Let Light Shine Out of Darkness

Sermon,  February 11, 2018 – Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, when we remember the Transfiguration of Jesus.  We heard this story in our Gospel reading when the glory of Jesus shone before the disciples.  The lectionary seeks to build on this theme and add in Old and New Testament readings on the glory of God.  Our second reading fits the bill as it looks at how the Gospel may be veiled to the lost, but how the glory of God points us to Jesus.  Rather than look at the Transfiguration story as I did when I preached on this Sunday a few years ago, today I want to look at the passage from Second Corinthians.

Over the last several weeks, we have been hearing passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  In that letter, Paul was responding to a number of issues which were disturbing the church in Corinth, undermining the Gospel and causing disunity amongst the believers.  Today’s passage is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  In this letter Paul was responding to some in the church at Corinth who were seeking to undermine his ministry.

As we read Paul’s words, it is important to understand this context.  From the preceding two verses, we know that Paul’s opponents were accusing him of using deceptive practices to distort, misrepresent and veil the word of God.  Paul responds to these charges by declaring “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

This gives important context to our lectionary passage.  Let’s listen to the preceding verse again, and then the first two verses of our lectionary passage.  Paul says “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.”

Paul is admitting that not everyone will be see the Gospel clearly and be convicted by it.  But this is not because the Gospel is somehow unclear or hidden from us.  No, the problem is that the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers, so that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  This brings to mind an interesting experiment on awareness and perception that I came across last year during some training I had at my work.

We were attending a workshop on diversity, and we were learning about our penchant to only see the things we want to see.  We were shown a video of eight people tossing basketballs to each other.  Four were dressed in black and four were dressed in white.  We were instructed to count the number of times white clad individuals passed a basketball to each other.  Given that there were several basketballs in play and that we needed to count only white to white passes, our focus was on getting an accurate count.  We were all very immersed in counting basketball passes.

When the video was paused, and we were asked “how many of you noticed the guy dressed up like a gorilla moonwalk through the middle of the video?”  We all laughed and thought this was a joke, but the video was rewound and sure enough, smack dab in the middle of the screen, we all saw the moonwalking gorilla.  Because we had been intentionally preoccupied with counting basketball passes, the moonwalking gorilla had become veiled to our sight.  Not because the gorilla was disguised or hidden, but because we were focusing on the wrong thing.  We were successfully distracted.

This is what Paul is telling us.  The Gospel is very clear and can be plainly discerned if we care to see it.  But the problem is that we are distracted by god of this age.  Scholars believe that Paul was referring to Satan when he spoke of the god of this age, but I think that Paul’s statement can apply to all of the distractions of our lives.  We are so distracted by the noise of our lives and our culture, things that should be secondary, but which we make primary.  And in so doing, we can veil our minds to the Gospel.

These distractions can be finances, money, material goods, our job, our pride, politics, social media, and even religion.  Anything that keeps us from putting Jesus Christ first in our lives is a distraction that veils our minds.  What can be so insidious is the normality of these distractions.  Without realizing it, we can let all the unimportant things in life become so pressing that we lose sight of the only thing that really matters.  The first lesson from today’s passage is to stay focused on Jesus Christ.  It’s the moonwalking Jesus that really matters folks, not the basketballs.

The rest of the passage tells us that our ministry ought to be about preaching the Gospel and how the light and glory of Jesus Christ can burn through the chaos and darkness that veils our minds from him.  Let’s break this all down a bit.  First, we need to understand what Paul meant when he used the word preaching.  Unfortunately, the concept of preaching has developed something of a bad reputation for many people.  It’s never a complement when someone is referred to as “preachy” and you know that someone is not happy when they tell you that a friend preached at them for an hour.

Even Christians can misunderstand what Paul meant.  The American church has made two basic errors over the years.  The first error, assumes that the job of parishioners is to somehow convince their skeptical friends to come to church, where they will hear the wonderful preaching of the minister and become a follower of Jesus.  The second error is that it is our job to go around and badger people with preaching until they tell us that they have accepted Jesus as their Savior.  Both of these approaches are wrong.

The word that Paul uses for “preaching” is better thought of as the sort of thing that a TV news anchor does when announcing a piece of major news.  When Paul says “preach Jesus Christ”, he is simply saying that we need to tell others of Jesus.  And this is the job of everyone – not just whoever happens to be giving the sermon on Sunday.  As for the other error, it is not the job of a newscaster to come and browbeat you until you believe her news report.  So it is not our job to browbeat anyone into a confession.  We can tell others about Jesus, but it is the Holy Spirit that will work in that person to actually convert them.

Paul writes that “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”  Our job is to point others to Jesus, and not to ourselves.  There is a common saying that is commonly, but erroneously attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”  I think that this saying can lead us astray if we are not careful because it can lead to a misunderstanding about what we are to preach.  We are not to focus on ourselves, our good works, our virtue, our social service, or anything like that.  We need to focus on Jesus Christ.  And I don’t know how we can tell others about Jesus if we don’t tell them the story of Jesus, and that requires words.

Jesus Christ is what we should preach, not ourselves.  If we focus on ourselves, we distract from the Gospel.  This is true for church and worship as well.  Church should not be about us, our desires or our tastes.  Worship should not be about the great music, good coffee, or personable preacher.  The whole purpose of church and worship is to point us to the Good News of Jesus Christ and to equip us to tell others about him.

When we tell others about Jesus, Paul tells us that we have important things to say.  Paul makes two very specific points as to how Jesus Christ reflects the glory of God.  He first says “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” and then about how we have “the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”  Paul’s point in these comments is to make it clear that Jesus Christ is God.  As Christians, we may think that this is well established, but it wasn’t in Paul’s time, and it isn’t really in our time either.

Whether Jesus Christ is God or not is absolutely foundational to the Gospel.  If we regard Jesus as just another wise teacher among many, then we can adopt whatever teachings we want and ignore the rest.  Maybe another wise teacher has some more palatable teaching.  This was the general approach in the pagan world of the New Testament.  There were a plethora of gods and goddesses and people would pick and choose which religious rituals worked best for them.  Today, we face a very similar situation.  To accept Jesus Christ as God requires us to take seriously his claims.  And if we believe that Jesus Christ is God, then we have no choice but to follow him, and him alone.  This is a very unpopular position to take in a pluralistic religious culture such as the one we live in.  But this is what Paul sets before us.

Paul concludes by telling us of the power of the light of the Gospel.  Our passage began with Paul admitting that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  But he concludes by asserting that the light of the gospel has the power to break through the sin and darkness to shine in our hearts and give us the knowledge of Jesus.  Paul writes “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”

This statement had a special meaning for Paul, because, as you might recall, Paul was not always a great apostle for Jesus.  In his earlier life he was a leading persecutor of Christians, riding from town to town to shut down the church.  But when Paul was on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to Paul in great glory, shining his light into Paul’s heart.  And from that time on, Paul became one of the great apostles, spreading the gospel across the Roman Empire.

Paul’s comment also points back to the story of creation when God created light.  In the creation story, the light came to chase away the darkness and chaos.  Paul is telling us that in just that way, the light of the Gospel can chase away the sin and darkness in our own lives, those things that veil our minds to the Gospel.  So while Satan and the distractions of the world can keep us from seeing the truth of the gospel, the gospel is powerful enough to break through.  Satan can blind us to the Gospel, but God can restore our sight.

Our ministry is to preach Christ simply and forthrightly.  Point others to him, and let the glory of Christ and the simple truth of the Gospel burn away the sin and distraction.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, your Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; Amen.

Why Should Christians Care About Sexual Ethics?

Sermon, January 14, 2018 – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians brings up a subject that we don’t like to talk about.  We’d really rather avoid the subject altogether.  In fact, when I went to read commentary on this passage at one of my go-to sermon preparation websites, I was amazed to discover that it pretty much completely avoided the subject altogether.  In today’s culture, the Christian perspective on sexuality is the elephant in the living room.

In one book that I recently read, The Benedict Option, the author, Rod Dreher, commented “It’s easy to get why secular people don’t understand the reasons for Christian sexual practices: many Christians today don’t understand them either.”  This same author later commented “Sexual practices are so central to the Christian life that when believers cease to affirm orthodoxy on the matter, they often cease to be meaningfully Christian. It was the countercultural force of Christian sexuality that overturned the pagan world’s dehumanizing practices. Christianity taught that the body is sacred and that the dignity possessed by all humans as made in the image of God required treating it as such.”

I recall one priest commenting that it had gotten to the point for him that when one of his young parishioners came to him expressing serious doubts about the truth of Christianity, the discussion would almost inevitably lead to the parishioner’s desire to avoid living by the Christian sexual ethic.  We live in a society in which the ideals of the sexual revolution have so permeated our consciousness and beliefs.  In fact, many scholars argue that it is the explosion of the sexual revolution that played the greatest role in the collapse of the practice of Christianity in western society.  Rod Dreher comments “This is why the modern repaganization called the Sexual Revolution can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. Alas, that revolution has toppled the church’s authority in the broader culture and is now shaking the church itself to its foundations.”

This is a very important subject.  And so when Paul addresses the subject of a Christian sexual ethic, we would be wise to listen.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul was responding to a series of questions which were causing division in the church.  The subject of the passage we read today is Christian sexual behavior and the specific question was whether it was okay for a Christian to visit a prostitute.  Now, you might be scratching your head right now, wondering how on earth the Corinthian Christians could have possibly thought that it was okay for a man to visit a prostitute.

What you need to understand is that in the culture of the ancient Roman world, visiting prostitutes was regarded as pretty mainstream.  Men did not face any social stigma for visiting a prostitute, any more so than he would for eating a meal or drinking wine.  That was the pagan sexual ethic.  Prostitutes were typically slaves, and slaves were there to serve the needs and desires of citizens.  In ancient pagan society, men had the right to visit prostitutes, and they regarded their sexual appetites to be akin to their other appetites for food, drink and carousing.

When we understand this context, we can begin to understand what Paul is saying.  Reading through the passage, we notice that Paul is responding to two sayings that some in Corinth appear to be using to justify men visiting prostitutes.  The first saying is “I have the right to do anything” and the second is “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  Let’s consider both statements in turn.

The statement “I have a right to do anything” was one of the arguments being put forward by the Corinthians to justify their visits to prostitutes.  It may even have been a misunderstanding of one of Paul’s own statements concerning salvation by grace instead of by the Law.  In any case, this statement “I have a right to do anything” sounds like it would fit in perfectly into American culture today.

Paul responds to this statement with two objections.  First, he says we might have the right to do something, but not all things are beneficial.  Yes the Gospel is a message of freedom, but that doesn’t mean that everything is helpful to us.  We are not called to exercise our right to fulfill our appetites but to be children of God.  Think of an Olympic athlete.  They have the right to do whatever they want – they could sleep in, be a couch potato, or eat unhealthy food.  But would doing any of that help them out in their goal to win an Olympic medal?  No.  They know that they must exercise their liberty in pursuit of their greater goal.  And so it is with Christians who have the greater goal of being followers of Christ.

Second, Paul says that while we have the right to do anything, we should not be mastered by anything.  Our culture teaches us that we are not really free unless there are no external limits or demands on the individual.  This is the underlying ethos of both the technological and sexual revolutions.  And yet, this is a lie.  Consider our smartphones.  Most of us think how liberating these devices are.  They make our lives so much easier.  But they also have created an invisible prison for us.  When we discover that there are no cellular or Wi-Fi signals where we are, we become anxious.  We are enslaved by our technology.

Or consider the sexual revolution.  We have defeated the oppressive and controlling institution that is marriage.  Sex outside of marriage is now commonplace and morally acceptable.  But statistics show that the clearest indicator for poverty in a community is its rate of out-of-wedlock births.  Our supposed freedom leads us to the prison of poverty.  Or consider pornography.  We have the freedom to view pornography anywhere we want thanks to the internet and smartphones.  But pornography has wrought serious damage on our society, dehumanizing women and doing serious damage to the brains of young men who become incapable of having a normal relationship with real women.  All too often we think we are free when the ugly reality is that we are enslaved to our base desires.

The other statement used by the Corinthians to defend having sex with a prostitute is “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  This reflects a devaluing of the physical body in favor of the immortal soul.  This was a Greek idea that remains very powerful and influential even today.  The idea is that the body is not much more than a machine – the stomach was made for eating, so why not indulge?  The sexual organs were made for sex, so why not indulge?  And it doesn’t matter anyway, since the physical body doesn’t last and has no significance.  This attitude frequently leads to one of two contradictory attitudes.  Either batter your body into total subjection and ruthlessly control all your physical appetites; or let the body have its full scope and satisfy every whim and fancy, because it is of no moral significance anyway, and certainly does not affect your soul or spirit.  This particular Corinthian problem seems to be the latter.

Paul rejects this devaluing of the physical body.  He makes five important points about our bodies.  First, he says “the body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord.”  God values his creation and he values our physical existence.  Rod Dreher writes “Christianity is not a disembodied faith but an incarnational one. God came to us in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, and redeems us body and soul.”

Second, Paul affirms the importance of the physical resurrection of our bodies when he says “by his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.  Our bodies are not meant to rot and decay, but rather to be raised up.  We will live out eternal life not as disembodied souls in heaven, but in transformed, resurrected bodies on the new earth.

Third, our bodies are united with Christ.  Paul asks the rhetorical question “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?”  We are all members of the body of Christ.  Christ lives within us, and in the sacrament of the Eucharist we eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Christ is within us.  The Bible holds up the marriage between a man and a woman as a sacramental illustration of the relationship between Christ and his Church.  This is one of the deep mysteries of human sexuality – a man and a woman coming together in a covenanted bond of commitment points to the strong, covenanted bond of life-giving love that Christ has for his Church.  For us to unite with a prostitute is to break our bond with Christ.

Fourth, Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit dwells within us.  In the ancient world, as today, temples and churches were sacred places.  To denigrate our bodies or abuse them is to desecrate God’s temple.

Fifth, Paul reminds us that our bodies were redeemed for us by Christ.  He says “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.”  When we follow Christ, we acknowledge that Christ redeemed us by dying for us on the cross and rising from the dead.  Without him, we would be lost in sin.  Our bodies would be lost to death and decay.  But Christ redeemed our physical bodies.  We owe it all to Jesus.  And so, our natural response must be to honor God with our bodies.  We need to live as disciples of Christ, and not as followers of our own desires and passions.

Our physical bodies are very important.  Christianity is an incarnational faith.  We believe that God came into our world as a man – a living, breathing man.  We believe that God created physical matter not to destroy it, but because that was his good purpose from the beginning.  We believe that God’s plan for salvation includes the resurrection, transformation and sanctification of our physical bodies.

Because our physical bodies are important, we need to understand God’s purposes for sexuality.  If we misuse or abuse our bodies in a sexual manner, it is as if we are being unfaithful to Christ, just as we would be unfaithful to our husband or wife if we were having an affair.  When we dig into what God says about sexuality by examining the Scriptures, we can see that God’s purpose for sexuality is deep, mysterious and sacramental.  A man and a woman coming together in a committed, covenantal marriage is a sacramental image of the life-giving, sacrificial love that Christ has for his Church.

A Christian understanding of sexuality communicates some very important messages to us.  First, it tells us that our physical bodies are not just disposable bits of matter to be abused by ourselves or others.  It tells us that we are all members of Christ’s body and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Both our and others’ bodies are sacred places.  To abuse our own body or anyone else’s is to abuse God himself and his temple.  Second, a Christian sexual understanding points sacramentally to the deep love that Christ has for us.

The way we treat our bodies and exercise our sexuality says something about how we regard God who gave us these things and whose presence we claim dwells within us.  God is calling us to order all aspects of our lives so that we will live consistently with his purposes.  While the Christian sexual ethic may be shunned and scorned by our culture, we ignore it at our peril.  Its power goes far deeper than we realize.  If we are truly followers of Christ, then we need to cede control of this most powerful of our primal urges to God’s wisdom and purpose.  Anything less puts our relationship with God at serious risk.  Let’s use our liberty wisely.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory;  Amen.

How to Rejoice in the Midst of Darkness

Sermon,  December 17, 2017 –  3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Some of you may know that today is a special Sunday in Advent.  You may have noticed that a rose-colored candle was lit today on the Advent wreath instead of a purple one.  If St. Luke’s was a wealthy church, with lots of money to spend on liturgical garb, there would be rose colored linens and Barbara would be wearing a rose-colored chasuble.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, which is known as Gaudete Sunday.  It is so-called because back in the Middle Ages, when Latin was the language used in church, and when a Psalm or other piece of Scripture was chanted instead of the congregation singing a processional hymn, Philippians chapter 4 verse 4 was the entrance antiphon.  And the priest would have said “Gaudete in Domino semper iterum dico gaudete” which translates to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Gaudete means rejoice.

Our theme today is rejoicing.  We are in the midst of Advent, the season of the church year in which we look forward to the coming of Christ.  It is penitential, yes, because we must examine ourselves and our sinfulness as we await the coming of our Lord and Savior.  And yet, it is also a season to rejoice – and for the same reason – because we await the coming of our Lord and Savior.  We rejoice because the Lord is near.

I don’t know about you but as I look around the world we live in, I don’t see a lot to rejoice about.  The news and entertainment industries, social media, politicians, celebrities, and a good many religious leaders as well, feed us a steady diet of fear, anger, despair, bitterness and rage.  And its not just that we are told things are bad, there actually is a great deal of sin, evil and misbehavior that happens all around us every day.

And yet, we are called to rejoice.  In today’s reading from the New Testament, we read Paul’s closing thoughts from his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica.  This is the part of the letter where, if your mom had written it, she would have told you to be sure to eat your vegetables, get enough sleep, and to always put on your coat and hat when you went out into the cold.  Your mom would also tell you that you’d better do all these things to avoid getting sick.

Well Paul does something similar.  He gives us his list of things he expects Christians to do, and he also includes the reason why.  He writes “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”   Let’s look a little bit more carefully at what Paul is saying to us here because he clearly believes it is important.

First, he tells us to “rejoice always”.  What is Paul telling us here?  Is he expecting us to put on happy faces and pretend that the horrible things that are going on around us don’t exist?  Is he telling us to turn off our empathy and sympathy?  Doesn’t this conflict with Jesus who says, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”?

We need to take a step back.  We need to understand what Paul is talking about when he says rejoice.  As we will see when we discuss Paul’s two other instructions, he is really looking at an overall mindset or outlook on life.  When he says, “rejoice always”, he is not telling us that we must be happy and in a party mood every minute of our life.  That is simply not realistic and doesn’t match with anything else that God tells us in the Bible.  That’s not what Paul means here and that’s not the message of Advent.

Let’s listen to the first verse of the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” because I think that verse brings the right balance between mourning and rejoicing.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

On the one hand, captive Israel mourns in her lonely exile.  She has been cast out of her home, she has been utterly defeated and humiliated by her enemies.  And she is right to mourn.  However, Israel is awaiting the coming Emmanuel who will ransom her from her enemies.  Evil does not get the last laugh.  Redemption is coming.  And because of this wonderful news, Israel can rejoice.

So it is with us.  We are right to mourn the sin and brokenness that we see in our own lives and all around us.  But we must never lose sight that Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is coming.  And so, even as we mourn, we can rejoice.  There is a vast difference between those who mourn with no hope and those who mourn, and yet have hope.  To rejoice always is to never lose sight of the hope and trust we have in God.

Paul’s next instruction is to “pray continually”.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything other than fold our hands and kneel down in prayer.  Just as with Paul’s direction to “rejoice always”, we need to ask what Paul means when he says to pray continually.  Prayer is, in many ways, a state of mind.  As one pastor put it, prayer is “an overall attitude toward God that permeates all of life’s occasions.”  Prayer isn’t about us asking God for this or that, nor is it our making sure that God knows all of the people and things we expect him to fix.  Prayer is a way to frame our outlook on the world.  When we bring things to God in prayer we confess our inability to fix them, confess our dependence on God, and listen for God’s will for us as we are immersed in Scripture.  Prayer is also our way to expressing our eternal gratitude to God.

Paul’s instruction to pray continually is an instruction to constantly keep our focus on God and to live our lives as God would have us live them.  We are either fully children of God – in all aspects of our lives – or we are not.  It is not an option to be part-time followers of Jesus.  With every breath that we take we need to keep our focus on God.  We need to pray continually.

Paul’s third instruction to us is to “give thanks in all circumstances.”  He does not say to give thanks for all circumstances, because that would mean giving thanks when bad things happen.  God does not want us to give thanks for sin or suffering or death, because these things are contrary to his will.  Paul tells us to give thanks in all circumstances.  The circumstances may be bad, and we might not be thankful that we are stuck in them.  But we can give thanks in those circumstances because we know that God has sent his Son for us.  We know that evil does not have the last word.

It is very easy for us to fall into the same trap that so much of our culture has fallen into and take on attitudes of anger, bitterness, revenge, entitlement or cynicism when we encounter the unpleasant and downright wicked aspects of life.  But Paul will not let us go there.  To allow such a negative mindset to take hold within us would snuff out the Gospel and strangle any faith we might have in God.

Just as we are called to rejoice even in the midst of our mourning, so we are called to give thanks, even in the midst of sadness and tragedy.  God is still God in the midst of our fallen world, he still loves us, and he sent his son to rescue us.  If we allow the sin, sadness, suffering and tragedy of this world to snuff out our knowledge and joy in what God has done for us, then we allow the Gospel light to be snuffed out in our lives.  We must not let this happen.

Near the beginning of his Gospel, John speaks of Jesus as a light.  He writes “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  If there is no darkness, then we don’t need a light. God doesn’t expect us to pretend that there is no darkness.  We can acknowledge the darkness and yet be thankful for the light.

Let’s listen to verses 16, 17 and 18 once more.  “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  If we follow these directions, we will protect ourselves from anger, despair and cynicism while staying focused on God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul is not telling us to ignore the sin, suffering and death around us, but he is instructing us on what we need to do to keep our eyes fixed on God.  This is indeed God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.

And this is what Advent is all about.  We live in dark times, but people have always lived in dark times.  We are captive people in lonely exile in a world that despises the Gospel.  It is right to mourn because of this.  But we must not lose sight of the imminent coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, who has paid our ransom with his blood.  With John, we can confidently declare “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  And this is why we rejoice!

Let us pray.

God of all Creation, fill our hearts this Advent season. May we know the greatest joy in the love you hold for us and that we, in turn, hold for one another.  Jesus, Lord and Savior, you taught us to pray for all things in your name.  May all of those who suffer from pain, loneliness, fear, and despair find joy in the promise of your light and life.  Spirit of Hope, we take refuge in your wisdom and grace. May we become beacons of joy to all those around us, and in a world that aches for peace.  Amen.

What Made Jesus Angry?

Sermon,  November 5, 2017 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 26)
Matthew 23:1-12

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Our Gospel passage comes from the 24th chapter of Matthew.  The previous chapter in Matthew saw Jesus match wits with the Pharisees and religious leaders through parables and questions and answers.  The conflict is rather more open in this chapter.

Jesus’s opening statement sounds very conciliatory.  He says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”  But this is as nice as Jesus gets.  After this, Jesus opens on the Pharisees in an extraordinarily blunt and direct series of attacks.  In the passage we heard today, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for hypocritically placing needless burdens on the people and for craving honor and praise from culture.

Immediately following our selection, Jesus launches a series of seven complaints against the Pharisees in which he expands on his criticisms with specific examples.  Near the end of the chapter, Jesus really lets loose on the Pharisees, not holding anything back.  He declares “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

There aren’t too many times in the Gospels when we see Jesus really get angry and this is one of them.  Why is that?  What makes Jesus so upset?  Asking this question is an important key to unlocking the wider meaning of this passage for us.

Let’s parse out what Jesus says again.  Jesus begins by telling the people “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”  Jesus is instructing the people to respect the teaching office of the teachers of the law, as well as reminding the people that listening to and obeying Scripture is important.  Although it is easy to pass over this statement of Jesus as a side point in the passage, I think it is important to take note.  Often when we become angry with the corruption, false teaching, or hypocrisy of our leaders, we become so vengeful that we just want to tear it all down.  This can often be very destructive, and make a bad situation worse.  And so before launching his attack on the Pharisees, Jesus is reminding the people that he is criticizing the false teaching and hypocrisy, but not the underlying Jewish religion nor the Scriptures.

After this reminder, Jesus criticizes three specific things about the Pharisees – their hypocrisy, how they have turned God’s love and redemption from being a gift into a burden, and how they crave societal honor and cultural approval instead of God.  Let’s turn back to the words of Jesus.

He continues “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  Jesus is calling them out for hypocrisy.  The Pharisees preached one thing, but didn’t actually practice it themselves.  Nobody likes a hypocrite, and one of the surest ways to undermine somebody’s credibility is to catch them employing a double standard.  Think of how devastating it is to the church when its leaders are found doing things that they routinely preach against.  It completely undermines the message.

Why is that?  It is because we believe that if a person truly believes in what they are preaching, then they will do what they say.  If you really believe that exercise makes you healthy, you will do it.  If you really believe that education is important, you will go to school.  But if you tell me to cycle 10 miles to work for the good of the environment while you drive half a mile to your work in your big SUV, I’m going to think that you don’t take the environment very seriously at all.  The hypocrisy of the Pharisees angered Jesus because it undermined God’s message to his people.  The Pharisees had the job of communicating God’s message through the Scriptures to the people.  Just as a Christian’s hypocrisy today would lead people to reject the Christian message, so did the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in Jesus’s day undercut God’s message to the Jews.  Remember that Jesus was concerned that the people respect the teaching role of the Pharisees and Jesus knew that the greatest threat to such respect was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees themselves.

Jesus follows up his critique of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy by saying “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”  Jesus is angry that the Pharisees present God’s redeeming love for his people as a “heavy, cumbersome load”.  In the Old Testament we see repeatedly how God saves his people and usually despite the fact that his people have failed to live up to their end of the covenant.  When God made his covenant with Abraham, it was God alone who walked through the midst of the slain animals, signifying that only he pledged his life to fulfill the covenant.  The Pharisees told the people that only by obeying God’s commandments perfectly could they be saved, as if salvation were up to us instead of God.

This is important for us today, because Christians continue to make the very same mistake that the Pharisees made.  And that mistake undermines the Gospel.  If the message of salvation is that we have a lot of commands to keep and things to do for God, then the focus is on what we do, not on what God did for us.  That is looking for salvation through the Law, which is impossible.  Our only salvation is through grace, through what God did for us.  The very heart of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross, taking our sins upon himself, and paying with his life for our transgressions.

The word Gospel comes from a Greek word which means “good news” and usually referred to the good news of a military victory.  When we share the Gospel, we are sharing the story of God’s victory over sin, which was accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  When we say that we are Gospel people, it means that we are people who live in the light of this good news.

But we humans like to always turn things back on to ourselves.  We are naturally inclined to think that our actions are necessary to our salvation.  Few Christians will ever openly teach this, but falling into this subtle trap is so easy, and once we go down that road, the Gospel message is undermined.  We can start down this road with the very best intentions.  We might think that people will tune out our words unless we are living obedient lives.  The danger in this is that it leads to replacing the gospel of grace with the burden of the law.  Christianity can very quickly turn into something that makes many demands of us, something that is a heavy, cumbersome load.  We are not really good Christians unless we do this thing or that thing.  That’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel is that we are saved because Jesus died for our sins.  There is no burden, no load for us to bear.  God has already taken care of it.  And only then, in our joy and gratitude, and after turning our lives over to God, will we do the things Jesus calls us to do.  Those things are not burdens we must bear, but things we do after we have been transformed through Scripture and the Spirit.

Jesus continues.  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”  Phylacteries were little boxes with Scripture verses that devout Jews wore on their foreheads to indicate their piety.  The Pharisees wanted to make sure everybody knew how pious they were, and they craved social and cultural honor for themselves.  The Greek word that is translated “to see” in the phrase “for people to see” is the same word that the modern English word theater comes from.  The Pharisees were like actors in a play, putting on a show of being pious and holy.

This is a danger for Christians today as well.  People naturally crave approval from others.  With the rise of social media such as Twitter and Facebook has come the phenomenon of virtue signaling.  The Oxford dictionary defines virtue signaling as “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position.”  This has become very important in the lives of younger people.  Unless you publicly support the correct opinions on Facebook or Twitter, you become an outcast.

One person wrote “If the Pharisees lived today, they would doubtlessly be the most avid purveyors of social media. Just imagine the Facebook posts (“Here I am seated at the head of Caiaphas’ table”), the selfies (“Praying at the Temple in my new robes!”), the Instagrams (“The dinner at Herod’s place—amazing!”).”  We are all at risk of doing this in our lives but also within the church.  This is true for all Christians, of whatever stripe, political opinion or theological persuasion.  Here I am, with the right opinion or doing the right thing.  Thank goodness I am not like those others.

It’s always dangerous for Christians or the Church to seek approval from society or culture instead of from God.  When we do this, we succumb to the world’s agenda instead of God’s.  Instead of looking to win approval from our surrounding culture, or even from our church sub-culture, we need to look to God’s will as revealed through Scripture and ask ourselves what God is calling us to do.

A few years ago, during an Ash Wednesday sermon, the preacher talked about whether or not we should wipe off our ash crosses from our foreheads after church.  His advice was that if retaining the ash on our foreheads would lead us to feel that others would look at us approvingly and think we were holy and pious, then we should probably wipe the ash off.  But if we feared that the ash would lead others to mock us or look down at us for being Christians, then we should leave it on.  I’ve come to see this as being good advice.  We always need to question our motives and ask ourselves whether we are doing something for cultural or societal approval, or because this is what God is calling us to do.

As we come to the end of our passage, Jesus says ““But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not telling us that we can’t call our dad “father.”  Nor does this passage prevent us from calling a priest “father so-and-so” or the teachers in our congregation “teacher’, nor should I go see my university dean and insist that I not be referred to as “instructor” anymore.  That’s not the point.  What is the point is that these were all particular terms of high honor and social standing in the ancient Jewish world and the Pharisees reveled in these honorific titles that puffed them up.  We are to avoid this.

Jesus is calling us to exercise humility.  The greatest among us will be our servant.  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.  The Gospel is not about elevating ourselves.  Instead, the heart of the Gospel is about how God humbled himself for us.  In Philippians, Paul wrote about Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”  Jesus humbled himself for us to the point of dying for us on the cross.

As faithful followers of Jesus, we are called to lives of humble service.  The Gospel is not about us; it’s not about our deeds, it’s not about our obedience, it’s not about how good or important we look to others.  The Gospel is all about Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for us.  Jesus was upset with the Pharisees because they were trying to turn the focus away from what God had done for his people and instead on to what great people they were.  This isn’t just a Pharisee problem.  It’s something that we all are prone to do.  It angered Jesus then, and it angers Jesus now, because it leads people away from the only thing that can save them.  The focus should not be on the Pharisees or us or our deeds.  They will not save anybody.  The only thing that can save people is Jesus Christ.  So let’s turn the focus where it needs to be – on him.

Let us pray.

God, the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church: equip us to keep the focus on the gospel of Christ and make us eager to do your will that we may share with the whole world the good news of what you have done for us.  Let us remember your words “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Let us share the comfort and joy that these words give us.  We ask this in Christ’s name, Amen.

Render Unto God the Things That Are God’s

Sermon,  October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 24)
Matthew 22:15-22

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

In today’s Gospel we read one of the best known maxims in the Bible relating to a Christian’s relationship with government.  In the words of the King James Version “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  We hear these words repeated often, but do we really know what they mean?

Why did Matthew include this story in his gospel?  What is the message for us today?

In order for us to understand this passage, we need to do some homework.  We need to look at the wider context of chapter 22 and we need to understand the religious, cultural and political implications of the Roman tax and system of money.  If we take this passage out of context and assume that it was written from the perspective of 21st century American culture, we might misunderstand the message.

Let’s begin by looking at Matthew chapter 22.  The chapter begins with the parable we heard last week.  This was the parable about a king who hosted his son’s marriage.  He invited many guests, but his invitations were rudely and sometimes violently rejected.  The Jewish religious leaders correctly interpreted this parable as being aimed squarely at them.  The parable’s message was that God had called the Israelites to be part of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus Christ, but that the Jewish religious leaders refused, leading to God choosing others to take their place.

The ordinary Jewish people liked the message they heard from Jesus.  The religious leaders were oppressive hypocrites, and Jesus was pointing out this out very effectively.  And so, the religious leaders did what we might have expected – they sought to discredit and undermine Jesus.   Now Jesus was a famous teacher and so the Pharisees and Sadducees decided to ask Jesus some trick questions designed to make him look bad.

We might liken them to the now standard “gotcha” questions that are asked of political opponents during election campaigns.  In chapter 22, the Pharisees and Sadducees try three times to trip Jesus up with trick questions.  But they fail spectacularly.  What’s more, the chapter concludes with Jesus turning the tables and successfully trapping the religious leaders with a trick question of his own.

Each of the three trick questions to Jesus was set up to undermine him, but Jesus uses each to make an important point.  The first challenge to Jesus is the passage in today’s Gospel, whether Jesus thinks the Jews should pay the Roman imperial tax.  We’ll talk about this in a few minutes.  The second challenge seeks to trick Jesus on the issue of the resurrection.  The third challenge tries to get Jesus to list his favorite commandment.  The point of these challenges is to elicit a response from Jesus that would get him into trouble with the Roman authorities or the Jewish people.

In response, Jesus went beyond the silly games of the religious leaders to communicate important truths.  And he then used a question of his own to the religious leaders that conveyed an important truth about his identity as the Messiah.  So, to summarize, the Jewish religious leaders try to undermine the message of Jesus three times with trick questions, to which Jesus responded by communicating important truths about the Kingdom of Heaven, and which he then concluded with a question of his own that spoke to his identity as the Messiah.

This is the context for our Gospel passage today.  It is the first challenge question and was put to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They ask Jesus “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”  Let’s get some historical context for this question, because it is really important to understand what’s going on.  The Pharisees and Herodians were not some first century equivalent of the Tea Party movement who were checking to see if Jesus supported tax and spend liberalism.  To properly understand the passage, we need to consider a few points.

The Jews were living under Roman occupation.  They saw Rome as their conquering enemy.  But this wasn’t all.  Back in the first century, there was no separation between church and state.  The Roman emperor was revered as being a god.  Everything connected with Roman rule was tinged with Roman state religion, including Roman coinage which featured the emperor’s image and an inscription lauding him as a deity.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether he supported paying the tax, they were really asking whether he was okay with cooperating with the occupying enemy and participating in the idolatrous worship of Caesar.  If Jesus comes out supporting the occupying Romans and their idolatrous state religion, the Jewish people would turn on him in an instant.

Now the Herodians were also there to trip up Jesus.  The Herodians were Jewish leaders who supported King Herod, the Roman client king over Judea, and so supported the people paying the imperial tax.  They were looking to catch Jesus encouraging the people to rebel against Rome, because this would lead to his arrest for sedition.

So what does Jesus do?  How does he extricate himself from this situation?  Although his response can strike us as somewhat simplistic and glib at first glance, it is full of remarkable depth that broadens the discussion.  Listen to the passage:

Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.   Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus asked the Pharisees to show him the Roman coins that were used to pay the imperial tax.  The Romans required its subject peoples to pay the imperial tax using Roman coins, and the Roman coins featured Caesar’s image and an inscription lauding him as a god.  By asking to see the coin, Jesus was actually responding to both grounds on which the Pharisees hoped to entrap him.

First, the simple fact that the Pharisees had a Roman coin easily at hand indicates that they were using Roman coins as their money.  They had no problem at all in using the coins that were stamped with the emperor’s image and which proclaimed him a deity.  This neutralized the Pharisees’ attempt to portray Jesus as a participant in the Roman state religion, because they too would be equally implicated.

Second, Jesus asks them whose image is on the coin.  The answer is Caesar’s.  And so, Jesus says somewhat dismissively, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  In responding in this way, Jesus is effectively detoxifying the imperial tax issue, because there is no problem in giving Roman money back to Rome.  He is putting it into its proper perspective.  He reframes the entire issue, and how Jesus does this contains important truths for us today.

The full sentence of what Jesus says is “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus turns the focus away from human thoughts and concerns, and points to God’s desires for us.  The focus is not on our worries and concerns but on our part in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This lesson is very important for us today because many Americans have come to see politics as a new religion.  This is true for both the left and the right.  A few years ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a book title Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics in which he examined Christianity’s trends over the past fifty years in America.  One of the things he looked at was the interplay between American politics and Christianity.  He noted how each side moved between the messianic and apocalyptic depending on whether their party was in power.  The world was either going to hell, or heaven depending on whether our preferred party’s president was in office.

This attitude towards life distracts us from God and what God wants of us.  We become focused on political strategies and we begin to worry and feel that the world will end unless we immerse ourselves yet further in politics.  I think that this isn’t just true for politics either.  It is true for all of life.  It can be our jobs, our financial future, our friends, our possessions, our families.  Whenever we become exclusively focused on something other than God, we lose perspective.  We can come to believe that life will only be good if our political party is in power, or if we get that promotion at work, or if our retirement plans are set, or if we just have the latest smartphone or TV.  It’s all a lie.

And so we have the words of Jesus.  “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus is not telling us not to pay the imperial tax, or engage politically, or plan for retirement, or work hard in our careers.  No.  What Jesus is telling us is to not make those issues the primary issue in our lives.  The primary thing in our lives must be our service to God.

The Anglican theologian John Stott, pointed out that just as Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to Caesar.  But we are created in God’s image, and so we belong to God.  Our lives should be given back to God.  The primary focus in our lives must be on what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, and how we are called to live in response.

Next week will be Ingathering Sunday where we bring our pledges to church where they will be blessed and dedicated to the service of God.  Our financial pledges to God’s work at St. Luke’s should be part of our greater stewardship of everything that God has given to us.  This doesn’t just mean our money, but our time, our talents and our hearts.  God has given us so much, and he has given us the responsibility for how we will use these gifts.

Our Gospel lesson teaches us to keep the right perspective, to give back to God what is God’s.  As we consider our stewardship responsibilities, let us keep this foremost in our hearts and minds.

Let us pray.

Lord God, we pray that you would give us your peace which passes all understanding.  May we always remember what you have done for us through your son Jesus Christ.  Give us discernment as we fulfill your call upon us to be stewards of your creation., including the many gifts you have given to us of time, talent, and treasure.   Amen.

Forgiveness

Sermon,  September 17, 2017 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Genesis 50: 15-21; Psalm  103:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important concepts in the Gospel.  It is an indispensable and necessary part of love in a world full of sin.  If you paid attention to our Gospel reading today, you will know what I am referring to.

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is one of the hardest things we can ask for or grant.  Asking for forgiveness requires us to admit that we did something wrong to another.  Granting forgiveness requires us to set aside our own desire for vengeance or our need to sulk and feel sorry for ourselves.  Forgiveness demands that we put our relationship with God and others first.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch woman who was captured with her sister Betsie by the Nazis in the Second World War.  They had been hiding Jews.  They were put in a concentration camp where they were starved and humiliated.  Corrie Ten Boom survived but her sister died in the camp.  Two years after the war had ended, Corrie was traveling around Germany preaching God’s forgiveness.  At one of her talks, a man approached her and with horror she recognized him as one of the concentration camp guards.

Corrie wrote of this experience “One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.”

The man did not recognize her, but he confessed to her that he had been a concentration camp guard and that after the war he had become a Christian and repented of his actions.  He knew that she had been in a camp and asked if she would speak a word of forgiveness to him for the wicked things he had done.

Corrie wrote

I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.

Very few of us will ever be put in the position that Corrie Ten Boom was.  But we all need to wrestle with forgiveness.  She was right that God takes forgiveness very seriously.  I think that God takes forgiveness so seriously because it is such a core aspect of who God is.

In Psalm 103, we read David praise the Lord, saying “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins.  The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  Even as we continually do wrong and turn our backs on God, he is compassionate and gracious toward us.  So much that he sent Jesus Christ to die for us and, through his death, achieve forgiveness for all our sins.  Love and forgiveness are key parts of the character of God.

And that brings us to our Gospel reading.  Our reading begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times we need to forgive another person who sins against us.  Peter suggests that perhaps once we have forgiven seven times, we have reached the limit of reasonableness.  But think about what Peter is suggesting here.  By asking how many times we need to forgive before we can legitimately hold a grudge or seek revenge, Peter is looking on forgiveness like a duty, not as something that is foundational to us as image bearers of God.

Jesus responds by saying “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Jesus isn’t simply responding to Peter with a higher number, but is telling Peter that there is no limit to the number of times we should forgive another.  In the Jewish culture of that time, the number seven was the number of completeness, so seventy-seven was a way of saying “millions and millions.”  Jesus tells a parable to illustrate what he means.

Jesus starts his parable by saying “the kingdom of heaven is like”, by which he is telling us that this story speaks about the kingdom of God that Jesus is inaugurating in the world.  In the parable there is a king whose servant owed him a massive debt that he could not hope to pay.  The servant begged for mercy and the king forgave the debt.  This forgiven servant then went to collect a very small debt from one of his colleagues.  This colleague could not repay the debt, and begged for mercy.  Instead of extending the same forgiveness that had been extended to him, the servant demanded repayment, assaulted the man and had him thrown in prison.  When the king found out about this, he reinstated the first servant’s debt and had him thrown into prison.

In this story, the king represents God, and we represent the servant who had the massive debt to the king.  It is the nature of the king to forgive the debt of the servant, just as it is the nature of God to forgive us our sins.  But if we cannot then forgive the much smaller wrongs that our neighbor may have committed against us, we have not grasped God’s forgiveness.  In the end, forgiveness is a two way street.  We can forgive another person, but that person must accept that forgiveness in order for it to have an effect in their lives.

Remember Corrie Ten Boom’s story.  The guard needed to ask for forgiveness from Corrie, and Corrie had to grant it.  Only then was the relationship healed and God’s purposes achieved.  Think of another possibility.  What if Corrie had seen an unrepentant guard and forgiven him in her heart even though he didn’t ask.  Corrie would have forgiven the guard, but the guard would not have accepted her forgiveness, and he would not have been healed or changed by that forgiveness.  For forgiveness to be effective, it must be accompanied by repentance by the person who has sinned.  Forgiveness has no power in the hearts of the unrepentant.

God can forgive us, but if we don’t accept that forgiveness, then we are turning our back on his forgiveness, and in a sense, we then lose it.  We lose God’s forgiveness because we prevent it from having any healing power in our lives or in our hearts.  The parable tells us that if we truly accept God’s forgiveness, we must stand before God fully acknowledging our many sins and unworthiness.  And when we do this in our hearts, it is inevitable that any resentments or grudges that we hold against others will be cast away.

God offers us forgiveness of our sins with an end in mind.  We are not forgiven so that we can continue to live in sin and darkness.  No, God forgives us in order that we will follow Jesus into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we continue to nurse grudges and resentments against others even in light of God’s forgiveness of the massive debt we owed him, then we have not followed Jesus into the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we are part of the Kingdom of Heaven, then our desire will be for the forgiveness and redemption of everyone we meet.  We must love them and desire that they too will experience God’s forgiveness.

Our Old Testament reading from Genesis shows us a wonderful example of forgiveness and the power that God can work in all things.  This story comes from the final chapter in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  For those not familiar with the story, Joseph lived in Canaan with his brothers and his father Jacob.  Joseph’s brothers grew jealous of him and conspired to murder him, but in the end, they decided instead to sell him into slavery and tell their father that he was killed by a wild animal.  After they sold him, Joseph’s brothers thought they had seen the end of him.

Joseph was brought to Egypt as a slave, but God had plans for him.  Through a variety of adventures and developments, Joseph rose to be one of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s top officials.  Joseph had interpreted a dream of Pharaoh which foretold seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  As a top official in Pharaoh’s government, Joseph prepared Egypt for the famine by storing up food during the years of plenty.  During the years of famine, his family came to Egypt looking for food, and this is where Joseph met them again.  There is much more to the story, but the long and short of it is that Joseph’s brothers feared that Joseph would still be holding a grudge against them and take vengeance on them once their father had died.  And this is where our reading today comes in.

Listen to the story once more:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”  So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Joseph had forgiven his brothers, and he realized that if his brothers were to be punished for what they did to him, that was up to God, not him.

As Christians, we are called to represent Jesus Christ to the world, and being people who forgive is central to this.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul is telling us here that we are called to represent Christ’s message of reconciliation to the world.  The only way that we can represent Christ in this way is to make forgiveness a central part of who we are.  Forgiveness is not just a bothersome obligation.  Rather, if we trust in Jesus, immerse ourselves in Scripture, and are full of the Holy Spirit, then forgiveness will be a central characteristic of who we are – sons and daughters of God, joining Jesus Christ ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us pray.

Lord God, we thank you that you have forgiven us our sins, sending your son Jesus Christ to come and give himself for us, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  Give us the will to forgive others as we have been forgiven, so that, through our forgiveness we can show them the power of the Gospel.  We ask this in your name.  Amen.

Some Thoughts on Evangelism

Sermon,  August 13, 2017 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Romans 10:5-15

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

When I read today’s passage from Romans, I thought that it would have been a very appropriate reading to have heard when our missionaries from China came to speak to us in early July.  Paul tells us very succinctly how important it is to spread the Gospel to others.  This includes not only missionaries to China but also each one of us here today as we interact with our neighbors, families, work colleagues, and those in our communities that we might not ever think about interacting with.

Telling others the good news of Jesus Christ is important.  If you are like me, now is about the time that you think to yourself “Evangelism?  Not for me.”  And I’ll grant you, evangelism has a received a pretty bad rap over the years.  I remember once when I was visiting a high school friend who had moved to New Jersey, we were riding the PATH train into New York City when a man came up and asked me if I was saved.  I told him I was, but he didn’t seem to want to take “yes” for an answer.  Now, I often quicken my pace and avoid eye contact if I spot someone who looks like a street corner evangelist.

But to be fair, sometimes my fears are unfounded.  One time a few months ago, I was wearing a t-shirt with a Christian message in a public place and a man came up and asked me if I was a follower of Jesus.  Nervously I told him that I was, and he then wanted to shake my hand and tell me he was too and he was glad to meet a brother in Christ.

Today’s passage tells us some important things about evangelism, but to be fair, in our reading, we are joining Paul in the middle of his argument.  In order to really understand it, we need to see the context in which Paul placed it.

First of all, let’s do a 30 second overview of God’s plan of salvation.  God chose the nation of Israel as his chosen people, and we read about this in the Old Testament.  But God chose Israel to be the vessel by which the whole world would be saved.  Israel wasn’t chosen by God to be the only people that would ever be saved.  Rather, Israel was chosen to be the nation in which Jesus was born, and so to bring salvation to the whole world.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the church had made important inroads in communities around the Roman Empire.  While the early Church did count many Jews amongst its numbers, the great majority of Jews rejected the gospel of Jesus.  This rejection greatly troubled Paul and other early Christian leaders.  They saw the message of Jesus Christ as flowing from a right understanding of God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and so they were anxious to ensure correct teaching in the churches, so that people would hear the true Gospel.

There is a slogan popular in some quarters that says “doctrine divides, but love unites.”  While the intent behind this slogan may not always be bad, it is nevertheless very dangerous.  Bad doctrine can prevent people from hearing the real gospel.  In the 1990s, an Episcopal bishop published a book titled The Cruelty of Heresy, in which he demonstrated the many harms and injuries that develop when false doctrine is allowed to take seed in the church.  Sometimes heresy might seem loving at first glance, but heresy is always revealed as a cruel deception in the end.  The New Testament includes many instructions from the apostles to guard sound doctrine and reject anything that strays from it.

In his letter to Titus, Paul writes that a church leader “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”  As we join Paul in mid-argument in today’s lectionary reading, we see him in the midst of refuting false doctrine while laying out the gospel.  Paul is pointing out that the reason Israel has rejected the Gospel is because they held on to false doctrine.

At the end of the chapter that comes just before today’s passage, Paul writes “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.  Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.”  Paul is arguing that the correct understanding of the Gospel is that we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.  By his death, the righteousness of Jesus was given to us, since Jesus took our sins upon himself.  And so, if we have faith in Jesus and acknowledge him as our Savior, we can gain righteousness.  Not by our own merit, or our works, but purely by the grace of Jesus.

In contrast, the people of Israel, sought to achieve righteousness on their own by following the law.  But because we are all sinners, we cannot hope to justify ourselves before God through our own good works.  And so, those Jews who rejected the Gospel of Christ, had not attained their goal of righteousness, since only Jesus Christ can impart that to us.

Paul expounds on this theme in the first part of our passage.  In verse 5, he says that Moses taught that those who live by the law will be judged by the law.  “The person who does these things will live by them” Paul quotes Moses as saying, and Paul interprets this to mean that if you seek to justify yourself by the law, then you will be judged accordingly.

He then turns to what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul writes the person with faith will not ask “who will ascend into heaven” or “who will descend into the deep” to fetch Jesus from these places.  If we have to go fetch Jesus, then our salvation would depend on us.  Paul is being rhetorical here, because he, his readers, including us, all know that Jesus came to us on earth to die for our sins.  We don’t need to go get Jesus because he has already come for us.

Instead, Paul says, the only thing that a person of faith needs do is actually believe that Jesus died for their sins and that God raised him from the dead.  We need not do anything else.  God has done it all for us.  All we need to do is trust in God and believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.  We need to believe because the good news of Jesus can only be applied in our lives if we allow God in.

And so, now that Paul has made the critically important clarification on what the true Gospel is, he draws a few conclusions.  First, if salvation is only by the grace of Jesus Christ, and if there is nothing about us that merits salvation, then it puts everyone in the world on the same footing.  Nobody has any greater claim to the love of God than anyone else.  Paul makes this crystal clear when he writes “As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.””

Many Jews believed that, as God’s chosen people, God owed them a place in his kingdom.  They believed that they had been given God’s law uniquely and that only they could obey God’s law and so earn for themselves salvation.  Paul makes clear that this is entirely wrong.  The coming of Jesus Christ fulfilled Israel’s role in the salvation history of the world.  Salvation is now open to everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – who believes in Jesus Christ.

And so we come to Paul’s final point in our passage.  He has just told us that we do not earn salvation by our own acts.  Salvation is not a method to be taught or a path to be followed.  Rather, the Gospel is good news to be told.  People need to hear that God loves them, and loves them so much that Jesus Christ came to die for them.  And not only this, but that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, thereby assuring us that death has been defeated.  The resurrection of Jesus looks forward to the day when all of creation is renewed and the dead are resurrected and live with God in the new heaven and new earth.  This is news, but news needs to be communicated.

And so Paul asks “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”  Indeed, how can we wonder that Christianity is fading in America if we won’t tell others about Jesus?  Our nation is desperate for the good news of the Gospel, and if we don’t tell this good news, who will?

Paul concludes our passage by quoting from Isaiah when he writes “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  The full passage is from Isaiah chapter 52, verse 7.  In this passage God is reassuring Israel that He will restore them after freeing them from exile and captivity.  Isaiah writes the following passage about the heralds who will bring this news of freedom to the people.  “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!””

Our job as evangelists is not to pester people repeatedly about whether or not they are born again.  Nor are we called to tell people that they must repent or burn in hell.  No, Paul tells us that we have good news:  news of freedom from captivity to sin; news of peace, good tidings and salvation; news we should want to share.

I’ll admit, evangelism still can feel a bit intimidating.  Many prefer to wallow in sin, sickness and captivity and reject the good news of Jesus.  In fact, if we kept reading past today’s passage, we would hear Paul say “But not all the Israelites accepted the good news.”  Paul acknowledges that not everyone will be receptive to the gospel.  But we are called to at least give everyone the chance to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  I know it can be difficult but won’t you pray for courage and grace and be prepared to share the reason for your joy and confidence in Jesus whenever an opportunity arises?

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?”  I am telling you now – we are all called by God to be evangelists, and all of us are sent to tell others.  Let each one of us embrace our calling, even if we feel understandable fear from such a calling.  There is a saying that says “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”  May God grant us all courage to be his heralds of his good news.  For the good news of Jesus Christ is surely more important than fear.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that, in Christ, you are reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

What’s Up With the Trinity?

Sermon, June 11, 2017  – Trinity Sunday, Year A
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-14; Matthew 28:16-20

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday of the church year that we turn our focus to the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We repeat this formula quite often during our worship service.  Hearing it causes many seasoned Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox to reflexively make the sign of the cross. And yet, for many years, I didn’t really know why the Trinity was all that important.  Sure, I accepted that there is solid grounding for it in the Bible, and that it was something that ought to be believed in as true, but I really didn’t understand why it made a difference.

I do now.  Understanding the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity is critical to a full understanding of who God is.  I am sure that you have heard it said many times that everybody really worships the same God, and that the only issue is that we each understand Him a little bit differently.  But the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t let us say that, because it requires a radically different concept of God.  Yes, a full understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is way beyond our paygrade, and way beyond the paygrade of the best theologians and bishops.  But the Bible does tell us enough for us to begin to grasp this very important doctrine.

Let’s take a look at the Scripture that we heard for today, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew.  Here Jesus tells us quite pointedly that the doctrine of the Trinity undergirds everything he is commissioning us to do.  Jesus tells us “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are to go and make disciples and initiate them into the Kingdom of God in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  This tells us that Jesus sees the Trinity as foundational to the Kingdom of God and to our mission on earth.  Our other two readings give us some clues as to why the Trinity is so foundational.  They tell us what the doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us about God.

You might wonder where in our Genesis passage the Trinity is mentioned.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be learned about the Trinity.  In the middle of the Genesis passage, we read “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…’  So God created mankind in his own image, ‘in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’”  Many doctoral theses and theological studies have been written about what it means that humans were created in the image of God.  There are many aspects in which we function in God’s image.

Let me talk about one particular perspective here that relates to the Trinity.  We read in this passage that God created humanity in his image, and note in particular here that God said “let us make” – God refers to himself as “us”.  For Christians, this brings to mind an image of the Trinity.  So, with that in mind, God creates us as male and female, and Jesus himself refers back to this passage when he speaks of marriage.

Accordingly, a man and a woman united in marriage tells us something about the image of God, and, I would suggest, about the Trinity.  A marriage is ideally about a man and a woman coming together in love, forming a new unity.  Within that relationship, there is a unity of difference, and the husband and wife direct self-giving and sacrificial love to the other.  And often within this marriage comes children, whom the parents also shower their love upon.  This points us to the Trinity, where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each distinct, yet are God, and each directs self-giving love to the others.  Just as love is the very foundation of a marriage, so love is the very foundation of the Triune God.  And just as children become part of an earthly marriage, so are we humans loved by the Triune God.  Genesis teaches us that the Trinity means that love and relationship are the essence of who God is.

Genesis gives us a generic image of the Triune God.  This image is considerably fleshed out by Paul.  In Paul’s conclusion to his second letter to the church at Corinth, we hear a very familiar Trinitarian benediction.  Paul writes “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  This is very commonly spoken at the end of the worship services in many denominations.  And if I gave you a dime every time I have heard an Anglican or Episcopal priest recite this, I would be very poor indeed.  This very simple benediction has a lot to say to us, especially about the Trinity.

Paul speaks to us of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  Each person of the Trinity gives us one of these gifts, and these gifts tell us how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other and with us.  To begin with, Paul speaks of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to earth and suffered and died on the cross for our sins.  When we realize what Jesus did for us, our only response is to realize what grace was shown to us.  We are told that we are saved through the grace of Jesus, which means that our salvation is a free gift, given to us by Jesus.

Why did Jesus do this for us?  Paul speaks of the love of God.  The love of the Father for us was demonstrated most clearly when he sent his Son Jesus Christ to the world to reconcile us to himself.  In the famous passage in his Gospel, John wrote “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  What does this love and salvation lead to?  What does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us is the goal from this?

Paul finishes up by speaking of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  The word that is translated to fellowship here is the Greek work koinonia, which is a favorite word for theologians to discuss.  I read one definition of this word that I thought was very helpful.  This definition reads “Literally, communion; the unity of believers through Christ based on the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  One commentator wrote about koinonia as “that abiding fellowship of the Holy Spirit who took up residence in our hearts after Pentecost.”  The Holy Spirit came upon the Church at Pentecost, which we celebrated last week, and which is often regarded as the birth of the Church.  This commentator tells us why the Holy Spirit was so important in the founding of the Church.  He writes “The Holy Spirit alone is the glue that can hold together people who sometimes don’t have a whole lot in common outside their common commitment to the faith.”

So, thinking again of the Trinity, we see that the love of God the Father for us, led to God the Son, Jesus Christ, coming to earth to give his life for us and reconciling us to the Father, which in turn led to the Holy Spirit coming in our midst and opening the way for us to live in communion with God and our brothers and sisters in faith.  A Trinitarian believer is always confident in the love of God, is always incredibly thankful to Jesus Christ for his precious gift, and is always part of the larger community of fellow believers.

A Trinitarian believer can’t be a lone wolf with a lukewarm faith.  A Trinitarian believer is one who is completely wrapped up in the love of God, who knows in their very core that if it wasn’t for the grace of Jesus Christ, they would be nothing, and who is fully part of the greater communion of believers through Christ based on the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We see that the doctrine of the Trinity is intertwined intimately with God’s plan for our salvation.  The Trinity is all about sacrificial and self-giving love, relationship and communion.  This is the essence of God.  And God’s plan for our salvation begins in the supreme love for us from the Father.  And it took shape for us through the incredible grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins.  And it has become real and active for us today through the fellowship we have both with God and with our fellow believers through the Holy Spirit.

And so let us hear the benediction one more time “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  Now I get it.  And I realize how amazing the doctrine of the Trinity is for us.

Let us pray.

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever.. Amen.

#WeAreAllThomas

Sermon, April 23, 2017 – Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
John 20:19-31

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Many of you will remember the controversy a couple of weeks ago when airport police dragged a passenger off of his United airlines flight when he refused to disembark voluntarily in order to give up his seat.  I am sure when you heard this story, you thought to yourself “I wonder when the lawsuit will come.”  I wondered that too, and, sure enough, a few days after the incident, the media reported that the preliminary steps were being taken towards filing a lawsuit.

Do you know what that preliminary step was?  It was a motion by the injured passenger to require United and O’Hare airport to preserve all the evidence related to this incident.  Why was this so important?  Because without evidence, there is no court case.

Human beings have the need for proof and evidence hardwired into our brains.  The bedrock of our justice system is evidence.  Among the most important skills and lessons learned in law school is how to find out what evidence you need to prove something and how you can present that evidence to the court.  Several of the amendments to the United States constitution speak to issues of proof and evidence in court proceedings – from protection against unreasonable search and seizure to the right to confront witnesses, to the right to have a jury to weigh the evidence.

This innate need for evidence spans all human cultures and time.  There are rules for evidence in the Old Testament.  Deuteronomy 19:15 says “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”  And one of the Ten Commandments is not to bear false witness.  There are many examples of such evidentiary requirements in other cultures and traditions.

We want evidence.  We demand proofs before we believe things.  And the more particular, strange or important an event is, the greater our need is for evidence, and the better that evidence must be.  And so, if I tell you that on a given Sunday at St. Luke’s, refreshments were served after the worship service, I doubt that most of you will demand that I show you evidence.  This is something that happens every week.

But suppose you made a $1,000 bet with someone that my sermon was going to be 5 minutes or less on a given Sunday.  Suppose that you were not able to make it to church that day, but your friend came collecting.  And you would say “No way that James ever preaches less than 10 minutes!  I won’t pay out unless you show me a video of that sermon.”  This is something unusual and, what’s more, you have skin in the game.  You want some proof.  How much more proof would you demand if the claim was that somebody rose from the dead, and that your penalty for being wrong was very possibly your very life?  Yeah, you’d really want some evidence then.

And this brings us to today’s <a href=”https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+20%3A19-31&amp;version=NIV” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Gospel reading</a>, where we heard the story of Doubting Thomas.  Poor guy.  He has a perfectly reasonable response to the news of the resurrection of Jesus, one that I’ll bet each one of us here today would have, and we label him for life.  Doubting Thomas.  But the more I think of this story, the more I am convinced that it really has nothing to tell us about doubt.  I think that the reaction of Thomas is simply the natural reaction that every normal human being that has ever lived would have.  If they had Twitter back in the New Testament times, the relevant hashtag would be #WeAreAllThomas.

What is the point of this story?  I think that the final two verses in today’s passage give us an important clue.  John writes “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  John is telling us that there are many other stories that he could have included in his Gospel account.  But he chose the stories that he includes so that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that by believing, we may have life in his name.  John chose to include the story of Thomas to encourage our belief.

When seen in this light, it all makes a great deal of sense.  John includes this story of Thomas so that the hearers of his Gospel might believe.  The story of Thomas is all about how he wanted evidence of the resurrection of Jesus and how he saw the evidence and was convinced by it.  As mentioned, the more unusual or strange an event is, the more evidence we demand.  And the greater the impact an event might have on us, the more proof we want to see.

Well, what happened to Jesus on Easter morning was just about the most extraordinary thing that we could possibly imagine.  Here was a man who had been officially executed and placed in a secure tomb who apparently had risen from the dead.  On the scale of the extraordinary and bizarre, this incident is simply off the charts.  And there were also serious consequences for the disciples if this event were true.  Jesus had been officially executed by the Roman government at the behest of the Jewish religious establishment.  By publically preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, the disciples would be challenging the secular and religious powers, and thereby courting torture and death.

Early Christians needed to be very certain that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and I think that this was the reason why John includes this story in his Gospel.  Thomas’ doubt represents the doubts not only of all early Christians but of ourselves as well.  Thomas is the credible eye-witness for all of us.  Remember that the early Church was much smaller then today, and well-connected with each other.  It would have been impossible for John to have included this eyewitness story about Thomas unless it were true.  For us, this would be like someone saying “well, Dorothy and Joan both saw it and they are ready to swear to us that it is true.”  John knows that only a handful of people were in a position to be eye witnesses to the physical resurrection of Jesus, but records the eyewitness evidence for us.  Today, this would be like making a video recording of Dorothy and Joan telling their story to us, complete with a firm affirmation of truthfulness.

Why would it be important for early Christians to have such confidence in Jesus’ resurrection?  For the same reason that it is important for us.  It gives us the confidence to do what God is calling us to do, and it gives us confidence to persevere in this life when we face death and decay day after day.  Faith does not necessarily work in the complete absence of evidence, but can work hand in hand with strong evidence.  Faith and doubt are not opposites.  One can have faith in the midst of doubt on the basis of strong evidence.

I recall back when I was in high school attending a confirmation class at my church.  Our pastor asked us if we thought there was absolute proof that Jesus rose from the dead, and if so, what was it.  Well, pretty quickly a number of students raised their hands and said that the proof was that it was in the Bible.  And the pastor then asked them what proof they had that the Bible was true on this.  And so it went on for a bit.  Back then, I was much quieter than I am now so I listened for a while.  But I finally raised my hand and said “we don’t have absolute proof that Jesus rose from the dead.  There is good evidence for it, but in the end, we just have to combine that evidence with faith that it is true.”  This was the lesson that our pastor was trying to teach us.

As many Christian scholars and theologians, including N.T. Wright, Timothy Keller, Lee Strobel and others have argued, if you look at the available evidence, the strongest and best conclusion that fits the facts is that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead.  The other explanations for the available evidence just make no sense.

Strong faith, undergirded by the evidence of Thomas and the evidence in the rest of the Gospels, gives us confidence to persevere in this life when we face sin, death, and decay.  This is what gave Peter the courage to preach as we read about in our first reading from the Book of Acts.  Peter, the disciple who earlier was tongue-tied and so cowardly as to deny even knowing Jesus, suddenly became full of courage.  He stood up to speak to a crowd in Jerusalem saying “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” and “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”  Do you really think that Peter would have turned from coward to bold preacher who put his life on the line if he wasn’t supremely confident in what he was preaching?

Death is something that will overcome each of us.  We cannot defeat it.  During Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of this truth when the priest marks us with ashes and says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Despite all of our technological advancements, we cannot defeat death.  It brings grief and sadness.  It is an ever present reminder of the brokenness of this world.

But Jesus Christ defeated death.  He rose physically from the dead on Easter.  He was dead and now he is alive for ever and ever!  We know this because Thomas is our witness!  Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is our one sure hope that God will redeem this world from sin and decay and defeat death once and for all in the end.  On Good Friday, Jesus took our sins upon himself and suffered our penalty.  On Easter Day, he rose up and defeated death, thereby promising us that not only are our sins forgiven but that death and decay are defeated also.  The way is cleared for us to live forever in a right relationship with our creator.

So let us have confidence in our Lord and in His saving us from death and decay.  He will raise us up on the last day just as he will raise all believers from their graves.

In Eastern Orthodox churches, the Easter liturgy is always begun with the Paschal troparion, which is a chant that is sung or said many times over:

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”  Listen to these words and let’s take them to heart.

Let us pray.

Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Jesus Meets the Samaritan Woman

Sermon, March 19, 2017 – Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
John 4:5-42

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

In today’s Gospel reading we heard a great story of how Jesus interacted with a Samaritan woman, leading not only to her own conversion but to the conversion of her village. And unlike some Sundays, today we get to hear the whole story – from beginning to end. Like most stories from the Gospel, there is so much there for us if we slow down and read it carefully.

As I was thinking about this story and what it might say to us today, I recalled something I had read by Bishop N.T. Wright, a bishop and noted scholar in the Church of England. Bishop Wright speaks of how Bible stories can be authoritative for us, even if they are not creeds, rules, or clear theological statements. He says that the Bible contains “an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, it is wielded in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”

Bishop Wright suggests that we might think of the Bible’s authority like a five act play by William Shakespeare, in which we do not have the fifth and final act. Suppose that the first four acts provide us with “such a wealth of characterization” and “such a crescendo of excitement within the plot” that we can draw from this how the final act should unfold. The first four acts would act as our authority for how the final act must come out, yet within that authority, we have the responsibility for producing the final act.

Bishop Wright refines his idea by suggesting that the first four acts of our play are “(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus.” And as for the fifth and final act, the bishop says that the “New Testament would form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints [to] how the play is supposed to end.” We as the Church would then live under this authority to perform the final act through how we live our lives on earth.

This is an excellent and useful framework within which to think about our Gospel lesson today. Our story is both interesting and compelling but it is a story. Jesus isn’t teaching us in a parable nor is Paul making a theological argument about what we ought to believe. No, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, they have an interesting and peculiar conversation, after which she convinces her village that Jesus is the promised Messiah. So what can this tell us about ourselves and how we should live?

As we think about this story, let us reflect on how Jesus came to meet and converse with this woman; what sort of person this woman was; what Jesus offered her; and how the woman responded.

What is amazing in this story is that Jesus was able to speak with her despite the social barriers that would normally have blocked any conversation between them. She was a Samaritan woman. As our passage tells us: Jews do not associate with Samaritans. The Samaritans were descendants of the rebellious tribes of Israel which had broken away from the Jewish kings of David’s line. They had their own unique take on Judaism, rejecting both much of the Old Testament and the Temple in Jerusalem as the center for the true worship of God. Jews looked down on Samaritans as being heretical, unclean and racially inferior.

Another barrier was that she was a woman. In ancient near eastern culture, it would have been considered highly improper for Jesus to have spoken with her. But it was even more pointed for this woman as she apparently had a reputation for being sexually immoral. But nothing is too great for God. Consider the story and how the scene is set.

In the first four verses in John chapter four, we learned that Jesus needed to get out of Judea quickly and go to Galilee. Wouldn’t you know it, but that meant that he needed to travel through Samaria. And then he stopped at noon near a well. He sent his disciples to the nearest town to get some food. Now, in Israel, it usually was pretty hot in the middle of the day, and the women in the area would have all come to the well to get their water much earlier, when the day was still cool. And they would have all come together as a group.

But the woman in our story had to come alone, and at a time when she didn’t think anyone else would be there, most likely because she was the target of gossip and mean comments from her neighbors. And so she came when she wasn’t expecting anybody to be there. But Jesus was waiting to meet her. Jesus did not let the social barriers prevent her from encountering him.

What of the woman herself? What kind of person was she? Well, to begin with, she was someone who had some relationship problems. The story tells us that she had been through five husbands and the man she was currently with, wasn’t her husband. Commentators wisely caution us against assuming that this was all her fault. They remind us that in the Jewish and Samaritan culture, it was the husband who had all the control over divorce, not the woman. And we also don’t know whether any of her husbands had died.

But what I think we can recognize is that this was a woman who had some serious relationship scars and was quite probably someone who had suffered from abusive or mean spirited men in her life. It seems that she had become so fearful of making yet another relationship commitment that she had decided against marrying anybody else. In the ancient world, this would have made her an outcast and someone to avoid.

Yet, this was the area that Jesus focused on. Jesus identified the area in her life most in need of healing when he brought up her relationship issues, right after he offered her living water. This is an important thing to note in the story. First Jesus offered her living water, then he brought up the area in which she had the greatest need of healing. The two go together.

Listen to what Jesus says when he asks her for a drink and she initially deflects his question. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus is, of course, offering her himself, that is to say, an everlasting relationship with God himself. This is the living water that will keep you satiated for all eternity.

The Samaritan woman, of course, doesn’t fully understand right away what Jesus means by living water. Bishop Wright points out that in that time, the term that Jesus uses for living water referred to running water, like water in a stream or river, as opposed to standing water in a well or pool. Living water was more likely to be fresh and clean. But Jesus goes further and says that this living water will become a spring within us, welling up to eternal life. Bishop Wright notes that if you want to take Jesus up on his offer of living water bubbling up within you, you will need to get rid of the stale, moldy, stagnant water that you are currently living off of. For the Samaritan woman, her stagnant water was her relationship issues. When we decide that we want to accept the offer of Jesus to heal us, we need to be prepared that he will actually heal us.

How did the Samaritan woman respond? Like us, she tries to stall for more time. “Okay Jesus, that sounds great, but now isn’t a great time. Maybe later.” Initially, she tries to deflect Jesus by bringing up religious controversy. She says “Yes, I see that you must be a prophet. But what about that religious issue that stands between Jews and Samaritans. What about that, Jesus?” But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus tells her quite plainly what the truth is, which is that she has gotten the issue all wrong. Jesus points out to her that it really doesn’t matter where God is worshipped, but rather that God is worshipped in spirit and truth.

The woman then tries one last diversion. She says “I know that the Messiah will come one day. I’ll just wait till then and ask him.” Well, this diversion didn’t work either, since Jesus responds both simply and effectively by saying “Yeah, that Messiah guy? That’s me.”

At this point, it clicks for her. When the disciples return, the woman leaves and goes to her village. She was so emboldened by her encounter with Jesus that she tells everyone in her village about him. Remember that this was the woman who Jesus first encountered because she was avoiding her fellow villagers. Now she is among them enthusiastically telling them about Jesus. And she was so persuasive that many of the Samaritans from that area came to believe in Jesus.

So what does this story teach us? To begin with, we read that no matter how seemingly insurmountable the barriers might be between a person and Jesus, Jesus can still reach them. No matter how insignificant or marginalized a person might seem, Jesus still will reach out to them and offer the living water of himself. As Paul writes in Romans “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We also learn that when Jesus reaches out to us, he is reaching out to heal and transform us. Each one of us has an area in our lives that is in need of healing. Probably many areas if we are going to be honest. Jesus promises us that he will give us a stream of living water to well up within us to eternal life. As Bishop Wright says, when we accept the living water, we must get rid of the stale and stagnant water that we cling to. What this means is that Jesus comes to transform us. He wants all of us. Imagine that you have broken your leg and you go to the hospital. But what if you refused to let the doctor do what she needs to do to heal you? What if you said “yes, I want to walk again, but you may not do anything to my leg.” That wouldn’t make sense. And so if we truly want the living water that Jesus offers, we must be ready to let him wash away the stale and stagnant sin that infects our lives.

Finally, we see what the woman does when she lets down her barriers and embraces Jesus. Her life is transformed. She is full of joy and can’t be contained. Instead of the woman shunned by and gossiped about by her neighbors, who sneaks to the well when she knows nobody else will be around, we see a woman enthusiastically telling her neighbors about Jesus. And she is so full of life and the Spirit that many are convinced by her.

This story tells us that every one of us can be a follower of Jesus. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be. But don’t for a minute think that following Jesus doesn’t change everything. It does. But if that scares you, ask yourself this – is the stale, stagnant water of your old life preferable to the fresh, bubbling living water that Jesus promises? I think we all know the answer. Come, let’s drink deeply together.

Let us pray.

We thank you and praise you, O God, that however we may thirst, whatever we may need to satisfy our souls, you offer it freely and abundantly in Christ; So we drink deep of the living water and, as we draw from your wells, we seek to pass the cup to others who, like us, are thirsty for your grace. Amen.

 

Law and Grace

Sermon, February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 5:21-37

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

That was a pretty sobering Gospel lesson that we heard today. Listen to these phrases, some repeated more than once:

“will be subject to judgment”
“answerable to the court”
“will be in danger of the fire of hell”
“may hand you over to the judge, and you may be thrown into prison”
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Who do these dire warning apply to? Surely only to the most wicked and evil people, right? Surely not to us? Well, actually they do apply to us. Or would if Jesus hadn’t intervened for us. Anyone who is angry with someone else, or calls them a fool is subject to judgment. From what I can see on Facebook and Twitter that takes care of pretty much everyone. But on the off chance that doesn’t apply to you, can you honestly say that you have never had a wandering lustful eye at some point in your life? Out with that eye!

Whoever isn’t condemned to judgment in hell for being angry or dismissive with another, will be walking around with one eye. What kind of world is that? It makes me think how Ron enjoys creative titles for his sermons, and I might just be able to top him today. How about “In the Land of the Damned, the One-Eyed Man is King?” Hmmm….that sounds more like the next big movie about a future dystopia instead of a sermon.

Or I suppose that I could turn this into a sermon on politics. After all, when one thinks of insults, anger, adultery and promise-breaking, what comes more quickly to mind than politicians? Tempting subject, but I don’t think I will go there.

Seriously though – what is our Gospel reading about? What is Jesus trying to tell us in this passage? Where did the good news of the Gospel go? What happened to grace? It’s there. I promise you. But first, we need to see this passage through the right perspective.

We tend to understand these teachings of Jesus through the same lenses as the Pharisees. Understanding this is key to hearing what Jesus is telling us. Now, just to be perfectly clear. I realize that the Pharisees have a very bad reputation today, but the way they viewed law is predominant amongst people in all times and cultures.

The Pharisees were devout Jews who wanted to be sure that they were following God’s law. They studied God’s law as revealed to Moses in the Old Testament and then created a code of behavior which they thought they would keep them safe if they followed it legalistically.

Take the issue of adultery for example. The Ten Commandments said not to commit adultery. Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce in certain circumstances. So the Pharisees codified rules around the specific outward behavior that they believed God was forbidding and then a created legal work around to allow people to end their marriages when they wanted to. Everything was focused on outward behavior.

Our legal system in the United States today adopts this same approach. For every crime, the prosecutor must prove the objective outward act which constitutes the crime. For most crimes, the prosecutor must also prove the subjective intent to do the thing. However, absent an actual outward act, the subjective intent is irrelevant. Think of it this way – I may contemplate and even intend to rob you, but unless I take actual outward actions in furtherance of robbing you, I am not guilty of the crime of robbery.

We often refer to this attitude as being legalistic. The reason is pretty clear – we are adopting from the legal system the principle that only external behavior counts. If you didn’t do the action, then no matter what you were thinking, you didn’t break the law.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus is telling us that this attitude just doesn’t cut it in the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s law is meant to apply to all of our lives – thoughts, intents, and behaviors. One commentator, Professor Scott Hoezee, wrote that “From the outside looking in, it looks like Jesus is making the Law of God ridiculously hard to keep….But is Jesus changing the Law into something new and different? No, he is radicalizing it, he is bringing everyone back to the roots of why God gave the Law in the first place.”

God did not give us the Law as a tedious set of rules which we have to navigate around in order to accomplish our own selfish ends. No, God gave us the Law so that we could set our hearts and minds on God’s call on our lives. Don’t think of God’s law like the criminal law or governmental regulations. No, the better way to think of God’s law is to think of a young man courting a woman. Yes, here is the sermon’s Valentine’s Day reference! But think – what if the young man really didn’t love the woman, but he was just going through the motions? What if he didn’t have any emotional investment in the woman? What sort a romance would that be? Not much of one. In courting, it is the intent which is most important, and the intent animates the courtship behaviors, such as flowers, dinners, and such.

This is what God’s Law must be for us. In our passage today, Jesus is telling us that God’s law isn’t really about our external behavior. He is telling us that it is all about our hearts and minds, knowing that if our hearts and minds are focused on God and what God wants, then our external behaviors will follow.

Let us take another look at the passage. Jesus begins by addressing murder. He repeats the admonition against murder, but then makes it clear that God also wants us to treat others with respect. If we carry bitter, hateful and cynical thoughts in our hearts about others, than that will come out in how we live our lives. We will be living our lives enslaved to our own passions, or own selfish desires, and not in furtherance of God’s will for our lives. God’s call to us is to live in peace and concord with our neighbors to the extent we can. This means reconciling with those we are in conflict with as soon as we can.

Next Jesus addresses the issue of adultery. Again, he acknowledges the teaching against marital infidelity, but then warns us that if we regard others simply as objects to give us sexual pleasure, then we are missing what God’s plan is for our sexuality. God’s plan is that men and women come together in the covenantal bond of marriage, where they are committed to each other and each other’s well-being for life. This bond is the context within which sexual love plays out. This covenantal commitment in marriage is so important that it is compared to Christ’s deep love and commitment to his Church.

Jesus speaks out against the certificates of divorce that were the way that men could legalistically extricate themselves from their marriages. Jesus points out that this is just another way of evading the covenantal responsibility that came with the marriage. Jesus says that the men who wrongly divorce their wives – even if they followed the legal technicalities – are guilty of adultery, because they broke the marriage covenant in their hearts.

Finally, Jesus speaks against oaths. In the time period of the New Testament, scholars believe that the Pharisees had developed intricate oaths which allowed them to avoid telling the truth while not technically violating the Mosaic Law. It would perhaps be the ancient equivalent of today’s fine print. You know, the kind where the big words in the advertisement say one thing, but the fine print at the bottom says something completely different.

Jesus says that this sort of legalistic hocus pocus was an offence against God no matter what technical formulas were used. He calls for a simple yes or no. Jesus would be a big advocate of truth in advertising. His teaching in our passage is calling us to say “yes” if we mean “yes” and “no” if we mean “no.” Trying to make it sound like we mean “yes” when we really mean “no” is being dishonest with others, no matter what clever oaths we use.

So what is Jesus basic message in our Gospel passage? Professor Hoezee writes that Jesus is interested in us “at every level, including at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds. God wants us to respect each other, to love each other, to see God’s own image residing deep within one another. Human life is not supposed to be some giant game in which you scheme and scam to get ahead…We are not to use people as pawns, as objects of lust, as receptacles for our scorn, as the targets for our desires to brutalize, manipulate, and then discard.”

If we see this passage through the eyes of the Pharisees, then we are indeed in deep trouble. Our sinful natures are always luring us towards selfishness, scheming, scamming, manipulating and using others. God knows this, and it is why he sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins and take away our guilt. So this passage isn’t about our punishment. Jesus Christ has taken care of that already by his death on the cross. But Jesus came to also show us a better way, and the Holy Spirit has come to live within us, and help us live as God is calling us to live. And that is where this passage comes in. It is Jesus telling us how we are to live now that we have been freed from our bondage to sin.

And that is good news.

Let us pray, in the words of today’s collect, which reminds us that we can only follow God’s law through God’s grace,

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Cross Trumps Tribalism

Sermon, January 22, 2017 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

There is an interesting symmetry between today’s Gospel reading from Matthew and the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In the Gospel Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and calls on a motley crew of fishermen to follow him and be leaders in the church. Then we read Paul’s discussion of the problematic factions in Corinth, with each faction following a different leader. It seems like the perfect combination of passages to demonstrate how we always seem to ruin what God calls us to do. God calls us to be leaders in his church and we turn around and break apart into factions, each following our chosen leader to the detriment of the church.

I do wonder if they thought of this interesting connection when they drew up the lectionary readings. In any case, let’s look at Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and what it tells us about unity and division in the church. To begin with, it is very important to understand the cultural context of the ancient Greek world in which the Corinthian church existed. Once we understand that, we can see what Paul was getting at in this passage.

The Greeks fancied themselves as very sophisticated and philosophical people. Philosophers and intellectual teachers would wander about and attract disciples to themselves. These teachers and philosophers were often puffed up and pompous and their followers would argue and quarrel with each other. Keep in mind that in the ancient world, there were no televisions, radios, or social media. Most people had no say in elections. There were no sports teams to cheer on. Instead, people enjoyed hearing teachers and philosophers spouting off, and they were quick to divide into teams, following one teacher or another.

Trading good natured trash talk is all part of the sports culture in North America. We wear our teams jerseys and call out insults about the opposing team’s star players. On a less light-hearted note, my Facebook friends span from those that are politically conservative to those that are liberal. Over the past year, I have seen all sorts of political postings and discussion. Typically, these devolve into a lot of name calling and hysteria, with insults flying back and forth. People don’t listen to each other and are more concerned with putting down their opponents than they are with constructively engaging anyone.

This sort of tribalism is in our human nature, and just as we engage in this sort of behavior today, the Christians in ancient Corinth apparently did so as well. Scholars don’t think that the factions were actually led by the individuals mentioned in the text, but rather that people were attracted to perspectives represented by the named leaders. Some scholars suggest that the Paul faction were those who regarded themselves as being the true followers of the apostle Paul and so followers of the true authority in the church. The Apollos party is thought to have been a group that regarded themselves as the intellectual elite of the church. The Cephas, or Peter, faction probably represented Jewish Christians who regarded themselves as the purest group within the church. And finally, the Christ party were probably a group that opposed any leadership at all, thinking that they were the most spiritual and may have even tended towards Gnosticism.

So basically, each of these factions was infected with pride and self-importance. Their factionalism turned the focus away from the Gospel and towards themselves. Instead of focusing on Jesus Christ, they were focused on themselves and why they were the best Christians in the church.

We face the same problems in the church today. There are some Christians who are quite convinced that they are better than others because they follow the oldest and most correct teachers or traditions. Others, including many in our tradition, think that they are far more intelligent and intellectual than other Christians. Still others fancy themselves as being the only Spirit filled Christians. Yet others see themselves as the purest and most authentic followers of Jesus because they don’t bother with doctrine but instead practice a social gospel as community and political activists.

The problem is not that Christians serve the poor, or study doctrine, or take teachers and traditions seriously, or seek to engage the intellect, or are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Nor is it bad that Christians focus their time and talent in specific areas. God created us each with unique personalities, interests and talents. Some are called to serve the poor, others to advocate for the less fortunate, others to study theology, others to have a greater sensitivity to the spirit. None of this is the problem.

What is the problem is when we become prideful in our areas of interest and shift our focus from Jesus Christ and the Gospel to our own agendas. Does the spiritual revival point people to Jesus Christ, or is the focus on magical signs and wonders? Does the social advocacy show God’s love for people, or is the focus on the political perspective of the activist? Does the theological discussion support the Gospel message, or is does it build up the intellectual egos of the participants? These are the questions to ask.

In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul sets out some corrective guidelines for us. He does this through three questions. He asks “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Each of these questions communicates an important truth.

In the first question, our Bibles translate Paul asking “Is Christ divided?” The Greek word is perhaps better rendered “Has Christ been parcelled out?” The point here is that Christ cannot be broken up and divided up. The Gospel is not a smorgasbord where we each only take the parts that we like. Later on in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

Paul’s point here is that while we each might have different roles to play in the Church, we must never forget that we are all part of the same body of Christ. Not one of us can vainly imagine that we or our chosen faction are more important than other Christians.

Paul’s next question is “Was Paul crucified for you?” Here he is pointing to the fundamental message of the Gospel – that Jesus Christ died on the cross for us to take away our sins. It wasn’t the imagined leaders of the various factions that died for us, it wasn’t our ideas, our advocacy, our charismatic practice, or anything else. Jesus died for us, and that is where our focus needs to be.

Theologian John Stott writes that the Eucharist is vitally important as a sacrament of reconciliation. He says “to be continually reminded of the cross is one of the healthy results of regularly sharing in the service of Holy Communion.” Stott argues that “reconciliation and unity between Christians is the fruit of the atoning sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and that the service of Holy Communion is therefore where we begin to demonstrate that unity which is God’s gift to us through the reconciling work of his Son.” Specifically, he writes, Christians “all come together to the Lord’s Table as sinners redeemed by his blood; we there acknowledge the disunity caused through our sin and guilt, then gratefully and joyfully celebrate our unity in forgiveness and cleansing.“ Focusing on the cross should always remind us of our sin and guilt and instill humility in us. Humility is the great antidote to pride and self-congratulation.

Paul’s third question is “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Remember how I told you that the ancient Greeks loved to follow intellectual teachers and philosophers? Well, these teachers often staged initiation rituals where followers would become their disciples and would thus come under their authority. Scholars believe that this mindset had infected the church, and that some Corinthian Christians regarded baptism as an initiation where they became the disciples of the person who baptized them. So if Paul baptized you, you were in Paul’s tribe. If Apollos baptized you, you were Apollos’ man.

This is why Paul says “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” He is saying that he was not sent to create factions in the Church, but to proclaim the gospel of the cross of Christ. We should all be disciples of Jesus Christ, not of one faction or another.

And so what is Paul’s message to us today about unity in the Church? I think that is quite a simple one. If we stay focused on the Gospel of Jesus and the cross of Christ, we’ll be okay. We’ll remember that, even though we all play a different part, we are all an equally important part of the body of Christ. We’ll remember that we “all come together to the Lord’s Table as sinners redeemed by his blood” and not by our own cleverness, goodness or actions. And finally, we’ll remember that we are all disciples of Jesus Christ, and not of our own little factions and cliques. This is how Christian unity can be restored. It starts at the bottom and works its way up.

So as we move to the confession of sin and sacrament of the Eucharist, let us confess our innate sin of pride and tribalism, and remember – for each and every one of us – it is only through the cross of Christ that we are redeemed. And redeemed, we are all part of Christ’s body because Christ is the one who invited us.

Let us pray,

God of all mercy, your Son died on the cross so that we might be freed from our bondage to sin and death. Grant that we may come together to your table as sinners redeemed by your blood, and gratefully and joyfully receive your body and blood as food and drink for us proclaiming our unity as fellow disciples of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Dealing With Fear: The Pessimistic Good News

Sermon, November 13, 2016 – Proper 28, Year C
Luke 21:5-19

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

I will admit to chuckling to myself as I read today’s Gospel lesson and prepared my sermon over the last couple of weeks. It is so appropriate to this year’s election that you think it must have been intentional to have this passage read today. As I heard the dire warnings of how the world would end if the other candidate won the election, I read the description of Jesus about the many tribulations that would take place before the world’s end: wars and uprisings, nations rising against nation, great earthquakes, famines, pestilences, fearful events, betrayal by families and friends. If you listened to the rhetoric of some of Hillary’s supporters, this is a pretty good description of what they think will happen once Donald Trump becomes president. And if you listened to the rhetoric of Trump’s supporters, well, then this is what they thought would have happened under Hillary Clinton.

As many commentators have said, this past election was primarily about fear. Both campaigns whipped the winds of fear to drive their supporters to the polls. I was thinking on this when I watched a post-election commentary by Stephen Colbert who pointed out a recent Pew survey that revealed that 55% of Democrats said that the Republican party makes them afraid, while 49% of Republicans said the same about the Democrats.

Well, I think that the people who are afraid are probably smart. I think that there are a lot of reasons to be afraid regardless who our next president is. Much of the fear that the campaigns whipped up is unreasonable, but there is also much to fear that the campaigns didn’t mention. Our world is a scary place and has been a scary place since…well, since forever.

American Christians seem to be just as consumed with fear as everyone else. In fact, I think that one of the greatest obstacles to Christianity in America is fear. My college degree was in political science and I enjoy reading, observing and analyzing political news and trends. One thing I noted during this election campaign was the development of a significant rift amongst American white evangelical leaders regarding their support of Donald Trump. Many younger evangelical leaders argued that Christians ought not support Trump even if that meant that Hillary would win. In contrast, many older leaders argued that their fear of a Hillary victory justified setting aside their moral qualms about supporting Trump.

As I thought about this, I realized that what this rift was really about is fear, and whether faith should trump fear. Pardon the pun and let me explain. American Christians too often allow fear to dictate our decisions and behaviors, often to the detriment of what God has commanded us in the Bible. Instead of trusting God, our fear leads us to try to solve the perceived problem on our own terms. Once we go down this road, we are trusting in ourselves instead of God. Nothing good can come from this.

Just to be clear – this goes for liberal Christians just as much as for conservative Christians. It seems to me that American Christians fear living in a society in which we are disliked, ridiculed or persecuted. We have this idea that we, as American Christians, have a birthright of living in a Christian nation, living under laws that reflect Christian values, with the social and cultural elites and media outlets nodding their heads in approval at what the Church says. But this fictional world never existed and it is increasingly clear to me that we are no longer a Christian nation, and that our social and cultural elites do not respect the Christian faith.

How has American Christianity responded? On the one hand, some conservative Christians have responded by becoming involved politically, joining forces with the Republican party in the vain hope that they can build a political bulwark against the rising tide of secularism. On the other hand, some liberal Christians have responded by discarding any doctrine or teaching that the surrounding culture questions or dislikes, as if they can appease their way to being liked by our societal and cultural leaders.

In both cases, Christians have allowed fear to overcome their trust in God and have impaired the ability of the Church to be salt and light to society. We have either sold our souls and adopted the amoral norms of American power politics or we have sold out our Christian faith for a superficial pat on the head by cultural powers that be. Neither option is pleasing to God. This is where today’s Gospel lesson speaks to us. The Bible never tells us that things are going to be easy. Quite the opposite.

Today’s passage begins with the disciples commenting about the beauty of the Jewish temple. The Jewish temple was to the Jews like what the center of Washington D.C. would be to us: the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall. But the Temple was even more than this – it was the political and religious center of the Jewish people. It was unthinkable that the Temple would ever be destroyed. Yet, this was the response of Jesus. He said to the disciples “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

This was a very shocking thing to say and something that presaged the end of the world for the disciples. And so they asked Jesus when this would happen, and what the sign would be that this was about to take place. Listen to the reply of Jesus: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”

This is what Jesus tells us is going to happen. Not just to the disciples but also to us here and now. Many of these things have already happened to Christians throughout history and around the world. Many are happening today. It sort of puts things into perspective for us, doesn’t it? American Christians, listen to what Jesus is telling us: “they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.” Why do we think we will be spared from this? Why do we think that we can escape this by clever politicking or bargaining away God’s commands and teaching?

Jesus tells us very clearly here that bad things are going to happen. We should be expecting it. Our job is not to try to avoid that which Jesus has told us we will face, but rather to prepare to face it faithfully and obediently. In Tolkien’s masterpiece trilogy Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Frodo fearfully blurts out “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf the wizard replies “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” And so we Christians do not get to choose the context in which we live, but rather our decision is whether we live faithfully to God’s call on our lives, or whether we live in disobedient fear.

Let’s look back to the passage. Jesus gives us four critical commands and concludes with an incredible promise. Jesus tells us to “watch out that we are not deceived.” He tells that many false teachers will come in his name, but that we should not follow them. We are much more susceptible to following false teachers when we are fearful. We are liable to grasp at whatever hand seems friendliest and believe anyone who tells us that they will be able to protect us. Just support this political leader and party and we’ll protect your place in society. Just discard this doctrine and that teaching and society will like you. Do not be deceived. Jesus tells us “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Jesus tells us “Do not be frightened” even as we hear of terrible things. Jesus is warning us that bad things will happen. These things will not take us from the love of God though. Paul writes: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Finally, Jesus tells us “make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.” Jesus is letting us know that the Holy Spirit will be with us. It isn’t up to us. It’s not up to our cleverness, knowledge, wisdom or political strategy. We are not responsible for saving the situation. God is in charge. Jesus tells us that he will give us words and wisdom that none of our adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.

What to do when we sense fear beginning to take hold of our hearts? Feeling afraid is not the problem. The problem is how we respond to fear. Jesus tells us not to be deceived but to remain faithful to him and his teaching as revealed to us in the Bible. He tells us not to be frightened because none of these bad things can separate us from the love of God. Finally, Jesus reminds us that we must place all our trust in him alone, and not in our own cleverness or knowledge.

You might be wondering if there is any relief in sight? Is there any good news in all of this? Or is this all about dodging bullets, wars, famines and earthquakes? What’s the end game? Jesus tells us “But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” Paul puts the troubles of this present age into perspective when he writes “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

The Irish band U2 has a song titled Yahweh. Part of the song goes like this:

“Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Why the dark before the dawn”

God promises us that light will follow the darkness. And so let us not live in fear, but instead eagerly take hold of the hope we have that creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Let us trust in our God and his glorious promises to us. It will turn out all right in the end. Far, far better than anything we could ask or imagine.

Let us pray.

God of peace, whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom and restored the broken to wholeness of life: look with compassion on the anguish of the world, and by your healing power make whole both people and nations; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

[Insert Your Name Here] and the Tax Collector

Sermon, October 23, 2016 – Proper 25, Year C
Luke 18:9-14

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

In today’s gospel, we hear one of the most familiar parables of Jesus. This is one of the parables that we most enjoy because none of us imagine ourselves in the place of the Pharisee. Instead this seems to be a most enjoyable smack down by Jesus of an obnoxious and arrogant villain. The message – be humble, not arrogant. Next parable.

But wait. Not so fast. Let’s look at this parable a little more closely. On reading what the commentaries have to say about this parable I found one observation to be very surprising. I had always assumed that Jesus was making a bit of a caricature here of a Pharisee in order to make his point. I hadn’t thought that anyone would actually have prayed like that. But I was wrong. Scholars believe that the Pharisee’s prayer was most likely a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving from the time. The Jewish people to whom Jesus told this parable would not have been startled or unsettled with the story Jesus told until the very end, when Jesus told them that it was the tax collector that went home justified before God.

How can this be? Were people really so arrogant and smug back then? Or perhaps the proper question is this – are people so arrogant and smug now? I would venture to say yes, I think we are.

One thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t just a story of the school teacher putting the secretary down. Or the baker looking down at the car insurance agent. When you are imagining yourself in this scenario, don’t think of the other person being your friend or colleague. No, the characters in this story by Jesus are a Pharisee and a tax collector, and that is important.

Despite their very bad reputation to our ears, in the time of Jesus, Pharisees were looked up to in Jewish society. They checked off a lot of boxes, including being respected religious leaders, loyal to the Jewish people and not to the Roman overlords, pious, and very upstanding citizens. They were the sort of people who, if they visited our church on a Sunday, we would want to make feel very welcome and included because we would want them as new members.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the scum of society. They were seen as greedy, unclean and traitors to the Jewish people since they collected taxes for Rome. These were the people who you did not want to associate with or seen to be associating with. Everybody looked down on tax collectors.

So let’s rethink this parable. Join me in a little thought experiment. Imagine if you will, one of the dumbest, most shrill, most irritating, most loud mouthed supporters of a candidate for president that you loathe. Not somebody who is a reluctant supporter, but an in your face, annoying, irritating, opinionated supporter. Imagine such a person. Perhaps they are in your Facebook feed and they keep posting annoyingly stupid posts. Or maybe you watch them on your cable news channel at home, making idiotic comments to the host. Or maybe you watch them on the evening news at protests or shouting down the candidate you like. Imagine that person. The person you have no respect for – who you think is foolish, gullible, stupid and about to betray your country to four years of horrible leadership.

That person is your tax collector in this story. You are the Pharisee. And now imagine that you are talking to your like-minded spouse or friend. Is it too hard to imagine the following conversation? “Thank God I am not that stupid. What a moron he is. How can she say such an idiotic thing? Thank God I am smarter than that.” I think that if we are all honest with ourselves, we would have to say that we either have had or could very easily have had just such a conversation. Now maybe this conversation for you wouldn’t be about politics. Maybe it would be about sports, mobile phones, television shows or any subject that we feel especially strongly about. The point is that we are not so different from the Pharisee in this story then we think.

And we might even be very sincere about our thoughts. What if the other person really is stupid, opinionated and loud? Should we not be thankful to God that we are have been blessed with clear thinking, brains and refinement? Shouldn’t we thank God for the gifts that we have been given? Isn’t that what we are called to do by God? Doesn’t Paul in 1 Thessalonians tell us “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”?

Yes, but the problem here is with the attitude. Jesus was teaching people to pray. In the passage that comes just before today’s parable, Jesus taught that we should never give up heart when we pray. In today’s parable Luke tells us that Jesus was targeting “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” As I mentioned earlier, the Pharisees were very pious and followed the law. They were pillars of society. And they knew it and thought that, as a result, they had earned their own salvation.

The Pharisees thought that if they followed the law very closely and did all that the law required of them, that God would be pleased and reward them with salvation. And this is why they would thank God – for making themselves so good. But look how he thanked God – certainly not in a humble fashion, but rather by comparing himself to others. He said “God, I thank you that am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.” But that’s not all. He then goes on to tell God that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets.

This Pharisee is a man who has no need for God. He has no need for Jesus Christ to take away his sins. He has no room for mercy on others. He is a man who figures that he’s already there, on his own. The problem is he has no heart, either for God or for others.

Contrast this to the tax collector. Yes, he was a low life, traitor and a cheat. That’s what it took to be a tax collector. But the tax collector came to realize the truth about himself. He “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” This is the heart of the Gospel. We are sinners and we need God to rescue us. We can’t do it on our own. All that we can do is approach God in all humility and confess our utter dependence on him.

It doesn’t matter how clever or smart we are, or how pious and nice we are, or how much we give to charity. These things are good, they are what God calls us to do, but they do not make us right with God. At the end of the day, we have no better claim to be right with God than anyone else. We all need God. We all need Jesus Christ to take upon himself our guilt and our sins. Which he has already done for us. We need to say “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We do not justify ourselves. And that is what the Pharisee did not understand. It is only God who justifies us, and it isn’t until we acknowledge our need for God that this can happen. There are only two choices here – we either think we can justify ourselves or we confess to God that we are completely at his mercy. The tax collector understood this, and it was this acknowledgement that led Jesus to declare that he went home justified before God.

Let us pray, in words taken from Psalm 51.

Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out our transgressions. Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from our sins. For we know our transgressions, and our sins are always before us.

Create in us pure hearts, O God, and renew steadfast spirits within us. Do not cast us from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation and grant us willing spirits, to sustain us. Amen.

Healing on the Sabbath?

Sermon, August 21, 2016 – Proper 16, Year C
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17
Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

When you think about God, the Church and the Bible, what image comes to your mind? What image do you think comes to the minds of our neighbors? Do we picture a stern, angry God who says “Thou shalt not!”, “do it this way, not that way”, and “if you are going to get to heaven, you need to follow the rules.” Unfortunately, this is a picture that many have. Some embrace this image zealously and seek to make it very clear to their neighbors that they are following what they think is God’s law very scrupulously. Others are so turned off by this image that they reject religion totally and are so ensnared by this stereotype that they are unwilling to take a new and fresh look at God. Still others are turned off by this image but react against it by thinking that we can ignore God’s law and do whatever pleases us in the name of love. Or they will say that Jesus taught us that compassion should trump God’s law. In fact, I’ll bet that a lot of sermons preached today will say that in today’s passage from Luke, Jesus is teaching us that compassion should come before following God’s law.

I think that all of these responses miss the mark. Our Gospel story helps to give us a good perspective on this. I think that Jesus is teaching us that a proper understanding of God’s law is compassionate. It’s not a question of compassion vs. God’s law, but rather a proper understanding of the law. Let’s look at the story from Luke. For those of you who might not know, the Sabbath day was a very important part of Jewish religion in the time of Jesus. The fourth commandment is very clear: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

And so the story begins when Jesus was at a synagogue on a Sabbath teaching the people. Nobody had a problem with a rabbi teaching on the Sabbath, so no issues yet. But then Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. Note that Luke, the physician, does not just say that the woman had a physical infirmity, but rather that she was crippled by a spirit. This woman is not just oppressed by old age or sickness, but by a spiritual being. This woman is in spiritual bondage which physically manifested in her being bent over and unable to straighten up at all. For eighteen years.

What does Jesus do? Ignore her spiritual bondage and preach to her about how God will set the captives free but do nothing to effect that freedom? Ignore her discomfort and pain and preach to her about how there is nothing God can do for her since it is the Sabbath and God doesn’t heal on the Sabbath? No. That’s not what the Gospel is about.

Instead Jesus looks upon her with compassion. He calls her forward and lays his hands upon her, telling her “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Let’s pause here and ask ourselves what Jesus did exactly. He laid his hands on her and declared that she was free from her infirmity. Last week, Pastor Barbara told us that one of the primary functions of a pastor is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to the people of God, and to assure us that we are free from the consequences of our sin. Sin is our infirmity. The pastor stands before us and tells us “Man”, “Woman”, “You are set free from your infirmity.” And this is what Jesus did here. He told this woman that she was set free from her infirmity and she was.

Immediately after Jesus made this declaration and put his hands on her, she straightened up. She had indeed been set free. And her natural response was to praise God. After eighteen years of being bent over and tormented by an evil spirit, I’ll bet that freedom felt really good to her. And she knew who had set her free. That is why she praised God. Happy ending, right?

Well, not for everyone. The synagogue leader became indignant with Jesus. He was angry because he thought that Jesus hadn’t followed the rules. He said to the people “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Just imagine – suppose you came up for healing prayer and just as Pastor Barbara was about to lay hands on you and pray for you, I said “Not now. Come back tomorrow. No healings here today. There are six days for that sort of thing. Today is a Sabbath. We leave people in their bondage and sickness on the Sabbath because God wants to take a rest.”

Do you think that Pastor Barbara would say “oh yeah, right. We don’t heal people today or tell them they are free from whatever is keeping them in bondage. This is Sunday and we don’t do that on Sunday.” If this is what it’s all about, then why not just pack it all up and head home? What’s the point?

What’s the point indeed? The synagogue leader had completely missed the point of the Sabbath. Jesus responded to him by calling him a hypocrite. He asked “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

You see, Jesus was pointing out that it was considered acceptable to untie your ox or donkey and give it water on the Sabbath. Note very carefully – you could release your animals from the bondage of a rope and give them physical sustenance. This was considered perfectly okay. And so, Jesus says, should it not also be permitted to release a human being from spiritual bondage?

Jesus isn’t saying that the Sabbath wasn’t important, or that we can simply ignore it whenever it is convenient to do so, or that observing the Sabbath conflicts with a compassionate attitude. His point was that the synagogue leader completely misunderstood the point of the Sabbath and so this leader was using it to hinder the Gospel instead of to further God’s work. God did not designate the Sabbath day to be observed as some kind of arbitrary rule to be blindly followed without purpose. It was not meant to be one of a long list of rules for us to follow and thereby gain favor in God’s sight. No. God set the Sabbath aside so that we would take a day away from the hustle and bustle of work and life and rest and reflect on God, on what he has done for us, on how he has set us free from that which enslaves and binds us. And so to suggest that God should not set free someone who is in spiritual and physical bondage to an evil spirit because it is the Sabbath is to miss the whole picture. It is to fundamentally misunderstand who God is.

God wants to free us from that which enslaves us. That is why he called Abraham and set apart the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and why he sent Jesus Christ to become one of us. God did not give us His law to further enslave us, but rather to guide us. God knows that we are not capable of following the law on our own, and He doesn’t intend it as some sort of obstacle course for us to conquer and so win the prize. God gives us the law because He loves us.

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah outlines how we should look at following God’s law, including keeping the Sabbath. Listen again to what he tells us:

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Following God’s law should always be about pointing ourselves and others toward God, reflecting upon Him, and following what God calls and commands us to do. This is the only way that we can bring true joy and freedom to both ourselves and those around us. God is not a stern old man telling us “thou shalt not” but a loving parent trying to keep us from hurting ourselves and guiding us to be the sons and daughters he is calling us to be.

Let us pray.

Lord give us a right understanding of your law, so that we will not see it as an instrument of burden or bondage, but rather as your loving guidance for us, leading us to freedom from the sin that enslaves us. Let us see that by following your laws and commands, we will become like a well-watered garden in a sun-scorched land. Let us see the Sabbath not as something to forbid your life-giving grace, but rather as something to delight in, where we can find our joy in you and through which we will feast on the inheritance promised us through your son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Keeping Up Appearances

Sermon, July 3, 2016 – Proper 9, Year C
Galatians 6:7-16

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Last week, a church near where we live held its Vacation Bible School. The title theme for this year’s VBS was “Submerged” and the church was decorated like the ocean floor. The Bible text for the week was Psalm 139:23-24 which reads: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The advertisement in the church newsletter read “Kids will discover during the week that Jesus saw people differently. He didn’t see just what was on the outside, He saw people for who they were on the inside…down deep. As kids learn to see themselves and others as Jesus sees them, they can realize that everyone needs a Savior – even those who look like they have it all together.”

Last week Sunday I was sitting in this church listening to a musical offering before the sermon and I was thinking about what I might preach on this week. I had just read through the Galatians passage in the pew Bible when I read the VBS advertisement. It occurred to me that the Galatians passage has a similar message to the VBS message.

One of the primary issues that Paul was dealing with in his letter to the Galatians was a conflict amongst early Christians between a legalistic Jewish group – possibly with a strong Pharisaic influence, and the apostles. A small aside here – the legalistic Jewish group was not representative of Jewish Christians generally, but was a sub-group. They made circumcision their main issue, and this represented their belief that it was very important for Christians to outwardly keep all aspects of Jewish law. In this, they were relatively similar to the Pharisees, who taught that it was important to keep the law and so make themselves worthy of salvation. The focus was on outwardly keeping the law.

Paul and the apostles, on the other hand, argued that Jesus made it clear that outward appearances were not important. What Jesus sought to reach was the hearts and minds of people. Paul is addressing this issue in today’s passage from Galatians. He says “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Paul equates empty, legalistic outward behavior with the flesh, and he equates pleasing the Spirit with transforming hearts and minds. And so what Paul means here is that if we think that we can keep God’s law simply by observing external legalities, we will miss out on the Gospel. We will miss out on the Gospel because that is not what the Gospel addresses.

If you are in the hospital in need of a lifesaving operation that only a doctor can perform on you, but instead of seeing a doctor, you instead go and trim your finger nails so that you look good, you won’t get the surgery you need, and you will die. What we need to do is submit our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, recognizing that we have no power in us to save ourselves. Interestingly enough, the local church that held VBS this past week has also been doing a sermon series adapting the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step Program to the Christian life. The first three revised steps are as follows:

We are powerless over sin – that our lives have become unmanageable.

  1. We believe that only God could restore us to sanity.
  2. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

The Gospel only works if we acknowledge that the only thing that can save us is God’s grace – given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we accept this; if we “sow to please the Spirit” then “from the Spirit we will reap eternal life.”

After an interesting aside in which Paul comments on his own handwriting, he expands on his point. He writes “those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised.” In the Jewish religion, circumcision was a powerful sign of belonging to the group. The Old Testament was very clear that if you were a male and weren’t circumcised, you weren’t a good Jew. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ has moved beyond these outward markers. Paul is warning the early Christians about some individuals who were trying to convince them that outward appearance of being circumcised was what mattered.

This is an issue that has plagued the Church throughout all of history and across all types of Christians – old, new, liberal, conservative. It is part of the sinful human condition. We want to belong, to be liked, to be approved of, to be affirmed, to be part of the cool group. And so we are always tempted to adopt the requisite outward appearance to fit in. This can be wearing the right clothes, following the correct sports team, belonging to the correct political party, posting the right memes and opinions on social media, and adopting the pious church person appearance on Sunday mornings. But what does any of this brand identification get us? Fleeting approval from friends and social media friends? What happens when the winds of opinion blow the other way?

Paul says “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.” He means that superficial social approval is worthless. It means nothing. It is fleeting. Your clothes will make you cool until the fashion changes. People who you impress with superficial outward behaviors, comments or appearances don’t care about you. What’s more, Paul tells us that the only reason they are concerned with appearances “is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” We hide behind outward appearances to blend in with the cool crowd and avoid putting our lives on the line in following Jesus. Think about it. This is how bullies operate. Everyone wants so badly to be part of the cool group and fit in, nobody dares to stand up to the bully and defend the person being pushed around. This is part of the sinful human condition that Jesus came to save us from.

What is the solution that Paul presents? Let’s look back to the first three steps of the twelve step program. Acknowledge that we are powerless over sin. Accept that only Jesus can rescue us from our sinful condition. Decide to turn our lives and our will over to Jesus. Paul says this very thing in somewhat different words when he writes “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Paul’s choice of words here is a bit difficult for us to absorb here. It’s not the way that we talk. Let’s parse it out. First, Paul writes “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What he means by never boasting is that he won’t identify with or hide behind anything other than the cross of Christ. Not a certain kind of clothing, or the right political opinions, or a clever social media post, or pious Christian church jargon. The only thing that he will identify with is the cross of Christ.

When Paul refers to “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”, he is referring to the fact that we are sinful and unable to save ourselves, but that Jesus Christ has come to rescue us. And so Paul’s point is that he realizes that there is no point in our posturing or maintaining appearances. He is acknowledging that the only identity worth having is through Jesus Christ, as God’s own son or daughter.

Paul finishes by saying that it is in the cross “through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” What he means here is that once we have accepted the Gospel, our primary identity is as a son or daughter of God. What the world thinks of us no longer matters. What matters is that we are part of the kingdom of God.

Being part of the kingdom of God is not about wearing the right clothes, or having the right political or social opinions, or fitting in with the enlightened crowd on social media, or being part of the holy huddle at church. Being part of the kingdom of God is about a transformed heart and mind. It is about realizing that we have nothing to boast about in ourselves. We are powerless over sin. It is only with this acknowledgement and a humble heart that we can turn to Jesus and turn our lives and our will over to Him.

And in this humility and turning to Jesus will the Holy Spirit begin the new creation within us, as we become transformed into the sons and daughters of God and living the lives God has called us to live. Paul writes “what counts is the new creation.” So let us turn away from trying to prove something to others through ourselves and our appearances, and instead surrender to God, and admit that we are powerless over our sinful lives. Let us turn our lives over to Jesus in humility and let the Holy Spirit begin the new creation within us.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, give us the humility to acknowledge that we are powerless in light of our sinful nature. Let us understand what Paul understood and say with him “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” And in so doing Lord, we will become your adopted children through that cross of Christ. Amen.

Whoever is Forgiven Little, Loves Little

Sermon, June 12, 2016 – Proper 4, Year C
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

A few weeks ago I brought a shirt home with me from work to put in the wash. I had kept this shirt at work to wear when I rode my bicycle in to work. It had some bad ring around the collar and needed a good washing and so I took it home. In the same laundry load, I put in some other shirts from my closet at home. These weren’t really soiled but I washed them to keep them fresh. When the laundry was done, I saw that the shirts from my home closet were perfect, and I put them in the dryer. These shirts were super clean, but I wasn’t particularly excited by this.

My work shirt, however, still had ring around the collar. So I got out my iPad and did some research on how to get rid of ring around the collar. I got out a brush and dish detergent and got to work. The next week, this shirt went into the wash again, and this time it came out looking great. I was excited. I went to show Barbara and tell her how I had gotten it clean. I felt like I had really accomplished something.

Jesus makes a similar point to this in our reading from Luke. He asks Simon, a Pharisee, a question: “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied in the way that we might expect, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” Jesus agreed and said “You have judged correctly.”

Just as I was far more excited when my dirty shirt got nice and clean, then when my already clean shirts just got freshened up a bit, so we’d expect somebody to be much more excited at having a $500 debt canceled then a $50 debt. But Jesus wasn’t a social scientist or a psychology professor trying to make an interesting point about human behavior. He was making a bigger point about what the Gospel is all about.

I know of people who really dislike Rite I because of all the language in it that seems intended to make us feel guilty. The Prayer of Humble Access is often regarded as particularly distasteful. Other churches I know intentionally skip the confession of sin in an attempt to not make people feel guilty. In fact, there are many Christians who don’t like to speak of judgment, guilt or anything of the sort when they talk about God, thinking that we should only share positive things. And I can sort of understand their point. Nobody likes to be constantly browbeaten.

But I have always been drawn to the confession of sin, the Prayer of Humble Access and other such things that remind us of our guilt and the grace that God showers on to us in response. I like it because I know I am guilty. Hearing these parts of the liturgy don’t make me feel guilty because I know that I am. It is much better to know that we are guilty but forgiven by God’s grace, then for us to be either deluded or in denial about ourselves.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus was talking to Pharisees. Pharisees were a Jewish faction which placed great emphasis on outwardly following the law as they interpreted it. They thought by following the law, they justified themselves and so didn’t see a need for themselves to be forgiven. The Pharisees present a stark contrast to the woman in the story. What she did would have been considered seriously out of her place and she would have been seen to have violated many of the Jewish purity laws. Yet Jesus knew that the love she was showing him was because she knew she had had her sins forgiven by him.

Jesus says to the Pharisees “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” This is so true. If we don’t think that we have any sins to repent of, or think that we are justified before God just as we are, then we don’t need God. God becomes someone who we turn to when we need Him to do something for us. Instead of us serving God, we expect God to serve us. And from here, it is a short jump to becoming self-focused and self-obsessed. Did you know that even as our nation has become less religious, it has also become much more narcissistic then it used to be?

If we think that we are justified before God on our own terms, we also tend to become much more critical of others – hyper-critical actually, or to use the common term hypocritical. If there is one adjective that we all know describes the Pharisees it is hypocritical. Why were they this way? They had no humility. They figured that they were alright with God on their own effort, and this allowed them to turn their gaze elsewhere and look down on others who they judged were lacking.

Our Old Testament story illustrates this point very well. Many of us know that King David of the Old Testament was one of Israel’s great national heroes. Matthew, in his Gospel, is very careful to demonstrate how Jesus descended from the line of David. And yet, David did some pretty rotten things. And our story from Second Samuel refers to the worst thing David did. We hear the prophet Nathan’s judgment of David, but let me give you a short summary of what David did.

King David was strolling around the roof of his palace one evening during a time that Israel was at war with a neighboring country. People would often head up to their roofs in the cool of the evening because roofs were cooler and more comfortable in the evenings then being inside. David noticed a woman. Bathsheeba, bathing on a rooftop a little ways away, and he ordered her brought to him. Bathsheeba’s husband was a soldier away fighting in the war. Despite this, David brings her inside and has sex with her. Considering the power imbalance here, we would probably call this rape today. But there’s more. David gets her pregnant.

Instead of owning up to his sin, David seeks a cover up. He orders Bathsheeba’s husband, Uriah, brought home and given a leave. David figures that Uriah and Bathsheeba will get reacquainted and that the pregnancy will be attributed to Uriah. But Uriah, being a soldier loyal to his brothers-in-arms, doesn’t behave as David expects. He refuses to sleep with his wife out of loyalty to his fellows still out on the field of battle. David then engages in a gross and wicked abuse of power. He orders the commander of his army to launch an attack with Uriah at the center, and then to suddenly withdraw everyone near Uriah so that he will be killed by the enemy. This is done, and this is where we join the story.

Note David’s massive delusion and denial about his own guilt. The prophet Nathan comes to David and tells the story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s lamb. We all know what Nathan is getting at here, but David doesn’t. Instead, we read that “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” What irony! When confronted with a thinly disguised story about his own sin, David completely misses the point and is all too ready to pronounce the death penalty against the imagined culprit.

But then Nathan springs it on David – “You are the man!” he cries out. And only then does David acknowledge his guilt. Living a life of delusion and denial about our own sinfulness only brings about hurt and injury to others. We do ourselves no favors by pretending that we are not sinful people badly in need of a savior.

We often make the grievous error that God will only love us if we can justify ourselves to him first. We think that if we admit to our guilt that we are somehow also saying that we aren’t as worthy of God’s love. We think that if we acknowledge and name sin that we are somehow saying that God doesn’t love everyone. But this is backwards. This is a diabolical way of thinking because, you see, we are like the shirt with ring around the collar. When we are washed in the blood of Christ crucified for our sins, then we come out clean and spotless, and God rejoices in this because He loves us. God loves us because we are His sons and daughters and he loved us so much that He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for us to make us clean. God delights in making us clean.

In our reading from Galatians, the apostle Paul wrote “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Jesus Christ died for us, no matter how many sins we have committed. The blood of Jesus is powerful enough to wash any of us clean and spotless.

When we realize the immense debt of gratitude we owe to God for our salvation, we are moved to tremendous love – not just for God, but for others as well. Jesus said “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” But the converse is also true “whoever has been forgiven much, loves much.” When we confess our sins and acknowledge our guilt, we are freed to move away from continually trying to justify ourselves either through delusion, denial, or attacking others. We are freed to love God and love each other. And so, let us acknowledge our sins, let us hold fast to God’s grace that, through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, has made us clean, and let us be free to love God and each other.

I am going to conclude by praying a prayer that later on in the service we will join together in praying. But for now, join with me silently as I pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Who Should Hear the Gospel? Lesson of Cornelius

Sermon, April 24, 2016 – The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 11:1-18

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Have you ever done something that seemed like a good thing at the time, only to face a reprimand later on? This is the situation that Peter is facing in Acts chapter 11. Well, what’s this all about?

The previous chapter, chapter 10, tells us the story of what got Peter into trouble. Chapter 10 is divided into three parts. In the first part, an angel appears to Cornelius, a god fearing Roman centurion. Luke tells us that Cornelius was a great guy, telling us that “he and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” But Cornelius was not a Jew and had never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jewish law frowned on close fraternization between Jews and Gentiles. Much of this had to do with the Jewish dietary restrictions. Think about how it might be for a vegan to share kitchen and a meal with a red-blooded meat eater. No matter how much good will might exist, the probability of contamination would probably be too much for the vegan to endure. It was the same thing with Jews and Gentiles, and so the Jewish law held that Gentiles were ritually unclean, and thus not to be dined with.

In the second part of chapter 10, God teaches Peter a very important lesson about the Gentiles being ritually unclean. God gives Peter a vision in which he sees a collection of animals deemed unclean under Jewish law and Peter is told by God to kill and eat them. Peter responds very firmly saying that he will not eat such animals because they are unclean, and God repeats himself twice more. As Peter is wondering at the meaning of his vision, servants from Cornelius come to seek him out. An angel tells Peter to accompany them.

And so we come to the third part of chapter 10, in which Peter travels to the house of Cornelius. At this point, Peter finally grasps the point in his vision and he says to the people gathered at Cornelius’ house “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” Cornelius then tells Peter about his own vision to ask Peter to come to him and tell him about the Gospel. Peter then shares the Gospel story, Cornelius believes, and the Holy Spirit comes upon the household. Following this, Peter stayed with Cornelius for a few days.

And so this is where we are when we begin chapter 11. Can you blame Peter? God told him the same thing three times over in his vision, and this vision was later confirmed by Cornelius who shared that he had also had a vision in which he was to ask Peter to come preach the Gospel. And then, to top it all off, when Peter did preach the Gospel, they came to believe and the Holy Spirit came down upon them all. It seems to me that Peter was on pretty solid ground here. But there was a group of strongly Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that were not yet convinced.

Our reading describes Peter’s explanation to these Jewish Christians. Scholars believe that the group which criticized Peter were a sub-group within the Church in Jerusalem which saw the Jewish faith as foundational to the Christian faith. They thought that in order to truly follow Jesus, a Gentile would need to first become a proper convert to Judaism, and only then would they be in a position to receive the Gospel. Furthermore, they believed that Christians still were constrained by the Jewish ceremonial laws and were not to fraternize with Gentiles. And so when they heard the reports of what Peter had done, they criticized him and said “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Peter explains to them what happened, and we see a sort of Cliff’s Notes summary of chapter 10. Peter concludes his explanation with a challenge. He says “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” Peter not only relies on the multiple visions he had from God, but also on the very words of Jesus. And to their credit, it seems as if the Jewish party relented, at least for a while. As an aside, if you continue reading Acts, you will see that this issue comes up again.

So what is the lesson for us today? Nobody today suggests that Christians need to be circumcised and convert to Judaism before they can become Christian. So how can this story be relevant to us today? What is the lesson for us?

To begin with, let us consider the authority for this lesson. Peter was one of the pre-eminent disciples who knew Jesus during his time on earth, and a leading apostle in the early Church. And Peter needed God to repeat himself three times before he began to accept what God was saying. But that wasn’t enough. Peter’s vision was confirmed first by Cornelius’ vision from God, then by the very words of Jesus to his disciples, and then by the coming of the Holy Spirit when the Gospel was preached. But even that didn’t clinch things. Peter then had to explain himself to the Church in Jerusalem, which weighed his explanation before accepting it. This lesson is obviously a very important one, and one that God made sure was heard.

And what was the point that God was making to Peter and the Jewish Christians? Consider the two options that were up for debate. Under option one, Gentiles would be required to jump through multiple hoops to comply with ceremonial laws before they would have full access to the Gospel. It would be only after they achieved this pre-requisite status that they could then become full disciples of Jesus. That’s option one, and it doesn’t sound very much like what Jesus was preaching, does it? Under option two, which Peter came to see was God’s plan, Gentiles had immediate and full access to the Gospel message. They didn’t have to first meet a prerequisite status of Jewish ritual cleanliness or ceremonial status.

Think about it this way. Suppose you wanted to enroll in an introductory class at college, and you go to the registrar and ask to enroll. And you are told that you can’t. First you have to complete 5 other classes which are prerequisites to the class you want to take. What would that tell you about the class? Well, it would tell me that the class is not introductory, but rather something more advanced. Not something for just anybody to take, but only for those who can get the prerequisites done.

But that is not the Gospel message. Jesus doesn’t say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever becomes circumcised, then follows the Jewish ceremonial law in order to convert and become a Jew in good standing, and who only then believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

The point being made is that the Gospel is the only thing. Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins and his resurrection from the dead are the only things that matter. There are no prerequisites. No hoops that we need to jump through first before Christ’s death on the cross becomes effective for us. The Gospel is not about us climbing up the mountain part way ourselves before Jesus will reach down for us. This is the point in the story of Peter and Cornelius.

And how might this apply to us today? I think that the issue that Peter and the early Church struggled with is something that we still struggle with today. Just as the Jewish Christians wanted Gentiles to first become a certain kind of person before they thought they were worthy of fully hearing the Gospel message and being fully included in the fellowship of believers, so many Christians today expect people to dress up and act in a certain way before they are prepared to welcome them to church or share the Gospel with them.

Nobody admits to this, and certainly nobody teaches this as a doctrine. It tends to be an unspoken thing – more of an attitude or an emotional reaction. When a homeless person wanders in to the church, our natural inclination is to find out what help they need and then give them some food or gas and send them on their way. We tend not to think of inviting them in and presenting the Gospel to them. Now, I am not trying to guilt trip anyone here – I have this very same attitude, and the reality is that most people coming to our church looking for assistance are only interested in receiving assistance, and not in hearing the Gospel. But I am challenging us to look at our own attitudes about sharing the Gospel of Jesus with those we meet along the way.

What sorts of other people do we automatically read out of the Gospel because we don’t think that they have reached the prerequisite status that we deem necessary? The Gospel is for all people. People of different social classes, people of different political persuasions, people of different races or nationalities, people of different languages, people who dress differently. We are called to present the Gospel to everyone. Think about it. The Gospel is God’s rescue mission to his people on earth. What sort of fire fighter would someone be if they entered a burning building and spotted someone with their leg pinned under a fallen beam and, instead of helping them remove the beam, simply stood in the next room and said “heh you there! I am here, ready to save you. You just have to drag yourself over to me, and once you’re here, I’ll help you the rest of the way.” Jesus meets people where they are. The Gospel is to be preached to everyone where they are. Not where we think they should be.

So the message in today’s reading is most certainly about including everyone in the hearing of the Gospel. But it is much more than what our current culture means by inclusivity. Our culture’s concept of “inclusivity” is that someone is included in a group, but nobody is to suggest that they change anything about themselves. They are included but there is no good news to share with them. But this isn’t what Peter is talking about. Peter doesn’t just include Cornelius in the Church as a devout Gentile and nothing more. And Cornelius didn’t want to just be included. No, this was inclusion for a purpose. Cornelius was included so that he would be fully able to hear the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it was after he accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior that he became fully a part of the Body of Christ on earth.

Jesus Christ came to rescue us from our sins; to rescue us from our sinful selves. He is the Medevac helicopter landing on the field, while we are fatally infected with disease needing to be picked up and treated. We should welcome everyone to the landing pad, and do all in our part in helping them get there. Not just for the sake of getting them to the landing pad, but so that they can board the Medevac helicopter and be rescued. This is the message of Peter and Cornelius. We are called to invite everyone to our community to meet Jesus, no matter what we might feel about them.

And so, we want to hear what Peter heard when he told the Christians in Jerusalem about what happened. When our fellow Christians hear who we introduced the Gospel to and their response, may they praise God, and say, “So then, even to them God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Let us pray the collect for Cornelius the Centurion , who we remember every year on February 4:

O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles; Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Washing Feet and Servant Leadership

Sermon, March 24, Maundy Thursday, Year C
John 13:1-17; 31b-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is Maundy Thursday, when the Church commemorates three things.  The first is Jesus’ command to love one another.  This is where the name “Maundy” Thursday comes from.  The Latin word for command is mandatum – which has become “Maundy.”  As we heard at the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus told us “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”    The second thing the Church commemorates today is the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus on the night before he was captured, tried and crucified.  We heard this in our passage from First Corinthians.  The third thing we commemorate is the washing of feet.  Our Gospel passage describes how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.

It is this third thing that makes us scratch our heads.  We can understand Jesus’ command to love one another – that sounds pretty Christian and something we ought to do.  And we celebrate the Lord’s Supper pretty much every week, and so that is rather familiar to us.  But this mention of foot washing seems rather dated to us, and the odd inclusion of foot washing during the service makes many of us uncomfortable.  It’s weird to have someone wash our feet.  If you are like me, the foot washing is the part of the service that requires a bit more thought.

It is important that we do since, after he washed their feet, Jesus told his disciples “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Jesus is telling us that he set an example for us which we are to follow.  Now, let me say right off the bat – if your church growth strategy is regular foot washing, my bet is that your church will either decline pretty quickly or it will fill up with some rather questionable newcomers.  So what really is Jesus telling us?

To begin with, we need to understand what foot washing meant in the ancient near east.  When you were going to go out to an important event, you would wash at home, put on your best clothes and then you would walk the dusty streets in your sandals until you arrived.  When you got to where you were going, your feet would be dusty and dirty and it was customary to have them washed.  Thus, Jesus says “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet.”  Normally, the task of washing the guest’s feet was left to the household slaves.

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was taking on the role of the lowest of servants.  This is why Peter exclaims “No, you shall never wash my feet.”  By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was turning the social order on its head.  It’s hard for us to imagine what this meant.  I can only think of an example that comes only a little bit close.  A couple of weeks back, I was hosting a lunch meeting in our library conference room between myself, the head university librarian and some of other librarians that we supervised.  Although I was not the highest person in the pecking order, I was number two, and I was the meeting host.  Our meeting room was going to be used immediately after we were finished and I had agreed that I would clear out the lunch dishes so that the caterer could come and get them.  At a point in the meeting that did not concern me, I got up and began to gather up the plates.  This made one of my librarians very uncomfortable, and he whispered to me “Why are you cleaning up the dishes?”  It made him uncomfortable that I was doing this.  Leaders are not supposed to do work that is thought to be beneath them.

But Jesus did.  And he did it to make a point.  There is the obvious double meaning that Jesus needs to wash us, as in washing us of our sins, and Jesus makes that plain when he says to Peter “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  But there is another point that Jesus is making.  He says “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

In other words, Jesus is saying to them that he is their leader and lord, and, in that capacity, he acted like a servant towards them.  And what’s more they should now act as servants towards each other.  There is a term for this concept and it is called servant leadership.  And yes, that is a leadership concept that is popular right now in management theory, but it is much more than that.  It is how Jesus calls each one of us to act towards each other.  Note carefully that Jesus doesn’t say have “I set you an example that your clergy should do as I have done for you.”  No.  He is addressing all of the disciples.  This is a calling on each one of us.

Why does Jesus put this calling on us?  Out of love.  Remember how I mentioned that Maundy Thursday commemorates two other things besides foot washing?  One was Jesus command that we love one another as he loved us.  The second was the commemoration of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which is a commemoration of Jesus’s death for us on the cross.  He died for us because of his great love for us.  Jesus calls us to servant leadership out of this great love.  If we love one another, we will put others first, and we will be as servants to them.

The Bible scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, wrote about what this means for church leaders.  I believe that each one of us is a Christian leader, and so I think that this should apply to each one of us:

The critical thing is whether the same leader is prepared to get up in the middle of the night to sit beside the bed of an old, frail, frightened man who is dying all alone. The test that matters is whether the same leader is ready, without a word of either complaint or boasting, to stay behind after the meeting and do the washing-up or put out the garbage. Of course, it’s important that everybody in a church family helps with the necessary tasks. But the truly Christlike leader is known by the ease and spontaneity with which he or she does the little, annoying, messy things – the things which in the ancient world the slave would do, the things which in our world we always secretly hope someone else will do so we won’t have to waste our time, to demean ourselves.

Bishop Wright continues, and I don’t think that I can put this any better than he did:

The point is that, for us as for Jesus, we should be looking away from ourselves, and at the world we are supposed to be serving. Where the world’s needs and our vocation meet is where we ought to be, ready to take on insignificant roles if that’s what God wants…. And, as with Jesus, the picture of footwashing is meant to serve not only as a picture of all sorts of menial tasks that we may be called to perform…. It also points towards the much larger challenge…. the challenge to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, to lay down life itself in the service of God and the world he came to save.

And so we see that the three things that the Church commemorates on Maundy Thursday – love, laying down one’s life for others, and servant leadership – are really the same thing.  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Let us pray.

Holy Father, you put all power and authority into the hands of your son Jesus Christ, who washed the disciples’ feet in humble service.  Teach us to love one another as Christ has loved us, so that everyone will know that we are his disciples; through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray.   Amen.

Transfiguration and transformation

Sermon, February 7, 2016 – Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C
2 Corinthians 3:12- 4:2; Luke 9:28-36

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is the last Sunday of the church season known as Epiphany. The first Sunday of Epiphany traditionally focuses on the Baptism of Jesus when heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and God the Father declared “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The last Sunday of Epiphany, today, traditionally focuses on the Transfiguration of Jesus. We heard Luke’s account of this event today. We read how Jesus shone with a bright light after which God the Father spoke from a cloud saying “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” In both of these stories, Jesus is marked out by God both through an anointing or glorification, and then by the very voice of God the Father himself.

According to the dictionary, the word epiphany can mean one of two things. First, it can be a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being; and second it can be an illuminating realization or discovery, often resulting in a personal feeling of elation, awe, or wonder. Both of these definitions are present in Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. It is very appropriate that these two events serve as bookends for the Church’s season of Epiphany.

Today, we are going to delve a little more deeply into Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration was a tremendous encouragement and sign of God’s promises to the disciples. And it can also be an encouragement to us. We will also look at how Paul, in the reading from Second Corinthians, contributes to our understanding of this event. To begin, let’s look at the very first sentence from the Gospel reading: “About eight days after Jesus said this…” Said what? Whenever I read something like that in a passage, I go back to read what is being referred to. Luke has provided a context for his Transfiguration account. So, what did Jesus say? Let’s start at chapter 9, verse 23.

Then Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

Jesus is telling the disciples here about the cost of discipleship. He is saying that we must follow him in all things, no matter what the cost, and if we do this, we will be safe with God. Jesus warns us that our very souls are at stake when he says “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father.” This passage serves as both a warning and an encouragement to us. A warning in that if we are to be disciples of Jesus, we need to follow, obey and acknowledge him. An encouragement in that if we do follow, obey and acknowledge Jesus, we will be remembered by him when he comes into his glory.

The story of the Transfiguration follows this, repeating the message of encouragement. But while the first message has a focus on the future, the message of the Transfiguration has a focus on the present. In the first passage, we are told that we need to follow Jesus now, and that when he later enters into his glory, he will remember us. In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus was being glorified before the very eyes of the disciples and they heard God declare in their presence “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” This was a very dramatic demonstration by God that Jesus was the son of God whom they were to follow.

I am willing to bet that none of us here has experienced anything like the Transfiguration, and so it is difficult to picture what this would have been like. In order to understand the full impact it would have had on the disciples, we need to understand their state of mind at the time. Luke includes a good deal of teaching both before and after the Transfiguration account concerning the high cost of following Jesus. It’s not just the immediately preceding passage, but there are others as well. But Luke also sandwiches the transfiguration account between two instances in which Jesus predicted his own death. The disciples might not have understood everything that Jesus had told them, but they probably were feeling a bit overwhelmed and perhaps a little dejected because things weren’t sounding very optimistic.

The Transfiguration was an opportunity for God to reveal to the chosen disciples – and to us – a glimpse of Jesus in his power and his glory. Jesus took his inner circle of disciples up a high mountain with him, and the disciples probably thought that he was going to teach them some more, as they were used to. Well Jesus was indeed going to teach them, but in a way the disciples were most certainly not expecting.

Jesus suddenly was transfigured before them – his clothes became dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. You may wonder why Moses and Elijah would have appeared. They were two iconic figures in Jewish history – Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the prophets. The presence of these two heroes of the Jewish faith would have cemented for the disciples that Jesus represented the culmination of God’s redemption plan for Israel.

But the most convincing statement of all comes from God who says “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” The disciples were told – and through them, we are told – that Jesus is God’s own Son, and that we are to listen to him. Jesus had already told his disciples earlier that a storm was coming – indeed he told them of his impending death and of their coming suffering. But in the Transfiguration, he revealed his supernatural power and glory. He also revealed that he was the culmination of God’s plan to save Israel. God the Father revealed that Jesus was God’s Son, whom the Father loved. In other words, the disciples were told that, despite the coming storm, the tide had turned. They could have confidence in Jesus. The Transfiguration was a foretaste of the glory that Jesus had just spoken to them about.

In today’s reading from Second Corinthians, Paul gives us some more to think about. When Jesus was transfigured before them, the disciples there were able to witness Christ in his glory. Paul writes that we, also, can see the glory of Jesus, albeit in a different way. He writes “whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” The veil that he is referring to is a spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing the glory of God. Paul makes this clear when he continues, writing “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Although you may find it difficult to wrap your mind around Paul’s language here, his point is actually very practical. He writes “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory.” “Unveiled faces” refers to us looking to Jesus with our spiritual blinders off. “Contemplate” refers to us focusing our hearts, minds and souls on Jesus. And the “Lord’s glory” is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which redeemed us from our sins. Earlier in the chapter, Paul wrote that if the Old Testament law was glorious, “how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness.” So what Paul is saying here is that if we turn to Jesus as our Lord and Savior and focus on him with our hearts, minds and souls, then the Holy Spirit will transform us into his image.

Paul’s point in Second Corinthians takes the message of the Transfiguration and carries it a little farther and makes it directly applicable to our lives. The disciples experienced the miraculous and wondrous glorification of Jesus before their very eyes. But Paul says that we too can be transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory. The disciples heard God the Father declare “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” And Paul tells us that if we turn to Jesus as our Lord and Savior and focus on him with our hearts, minds and souls, then the Holy Spirit will transform us into his image.

What does it mean to be transformed into his image? In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Having these characteristics is what it means to be transformed into his image. In our society, when we think of glory, we think of military victories, sports victories, or rugged pickup trucks. But that is not what God means by glory. Jesus was glorified when he died for our sins. We are glorified when the Holy Spirit transforms us to be like Jesus, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. These are the virtues that God calls us to exhibit as we become part of the Kingdom of God.

What does it mean to turn our hearts, minds and souls to Jesus? There are a few things we need to do. First, we need to learn about how God has interacted with his people. We need to learn about what Jesus did for us by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. We need to learn what Jesus expects from us if we are to obey him. We need to immerse ourselves in God’s Word, the Bible. The Bible recounts for us the story of how God interacted with his people; it tells us what Jesus did for us on the cross and how he rose from the dead; and it tells us what Jesus expects from us. So regular Bible reading and Bible study is critical.

Second, we need to be people who pray. In Advent, I preached on Paul’s letter to the Philippians where Paul wrote “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Prayer is about maintaining an attitude of thankfulness to God and of bringing everything that we are anxious about to him. It is about inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives so that we will always seek to view our lives from God’s perspective.

Third, we need to be people who live and act in community with other Christians. Being in community allows us to teach each other about the Gospel and to encourage each other. It also allows us to be the Body of Christ together to a hurting world in need.

We should not be fooled, however, into thinking that the world will love us if we live our lives focused on Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We need to heed Luke’s many warnings about the cost of following Jesus. But we can be confident that if we follow Jesus, both as our Savior and as our Lord, then God will remember us when Jesus comes into his glory. And as we live our lives as disciples of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will also transform us into his image with ever-increasing glory. So let us go forth realistic of the costs of following Jesus, but also confident in the benefits that go beyond anything that we can ask or imagine.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.