Our Victory is Certain

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

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

“I have conquered the world.”

Think how extraordinary these words are.

“I have conquered the world.”

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

“I have conquered the world.”

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

“I have conquered the world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our victory is certain.

He has conquered the world.

Amen

Everybody Doubts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Christ and the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God did make his presence there known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Like John

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

John 3:22-36

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

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

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

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

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

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

John shows us a better way.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Is Not This the Fast That I Choose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how Isaiah continues:

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

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

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

Can you imagine that? Can you see it?

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

And God always keeps His promises.

Amen.

Telling the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People will see God in us. 

Amen.

This Changes Everything

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

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

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

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

Not exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have we given up?

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

Have we given up anything?

Have we changed…anything?

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

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

But that would still change everything.                

Amen.

Bubble Up

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

“Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!”

This is one of my favorite Internet memes. The text is accompanied by a picture of a guy who is…not well-groomed, to say the least. I like it because it reminds us that John was not a clean-cut, well-washed prophet. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes made of camel hair (try that sometime). He ate weird food.

And he insulted people.

John was a prophet of the old school, one who “spoke truth to power.” The Hebrew word for prophet is navi’. It has the same root as a verb that means to “bubble up,” like a spring bubbles up out of the ground. The implication is that the word of God filled these people – both men and women – so strongly that they just couldn’t keep from speaking out. A prophet’s main job wasn’t to predict the future, although they sometimes did. A prophet’s job was to bring God’s word to the people.

I can guarantee you we would not have taken a shine to John. We generally don’t like people who are weird and rude. And throughout the history of Israel people often hated the messages that the prophets brought – especially the wealthy and the mighty. In Advent, last Sunday and this Sunday, we hear a good bit about John.

Today’s Gospel reading is from the latter part of the first chapter of John’s gospel. Incidentally, John the Baptist and the gospel writer are not the same guy. This is the chapter that begins “In the beginning was the Word.” The chapter makes clear that Jesus is the Word of God. The part we read today says that John was sent from God. One section we read today says that John “wasn’t the light but came to testify to the light.” The last part of today’s reading is John saying essentially the same thing, in his own words.

John was not the Messiah, and said so himself. John came to testify to the coming of the Messiah, the one of whom he said “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal”. We tag the gospel writer as “John the Evangelist,” but John the Baptist was a pretty good evangelist in his own right. He came to bring good news, the news of the coming of the Christ. John knew what was coming. He knew who was coming. And he just couldn’t keep it to himself. He had to tell people.

The spring 2021 – and final — semester of my Dominican novitiate will be all about evangelism. Now, I come from a particular religious background. I was raised Southern Baptist, where every Thursday night is specifically set aside for “Visitation”, basically going around to people’s homes and witnessing, which (in my case, at least) often made both them and me uncomfortable. I freely admit that I have certain…baggage about evangelism. I have things that I need to unlearn. I was brought up to think of evangelism as an “in your face” activity. You need to confront people and get them saved! Even the WORD “evangelism” tends to bring up unpleasant memories. So, understandably, I was feeling very uneasy about this semester. Which may seem weird for someone who is moving into a vocational ministry that is focused on preaching.

But then I began reading one of the assigned texts: Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically, by Mark Teasdale.  Teasdale says we have evangelism all wrong. It’s not about any of those things I was taught to do as a teenager. Doing evangelism can vary from person to person. And figuring how you should do it takes a bit of work.

A major point that Teasdale makes is that, before we can begin the work of evangelism, we have to know what we believe. What is the Good News that we carry? Only when we figure this out can we know how we can carry this Good News to the world.

John knew exactly what the Good News was that he was bringing, and he knew how to bring it to the 1st-century Jews.  We, as the Church, should be just as confident as John that we do indeed know this Good News. But at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to become smug. Too often we want to hoard the Good News and set ourselves up as good examples for the world, without really sharing that gift. I mean, aren’t we great? We have the Good News! You can’t have it, but we’ve got it!

John would not have hesitated to call us out.

The Messiah, the Christ, is coming. He is coming to redeem the whole world, to complete the task that began with his crucifixion and resurrection. We should be so filled with that Good News that we just can’t hold it in. It should bubble up out of us. We should be so filled with that gift that we cannot resist sharing it with others.

We lit the pink candle on the Advent wreath today, the candle of Joy. Are we ready to share this gift, this joy, this Good News? Are we ready to join with John as witnesses to the light? Are we ready to let this Good News bubble up out of us? Or will we keep it to ourselves?

I pray we make the right choice.

Let us pray:

Lord, when you look upon the landscape of your creation and the witness of the Word of God within it, we ask that we be found distributing the gift of joy we have received rather than hoarding it in selfish egoism. Deliver us from ever thinking that what you give is ours alone. Christ for the world – let this be our motto. Amen!

(Prayer adapted from one found in “An Advent Alphabet: Daily Readings from William Stringfellow,” by Jeffrey. A. Mackey)

No “Yeah, buts”

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

“Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

When I was kid, my Dad had a saying that he would sometimes use – rather abruptly, I thought – to end arguments, usually when he had already said “no” to something we kids wanted and we were coming up with reasons why he should say “yes.” It was a very short phrase: “No ‘yeah buts’.” I don’t remember the exact genesis of that, but I’m sure it grew out of the fact that my brother and sisters and I would inevitably use the phrase “Yeah, but…” to introduce our disagreement, looking for a loophole in what we had been told.

Today’s Gospel follows immediately from last Sunday’s and continues with Peter asking for…clarification. Like last week, this passage is about dealings between members of the community. We need to approach the two readings as a single conversation.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus set out a communal process that includes naming the sin, repentance, forgiveness, and support of the victim if necessary.

But after being given the process reconciliation should follow between believers, Peter says “Well, how many times do I have to forgive someone who sins against me?”

Considering what has just been said, Peter is saying. “Yeah, but…”. Something we do all the time. It seems we can always come up with a “Yeah, but…”. We want loopholes. Peter is looking for a loophole.

Peter asks “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” After all, seven in Jewish numerology is the number of completion, the perfect number. That should be enough, right?

Jesus answers “No, seventy-seven times.” Some translations make it “Seventy times seven.” Either way, it’s a lot more forgiveness than Peter had counted on. And who is actually going to keep count of a number that high?

Effectively, Jesus is saying “You must forgive every time.”

Then he follows up with a parable.

In the parable, a servant owes his lord some money. The size of the debt that the servant owes his lord is significant, to say the least. Ten thousand talents in the idiom of the time meant something like “the largest amount of money you could ever imagine.” A ridiculously large debt, one that a servant couldn’t possibly accrue over a lifetime. We might think in terms of a debt of billions of dollars. Remember that Jesus’ parables often use ridiculous situations to make a point. As we shall see in a moment, this huge amount is critical to the parable. We should also note that selling a debtor and his family into slavery was forbidden by Torah, but was perfectly legal under Roman law. The disciples would have seen this immediately. The lord in the story is not a “good guy.”

But he does relent when his servant begs for mercy. He not only relents, he forgives the debt! Ridiculous!

So all is well, and good, right? Not quite. The forgiven servant is owed money by one of his fellow servants. It’s much smaller amount, but he can’t pay up either.

A denarius was basically a day’s wages for a common laborer, so 100 denarii might be around 3 month’s wages. Maybe a few thousand dollars today. A pretty small debt compared to 10,000 talents! The comparison in size of debts is ludicrous, and is meant to be. Jesus used this kind of hyperbole a lot – comparing something tiny to something huge. Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. Take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brothers. A camel going through the eye of a needle.

But the forgiven servant refuses to forgive his fellow and has him thrown into prison. And word gets back to the lord, who is NOT pleased. He takes drastic action.

You see, the lord’s forgiveness, while it didn’t have to be earned, did impose some responsibility on the servant.  The servant was forgiven a huge debt. It was his responsibility to forgive a much smaller debt.

In the same way, God’s grace — God’s forgiveness – is free, yes. But free grace doesn’t mean that there is no response necessary from us. Gifts in the Mediterranean world of the time tended to be like that. Even when freely given, they assumed a responsibility on the part of the person receiving the gift. They formed a bond between giver and receiver.

God’s grace forms a bond with us. Yes, grace and forgiveness are freely given, but when we accept, we enter into a covenant with Him — an agreement that we will show the same grace to others that He has shown to us. And there is no loophole. No “Yeah, buts” are allowed. We must forgive.

How often does God forgive us?  Every time.

How often must WE forgive each other? Every time.

What does God forgive? Everything.

What must we forgive? Everything.

Now, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Nor does it mean standing meekly by when the behavior is repeated. Nor does it mean that we can ignore evils done to others. The scriptures are very clear that we must always come down on the side of justice, on the side of the oppressed. If we see an injustice, we are bound to speak out, to work to see that justice is done.

But Peter and Jesus aren’t talking about that kind of situation. They are continuing the conversation from last week, about the sins we commit against each other within the Christian community. Peter says “If another member of the church sins against me…”. And the parable states right out that if we do not forgive others, we leave ourselves ope to judgment.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we just say it’s OK that they did that to us. What forgiveness means is that we will not seek retribution for what someone might have done. We will not seek revenge. We will no longer put any emotional resources into what has happened in the past. We set the other person free from that, and we set ourselves free.

In forgiving, we relinquish any control the incident has over our own lives. Punishment may still happen to the other person, but we don’t seek it. And we don’t take pleasure in it happening. The Germans have word for that: Schadenfreude. It literally means “harm-joy.” It’s a feeling of happiness when something bad happens to someone else – usually someone we don’t like. When we forgive, we give up Schadenfreude.

We set ourselves free from all of that. We will not hold that person to account. EVER.

By extension, the matter no longer has any hold over the community. We forgive for the good of the person we are forgiving, for our own good, and for the good of the church.

How often does God forgive us? Every time.

How often must WE forgive each other? Every time.

What does God forgive? Everything.

What must WE forgive? Everything.

To be a Christian is to forgive, as God forgives us. Forgive everything, every time.

Thomas Merton said

In the end, it comes down to the old story that we are sinners, but that this is our hope because sinners are the ones who attract to themselves the infinite compassion of God. To be a sinner, to want to be pure, to remain in patient expectation of the divine mercy and above all to forgive and love others, as best we can, this is what makes us Christians. 

My Dad might add, “And no ‘yeah buts’.”

Those People

Sometimes the lectionary hands you a gift. This is one of those days. About two years ago, we were in Year B in the 3-year lectionary cycle, when we mostly read the Gospel According to Mark. On September 22, I preached on Mark’s version of the story that we encounter today in Matthew. Occasions like this give you a chance to revisit your thoughts and spend more time contemplating the scripture and what it means. I hope that I have a couple of new insights since then.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.” This area is northwest of Galilee, near along the coast. A woman runs up to Jesus and the disciples and shouts at them, asking for help. The scripture says her daughter is tormented by a demon. I won’t go into whether it’s really a demon or if there is some psychological problem, but in the long run it really doesn’t matter. The daughter needs help, and the mother is desperate.

Matthew describes the woman as a “Canaanite.” Mark calls her a “Syro-Phoenician.” The main point is that she isn’t a Jew. Maybe she was one of those Gentiles known as “God-fearers,” who actively worshiped the God of the Jews but did not take the steps to convert fully to Judaism.

The disciples want to get rid of her, and Jesus seems to go along with them. He tells her, basically, that she’s a dog and he came strictly for the Jews. I’ve seen commentators who say the Greek word that’s translated “dog” here really means “puppy,” This may be true – my Greek isn’t that good. But I’m not sure it makes a difference. I kind of feel that they’re assuming that people at the time felt the same way about puppies that we do, inserting their own cultural bias into the reading. I think it was still an insult. Maybe Jesus was tired and hungry. Maybe his blood sugar was low. He was human, after all. Tyre and Sidon would have been out of his normal territory, so maybe he was hoping for some rest and relaxation. Mark, in fact, says this was the situation. On the other hand, maybe Jesus was trying to shock the woman to get her attention. I don’t know. The scripture doesn’t say.

Whatever the reason for Jesus’ barb, the woman doesn’t miss a beat. She bounces right back.

“Even the dogs get to eat what’s left over from the meal.”

“I may not be a Jew,” she says in essence, “but I still matter.

This woman may not know that she is speaking to the Son of God, but she obviously knows she is speaking to someone with a great deal of power, someone with the power to cast out demons, and yet she throws his slur right back at him, a mother pleading for her child in the face of a powerful man who has dismissed her as not worthy of his attention.

And Jesus…relents.

He tells her that her refusal to be marginalized by his cruel words has saved her daughter. 

The woman refuses to accept Jesus’ apparent dismissal, and her daughter is healed.

Jesus relented. How often do we relent after we dismiss those in need?

I mean, we really don’t like to help “those people.” Oh, we may dress our attitude up in righteousness. Those people don’t need our help, we tell ourselves. Not really. They could help themselves. There are others who need help, too. We’ll go help them first. Strangely, we never seem to help them either.

Even worse, we think “Those people don’t deserve our help.”

You see it’s easy to dehumanize people that aren’t like us. When a Jew referred to a Gentile as a dog, he was in effect saying, “You’re not even human.” And when someone isn’t human, you can treat them like an animal. Civilizations throughout time have done it. There are ancient records of people referring to those outside the pale of their civilization as “beasts.” There is always a group we can call “those people.”

For the Greeks and Romans, it was the “barbarians.”

For Second Temple Jews, it was the Gentiles. And the Samaritans.

Later, for many Gentile Christians, it became the Jews. In the Epistle reading for today Paul is writing specifically to the Gentile Christians in Rome, explaining to them that God has not rejected his chosen people. Paul first proudly claims his own Judaism, then goes on to explain that God doesn’t break covenants. As he says, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

Who is it for us? Who do we consider “those people?”

How often do we react to someone’s need by placing them in a group and judging them all together? How often do we look at a person’s color or religion or social class or politics and use that as a basis to decide whether or not we will help them? How often do we dismiss and marginalize those whose experience is different from ours?

If only they didn’t dress that way.

If only they’d behave the way we think they should.

If only they believed the same things we do.

If only they voted the way we think they should.

If only they were more like us.

Then they would be human.

Then we could help them.

Of course we do it. People have always done it. Sometimes our attitudes are so automatic that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Sometimes we have to honestly, painfully examine our motivations to see that we’ve done it.  I’ve done it. I still do it, though I know I shouldn’t. And when I realize that I’ve treated anyone as less…I’m ashamed. Of course, we don’t like to feel ashamed, so we tend not to examine our motivations too closely, afraid of what we will find.

Even Jesus did it. Whatever his motivation, Jesus told this woman, full of need, that she was less than human. And when that she stood up to him, he rewarded her for it.

If we are being completely honest with ourselves, we all do it. But we can try not to.

In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?

Not all persons that look like we do.

Not all persons that dress like we do.

Not all people that were born in the same country as we were.

Not all persons in the same political party as we are.

Not all persons that believe the same as we do.

Not all persons that think like we do.

All persons. Period.

Can we seek and serve Christ in all persons? Can we stop making excuses for ourselves? Can we look past the clothes, the color, the religion, the politics…and see the face of Christ? 

Can we?

When we’re asked that question in the Vows, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” Because we can’t do it, not by ourselves. Only with God’s help can we begin to break through our human desire to segregate, to label people not like us as “other”.

Whenever someone is in need, we can help them, no matter how different the are from us, with God’s help.

With God’s help, we can see Christ in everyone, and serve them as we would serve him.

Amen.