we shouldn’t be doing. Turning from being hard-hearted, from saying to ourselves “Well, we’ve got ours. Those people’s problems are their problems.” Turning from ignoring the problem. Turning from not believing there is a problem. Turning to justice. 

In our Confession, we confess sins “known and unknown,” and “things we have done, and things we have left undone.” If we really repent, we must turn from these things, not just pay lip service.

This repentance is what we are called to during Advent. We need to turn around from our hard-heartedness. From ignoring the problems. From not admitting there are problems. From assuming we can’t help. We can’t greet the Christ Child and honestly say we are glad to see him if we don’t.

Turning around is how we greet him. It’s how we get to joy.

Not just joy for us, but joy for everyone who has been the victim of injustice. Joy for every laid-off worker. Joy for those unable to work and support their families. Joy for the sick. Joy for those who are victims of discrimination, whether for reasons of gender, race, sexual orientation, age…for ANY reason. Joy for the hungry. Joy for the homeless. Joy for the destitute. Joy for the marginalized.

Joy wants to be shared. And when it is shared, it grows.

When John told the people, and the tax collectors, and the soldiers how to behave, he was telling them how they could bring the joy of the good news to the people they saw and dealt with on a daily basis.

We have less than two weeks until Christmas. Let’s spend those two weeks making sure that we share out joy with others — not just in words, but in everything we do. Take John’s words to heart and put them to work. Give to the poor and needy. Visit someone who is sick. Work against injustice. Stand up for someone who is facing discrimination. 

Ring out your joy!

Amen.

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.