Pray for a Miracle

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

I hate it when this happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we can pray for a miracle.

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

—————-

“I No Longer Pray For Peace”

On the edge of war, one foot already in,

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

I ask you to stand and pray with me now.

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray for a miracle.

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

Amen.

We Must Do Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Ring Out Your joy!

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

Today…is just a weird day all around.

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

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

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

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

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

The Canticle, the First Song of Isaiah includes the line

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

And from St. Paul we hear,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But look at the last line of the Gospel reading:

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

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

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

“I will save the lame
and gather the outcast, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ring out your joy!

Amen.

Following Jesus On the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is heading to his crucifixion.

He is going to his death.

And Bartimaeus has become a Jesus-follower.

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

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

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

Amen

Get Out of My Way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Love One Another As I Have Loved You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All we have to do is say “Yes.”

Amen.

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.