Be Prepared

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Welcome to the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year. We’ve changed the altar vestments from green to purple. We have made it through the loooong green season of “Ordinary Time,” the season after the Feast of Pentecost, and we are back into seasons that will change a little more often. Advent lasts 4 weeks, Christmas 12 days, Lent 40 days, etc.

Because Advent comes immediately before Christmas, many have tended to assume that it bears the same relation to Christmas as Lent does to Easter. But make no mistake: although we have purple on the altar, the same color as we use in Lent, Advent is in no way a “little Lent.” It’s not “penitential” in the same way as Lent. There is no sackcloth, there are no ashes. No, Advent is a totally distinct season, with its own focus. In fact, many Episcopal and Anglican churches use a royal blue color instead of purple. I would love to do that, but, alas, new vestments and altar hangings are expensive.

In Advent, Instead of sackcloth and ashes, we have a feeling of anticipation, a knowledge that God is about to do something different. Something new. Something nobody expects to happen.

In Isaiah 43, the prophet, speaking for God, says:

“I am about to do a new thing;

   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.”

Something new. Something  different. And this First Sunday of Advent, we are given instructions to prepare,  instructions to be ready.

The readings today are eschatological in nature, that is, they deal with to the eschaton, a Greek word that refers to the End Times. Isaiah gives us the image of peace, of an end to war, of swords beating beaten and reshaped into plowshares. Paul tells the Christians in Rome, whom he has never met, to wake up, to get their lives right, to be ready . And Jesus tells his disciples that his return, when it comes, will be a complete surprise to everyone.

Now, when we say, the “End Times,” we’re not talking about some Tim LaHaye-Jerry Jenkins-Left Behind scenario where all the Christians – at least the ones that believe exactly the same things they do – are spirited off to heaven just before things get very bad here on Earth. And then the earth is destroyed and everybody that’s left lives happily ever after in Heaven.

The Scriptures aren’t so much about the destruction of the Earth as they are about its salvation. Its renewal. The picture we get today, from Isaiah, is not a picture of Heaven. Why would you need to beat swords into plowshares in Heaven? Instead, it’s a picture of a world restored to what it should have been, to what God intended it to be. St. Paul was all over this, talking about “New Creation,” a term that he used to refer to US, but also to the Creation as restored by God.

In the Revelation, an angel says to St. John, “See, the home of God is with men…”. God will come and live with US. We won’t have to go to Heaven, because God will be here with us.

As for exactly when it will happen…well, we don’t know. We don’t need to know. The sermon I delivered at St. James Episcopal Church in Springfield a couple of Sundays ago was titled “Don’t Worry About it,” on this very topic. I quoted today’s Gospel reading: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

But surely there are clues, right? I mean, just look at the continuation of today’s Gospel:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…”

Well there you go, so it must be coming real soon, right?

Oh, but wait. People were doing those things last year. And the year before. And for as long as people have been around. And all through history we have had wars, and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and revolts, and pestilence, and all those other “signs of the times.” All of them just part of normal experience when living here on earth

It seems that every time Jesus talked about when the end would come, when he would return, he got real…cagey. Probably because we don’t really need to know.

What we really need, he said…is to prepare. Be ready.

For the next two Sundays, we will talk about John the Baptist, and his task to prepare the way for the Messiah coming into the world.

On the last Sunday of Advent, we will learn of the angel’s visit to Joseph, to prepare him for the birth of the Messiah.

Advent is all about preparation. About preparation for the birth of the Christ. About preparation for him to come into our hearts. About preparation for his return.

It can’t wait. Do we wait to prepare our houses to keep a burglar from breaking in and steeling? We don’t want to be caught unprepared! How much more important is this?

Prepare. Get ready. God is doing something new.

Amen

Don’t Worry About It

Delivered at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, November 13, 2022

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28C: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

For those of you who were at the Kirkin’ last night, please forgive me as a repeat some of my introduction of myself. I am Brother Mike Malone. I am a friar in the Anglican Order of Preachers, the Episcopal /Anglican expression of Dominican spirituality. I am not clergy, I am a layman. I’m not a deacon, not a priest, and in no way a bishop (thanks be to God). I made my life profession a year and a half ago at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Puerto Rico, which is extra special to me because the Diocese of Puerto Rico is now in a Companion Diocese relationship to the Diocese of Missouri, where I am a parishioner.

There never seems to be a dearth of people predicting the end of the world. Every year, it seems, there is some new prophet either extolling some new interpretation of Scripture that points, they say, to the Parousia (that’s a technical term for Christ’s return) happening at some specific date and time. Or they point to a date and time for the “Rapture,” supposedly the event where all the faithful will be physically removed from the world.

In our modern times we have seen the explosive growth of what is called “Darbyism,” for which the technical theological term is “premillennial dispensationalism,” a 10-dollar phrase that just means that history is divided up into periods with different rules, and Christians will be raptured before the thousand-year reign of Christ. Although invented by John Nelson Darby in the 19th century, it has hit its stride in current evangelical circles, really taking hold in the 1960s and 1970s.  I went through my Southern Baptist teenage years under the influence of Hal Lindsay’s book “The Late Great Plant Earth,” a masterwork of this particular brand of interpretation.

I’m still recovering. You have no idea what this sort of thing can do to a young person’s psyche.

The most recent popularization of this school of futurism comes in the form of the “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins which, truth to be told, contain mostly bad theology and worse writing, with a healthy dose of finger-pointing and schadenfreude thrown in.

The hits just keep on comin’. And we’re still waiting for that Rapture thing that they assured us would come “any day now.”

Now, I’m not going to go into a point-by-point refutation of this kind of thinking. If you’d like to have me come to St. James some time and talk about “end times prophecy” and its misuse I’ll be glad to, but that’s not really the point I want to make today. What I want to talk about is the fact that Jesus usually side-stepped the issue of when he would return.

Let’s look at what he said in today’s Gospel reading:

“’When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’

Sounds like a great bunch of pedictors, right?

OK, so let’s look at these “Signs of the Times” as they are called, and compare them to our current era.

Wars and insurrections? Check.

Nations rising against nation? Check

Earthquakes? Check.

Famines and plagues? Check.

Signs in the heavens? Comets, novas, sunspots…check.

Seems pretty definite, doesn’t it? Jesus’ return must be just around the corner!

But let’s look back about…100 years or so.

Wars and insurrections: Russian revolution, anyone?

Nations rising against nation: You may have heard of a thing called “World War I.” You can look it up on Wikipedia.

Earthquakes: Check.

Famines and plagues: Check out the Wikipedia article on “Spanish Flu.”

Signs in the heavens: Halley’s Comet has been coming around every 75-79 years for a long time. And there have been plenty of other visible comets.

The fact is, you can find these “signs of the times” in any age of civilization that you look at. They are constantly with us. And, I would venture to say, not reliable indicators that Jesus is getting ready to come back in the next few days. I can almost picture Jesus delivering this speech with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

Earlier in the passage, Jesus says, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”

So, what Jesus appears to be saying is, if someone is telling you they know when he will return, or that it’s immanent…you should run the other way. This is pretty good advice as we are inundated with people who claim to perfectly understand New Testament prophecy. I can tell you right out that there are parts that I don’t understand, that I will likely NEVER understand this side of the resurrection, because they were not written to or for a 20th-century Anglican Dominican whose primary training is in Information Technology. They were written for 1st Century mostly Jewish “followers of the Way,” as they called themselves. They understood symbols that we just don’t get.

So…why does Jesus talks about it at all? Probably because people asked him. He talked about his return, but all his responses seem to point to…not letting the timing worry us.

Need more evidence that we shouldn’t fret about it? At the risk of being accused of proof-texting, I will quote Matthew 24:36: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Simply put, we are not supposed to be concerned over when Jesus is coming. We won’t really notice any difference in the world anyway, so we won’t see it coming. Nobody will. Nobody. Not you, not your rector (when you get one), not your bishop, not the Presiding Bishop, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the Pope. Nobody.

So what does Scripture say about his coming back?

In the 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, the writer says “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

Who expects a thief to break into their house in the night? Nobody that I know.

In Matthew 24 Jesus says it will be like it was in the days of Noah: people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.

Well, that narrows it down doesn’t it?

No, nailing down a date and time didn’t seem particularly important to Jesus.

In fact, in our Gospel today, Jesus seems more interested in preparing the Apostles for witnessing than in preparing them for his return.

“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In other words, don’t worry about it.

Keep your eyes in front of you, where they belong. Focus on the job, people.

What Jesus did tell us to do was “be ready.” Be ready all the time. Trust God to provide, and trust him for the words that you will say to spread the Kingdom.

How about if, instead of obsessing over when Jesus is coming, we simply act as if he is coming tomorrow? Or even this afternoon. If we really expect him any time, maybe the best thing would be to do what he told us to do: take care of the poor and oppressed, lift up the downhearted, spread the Gospel. If everything we do, everything we say, were done as if we really expect him any time now, I’d bet that our actions and our words might be very different.

I realize that this is a radical idea when we could be writing bestsellers about Christ’s return and scaring people, but I don’t think that sort of thing is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom.

Writing books is not what he told us to do.

He told us to take care of the poor.

He told us to work for justice and peace.

He told us to spread the Gospel.

When is Jesus coming back?

I don’t know. Don’t worry about.

But…what should I do?

Do what he told us.

And…be ready. Amen.

Tradition!

Delivered at the Kirkin o’ the Tartans, at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, November 12, 2022

Propers for the Feast of St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland: Proverbs 31:10-20; Psalm 146:4-9; Matthew 13:44-46

It is good to be at St. James’ again, although I find myself missing Fr. Jos, as I am sure everyone does. Our Dominican chapter next year is in the Seattle area and I am hoping that I might be able to make a side trip to Idaho for a visit. I hear that the new bishop there likes Dominicans.

But for now, we shall soldier on.

I was asked by Deacon Suzy to choose the “propers” — the scriptures we are using this evening. Of course I preferred a Scottish theme — duh. I had a couple of choices, based on the time of year. We have used both before, but it doesn’t hurt to revisit them. One option that we have used before is the celebration of the Consecration of Bishop Samuel Seabury. I believe we used this one at the last Kirkin’. But I ended up choosing the celebration of the feast of St. Margaretm, Queen of Scotland, since that feast fits so well into the real reason we are here tonight. Tradition.

Now, hold onto your seats. I often tell people that if you ask a Dominican to preach for you, you’re going to get some book-learnin’ thrown in.

So, who is this Margaret?

Well, first, to be honest, she wasn’t Scottish at all. Not Celtish in any way. She was Anglo-Saxon. She was the daughter of Edward the Exile, a descendant of Alfred the Great. Edward had lived in exile in Hungary, where Margaret was likely born in 1045. Edward preferred to stay in Hungary, but was convinced to come back to England to settle a succession crisis in the 1050s. That’s right, not very long before the Norman invasion. Unfortunately, a few months after reaching England, he died. Mysteriously. That seemed to happen a lot back then.

But Margaret soon found herself betrothed to Malcom Canmor, the king of Scotland. Remember in Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”, the two princes who were the sons of the murdered King Duncan — Malcom and Donalbain? This is that Malcom. “Canmor,” by the way, literally means “big head.” Scholars are split on whether that means he was smart, or wise, or a canny tactician, or if he just had a really big head.

There was a lot of…well, stuff…before Margaret and Malcolm were eventually married. The English called off the betrothal, Malcolm invaded Northumbria in protest, etc., etc., but eventually, in 1070, the betrothal was back on and they were married. Yes, that’s after the Normans took over the rule of England. I wonder if this was a tactic by the Normans to get Margaret out of the way. She did, after all, have a claim on the throne that might have been at least an irritant to the Norman King William whose claim was pretty sketchy.

I’ve been listening to British history podcasts a lot lately. Can you tell?

Now, for many rulers, the ancient sources disagree on whether they were good or bad, but there doesn’t seem to be any disagreement about Margaret. She is consistently referred to as “strong, pure, and noble.”

Among other things, Margaret used her influence with her husband and his heir, her youngest son David, to work toward just rule. Every day, according to the chronicles, she served orphans and washed the feet of the poor before she ate anything. She established monasteries, assisted pilgrims, and interceded for the release of Englishmen who had been put into serfdom by the Normans. In private, she spent much of her time in prayer and reading.

This past Sunday, at my home parish in Poplar Bluff, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints, which is all about tradition. Remembering and honoring tradition, especially as exemplified by the Saints, is important. And if you think that was a student jump from St. Margaret to tradition, bear with me for a minute. I promise to bring these two threads together.

We Episcopalians consider tradition to be very important. Tradition is why we get up here in church wearing medieval outfits. It’s why I am here in a getup that is not that different from the habit worn by St. Dominic de Guzman in the 12th century. It’s not because we’re heading to the Renaissance Fair after church. It’s because we think it’s important to maintain a connection to those who have gone on before us

In fact, we Anglicans consider tradition so important that we have it as one of the three “legs” that we use when considering doctrine: we use scripture, interpreted using reason, in the light of tradition.

But it is just as important to understand how that tradition applies to our personal lives. Because if it doesn’t, if we don’t give that tradition meaning, we’re just playing. Putting on costumes, going through the motions, having a good time, but not much else.

Now, the Gospel reading for our celebration of All Saints last week was the Beatitudes as found in Luke. There are things that are different about this passage in Luke that are different than the similar passage found in Matthew. Where Matthew’s Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Jesus says simply, “Blessed are the poor.” Where Matthew’s Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Luke’s Jesus says “Blessed are you who hunger.”

Where Matthew’s Jesus speaks of spiritual well-being, Luke’s Jesus is much more concerned with immediate physical needs. Like Margaret.

St. Margaret gave us a tradition of bringing the Beatitudes into reality. She showed us how. And she isn’t alone. St. Damien the Leper, St. Martin des Porres, St. Teresa of Kolkata – none of them Scots, unfortunately — also showed us the way.

Since we have been coming to the Kirkin’, my wife has been researching our respective family trees. I had always thought my heritage was almost all Irish and Welsh, but a MyHeritage DNA test says I am of mostly Scottish descent, and my wife has discovered that I have roots in Clan McLeod, Clan Buchanan, Clan Stewart, and others. I could wear a lot of different tartans, but I have settled on just one: McLeod of Lewis, because of their connection to Iona, the Holy Isle. By choosing one clan, I am intentionally connecting with those ancestors, honoring them, as flawed and imperfect as many – if not all – of them were. Because…well…tradition

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Maybe St. Margaret did not die for others, but she most certainly did dedicate her life to them. Can we not do the same? Can we not honor her tradition? Can we, like Margaret, care for the poor and needy, and work to see that those who rule do so justly?

In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus says “Every Scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

What is old is…our traditions. What is new is what we do with them. And both are a treasure.

So, by all means let us uphold our traditions. They are important, and we need to remember. We need to connect with what has gone before. But rather than blindly following and going through the motions, let us work to be what many of our forebears, like Margaret, like Damien, like Martin de Porres, like Teresa of Kolkata also worked to be.

What Jesus told us we were, or at least, could be.

The light of the world. The salt of the earth. Saints.

In our case, Scottish saints.

Amen.

…And the Other Was Me

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Today in the Gospel, we get a parable that most of us are all too familiar with. Two men went up to the Temple to pray (one always went “up” to the Temple, never “down”). Two men: a tax collector and a Pharisee.

The Pharisee praised God that he was better than other people. He followed Torah! He did everything that Torah commanded! Certainly he was better than that (Ick!) tax collector over there.

Tax collectors, of course, were awful people. They were reviled by most Jews. They collaborated with the Romans, with the oppressor. They took more than in taxes than was required. Pharisees, on the other hand, were respected citizens, learned men who interpreted Torah.

But the tax collector, in contrast to the Pharisee, simply asks God for mercy. And Jesus says that he, rather than the Pharisee, leaves the Temple in a right relationship with God.

In this parable, Jesus once again twists reality into a pretzel – at least in the minds of his listeners – by saying the tax collector went away justified, implying that the Pharisee…didn’t.

Now, to be honest, don’t we all have a little in common  with the Pharisee? After all, we give to the church. We worship regularly. We don’t steal. We don’t sin against each other. We try to do right. We’re good people!

And I fear that even while we are saying we see the point that Jesus is making, we still, down deep, don’t get it.

Whenever we read parables, don’t we tend to say that we identify with the underdog? I mean, we’re the good guys, right? In the story of the Prodigal Son, we identify with him, right? He comes back and is forgiven. We don’t identify with the older brother, the one who grumbles. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we identify with the Samaritan, not with the priest or the Levite. It makes us feel good! It’s edifying to know that we’re on the right side!

The thing is…Jesus’ parables are not meant to edify. They are not meant to make us feel good about ourselves. Really, it’s quite the opposite. Jesus’ parables are meant to shake us up. They are meant to upend our way of looking at the world. Jesus’ parables are subversive. They turn good guys into bad guys and bad guys into good guys.

Parables are meant to make us question our assumptions as to how the world works – or how the kingdom of heaven works.  Jesus is saying “See, God’s kingdom doesn’t work like the kingdoms you’re used to! It’s just the opposite!” One thing I like to tell people is that if they are interpreting one of Jesus’ parables and their interpretation doesn’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, then it’s probably wrong.

We’re not meant to identify with the underdog when we listen to these types of parables. Instead, we are meant to take a good, long, hard look at the not-so-good guys – the ones that often get their comeuppance, as it were — and contemplate how much we are like them. And that’s hard. Sometimes it even hurts.

So when we look at this parable, we should not be looking for ways that we are like the tax collector. No, we should be looking for ways in which we are like the Pharisee.

Scary, isn’t it? I’ll answer for you: Yes, it is. Taking an honest look at yourself and your behavior is never ever fun. But let’s take a minute here and try.

The Pharisee praised God, yes, and that’s good! But he did it by comparing his own piety to someone else’s. And that’s bad.

How often do we do that?

How often do we decide that someone else’s piety is “not good enough?”

How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide who belongs and who doesn’t?

How often do we decide on our own authority who should be allowed into our church, instead of letting God lead the people here that He wants? Do we look at people who come in and think “Wow, they don’t look like they belong,” or “They aren’t like us,” or “What are they doing in here?”

Any time we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” when we talk about how blessed we are, we are treading on dangerous ground. It’s not a very big leap from thanking God for his grace to saying that there is some kind of difference between us and someone else. We are close to saying that God has bestowed his grace on us, but not on that person over there. We are very close to saying that we deserve grace, but that person doesn’t.

What we need is a good dose of humility.

Even if we are doing everything God has commanded us to do, we need to realize that this doesn’t make us any better than anyone else, and I mean anyone. In Luke 17:10, Jesus says “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

See, that is humility.

Our reading from Jeremiah is a song of suffering, humility, and asking for mercy: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you.” Pretty much the same prayer as that prayed by the tax collector.

We are, in the eyes of God, no better than the tax collector, or the homeless person we see on the street, or the sex worker, or the thief, or the murderer in prison. Because God doesn’t see with the same eyes that we do.

Yeah, that’s uncomfortable. But remembering that is how we stay in a right relationship with God. In the Orthodox Church, there is a favorite prayer, and it’s very simple. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it simply goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No more than that. It’s a good prayer to use from time to time.

Here’s another suggestion, a way we might use today’s parable to keep ourselves in a proper state of humility. Whenever we feel tempted to compare our own devotion to someone else’s, or we feel even a little superior to someone else, let’s try using this little verse to remember who WE are in this parable:

“Two men when up to the Temple to pray.”

“One was a tax collector.”

“And the other…was me.”

Amen.

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.