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Sermon, November 28, 2021 – Advent 1

A Promise of Hope

Happy New Year! This morning marks the beginning of a new church calendar year. Once, again, we, as Christians, demonstrate that we are deliberately out of step with the rest of the world – especially the consumer world. Just look around, the stores have been decorated for Christmas since sometime in mid-October. Sadly, it will all be gone on the morning of December 26th – just as we are getting started celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Advent is intended to be a time of quiet reflection and contemplation, not just on the meaning of Christmas and the birth of our Lord. Rather this season is intended to give us an opportunity to give thanks for the year just past and prepare for the year ahead. Our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their celebration of Rosh Hashanah with the blessing, “May you be inscribed with a good and sweet new year.”  By the way, our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their observance of Hannukah tonight at sunset.

We begin this new year by looking at the last things. Jesus, in our Gospel reading from Luke, tells us to be on the lookout for the calamities that will strike the world before this generation passes away. Signs and portents that could cause fear and discomfort – the antithesis of how the world wishes this season to be about. Yet, Jesus invites us to live in hope for the promised redemption foretold by the prophets.

The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading from the Hebrew scriptures, tells us emphatically that “the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to the House of Judah.”  An assurance that God will keep the promises He has made. This is meant to give us a source of hope, even in the midst of desperate and fearful times.

God’s promises are all around us, reminding us that God’s faithfulness is something we can depend upon no matter what the circumstances. When I was at Nashotah House about this time of year, I became somewhat depressed because of the cold temperatures and gray skies. I called my Dad and told him what was going on. He told me to take a walk in the woods and take a close look at the branches of the maple trees (we had just finished raking up all the leaves earlier that week), and then call him back. I put on my parka and gloves and headed out. I didn’t have to walk far. I pulled down a branch and examined it closely. There on the branch was the bud that would grow into a new leaf once spring arrived. It began to dawn on me that here in the early winter with its cold temperatures, blistering wind, and dark gray skies was the promise of spring already present. When I called back, Dad explained that the emerging bud of the new leaf was one of the reasons the old leaves turned their glorious reds, and yellows before falling to the earth.

So it is for us on this First Sunday of Advent, we are called to live in hope, knowing that God’s promises are already in our midst; because “the days are coming says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to the House of Judah.”

Happy New Year! I wish you a joyful, and peaceful, Advent and a sweet and good new year.

Amen.

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Sermon November 21, 2021 – Feast of Christ the King

A King Like No Other

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival marks the end of Ordinary Time and serves as a bridge into Advent. This is a fairly new commemoration – less than 100 years old.  It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in December of 1922 as a response to the growing secularism that emerged after World War I. This feast is somewhat difficult for Twenty-first century Americans, since we have no royalty; moreover, one of the central issues in the rebellion that won us our independence was to rid ourselves of the trappings of a royal court. Nevertheless, here we are acknowledging that God is restoring all things through his beloved Son the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Unlike other peoples in the ancient Near East, Israel’s institution of the monarchy came relatively late in their history. Other kings were often regarded as gods, but the Lord God was the only sovereign of Israel (Jer. 10:7-10), the “great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:3). Honoring the covenant between God and Israel also distinguished the monarchy of Israel from that of other nations. A king in Israel was often referred to as the “anointed one” (1 Sam. 2:35), from which the title “messiah” was derived.

David was revered as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, the one through whom the Messiah would come. In today’s Old Testament passage David’s last words contrast a just ruler and a wicked ruler. David himself is described as “anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1).

A just king who rules “in the fear of God” (v. 3) is like morning light and refreshing rain. David has ruled according to the everlasting covenant made with the Lord, from whom his power was derived as a gift. Therefore, his household has prospered, and God has promised an everlasting dynasty for David’s heirs. In contrast, godless rulers are like thorns to be thrown away and immediately consumed by fire.

The Gospels frequently applied royal imagery to Jesus, beginning with the arrival of the Magi, who ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2). Matthew’s genealogy established that Jesus was of the royal Davidic lineage (Mt. 1:1). Although Jesus was accused of royal pretensions (Lk. 23:2), he resisted all efforts to make him king (Jn. 6:15). Nonetheless, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38).

The Gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday is from John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, with the royal status of Jesus as a major point of Pilate’s interrogation. However, a beaten and scorned Jesus hardly seems kingly. He had been flogged, dressed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns, and mocked by the soldiers: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Jn. 19:3). Although he seems utterly powerless as he stands before Pilate, Jesus is the only one who knows where true power comes from and what it means.

As this dramatic confrontation begins, Pilate asks Jesus point-blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33). Although this question is asked by Pilate in all of the Gospel accounts (Mt. 27:11; Mk. 15:2; Lk. 23:3), only John records a lengthy response by Jesus.

Roman law required a definite accusation, even for the punishment of noncitizens. Pilate had dealt with other nationalist rebels, and Jesus did not seem to be a violent terrorist. Jesus had already been found guilty by the Jewish authorities, and now Pilate sought to verify the vague charges against him.

Jesus, in his public ministry, had avoided the title of Messiah because it represented a distortion of his objectives; nevertheless, some of his actions had raised messianic hopes in the minds of the people. Thus, Pilate asks Jesus directly if he is the King of the Jews.

Instead of affirming or denying the accusation, Jesus simply inquires whether Pilate asks this question on his own, or whether he has heard others say this about him. Pilate contemptuously replies that since he (Pilate) is not a Jew, the issue is really between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities, and therefore has nothing to do with him.

In verse 36, Jesus defines the sense in which he is indeed a king: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” If the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed belonged in any sense to the temporal world, he would not have been handed over without a fight from his followers. The fact that there had been no conflict — nothing more than Peter’s impulsive attack on the High Priest’s slave — demonstrated the falsity of the charge brought against him. Jesus again reiterates this fact: “But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate’s only context for the idea of kingship was political and not spiritual; thus he once again asks Jesus, “So are you a king?” (v. 37a). Jesus then replies that he has come into the world to bring a reign of truth, and those to whom truth is meaningful will give heed to his word. In him, the world can see the nature of God most fully (cf Jn. 14:6).

Jesus exemplifies the character of true kingship and redefines worldly assumptions about power and authority. Pilate, who thinks he has power, in fact has little; and the power that he does have to order Jesus put to death will be overcome.

In Jesus there is no personal vanity or desire for aggrandizement at the expense of others. He came to serve and not to be served. His Kingdom would create a new community of believers who would hear and obey his voice. Jesus rules through grace and love in a realm of spirit and life in which justice and peace shine out for all. This was the saving truth that was being offered to the whole world in our crucified Lord, and is the essential meaning of our proclaiming Christ as King.

In a final twist of irony, Pilate ordered the inscription over the cross of Jesus to read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” When the chief priest insisted that it be changed to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews,” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (Jn. 19:19-22).

The description of the exalted Christ in the Book of Revelation provides a vision of the celestial Kingdom. Addressing the seven churches, the writer begins with blessings of peace in the style of Paul’s letters. The source of blessing is the Divine One “who is and who was and who is to come,” along with the “seven spirits” or seven archangels who serve God and Jesus himself (1:4).

The victorious and exalted Christ of the vision is described as the faithful witness; the first from among the dead in his victorious Resurrection; and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). By his love for us we are freed from sin through his blood. As Christ’s redeemed, we are ourselves a kingdom and priests to God the Father. Verse 7 reflects the language of the vision of Daniel (Dan. 7:13), as Christ comes in the clouds where “every eye will see him.” Then all the tribes who rejected him will cry out in fear of the coming judgment.

The Lord God is Alpha, the beginning, through whom all things were made; and Omega, the ending to whom all must come. Here all the ends and purposes of life and history are brought together through the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (v. 8b)

As we sit on the cusp of a new Church year. Let us give thanks that we live in a kingdom that is not of this world but transcends it. A kingdom that calls us to new life in and through Jesus the Christ – the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

 Amen.

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Sermon, November 14, 2021 – Pentecost 25

Instilling Hope

We are approaching the conclusion of Ordinary Time, next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King which will be the culmination of the journey we have traveled over the past twenty-five weeks.

The Gospel for this morning is often called “the little apocalypse” or “revelation” where Jesus tells the disciples what to expect as the Day pf the Lord draws closer. There are more than a few fundamentalist preachers who will take these verses literally, then attempt to correlate them with current events and jump to the conclusion that our Lord’s promised return is just around the corner. This misses the point Jesus is trying to make – that our faith will sustain us even in the worst of times, as well as the best.

The Epistle to the Hebrews I think gives us a way to respond to this morning’s Gospel that is both faithful to the text and makes clear what is expected of us as faithful Christians. In short, we are called to live a sanctified, or holy, life. The question for us is how do we do this – how do we live a sanctified, or holy, life?

First, a sanctified life is a life liven in a posture of confidence before God. Jesus’ offering of himself (“through his flesh”) has cleansed us “from an evil conscience” (vers 22). This is an allusion to our baptism, as well as to Jesus as the one who renews Israel (Ezekiel 36: 25), the author asserts that Jesus has “washed [our] bodies with pure water. In other words, as baptized and forgiven people, we need not be crippled by guilt and/or fear, but we can live with confidence before God.

Second, the sanctified life is one lived in hope. Verse 23 urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.”  This is not a misguided or misaligned hope. Even though Christ has inaugurated a new age, the world is still “waiting” for the final defeat of all God’s enemies – including death. All believers, then and now, face the challenge of living faithfully during this “in between” time, perhaps even in the midst of “abuse and persecution.”  Christian hope is practiced against our outward circumstances; because our hope is rooted not in human effort, but solely in the faithfulness of God. We are able to “hold fast” to our hope because the one “who has promised is faithful”

Third, the sanctified life is lived in community. This flies in the face of our American tendency toward rugged individualism. The entire community is the target of the exhortation to persevere. In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews scolds us for neglecting to meet together for worship and fellowship.

In urging us, and all, believers to gather, the author describes the “provocative” function of the Church. The Church gathers, in part, “for the purpose of incitement or provocation.”  This can carry a negative connotation of irritation or sharp disagreement, as well as the positive meaning of encouragement. Therefore, agitation is not simply a tool for community or union organizers, but one of the functions of members of Christ’s body. We are to stir up – if necessary, irritate – each other in to fulfilling, or living into, our Baptismal Covenant.

This model of the Church presents an image where the agitators are not “outsiders,” but “insiders.”  The Church is not a place where everyone “plays nice and gets along,” but a place where our duties to each other include difficult, perhaps contentious wrestling (but always wrestling together), with what love and good deeds available to us. This vision of the Church is the vision to which Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior called the clergy of Birmingham, Alabama in his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (August 1963). For King, the “love and good deeds” to which Christians provoke each other include agitation against an unjust status quo.

The fourth mark of the sanctified life is related to the third:  as Christians we are called to live in solidarity with each other. Holy living means growing in acts of love and Christ-like service to all people. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews warns us against complacency, against allowing the gospel of reconciliation to become a matter of cheap grace. Sanctification, the process of growing toward becoming holy, is both a calling and a gift. We are called to respond to God’s gift by engaging in those practices that will shape us into mature disciples. These practices are best cultivated with in the life of the believing community, in other words, the Church, as we gather for worship, to enjoy fellowship with each other, and provoke each other to acts of Christ-like service.

Finally, the sanctified life is lived with a sense of urgency because “the Day [is] approaching” (verse 25). By invoking scriptural images of the coming Day of the Lord as one of both judgement and redemption, we are offered both warning and encouragement. Therefore, as believers we should support each other in “love and good deeds.” So, on this Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King how do we live with the disturbing images of today’s Gospel, especially in light of current events? I believe is this. Jesus told us there would be “troubles,” it’s no different now as it was then. Our task is to live faithfully in love with each other, doing the things our Lord told us to do – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor and advocating for those who have no voice in our society. Most of all we should lift our heads and rejoice because our redemption is drawing near.

Amen.

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Sermon, November 7, 2021 – Octave of All Hallows

The Saints at Rest

Today is the transferred commemoration of All Saints’, which is actually a merging of three holy days: All Hallows’ Eve on 31 October (which gives us the holiday of Halloween), All Saints’ Day on 1st November and All Souls’ or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed on the 2nd.  These three days have a rich history in the Christian tradition. This is the only feast in our Kalendar that is allowed to be transferred to the Sunday following – Christmas doesn’t get this honor. The reason is that we need to remember that our faith and our religious practices do not occur in a vacuum, but rather is built on the shoulders of those faithful Christians who have gone before us.

The readings for today are also among those readings appointed for the Liturgy for the Burial of the Dead. It’s good that we hear these readings in a context other that a funeral.

The anonymous writer of the Wisdom of Solomon gives assurance that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (3:1). Even though it would seem that they have suffered and died, they are now at peace where “their hope is full of immortality” (v. 4). Any suffering they have endured is like a refiner’s fire in which they have been purified. They will govern nations, and as God’s holy ones they will abide in the Lord’s truth, grace, and mercy.

The vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1 — 22:5) in the Book of Revelation gives a description of life in the coming age when “death will be no more” (21:4). Originally written to bring hope to those who suffered in a time of persecution, these promises of God’s future continue to bring comfort and strength.

Here God’s work of reconciliation is reflected in the renewal of all creation (cf Is. 65:17; 66:22). In this vision, heaven and earth are completely transformed into “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). The Holy City of Jerusalem has been restored and is like a bride adorned for her groom.

In this new age, God will dwell among mortals and will be their consolation, wiping every tear from their eyes (v. 4a). Suffering, evil, and death will be vanquished, causing God to declare, “See, I am making all things new” (v. 5). Furthermore, we can be assured that these words are a present as well as a future reality — true from the beginning to the end, for “It is done!” (v. 6).

The Gospel reading from John’s Gospel recounts Jesus’ encounter with Martha before he raises Lazarus from the dead. It gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ power in the face of the ultimate human existential crisis. Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise because he is the source of Resurrection and Life.

All three of the readings serve to remind us that death is never the final word – in fact death is fleeting in the face of God’s dominion. The Good News here is that because of Jesus’ resurrection we are able to stand beside the open grave of a loved one and NOT go stark raving mad.

As I write these words, I am aware that my father is in Hospice (I covet your prayers), preparing for his own death, just as he prepared many of his parishioners during his ministry as a pastor – death he cheated several times during his service as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II.  He is a part of the “Greatest Generation,” yet he has lived as faithfully and humbly as possible.

Physical death is a part of the natural order – something not to be feared but embraced because our faith teaches us that God alone will have the final word, and we have heard that final word in our readings. “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God …;” “…death shall be no more…” and “… I am the Resurrection and the Life…”  This is the final word on the subject. Perhaps we should consider this verse from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun.  A translation is in our Hymnal:

And even you most gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath. You lead home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way has trod.

Hymn 400, Episcopal Hymnal, 1982

The Good News on this Sunday in All Saintstide is that the whole of our lives are caught up in God’s unchangeable, infinite, redeeming love. That love will ultimately have the final word for our souls; and at the last we hear “I am Resurrection and the Life.” “Death shall be no more.” And “the souls of the righteous are in in hands of God [and]… they, and we, will be at peace.”

So it is now and will be forever even unto the Ages of Ages.

Amen.

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Sermon, October 24, 2021 Pentecost 22

What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Our Gospel reading this morning marks a turning point in Mark’s Gospel.  This is the last healing miracle Jesus performs.  He and the disciples are heading to Jerusalem where eventually he will be arrested and crucified.  He is in Jericho taking the pilgrimage route from Galilee, down the Jordan River valley (thus avoiding Samaria) and begins the climb to Jerusalem.  When the New Testament talks about “going up to Jerusalem” or “down to Jericho” it means what it says.  Jerusalem sits at 1400 feet or so above Mean Sea Level (MSL) while Jericho lies near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea at approximately 1250 feet below MSL.  The lateral distance between the two cities is approximately 20 to 25 miles.  So you can imagine how steep the road was (and still is).

The Gospel story of the restoration of sight to Bartimaeus (cf Mt. 20:29-34; Lk. 18:35-43) provides an example of a new way of seeing — on both a literal and a metaphorical level.

As the passage begins, Jesus and his disciples are part of a large crowd leaving the city of Jericho. The blind beggar Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:47). Evidently Bartimaeus was familiar with Jesus’ reputation as a healer; but the people around him did not want to be bothered by the demands of the blind man and ordered him to be quiet.

However, Bartimaeus would not be silenced, and he called out again even more loudly. His use of the title “Son of David” is a messianic reference (cf 2 Sam. 7:4-17; Ps. 89:3-4; Mk. 12:35-37). Whereas Jesus had previously refused to encourage such a title (Mk. 8:30), he does not prevent Bartimaeus from using it here.

Hearing the cries of Bartimaeus, Jesus stopped and said, “Call him here” (v. 49). In response to Jesus’ authority, the crowd now encouraged Bartimaeus to come forward. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you” (v. 49). Immediately he threw off his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. In contrast to the rich man (Mk. 10:17-22) who could not give up his riches to follow Jesus, Bartimaeus readily abandons his only possession to come to the Lord. His cloak, which would have been spread out on the ground to catch coins tossed from passers-by, may also serve as a symbol of his former way of life that he now leaves behind.

Jesus then asks Bartimaeus the same question he had previously asked James and John (Mk. 10:36): “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51a). Bartimaeus’ simple request for restored sight — “My teacher, let me see again” (v. 51b; cf “Rabbouni” in Jn. 20:16) — is in sharp contrast to the previous request of James and John for preeminence among the other disciples (Mk. 10:37). Bartimaeus was not asking for money or other material gain; he was requesting that Jesus, as the agent of God’s mercy, heal him.

Just as in our own prayers, God knows our needs before we ask, it was obvious what Bartimaeus lacked. But if we are truly to receive God’s provision, we must first acknowledge our own helplessness. So here, Jesus requires Bartimaeus to name his need.

In the C. S. Lewis “Narnia” book The Magician’s Nephew (N. Y.: Macmillan Publ., 1955), one of the children is hesitant to make a request of the ruling lion Aslan.

“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly. “I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse. “But I’ve sort of an idea he likes to be asked.”

What about our own requests to God? Although God knows our needs before we ask, the act of articulating our desires in prayer helps us to discern what we want to bring before God, and whether or not our desires conform to God’s. In response, God may say “yes” or “no” — or surprise us with something else entirely.

As soon as Bartimaeus asks to have his sight restored, Jesus assures him that his faith has made him well. In contrast to a previous healing of a blind man (Mk. 8:22-26), this healing is instantaneous, without touch or further words.

“Go; your faith has made you well” (v. 52a) is also what Jesus said when he healed the woman with a hemorrhage (Mk. 5:25-34). Like Bartimaeus, this woman was considered an outcast, and she also took a bold initiative to bring her needs to Jesus. The persistent faith of both of these individuals meant that their lives were restored to health and wholeness. Bartimaeus and the unnamed woman bear out Jesus’ saying that the first shall be last and the last first — as the marginalized and powerless are given a prominent place in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.

Bartimaeus, his sight restored, followed Jesus on the way (v. 52b). To follow someone can be used in the sense of becoming that person’s disciple; or here it could simply mean that Bartimaeus joined the crowd on their way to Jerusalem. In either case, once Jesus calls us and touches us with God’s healing power, our eyes are opened and we make the way of Jesus our way as well.

This section of Mark’s Gospel (8:22 — 10:52) began with the healing of an anonymous blind man and concludes with the healing of blind Bartimaeus — the only person healed by Jesus who is called by name in Mark. The emphasis here has been on helping others, primarily his disciples, understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus — a call to service and sacrifice rather than prestige or power. Ultimately, the healing of Bartimaeus holds out the hope that the disciples’ spiritual blindness will eventually be overcome as well.

As the last of the healing miracles in Mark, the story of the faith of Bartimaeus brings this portion of the Gospel to a close and serves as a bridge to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the Cross.

The Gospel theme of a new way of seeing is reflected in the Old Testament reading, with Job’s declaration that “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). To have one’s eyes opened, both literally and figuratively, is a manifestation of God’s grace.

The series of readings from Job concludes, as Job makes his final response to God (42:1-6). Throughout his ordeals, all Job asks is the opportunity to bring his case directly before God. Thus, when God finally speaks (38:1 — 40:2; 40:6 — 41:34), Job begins to understand that there is transcendent purpose and order in God’s created universe beyond what Job is able or expected to understand (42:3b).

In the end, God does not directly answer Job’s questions, but through his direct encounter with the Divine, Job’s eyes are opened to new perspectives. Ultimately, to be human is to be vulnerable to suffering; and as mere mortals of dust and ashes, we can never truly comprehend all of God’s ways.

All in all, when we come to Jesus here at this table, we come with but one deep soul stirring request when he asks us “what do we want?”  Our answer which sums up all the other answers we could give is, “Lord, let me see again.”

Amen.

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Sermon, October 17, 2021 – Pentecost 21

We Don’t Know What We’re Asking

There’s an old bit of wisdom that states that if one really doesn’t want to know the answer to a particular question, then don’t ask the question.  In today’s reading from the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures and from the Gospel we hear examples of question being asked that in hindsight probably were better off unspoken.

Job up to this point has been asking questions and getting unsatisfactory answers about the calamities and misfortunes that have befallen him.  His friends have attempted to answer those questions using the theological and psychological perspectives of their day.  The friends’ intentions are good in that they are doing their best to bring Job some comfort in the midst of his grief.  In spite of their well meaning attempts to bring comfort, Job’s questions and laments grow in magnitude.  Suddenly, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind.  Instead of answering Job’s questions, because there really are no answers, God begins to question Job – asking him about the presence and role in creation. 

In the Gospel, James and John ask Jesus for the honor of sitting on either side of him in the heavenly realm.  I can see Jesus putting his face in his hands because, once again, the disciples don’t get the picture.  Ever since Jesus began to talk about the reason for going to Jerusalem, he has been speaking in terms of sacrifice and servanthood not power and prestige.  James and John make a request, and it triggers the hostility of the other disciples (who probably been thinking the same thing as James and John). 

Like the story from Job, Jesus turns the tables on them and asks two simple questions: 1) can you drink from the cup that I will drink, and 2) can you accept the baptism that awaits me?

To “drink the cup” was a metaphor for suffering. Baptism is used here in a similar sense to signify self-emptying love. Later Paul would write, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Their sharing in the Messiah’s triumph includes participation in his sacrificial death.

James and John once again show their misunderstanding when they confidently reply that they are able to drink this cup; however, at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, they will desert him (Mk. 14:50). Jesus responds that they may share the cup that he himself will drink, but “to sit at my right hand or at my left” (v. 40) is not his to grant. Only God the Father can decide who occupies these preeminent positions. In an ironic twist, it is two thieves who would share the places of honor in Jesus’ glory — not on a heavenly throne but at the crucifixion. To sit at the right or left hand of Jesus is to be included in his final suffering.

The other disciples are enraged by the presumptuous actions of James and John. Thus, beginning in verse 42, Jesus addresses all of them with teachings about true leadership. In a society that prized power, status, and honor, the followers of Jesus were to take a different path — that of servant leadership. The heart of discipleship is service and not privilege. And those who perform such service do it with no thought for recognition. Those who merely reflect the values of this world ultimately can do nothing to transform it.

The person who is truly great is the one who seeks always to provide for the needs and welfare of others — the one who is ready to be the slave of all. In God’s Kingdom the quest for individual power and status is replaced by humility and service to others. Jesus models this service, as the one who “came not to be served but to serve” (v. 45a). Discipleship is not about effectiveness or success as the world sees it, with immediate and predictable results, but whether or not we have faithfully followed Jesus’ example.

What this means for us is that we are called to be servants of one another, as well as to the entire human family.  The late Gayle Sayers entitled his autobiography, I am Third, which explicitly outlined his priorities in order of importance.  For Sayers, God was first, others (including family) were second, and he placed himself last. 

Are we going to get this right all the time?  Of course not, that’s why we come back to this place Sunday after Sunday to confess our shortcomings, receive forgiveness and the assurance of the grace to keep going, and finally the spiritual food and drink to continue the journey.  Thus encouraged we go out into the world to serve the world in our Lord’s name.  Knowing that all of our questions will be answered, even those that we know better than to ask; or, as the old Gospel hymn reminds us:

Farther along we’ll know all about it,

Farther along we’ll understand why;

Cheer up, don’t worry, live in the sunshine.

We’ll understand it all by and by.

W.B. Stevens

Amen.

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Sermon, October 10, 2021 – Pentecost 20

It’s All About Grace

A man died and found himself standing before St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, the Book of Life was open on Peter’s desk.  He looked up the new arrival’s name and assured him that his name was indeed written in the Book.  Peter tells him there’s one more test, the man has to name all of his good works and score 100 points.  The man begins to list his good deeds and Peter assigns them one or two points depending on the act – some even gave a negative score.  When he was finished listing all of the good works he could remember his score stood at four points.  He placed his head in his hands and on the point of despair said, “The only way I’m going to get in here is by the grace of God.”  Without looking up Peter said, “100 points” and the gate swung open to welcome the newcomer.

This morning our attention shifts back to the call to the life of discipleship, which is the life in grace, and the requirements that such a life necessitates.  We are reminded, once again, that our discipleship, in fact the whole of our relationship with the Holy One is dependent upon God’s grace.  We hear it in the Collect for today:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 234 – 235)

The whole of our life in Christ is built upon the notion that we are entirely and utterly dependent upon God’s gracious, unconditional love.  It is God’s love that created us, sustains us, heals and forgives us, and ultimately receives us back into his loving and welcoming embrace when our time here on earth is done.  The challenge for us is that we all too often allow other things, which is the definition of idolatry, to come between us and God’s love.  Anything that we place between ourselves and God is an idol – anything can become an idol if we allow it.

This is the main point in the first part of today’s Gospel.  This story is found in all three Synoptic Gospels with minor variations.  A wealthy man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus gives the classic rabbinical response by telling him to keep the commandments – especially those commandments which impact the social order.  When the wealthy man replies that he has kept these commandments since the days of his youth.  Jesus looks at him, loves him (this is the only instance where Jesus’ love for a potential disciple is articulated), and tells him he lacks one thing – Jesus instructs him to go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and come follow me.  Jesus adds that the man will have “treasure in heaven.”  Mark tells us that he went away grieving because he had great possessions.

Jesus then launches into a lesson about the difficulty to enter the Kingdom, especially if we allow our possessions to get in the way.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having possessions or being wealthy.  The problem comes when we allow our wealth to become our governing principle and neglect the reason for our wealth – which is using it to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, and those who have no voice in our society.  This is also a polemic against those who choose to believe that one’s wealth is an outward and visible sign of their faithfulness and God’s blessing – like many of the “evangelists” who proclaim a “prosperity gospel” that teaches that if we were to give (usually to the “evangelist” in question), then God will bless us with material wealth and comfort.  No where is that promised in Scripture.

Jesus reminds us that everything we have is from God, and there is awaiting us even more that we can ask or imagine.  Our task is to place our trust in Jesus’ love and mercy.

This is where this morning’s Epistle fits in.  The author of Hebrews tells us that our relationship with God is centered on our relationship with Jesus.  The author goes on to explain that the reason we can place our trust in Jesus is because he has experienced human life.  We need to remember that while Jesus is God in flesh, he is fully and completely human.  Therefore, he knows and understands the way the complexity of human life.

So, on this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we are brought back to the center of our life in Christ which is our complete dependence upon God’s love and grace to keep us and sustain us.  This gives us the ability to follow faithfully.

          Amen.

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Sermon, October 3, 2021 – Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (transferred)

St. Francis’ Gift

Tomorrow [October 4] is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi a thirteenth century friar about whom little is known, and much is speculated and legendary.  At various times of his life he was a soldier and prisoner of war, a party animal, and ultimately the founder of one of the largest religious orders in the Christian community.  He gave us the Christmas Creche – replicas adorn our homes and churches to this day.  He, also, gave us the first Christmas pageant complete with live animals.  He is probably best known as the patron saints of animals and the environment – especially pets.  Statues of him adorn many gardens.

Yet, this is not what sets St. Francis, who has been called the most Christ-like saint in the calendar, apart.  What sets him apart can be found in this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew.  St. Francis is best remembered as one who sought to make the Good News available and receivable to everyone.  Tradition has it that he once said to his brother friars – “Preach the Gospel always and everywhere, use words if necessary.”  

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is telling his listeners that the Good News is available to all and there are no barriers.  Jesus is offering us relief from the soul-numbing ways of the world and our contemporary society.  He does this by inviting all of us, individually and as a community, to embrace a transformative faith-filled pattern of discipleship that calls us to let go of everything that would keep us bound up in the world’s lies.

We are reminded of our absolute dependence upon grace – grace that empowers us to surrender to the Gospel’s message, yoke, and burden.  While Jesus’ yoke and burden are light, they do carry substance and weight of responsibility.

St. Francis, like Jesus, was an advocate for the poor and the outcast.  St. Francis was known to care for lepers and others who were disadvantaged because of society’s injustice.  Through his ministry we are reminded that we are to be about working to alleviate the ravages of poverty and advocate for those who have no voice. St. Francis reminds us that each and every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God, and we should treat each other accordingly.

Finally, St. Francis is known as the patron and protector of animals – especially our pets.  Our pets teach us that most important lesson of giving and receiving unconditional love as a reflection of the unconditional love we receive from God and are expected to offer our brothers and sisters.

So, on this Feast of St. Francis let us give thanks for the whole of God’s creation, and especially for the unconditional love offered us by our pets.  Let us become the people our dogs and cats believe us to be.

          Amen.

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Sermon, September 26, 2021 – Pentecost 18

Whose Gospel? or Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Today’s readings offer a rich variety of topics.  The first reading from the Book of Esther is the only time in appears in our lectionary.  It’s set during the late exile after Persia has conquered Babylon.  This is the only book in the entire Bible that does not mention God in its text.  Yet, reading the Book of Esther is the central act of the Jewish feast of Purim.  While Esther does not mention God, it is clear that God is at work through human beings to preserve and protect God’s people from destruction.

In the Gospel passage, the disciples are challenged to accept a wider understanding of what it means to serve in Jesus’ name.  In the opening verses of the reading, the Apostle John raises the question of how the disciples are to relate to outsiders who cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Jesus’ success in setting people free from demonic control had been such that the very invocation of his name was determined to have healing properties. But the inner circle of disciples viewed any outsiders’ use of the name as an unauthorized infringement.

Previously, John had been involved with some of the other disciples in a dispute over who was the greatest among them (Mk. 9:33-34). The disciples’ exclusivist attitude could reflect conflicts in Mark’s community church over who was to be included in the faith community.

Jesus’ reply reveals his lack of concern over the incident and reflects his earlier view that those who are not explicitly disciples can still do God’s work (Mk. 3:31-35). What matters is that God’s purposes are being fulfilled, as demons are “expelled” and people set free.

Furthermore, the person who uses Jesus’ name to obtain such results shows some sort of respect, regardless of personal commitment to Jesus. No one can claim to own the name of Jesus; instead, Jesus owns those who call upon his name. Ultimately, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (v. 40; cf Num. 11:24- 30). Jesus directs the disciples to reflect on their own life and ministry rather than worrying about the ministries of outsiders. Ironically, the disciples were previously unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy (Mk. 9:17-18).

Thus, the community of Jesus’ followers is to include everyone. Unless there is reason to believe that someone poses a negative threat, we must be willing to accept those who seek to do good in Jesus’ name. In fact, whoever does the smallest service for a follower of Jesus shall surely be rewarded; for such care for one another is what true discipleship is all about (v. 41).

In verses 42-48, Jesus calls on the disciples, to examine their own behavior; for those who might cause believers — “these little ones” (v. 42) — to turn away from following Jesus will bring destruction upon themselves. It would be better to die than to be the cause of another person’s ruin — even, in Jesus’ illustration, to be thrown into the sea with a heavy millstone around one’s neck.

Any actions preventing others from following God’s will must be renounced (vv. 43-47). These graphic directives to cut off a hand or foot, or to tear out an eye, are not meant to be taken literally. Such exaggerated metaphors illustrate the necessity of ridding ourselves of the things in our lives that hold us back from wholehearted devotion to God.  After all, if we were to follow this directive literally, we would be inundated with half-blind people who have changed their name to “Lefty.”

The word translated as “stumble” in these verses is used in the sense of “to take offense” or “to scandalize.” To put an obstacle in the way of another person’s faith is a very serious matter indeed.  Here is where the Gospel comes down hardest on those who wish to claim it as a personal possession that is available only to a select few.  Sooner or later, there will be a sorting that culminates with pronouncements of who’s worthy to be a part of the faith community, and those who for whatever artificial reason are excluded and become outcasts.  The result is eventually those who perceive themselves as outsiders turn away in disgust.  This is why so many younger people are turning their backs on the Christian religion, becoming what many theologians and church leaders are calling the “NONES,” although “DONES” would probably be a more accurate description.  Ultimately, we will find ourselves being judged by the standards we held up against our brothers and sisters.

One of our strengths as the Church of the Mediator is that we remind ourselves of our mission and ministry in our community.  We do this by repeating our congregation’s mission statement every Sunday morning.  Repeating our mission statement together gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves how we as individuals and collectively are trying to live into our mission.

The Good News for us on this Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is that it’s not up to us to decide who’s in or who’s out – that’s God’s job not ours.  That gives us the freedom to risk inviting everyone – friend or stranger – into our midst, welcome them, and invite them to join us at our Lord’s Table. Amen.

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Sermon, September 19, 2021 – Pentecost 17

True Greatness

In today’s Gospel Jesus again announces his approaching Passion, and by example begins to teach his disciples the meaning of greatness. On his way to Jerusalem, he reminds them a second time that he is going there to suffer, to die, and to rise on the third day. How can they possibly understand or accept this?

To avoid being detained, he travels incognito, not wanting anyone to know of his passage through the territory.

At this point the disciples are perplexed and even afraid to ask him the meaning of his message. When they reach Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were discussing during the walk. Now they are embarrassed to answer him, since apparently they have been arguing about who will be number one in the coming Kingdom.

They have much to learn about the importance of others, their own lack of “getting it” — and what is ahead for the Body of Christ who will carry on in his absence.

In order to address the issue, Jesus begins to explain to the disciples the difficult truth, and to demonstrate how to be great. He proclaims, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and a servant of all.”

And if these words are not enough, he takes a little child and lovingly sets the child in their midst. The way you treat those who can’t “lord it over” you is the way your true greatness is measured.

It’s not all about you. If those who still struggle or cannot speak for themselves are central to the Kingdom, then the Christ is surely closer than we thought — in our very midst.

Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler is about a lonely shoemaker who is promised in a dream that Christ will come to visit his shop. The next day Martin rises early, gets his shop ready, prepares a meal, and waits.

The only one who shows up in the morning is an old beggar who comes by and asks for rest. Martin gives him the room that he had prepared for his Divine guest.

The only one to show up in the afternoon is an old lady with a heavy load of wood. She is hungry and asks for food. Martin gives her the meal he had prepared for his Divine guest.

As evening comes, a lost boy wanders by. Martin takes him home, afraid all the while he will miss the Christ. That night in his prayers he asks the Lord, “Where were You? I waited all day for You.”

The Lord says to Martin:

  • Three times I came to your friendly door,
  • Three times my shadow was on your floor.
  • I was a beggar with bruised feet.
  • I was the woman you gave to eat.
  • I was the homeless child on the street.

He is here among us in the “little ones” — those who cannot offer us status or wealth or acclaim. Watch out! the story warns us. Christ may be closer than you can imagine.

Amen.