Sermon of the Month
Have you ever just started out on the wrong foot in some situation, or in some new relationship? I had that happen recently when I started my chaplain internship at the hospital: It was about two weeks in, and my first night working with a particular chaplain I had not yet met in person. When I got into the office, she was out in the hospital somewhere, and so I picked up the phone on a desk and called her to let her know I was reporting in for duty. “WHY ARE YOU CALLING FROM MY PHONE? WHO WOULD CALL ME FROM MY OWN PHONE?” she said, in a voice just like that…Let’s just say it went downhill from there; it took a lot of time and effort to fix this relationship that started off all wrong.
Very sadly, I think that’s what our relationship with the Ten Commandments is like. From the beginning, because we call them “Commandments” and because we have childhood memories of Sunday School material with those two tablets of stone that start off with either “You shall…” or “You shall not…” we’ve begun our relationship with them as if they were a set of clean-cut rules, simple laws…as if they were commandments from a brigadier general to privates, or from a monarch to peasants….We need to do some hard work and effort and time to start over with our relationship with the Ten Commandments.
In the Hebrew Torah, as we see in today’s reading, the Ten Commandments don’t start out not with “You shall” or “You shall not” – they start out with God’s proclamation of his saving relationship to Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The giving of the law on Sinai comes after the burning bush, after the escape from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, after the bread from heaven, after the water from the rock…after all the people of Israel have been consecrated to God. They aren’t commands to earn favor or salvation, they are responses! A proclamation by God of the proper responses from God’s community of liberated slaves, responses in thanksgiving for that liberation, responses that lead to a right relationship with God and a right relationship with each other. Because of God’s goodness, because of God’s saving acts and steadfast care and boundless love, these should be our grateful, joyful, responses.
The Ten Responses—that’s what we’re going to call them until this sermon is over—are broken into two halves: the first set describes our response in relationship with God, the second set describes our response in relationship with each other. You can see this division in Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 22 when the Pharisees ask him which is the greatest commandment, trying to trip him up. Jesus says, “The first commandment is love God with all your heart and soul and mind; and the second commandment is just like it: love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God; love your neighbor. Rather than getting into trouble by picking a single one to be above the others, Jesus picks all ten, summarizing them into their two halves.
If this were a sermon series, I’d take each of the Ten Responses and we’d do a ten-week exploration—but, since all I have is a few minutes, I’m just going to do some brief brainstorming with you on one of them. The familiar version of the Third Response says “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain,” or, in our translation today, which is better, “You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.” That newer translation makes it more clear that this response is not about “bad” language—“wrong use” and “right use” of God’s name is about something much more important than obscenities. The Name of God invokes God’s power and God’s presence and God’s purpose. To have “wrong use” of the Name of God is to attempt to make God, to attempt to make God’s power, into a means for our own ends. This third Response, and the first two Responses before it, are talking about all the seductive ways we displace God, who created us and saved us and sustains us, from the rightful place in our lives, and put ourselves first, putting our own will in place of God’s will, putting schemes of our own making before God’s plans—they’re talking about all the ways we instrumentalize God and God’s power for our own use—all the ways we love ourselves more than we love God and more than we love our neighbor.
My friends, there have, as of yesterday, 11,844 gun deaths in the United States this year. There have been 554 children under the age of 11 shot, and 2,479 teenagers (gunviolencearchive.org). Since 2014—in only three years—total firearm injuries are up 50 percent. Shootings of children are up 30 percent. One week ago today, we watched the horror in Las Vegas, the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, unfold before our eyes. A mass shooting is defined as four or more people—since last Sunday in Las Vegas, there have been seven more mass shootings in the United States. One of them was next door to us, in Lawrence, Kansas. My indictment of us all is that for us to say, simply, that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims, is to take the name of God in vain. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is blasphemy in the mouths of us all when we continue to let thousands die rather than threaten the covetousness of those who profit by the gun industry, blasphemy by us all when we put the idol of an idealized second amendment before our responsibilities for each other as Christians. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences—unlike real prayer, which always implicates us in the process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God—prayer is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution. Prayer is a call for action.
You remember Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan: before the hated, sinful, foreign Samaritan climbed into the ditch to help the beaten man, a priest and a Levite—two of the holiest leaders in the church—walked by on the other side. I have no doubt, being a priest and a Levite, they offered their “thoughts and prayers” as they did so. Jesus asks which was a neighbor to the injured man, and the answer is: “the one who took care of him.” And, you know why Jesus tells this story? It is in Luke 10, verses 27-37—In these verses, Jesus again summarizes the Ten Responses by saying “Love God, love your neighbor,” and a lawyer asks him, “but who is my neighbor?….who is my neighbor?”
In James chapter two, we hear, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:15-17 NRS). As Christians, for our only response to the personal and national tragedy of gun violence to be “thoughts and prayers” is for us to take the sacred act of prayer and turn it into something profane—to use the Holy Name of God for our own, selfish purposes—to take the Name of God in Vain.
These are not the Ten Commandments; these are the Ten Responses—they are really the Two Responses: Love God, Love your neighbor. Like the lawyer, we seek to justify ourselves, to turn them into commandments rather than responses. We want to know the boundaries of our duties, we want to know when we can check them off as done, and so, like the lawyer, we ask Jesus: “but who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies to us today as he did then: “the neighbor is the one who showed him mercy. Go thou and do likewise.” The issue of gun violence, like all the important problems in our broken world, does not have an easy solution, does not have a single solution. To begin addressing it requires us to see everyone—left, middle, and right—even those on both extremes, as our neighbor, so that we can begin a dialog, and, together, find workable solutions. We are children of God and disciples of Jesus—we must not take the Name of God in Vain—we must not offer our “thoughts and prayers” as we walk by on the other side of the road—We must climb into this ditch and make a difference. Not because we’re commanded to, but because how can we respond otherwise to the gift of God’s wondrous, saving, love? “You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God….” Love God, love your neighbor. These are not commandments, but responses. “Go thou and do likewise.”
St. Martin of Tours, Omaha
October 8th, 2017
Good morning. Yesterday, the Church commemorated Saint Mary Magdalene. Hers is a remarkable story, but probably not for the reasons many of you think. When I say Magdalene, most people who recognize the name think of what generations of believers considered to be the worst kind of sinner: prostitutes – those who sold their bodies for money. Mary Magdalene is remembered as one of these lowly women who Jesus forgave. After that, she went on to faithfully follow him. However, much like today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat, there is a lot more to the story than what most of us might know.
Mary Magdalene existed; the name Magdalene derives from Magdala, a city in Galilee. The first biblical reference to her comes in Luke 8: 2, where it is noted that Jesus drove seven demons out of her and also cured other women of evil spirits and infirmities. According to this passage, these women evidently held sufficient means to provide for Jesus and the twelve apostles traveling with him in some manner. Significantly, all four Gospels present Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ death and all four also cite her as the first to learn about the resurrection, most dramatically in a conversation with the risen Christ in John. These passages are the only specific biblical references to Mary Magdalene by name. Acts 1: 14 notes that certain women remained with the apostles in Jerusalem following the ascension and, although the text does not cite Mary Magdalene, biblical scholars assume she was one of these.
One could presume from these passages that Mary Magdalene became a faithful servant and travelled with the apostles throughout the remainder of her life. This includes the brave example of not fleeing the way others did when the going got really rough after Jesus’ arrest, and even remaining to witness the crucifixion. These passages provide examples of devoted service by Mary Magdalene specifically, but also indicate the important role of women in the early church. I am proud and grateful to acknowledge that from the pulpit of a church that both ordains women and celebrates their voice and leadership in the church today in myriad other ways as well. Additionally, she offers a powerful example of faithfulness in that she is the first witness to the resurrection. She is tasked with heralding the good news, and in the tradition of the Eastern Church that persists to date, Mary Magdalene is esteemed as an equal to the apostles. How then did she earn such a reputation that never specifically appears in Scripture?
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon that solidified Mary’s reputation in the Western church forevermore as a redeemed prostitute. He conflated three textual references to women and used these to form a composite person. Gregory described this Mary as a prostitute who begged forgiveness from Jesus and received it. Simultaneously, he omitted the texts that referenced Magdalene as a continuing faithful servant of Jesus and companion of the apostles in the early church. It wasn’t until the 1960s that efforts began to undo Pope Gregory’s portrait and re-assert the actual historical Mary Magdalene of the Scriptures. We could study all the motives biblical scholars and historians have offered as explanations for Gregory’s harlotization of Mary Magdalene, but really…too often too many of us today are guilty of the same one-dimensional, blanket consideration of people – including even ourselves. Too often, we – as a society, in our small groups, or as individuals — become too ready to accept convenient explanations, even if that means writing someone off as a weed. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that it’s not that simple. It is too hard for us, walking in the field beside each other today, to know what is for sure weed from wheat.
Instead, in this parable Jesus reminds us that we are all wheat and weeds intertwined. Jesus likely envisioned a poisonous plant called the darnel to make this point. Darnel and wheat looked very similar in their early stages. The roots of darnel and wheat grew intertwined, so it was no simple task to try to simply pull out the weeds. To do anything drastic to hurt the weed meant destroying the good with it at a time when the plant was still growing and it was too early to know which was which. Thus, Jesus calls on us to wait and watch. Let growth occur – there will be time to sort out what is truly good and bad later, by the experts (in this case, the angels). To put it in a more direct way as our psalmist did, only God truly knows our hearts – only God really knows if we are the wheat or the weed, and God will decide that in God’s time.
In the Gospel today, we are not called to weed but to till the soil of God’s garden on earth. Jesus doesn’t task us to weed in the field of community. Instead, our work is to prepare the soil so that good and healthy creation can grow. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romans when he states that we have the responsibility to set creation from the bondage of its decay. We are to strive to be a community where people who have never had a chance to do so truly can feel and experience the sunlight of the spirit and what spiritual growth means. This isn’t just a nice, do-gooder impulse. It is our very duty. We answer this in the way we live together in community in many ways – when we welcome the stranger, as you did me. When we offer love and support to those who are going through challenges in our broader community, as we do with all of our outreach programs. And we do this when we gather together for worship and bible study, and for coffee and conversations. And when we take care of each other in all the other ways that we tend to each other’s needs.
Jesus provided us very real examples of the lengths to which this commitment is to extend as he dined with sinners and tax collectors, forgave an adulteress, and redeemed those consumed by their demons – even in Mary Magdalene’s case, a woman who presented herself sick with seven of them. But these examples are not weeds any more so than those of us sitting here today are! I think that’s what Jesus is reminding us – there is darkness that tempts all of us at times. I have gone through times in my life when I’ve lived it more like a very unhealthy weed rather than flourishing wheat. I’ve made bad choices and I’ve sinned. But those bad choices and those sins – those times are not the end of my story. That’s the Christian promise of redemption open to all.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, Magdalene means tower of strength. Mary Magdalene’s example is so much more to us than that of a repentant sinner, as vitally important as that is. The collect for her commemoration yesterday notes how Jesus restored her to health of body and mind. Hers is a story of fully becoming wheat and of tending to the gifts of creation. After she was redeemed by Jesus, she didn’t just go away to a comfortable life. She stayed with Him. She gave what she had to help others, and she remained to be of service – not just when Jesus was on earth, but through the tumultuous years of the early church. She represents fearlessness in following Jesus – even going to the cross with him – and gritty determination to herald the gospel message, even when it is not well received. It is because of her strength and grace in receiving the gifts of healing and recovery that the church marked a day to commemorate her example.
Twelve step recovery programs are spiritually-based, and the seventh step is all about humility and relying on God’s help to get there. I think the Seventh Step Prayer is very much in line with Jesus’ parable today, and what Mary Magdalene’s example demonstrates for us. In the first part of the Seventh Step Prayer, we humbly ask God to accept us as we are – good and bad — and for God to remove our defects of character, or those weeds intertwined with the wheat. These weeds are what stand in the way of our usefulness to God and others. Then in the prayer, we ask for God to give us strength to do God’s work.
Let’s go forth today faithfully asking God for help in removing the weeds from the wheat in our own lives so that we can better work in God’s garden. Let’s work together to prep the soil within us and around us to so that God’s beautiful creation can grow.
On occasion, I listen to country music. I admit that, when I do, I listen to the classics. There is something about old country that screams reality – it’s honest. It talks about real problems, real emotions, real people. It has been even said by David Allan Coe that a proper country song includes things like getting drunk, prison, mama, your pickup truck…real stuff.
A bumper sticker I once saw asked us to consider playing the country song backwards. You know, back in the 80s folks thought that rock music had secret satanic messages if you played it backwards – which, of course, none did. But, play country backwards and you get your wife back, your hound dog back, and your pickup will actually start.
Today we heard in our Genesis lesson about Hagar. She is a servant girl, a woman who has had an intimate relationship with Abraham, born him a son, raised the jealousy of Sarah and today we hear, sent out, abandoned, forsaken, and at that, this woman who has offered herself, service, both in body and hard labor, we clamor and say – that is not fair!!!! But I also recognize, that for many of you, this very morning, are secretly going through similar struggles, sent out, your bearings shifted. You are a mess of emotions, you wonder if anyone cares, you wonder where is God, and you cry out in prayer, – “GOD, SERIOUSLY?”
We say: My wife (or husband) argues with me day and night. There always seem to be more bills than income. The kids are making all kinds of bad decisions. The dog has heartworms. I’m facing a health crisis. Just get the guitar up here, cause I got the stuff of a country song…and yet, in church, we hear: Build your house on the rock. Or even in today’s Gospel, “I came not to give peace, but a sword. GOD SERIOUSLY? When is this supposed to get better?
If we listen to motivational speakers or whatever seems to be selling to the masses, if I just think positively God is breaking barriers and giving me the best life—right? Try telling that to Hagar, or Jesus’ disciples (all but one of them died for the faith, you know, and even John (the one who survived)was so abused he probably wished he was dead.) Tell the myth of Prosperity Gospel Light to those who died in the Coliseum when they were drowned for entertainment, or fed to lions. Tell that to crucified people in Armenia in 1915; Jews, clergy, LGBT folk, or intellectuals in Auschwitz; Jesuits in Japan in the 1500s – All of them echo, “GOD SERIOUSLY?” Even we who have lives that are filled with pain, but are not faced with the prospect of death, pray likewise.
But what if the Rock of our life was actually seeking to polish us? What if, “GOD, SERIOUSLY” was a prayer that got us through successive layers of grit until God could see his image in us. Yes, God…seriously!
When I was growing up, I had a Graves cabochon machine. (Cabochons are gems that have a rounded top, without facets) The machine consisted of a diamond saw which cut larger pieces of gemstone into manageable pieces. Then it had a series of wheels, working from left to right: 80 grit, 150 grit, 400 grit, and then a leather wheel green with chromium oxide, a polishing aid. All of this was cooled by a constant water drip.
Slowly, a rock, hidden in the earth for millions of years becomes less of a doorstop and more like jewelry. Slowly the grit and water, and time reveal something that is prized!
Life is like a country song, it filled with real grit, real trouble. We tend to get angry, our patience is tried, we wonder how we can take it, and yet, the longer we live and the more we see, the grit bothers us less and less. God starts with the diamond saw, clipping off whole chunks at a time, and works through our formative years with some pretty aggressive abrasion. As we enter the senior years, he is polishing, polishing, waiting to see his image, just at the right time to enter God’s Kingdom.
That’s what Christian community at its best does, it is a polisher…except when we short-circuit the process because it’s just too hard, too painful.
Sadly we often react to the polishing, sometimes we attack, lashing out at the polisher. We blame, we ignore God, we keep our distance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. Really, we act like Jonah and walk in a passive aggressive way – totally the opposite way that God wants us to go.
Other folks just shut down by avoidance. They leave the room, they leave the church, they just have to get away because the grit is too hard. The polishing is too intense. Still others just shut down through emotional isolation. They don’t fight and they don’t flee, they just go inside and put up walls.
Our emergency defense is how we protect ourselves when we feel threatened. But God is trying to polish us in every situation. We may feel like life has become a bit too much like a Merle Haggard ballad and were all praying the same thing: GOD SERIOUSLY? But can we see God working in our midst, or are we too clouded by the friction of when God is working?
What if we did not have to stay in that place? What if we accepted the polishing. What if we decided to accept becoming the jewel and less of a boulder. Even in the desert, God cared for Hagar. God knew the story. He vindicated her cause. God loved her son Ishmael. God heard Hagar. God saw her abandonment and her plea, “GOD…SERIOUSLY?”
This doesn’t mean we deny our pain or repress it or pretend it isn’t there—it’s real and God is a big God to take exactly the real emotion we give him. God is not challenged like our Aunt Suzy who gets off in a huff if she is even challenged. GOD GETS US, and He gets that “God, seriously?” prayer even before we are ready to offer it.
Today, I ask you if your struggles are a bit too much like a country song. Maybe you are praying the “God, seriously?” prayer. Maybe you are praying the Eight Word Prayer – “Oh, God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” Maybe the heat of being against God’s polishing wheel is just too much and you are thinking you are going to crack…God’s listening. He is working on things you will never even comprehend. He is an Almighty God, not a limited one. He’s polishing you. Let him turn you from a doorstop boulder to the jewel of his delight. It might not be comfortable, you might have a lot of heat, but God isn’t done with you yet!
But even more than that, remember that you are in a group of folks going through the same thing. We are all being polished. Some of us have lopped off corners, some are cracked, some of us have taken all the polishing we can stand in this time in our life. You belong – HERE. It is here -the Church – that you find the quench of the constant drip of the Water of Life, which quenches the heat and soothes our pain.
So I should imagine that the steel guitars and fiddles are crying away on the road to Heaven. The road from here to there is often paved with pain and friction. You are not alone. The Church is here to work along with you. It’s here you belong – let’s work through the grit, and the hurt, and even the song, together. Amen.
The Reverend Robert M. Lewis, D.Min., Rector
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island
Trinity Sunday 2017
Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a)
Along with all the things happening in our nation and the world and all the things happening closer to our parish and our own families this week — and goodness knows there was a lot to take in — something important was happening in the wider Episcopal Church that is worth our noting this Sunday.
Friday the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church began a three day meeting. Executive Council meets quarterly to carry out the programs and policies developed in our General Convention and to oversee the ministry and mission of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal News Service yesterday reported on the opening remarks by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings. (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/…/presiding-bishop-foll…/)
Bishop Curry spoke plainly about the moment in history in which we find ourselves. He said that such a time as this is a “strange national, cultural and global moment – when things are being turned upside down, when old patterns don’t work anymore, when the old rules don’t even seem to apply anymore, truth doesn’t seem to be what the truth used to be, and all of a sudden what’s wrong is right. All of a sudden, even Christianity is co-opted by injustice, by lack of compassion, by inhumanity, by indecency.”
We have spoken often here at Church of the Resurrection in recent months about what is happening: the apparent acceptance of hateful speech and actions in our national political arena, our failure to address the urgent climate crisis, the violence exhibited by gun deaths right here in Omaha and acts of terrorism around the world, the wide divide between the very rich and the working poor. Bishop Curry is right to name the truth that even people who might consider themselves Christians have been lured into supporting injustice, lack of compassion, inhumanity, and indecency. Too many Christian churches, and even some parishes in the Episcopal branch of Christianity, gather on Sunday mornings without ever speaking of these things. Some are afraid of offending major donors; some are afraid of upsetting people who don’t want to acknowledge or think about what is happening; some are simply too tired to offer up anything new, anything that speaks to a particular moment or a particular place. And too many self-identified Christians go through the week saying and doing things that are the opposite of what Jesus would have us say and do, making choices dictated by fear and selfishness rather than choices dictated by faith and compassion.
I’m so grateful for parishes like this one and for Christians like most of our sisters and brothers in this community, and I’m also grateful to have leaders in this time both in our diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church who have the energy and courage to speak the truth and name the moment.
We know how important it is to see the world as it is in all its wonder and all its woes. We know how important it is to see and remember the marginalized people in our society who are so easily not seen by others. And we know how important it is to have a living faith that points to the kingdom of God and helps us find the strength and wisdom and love to live into God’s kingdom in all aspects of our daily lives.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day that reminds us that just as it’s important to see and name the world as it is, it’s important to understand and name God in all of God’s fullness.
In the words of the ancient Athanasian Creed [that you can find in the section of Historical Documents in the back of The Book of Common Prayer], the church teaches:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance.
That is: we worship one God that is somehow three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and those three Persons are somehow One. We don’t confound or mix up those three Persons but are clear about their separate identities, and yet we also don’t say that they are substantially — in the true meaning of the word, in their Substance — divided from one another.
What does any of this matter? At this point in human history, it matters very much that we not tempt people — others or ourselves — to dismiss God and faith because the only God they’ve heard anyone talk about is a lesser god that would be no great loss. If we forget that all three Persons of the Trinity are essential, our understanding of God can easily become an understanding of a small god.
If we forget Jesus and the Holy Spirit, it’s easy to slip into seeing God as distant and unconcerned with us (except perhaps to judge us severely from time to time); if we forget God the Father and the Spirit, it’s easy to slip into seeing Jesus as a great teacher but nothing more, or as a pal who asks little in the way of discipleship; and if we forget God the Father and Jesus and focus solely on the Spirit, it’s easy to become unmoored from our tradition and have only our own experience as a spiritual guide. In all cases, God becomes smaller. Instead of a Living God whose fullness exceeds our powers of language and comprehension, we would instead find a lesser god that is more easily comprehended and also much more easily dismissed.
In his recent book The Divine Dance, Franciscan author Fr. Richard Rohr suggests that we look not so much at the traditional question of how one God can be three Persons, but at the complementary question asked by some Christian mystics and the tradition of the Eastern Church: How can the Three be One? He writes “Don’t start with the One and try to make it into Three, but start with he Three and see that this is the deepest nature of the One.” (p. 43, The Divine Dance)
What we find when we begin with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and ask how they can be One is that God is not a single object to be grasped by our minds, but that the essence of God is relationship, a “flow” of divine energy. “God is love” said the apostle John in his First Epistle, and that may be about as good a summary of the Living Trinitarian God as any other.
God is love. My sisters and brothers, the church now faces a moment unlike any other moment in human history. Along with all the challenges that have been with us a long, long time — violence, Illness, poverty, heartbreak, warfare, political and cultural oppression — we have unleashed the destructive forces of nuclear weapons and of rapidly accelerating climate change.
Pray that the church will meet this moment with theological integrity and truth, because the only way we are going to get through this is by sticking closely to the true God and going out into the world as bearers of God’s truth. We are disciples not of some tame god who sits above a bland world, but of the Living God who does not hesitate to step into our disorder and despair and work powerfully through us in ways we cannot imagine on our own.
Our Gospel passage for today is the passage assigned for Trinity Sunday because it makes the Trinitarian formula — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — explicit, but the context of that trinitarian formula is what makes this a powerful message for us here today. “Go therefore” says Jesus “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 that I have commanded you.” Jesus is telling his followers to bear Christian witness — to go out and tell the truth.
Just about every day brings some new piece of news that makes our world look less stable and less secure than ever. The world needs authentic Christian witness more than ever, and we need to be truthful to ourselves and others about what is happening in the world in order to bear that witness. We also need to be truthful about God. In the short term, it may be easier to ignore what is happening and pretend none of it matters. In the short term, it may be easier to tell ourselves that God is something “less than”, to pretend that God is small enough for us to understand and utilize as needed. The powers that be tempt us to be numb to the needs of others and numb to God’s love. But in the long term, to serve in the world as faithful disciples and to teach others about the God of love, and to have a chance at restoring the stability and security we are lacking, we must open our eyes to see clearly the realities of the world and open our hearts and minds to God through prayer and study. Then we can shake off the temptation to numbness and be honest both about what the world is like and about who God is.
God is love — a “fountain fullness of love” in the words of St. Bonaventure. (Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 430 How do we respond to a fountain fullness of love? Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22: 37b-39) We respond to God’s love by sharing love.
Our job in these difficult days is the same as the job of Christians in every age: to bear witness to the fullness of God’s love in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska June 11, 2017
Passion Gospel John 18:1-19:37
Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:15b-16a).
It may be tempting to numb ourselves to suffering, to live in a sort of gated community of the spirit, walled off from anything that might disturb. Jesus does give us peace, but genuine peace comes when Jesus stand by us in the midst of suffering. If we listen deeply to the story of the Passion, we will grieve at Jesus’s suffering. If we listen deeply to the Easter Gospel to come, we will emerge from that grief with hope and joy. Good Friday invites us to look at Jesus’s suffering so that we can experience the fullness of Easter. The powers that be encourage us to numb ourselves to suffering. The empire — the powers that be for the sake of being the powers — would like us to look away from suffering and numb ourselves with food, drink, drugs, and lots of consumer goods. They do not want us to notice our own distress or the distress of other people or the distress of other living things, the plants and animals on whom our existence depends. But keeping our eyes on King Jesus even when he is wearing a crown of thorns rather than taking seriously the pronouncements of the powers that be is part of our Christian witness to the world. When the powers cheer on the “beauty” of missiles or the explosion of the “mother of all bombs”, when the powers tell us the suffering of people who were killed in the Holocaust wasn’t all that bad, when the powers ignore the rapidly warming Arctic and dying coral reefs — and the new crack in one of Greenland’s biggest glaciers, when the powers discount the suffering of people worried they might lose their healthcare, when the powers speak in ways that encourage us to hate people different from ourselves, Jesus calls us instead to look and listen and acknowledge and feel the suffering: the suffering now, the suffering in the past, the suffering that awaits us if we don’t change course. We can be compassionate witnesses to suffering even when it is hard to look at it because Jesus calls us to live in hope. Oddly, while the powers that be want us to ignore suffering as if everything were fine, they want us at the same time to think there is little hope for a better world. They tell us we must continue to burn fossil fuels, that we cannot afford to welcome refugees, that we are wise to fear people whose skin is a different color than ours or whose faith is different from ours or whose primary language is not English. They tell us we can’t possibly provide basic health care for everyone in our nation, that public schools cannot adequately educate our children, that gun violence is inevitable. The powers that be don’t want us to grieve with those who suffer, but they also don’t want us to engage in any form of hope other than selfish hopes for our personal security and prosperity. But we can grieve and we can experience genuine hope for ourselves and our neighbors because we know well the story of Jesus on the cross and the story of Easter resurrection. We can look at death in all its forms because we are resurrection people who know death isn’t the final word. And not only can we grieve and hope, but if we are not to betray Jesus and deny that we know him, we must grieve and we must hope genuine hope. We have a king other than the emperor. His name is Jesus, and today on Good Friday we grieve his death on the cross and all the ways we continue to crucify him. Today we grieve, but tomorrow night we rejoice because love wins and Jesus is King. Amen.
There are people who shy away from AA because they think it seems too religious. Welcome to the Episcopal Church where we seldom make the mistake of seeming too religious.
You can tell by my outfit that I’m not a cowboy, so let me introduce myself: I’m Fr. Chuck Peek and I’ve been sober since April 30, 1986. For those for whom that form of introduction doesn’t mean anything, I’m a failed drunk. Once I belonged to the Poor Me club…poor me, poor me, pour me another! I don’t have to live like that anymore thanks to a program of recovery, such as AA; AA in turn owes its thanks to Fr. Sam Shoemaker, whom we celebrate tonight. Fr. Shoemaker, in turn, owed his life and ministry to his dedicated grasp of the essence of the spiritual tradition of Christ’s Church.
When we celebrate Fr. Shoemaker, we are celebrating a priest who was not at times shy about being critical of priests—something we can all relate to. (If you’ve been standing outside, finding fault with the Church, come on in and meet some of us who not only know its faults but sometimes are its faults!)
Among the legacy Fr. Sam left us was a kind of wish list for priests. Fr. Shoemaker’s “wish list” for the priest of the church is, it seems to me, no different than the wish list for all Christians, and, taken possibly in reverse order, no different than what the 12thstep asks of those recovering:
“…I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear [God] and know [God] is there,
But not so far from men [and women] as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too” (“I stand at the door,” silkworth.net 2016)
The spiritual steps offered as the steps to recovery in AA (or any other twelve-step recovery group) include steps that should be familiar to every practicing Christian. They include taking a moral inventory, making amends for harm done (in Christian repentance, it is not enough just to tell someone you are sorry for hurting them, you need to make amends for the harm), making a daily practice of meditation and prayer, turning our wills and lives over to God, which folks in Recovery and a great many Christians call “surrender”: laying down the arms of self-destruction and hoisting the flag of surrender to a loving God who can make us whole and useful.
In a letter to Fr. Shoemaker, Bill Wilson (sometimes called the founder of AA) said that the steps summed up what had been taught “primarily by” Fr. Shoemaker. Without Shoemaker’s teaching, Bill said, “there could have been nothing—nothing at all,” and he usually listed Sam’s name among the “co-founders” of AA (along with Dr. Bob Smith).
If you have been in meeting rooms of AA you have seen pictures of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. You never see Sam’s picture, nor do you see the picture of Ebie who helped Bill get sober but couldn’t stay sober himself, and you certainly don’t see pictures of the long-suffering spouses, such as Lois. If I had my way, every one of their pictures would hang in the meeting halls. But, then, the program of recovery constantly reminds me that it is not all about Chuck Peek getting his way. Being a member of AA is not conditional on the member getting his or her way. (Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true of the Church as well.)
Not only the conception of the program of Recovery but also its very language echoes language and concepts found in the sermons and books of Fr. Sam Shoemaker. These same words and thoughts also echo the scripture once read in recovery meetings before there was a Big Book (the manual Bill Wilson wrote for AA), especially The Book of Acts, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of James, and Paul’s hymn to love at the close of Corinthians. And they all in turn mirror the standards used in the Oxford Groups that were forerunners of AA and for which Fr. Shoemaker was the American leader. Let me give one example of the close resemblance: in his preaching, Sam Shoemaker charged each listener to come to a “decision to cast my will and my life on God.” That is almost word for word the 3rd step of recovery (found in your program): “We made a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God.”
Now having mentioned the Big Book, let me say that tonight’s celebration is not necessarily a recommendation to go out and immediately read a copy of “the big book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. (Unless of course you are in Alcoholics Anonymous, and then it might be a great idea to read the manual!) But as to what good the book will do for those not addicted or committed to helping addicts: all the spiritual steps of any sound spiritual discipline are there to be sure, but they are definitely framed in the language of addiction, and possibly you are not an addict and do not operate from a personality that leans to any obsessions.
Perhaps…although for most everyone the possibility bears more thought than it is usually given. But even with the specific language to people who are addicted to substances, or behaviors, or experiences, the spiritual principles in the book come through loudly and clearly, so maybe a Christian or a church study group could benefit from a reading of the Big Book.
There you would find that the principles are simple and basic. Love and Tolerance (and the honesty, openness, and willingness necessary to become loving and tolerant) are the keys, and when it comes to being loving or tolerant, honest or open, it is my experience that we all stumble, all fall short. “All fall short of the glory of God.”
These principles we try to practice one day at a time. Scripture tells us that sufficient to the day is the evil thereof…meaning: we only get one day at a time and waste it if we try to live yesterday or tomorrow, if we take it for granted, or if we devote it to a fixation on all that is wrong with the world. We live only when we live the day we have, thankful for its blessings, and devoted to the solutions to our life’s problems. In short, your day is either run by the evil of people, places, and things, or it is run by the goodness of the grace of God! You cannot have it both ways, you cannot serve both God and what is not of God!
[During the Sunday Eucharist at St. Luke’s, Kearney, our celebrant tonight, Fr. Ness, gathers people for thanksgivings and blessings, and he always begins by asking them all to take a deep breath of the Spirit. Spirit and Breath come from the same root word, and a little thought will tell you that breathing is important to spiritual practice. Nothing better arrests a moment of panic than getting control of our breathing. Nothing eases stress better than regular, deep breathing. So I want you to take a moment right now and, with me, breathe deeply in and out: slowly breathe in God and breathe out what is not God, breathe in the spirit of God, breathe out what is not of the spirit of God, breathe in peace, breathe out discord . . . already you may feel the benefit of this, and you will find that adding this to your prayer and meditation times helps you to peace and quietness of mind.]
Now there are basically three things programs of recovery say about God:
First, Recovery tells us that there is a God and I’m not it. No matter from what religion or denomination, it is fundamental to every spiritual life to get rid of grandiosity and embrace humility. And by grandiosity I mean from both ends, the grandiosity of feeling that you are better than everyone else and the grandiosity of feeling you are worse than everyone else.
Now my good friend, retired Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jim Schmitt tells the story of parishioner who was just a horrible man—mean and abusive to his family, dishonest in his life, awful. But one day that changed and the change lasted another day and into weeks and weeks and Fr. Jim finally asked him what had happened that made the change in him. The man, now in recovery, said it was simple: he had turned in his resignation as head of the universe . . . and God had accepted his resignation!
So, first “there is a God and I’m not it”; then secondly recovery tells us that God is and has been all along in our corner. We don’t discover that God is with us now that we’ve gotten sober or clean. Drunk-a-logs (the stories we tell of our former drinking lives) prove that God was with us over and over again. And that tells us that the God who has been with us all along is not the hateful, angry God we had been taught or we had come to believe to be God. God was not missing in action, though we often missed the signs of God’s presence.
There is a God and I’m not it. God is and has been with us all along. And finally God expects something of you. I know we do not not seek controversy and I am sure this will be controversial, but here it is: contrary to a lot of sentimental Christianity preached today, God requires more than pious words. We are called not just to say God is in our hearts or Jesus is our savior, but to strive to actions that make those words real. The 3rd and 7th step prayers in The Big Book are essentially the prayer that God might do with me today whatever it takes to make me useful to God and other human beings. And one follow-up thought about being useful . . . we can’t be useful off by ourselves. Every addiction I know of—again to a substance, a behavior, and experience doesn’t matter—ends up isolating us from others. We may have started out going to the bar to be social; we end up alone in our rooms hoping no one will bother us. You cannot remain in isolation and recover and you cannot remain in isolation and be useful.
Making our new understanding real by putting words into action is exactly what we heard urged by St. Paul in tonight’s second reading: “Clean out the old leaven of malice and evil and eat of the bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Cor. 3)
We do not get into action once for all. We get into it daily. Sometimes we get over-confident or lazy. So the fact is that all of us some time, some of us all the time need to be reprogrammed, need to reboot the system. We celebrate Sam Shoemaker because that’s what Sam Shoemaker teaches us how to do. Let us celebrate Sam’s day by listening to what Sam teaches. My few examples all come from his book Realizing Religion—even in the title you can hear the idea of making something real. Anyone can be religious, but the challenge is to make that religion real in your life. So here is just a sample of what Sam taught.
Sam wrote, “There are laws for the production of the Christ-type of life. Without heeding them it is . . . foolish to hope for success.” 7
And with that he noted, “It is extremely hard, and in most cases frankly impossible, for anyone to secure results which are fundamentally spiritual without using any spiritual means, or fulfilling any spiritual conditions.” 6-7
Again, Sam taught, “Surrender to the Divine Life . . . takes on reality as we have in mind definite cooperation with God in definite work for one definite person.” 79
(When we first get into recovery, the definite person is ourselves; as we grow in recovery, then the definite person becomes another person in need.)
Then Fr. Shoemaker knew what all sound psychology teaches us, that one of the three things most needed in our lives is a sense that our lives have meaning and purpose. He told us that in recovery, we are:
“Armed with that fortifying [strengthening] sense that we are cooperating with God and doing the work which of all work [God] most wants done.” 78
I could hear that thought echo scripture tonight when Dottie read the reading from Isaiah, “Awake, awake, put on your strength”! (Isa 51)
And since you have all gathered here in a church tonight, here is what Fr. Shoemaker tells us about Church:
Sam taught: “We need the Church—need its irksome discipline as well as its inspiring teaching—and not less the Church needs us.” 69
How many ever stopped to think the Church might need us!
And he added: “There is no greater testing place of character, especially of the disposition which is able to work with others, than the fellowship of the Church.” 69
As I come to a close tonight, I want to say a word to those of you already in Recovery; remember this: the fellowship of the program is meant to lead us to the fellowship of the spirit. In the Fellowship of the Spirit, then, let me close with Fr. Shoemaker’s invitation to all of us…to you tonight…and invitation I repeat with fervent hope that you will take it to heart:
God will always give the regeneration we want . . . God has a great spiritual experience and destiny to which [God] calls you, if only you will rise up to receive it.
Sermon from 1-22-2017, Epiphany 3A
Preached by the Rev Benedict Varnum at St Augustine of Canterbury in Elkhorn, NE
Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?
There’s a great hymn, In Christ There is No East nor West — Hymn 529 in the Hymnal in front of you. Its second lyric — “In Christ no south or north” might sound like a direct reminder of the US Civil War, and for years I assumed that was why the hymn was written.
But I looked it up this week and I was wrong. Turns out, the text of this hymn was a poem by a British poet writing under the pen name “John Oxenham,” originally for a gathering on the theme of The Orient in London. That is, it was written to reflect on the unity between Eastern and Western influences in British public life, in the earliest days of the 1900s, as cultures clashed and reconciled. The music was added in 1925.
There’s a story, perhaps true, that during WWII, two ships containing, respectively, Japanese and American alienated persons about to be re-patriated, were anchored alongside one another, their occupants glaring across the waters … until someone took up this hymn, and suddenly both sides began singing it back and forth (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).
The words from the full hymn are drawn from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the Bible — 3:28, in which Paul writes There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. That, of course, was one of the most powerful messages of the early days of the Gospel, and one we still need to hear.
But where we hear the echoes of the North and South in the US Civil War, the earliest followers of Jesus might have heard echoes of the “North” and “South” they knew as well.
What you may know (or may have forgotten) about the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, is that way back in the First Book of Kings, there’s the story of how the Twelve Tribes that God brought out of Egypt became divided, later, into two kingdoms. This is in 1 Kings 12, and it is one of the pivotal scriptures of the Old Testament. It describes how ten of the twelve tribes became the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while two in the South remained the Kingdom of Judah — from which the words “Jew” and “Jewish” come.
The Northern Kingdom included the kingdoms of Zebulun and Napthali. There they were, up north of Jerusalem, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, later generations would call this the region of Galilee … which is why the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of “Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles.” And when Isaiah was writing, he was writing with an awareness that Zebulun and Naphtali were among the first to fall to the Assyrian Empire that came. Isaiah was providing both the ancient and the contemporary names. Which means that in 740 BC, when Isaiah was writing, those were already old names.
So why does Matthew use them?
Because Jesus didn’t come for Judah in the South.
And Jesus didn’t come for Israel in the North.
Jesus came for all of the People of God. And Matthew — the Gospeller most in touch with his Jewish history and tradition — wants us to realize that this means God has come for the Lost Tribes, too, and not only the people of his nation.
This is the Jesus that John the Baptist proclaimed before his ministry began. John warned the Pharisees — the leaders of religion in his nation — that “God can raise up children to Abraham,” even from the stones of the River Jordan where he worked and taught. That is, being part of the tribe of Judah isn’t what saves you: God’s love, told by the Gospel of Jesus, is. That story is right before today’s readings, there in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3.
This is the Jesus who came to gather all of us. He taught (in Luke 15) that the shepherd of 100 sheep will come and find even one that goes astray, or that a woman with a fortune of 10 coins will sweep out everything in her house to shine light on the floor and find even one that is lost.
This is the Jesus who traveled through the land of Samaria, unclean to Jews living under the ancient law, and he spoke to Samaritans. He spoke to women in public, also a forbidden action. He used Samaritans as an example of how to be faithful to God, to remind people that it is our actions, and not our ancestry, that unite us as a witness to God’s love and the Gospel that Jesus brought.
This is the Jesus who came and dwelled in Capernaum, in Galilee, in Zebulun and Naphtali — which are all names for places in that region north of Jerusalem by the Sea of Galilee — so that those who heard him would realize that the ten lost tribes were not to be lost any longer. All of God’s people are to be gathered back under the Good Shepherd.
So. Have you had any conversations about unity and division this past week?
Paul wrote to the earliest Church in Corinth in dismay at their divisions. He asked them, “Has Christ been divided?” He asks why they say “I belong to Paul,” or “Apollos” (a Greek name), or “Cephas” (which is the Aramaic name for “Peter,” with both words meaning “rock.”).
We might as readily ask of our divisions today: do some of us say, “I belong to Hillary?” and others “I belong to Sanders,” and others “I belong to Trump?”
But Paul might ask us, “Has Christ been divided?”
For none of these is the Messiah. None of these is the Christ. None of these is the shepherd who seeks to gather all together. And surely the Christ who spoke the Gospel to all, who forgave all from the Cross, is as much the Christ of those who are dismayed by Trump’s behavior as the Christ of those who feel that they were left behind these past eight years. Christ is the Shepherd of ALL sheep.
The name above all other names, as Paul reminded the Corinthians and the Phillippians and others, is Jesus Christ.
And today we hear the story from Matthew’s Gospel of how Jesus Christ calls us. How he began to call people to himself. The first moments in which he began the great work of gathering all people together again:
Jesus saw Simon-Peter, and Andrew, and called them to come with him. He told them “I will make you fishers of people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And he called to James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, and they left their father in the boat and followed him.
We are invited to take that journey too. We are invited to follow along with the Christ who went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
You, and I, are invited to let go of the fishing nets we think we need to sustain our way of life, and risk everything to follow the one who can teach us to make one another our life’s work instead. To become fishers of people.
We can let go of the nets that we use to ensnare and tangle one another in order to feed ourselves, and instead find true relationship with one another. We’ve known how to use those nets for all our lives, and they are familiar, and trusted, and have fed us this far. But they’re not the tools Jesus will teach us to use.
Because we are divided right now … just like Simon-Peter and Andrew and James and John once were. These and the other disciples were divided then! They argued about who Jesus was. They argued about which of them was the greatest disciple (Jesus once famously stopped them on the road to call them out about that!). They argued after Jesus rose into heaven about whether the Gospel was only for Jews or whether it was for Gentiles also. They had to come to terms with the question of whether they could trust their own unity in Christ.
But the great question for us now is whether we can hold to a greater unity than our divisions: the unity of understanding that we are all following Jesus?
In his sermon on the occasion of Tony Anderson’s ordination this past week, Bishop Barker preached about the division we find our country in: in which some find the character of the president-elect so reproachable that they cannot imagine that he will govern on behalf of all Americans … while others find the systems of power in our government to be so corrupt that they believe the act of voting for someone who promises to change them — however imperfect he may be himself — is an act of true patriotism.
I know that we reflect that exact diversity. And this is a serious spiritual challenge to our community: whether we can remain a loving family, committed to one another and to the Gospel of Jesus, in the face of our disagreements here.
Friends, brothers and sisters: I believe we can make it. I believe we have been building up the strength we will need for this journey day by day and year by year over the decades that this church has stood. Where we have learned how to work together in small ways, we will know how to work together in greater ones. And where we have weathered small disagreements, we will learn how to heal from larger ones.
God has taught us, over time, the way to succeed. That way involves placing Jesus and his Gospel first. That is always a step that guides us, and disrupts our allegiance to any earthly power or movement that falls short of God’s love, which includes all.
And it involves us really listening to each other. We need to be able to speak what is in our hearts, and hear what is in one another’s. We may not all be able to do that right away: this is a discipline, and it will take practice. It means listening without hoping to argue or change — only to understand. That’s a risk … but risks are the only thing that can deepen relationships, and deeper relationships are the only thing that can heal real division.
We may not always be sure whether someone wants to hear what we have to say, but we can take the risk of trusting them to hear it and still care about us, even if they disagree.
We may step on one another’s toes now and then … but wouldn’t we rather do that in honest daylight through trying to talk to each other?
And if we listen to God, maybe we can have conversations about unity and division that help us heal, instead of lament. That help us connect, instead of build barriers. That help us love, instead of shout down.
So maybe today is the day that you can drop the net that you think you need. Maybe today is the day to get out of the boat that represents one way of life, and once again take up the journey that follows Jesus. Maybe today is the day that you become a fisher of people — waiting to see what you can gather from the stories of the people around you … not so you can gobble them up and feed yourself, but so that you can be amazed by how many beautiful people and stories God has placed in the world.
Maybe as we travel ahead towards Lent and then Easter in these coming months, you can follow Jesus through Galilee, and Samaria, and Judah, and on into Jerusalem, carrying a Gospel too powerful to be destroyed by any Cross … even the cross of our own divided moment today.
So let us give thanks today, for a Christ who cares for the Northern Kingdom, as well as the Southern. For peoples from the East, as well as the West. And may you be heartened to follow him, today and always.
Cold December flies away
at the rose-red splendor.
April’s crowning glory breaks
while the whole world wonders
at the holy unseen pow’r
of the tree which bears the flow’r.
On the blessed tree
blooms the reddest flow’r.
On the tree blooms the rose
here in love’s own garden,
full and strong in glory.*
Christmas comes at the darkest time of year—just days after the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. For a number of months, the dark of night has been encroaching on the daylight, building to the solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. But thereafter, the daylight begins to chase the darkness of the night away. Light makes its grand re-entry. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” says the prophet. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,” says the Gospel writer. Into the midst of the darkness comes the Light, chasing cold December and its shadows away; into the midst of the darkness, “April’s crowning glory breaks”—the Light of Easter shines—“while the whole world wonders.” Oh God,” we pray, “you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light.” Jesus, the Light of the world, is born!
In the hopeless time of sin
shadows deep had fallen.
All the world lay under death.
Eyes were closed in sleeping.
But when all seemed lost in night,
came the sun whose golden light
brings unending joy,
brings the endless joy
of our hope, highest hope,
of our hope’s bright dawning,
Son belov’d of heaven.*
A recent study of the effects of terror attacks on people found there are two primary emotional responses to the attacks: anger, which can have the effect of short-circuiting one’s nuanced thinking processes, causing people to lash out with brash and irrational words and actions against the perpetrators of the terror; and fear, which can be debilitating, leaving people immobilized and victimized. Neither of these responses is surprising; in fact, in our present world—in this “hopeless time of sin”—such emotions seem to be the norm. Wars and rumors of wars, economic inequality, terror attacks, and natural disasters caused by a changing climate leave us angry and fearful. But it’s not just brokenness on a global scale that elicits these emotions in us. Brokenness in ourselves and our families and friends also call up anger and fear: broken and hurting relationships; grief that will not heal; disease that threatens our very lives; captivity to addictions that have stolen loved ones from us. Yet, into the brokenness of the world a ray of hope has shined—shined so brightly, in fact, that the angel’s words of comfort are as timely and relevant to us as to the shepherds that night, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”; unending joy, endless joy “of our hope, highest hope, of our hope’s bright dawning, Son belov’d from heaven.” “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” On this night we discover that anger is not the final word; fear is not the final word; hope is. Oh God,” we pray, “you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light.” Jesus, the Light of the world, is born!
Now the bud has come to bloom,
and the world awakens.
In the lily’s purest flow’r
dwells a wondrous fragrance.
And it spreads to all the earth
from the moment of its birth;
and its beauty lives.
In the flow’r it lives,
in the flow’r, and it spreads
in its heav’nly brightness
sweet perfume delightful.*
Oh God,” we pray, “you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light”—you have caused this holy night to be fragrant with the sweet perfume of the purest flow’r. Jesus, the Light of the world, the lily’s purest flow’r, is born! Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+
Church of Our Savior, North Platte
*Catalonian Carol; tr. Howard Hawhee, b. 1953.
December 4th, 2016
St. Martin of Tours, Omaha
One of our family holiday traditions is watching the movie Muppet Christmas Carol together. I have to confess that there’s a moment in it when Michael Caine, who plays Scrooge, makes me cry every year—and makes my kids roll their eyes at me, of course. The Ghost of Christmas past has been showing Scrooge events from his youth, most of them happy, but then Scrooge is taken to the scene in which he turns away from the love of his fiancée, one final time, and gives his life over completely to his greed. As the young woman walks away, the young Scrooge sets his jaw in determination to excel in his life of commerce—but the old Scrooge, watching, sobs, tears running down his face. This is the first time in the story that Scrooge, I believe, experiences a recognition of what he has lost, and experiences repentance for his life of sin—the first time in the movie when he not only feels remorse and sorrow, but begins to open his heart and turn away from the path he’s on. It is this—acknowledgement, sorrow, and turning away—that John the Baptist calls to us about from the wilderness.
What was John doing out in the wilderness in the first place? We might be tempted to picture a pastoral scene when we hear this—you know, maybe John was out inviting people to come center themselves and practice “mindfulness” and that sort of thing—to escape the hustle and bustle of their daily grind and find some peace. Well, that’s not what this wilderness was like, literally or figuratively. First of all, you should picture not a nature trail but the desert; the wilderness of Judea is a harsh, hostile, unfriendly and dangerous place. Second, the wilderness for an ancient Jew was a place that reminded them of their wanderings after leaving Egypt. God had freed them from bondage under the rule of Pharaoh, but almost as soon as they left, the Israelites were full of fear, and they disobeyed God’s instructions. Even though they had been led by the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, even though the sea had parted before them and crashed back upon the chariots of Pharaoh’s army, they lost faith.
What did the Israelites do while Moses was on Mount Sinai getting the tables of law that sealed their covenant with God? They gave up and went back to their old ways and created a golden calf to worship. God’s people had to learn to trust and obey God, and to learn this, they were sent to wander in the wilderness for forty years. John called the people of his day to see that they, too, had given up and given in, replacing God’s ways with their own ways; he called them to see that it was time to return back to the desert, to come into the wilderness, to confess their sins, and to find their faith in God renewed. John called the people to repent.
“Repent” is not a word we hear in our culture these days, but this “turning back” or “turning around” in order to turn away from sin is what repentance is all about. Repentance includes being sorry, but the act of repentance is not only about sorrow and remorse. It is not simply an acknowledgment of guilt and wrong-doing, but also an active turning away from sin and a turning towards God. Repentance is not just a change of mind (that is, admitting our sin)—it’s a change of heart, too. Repentance captures part of the essence of the faith/works mystery we hear about in chapter two of James’ Epistle: Faith without works is dead; remorse without repentance is dead as well. In turning to God we accept God’s grace and forgiveness, and start better to walk in God’s ways rather than in our old sinful ways. To be clear: repentance is not about our ability to be good and worthy—it’s about God’s transforming power, and God’s desire to align our lives with the life of Jesus.
This transforming power is why we remember John not as “John the prophet”—but as “John the Baptist.” The people who came out to hear John, being Jews, were inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham. It had become easy for them to believe that their connection with this past guaranteed their connection with God—but John, in an in-your-face kind of way, scoffs at this: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In today’s Gospel John isn’t just calling people to come out into the wilderness and confess their sins, he’s baptizing them, having them act out the washing away of their sins and their return to a more active connection with God. And John says he points the way to One who brings an even more powerful baptism—a baptism that is more than symbolic—a baptism that brings the Holy Spirit and Fire.
Advent is a time to remember our own baptism—when Christ claimed us, joined us to God through himself, saved us through his atoning sacrifice, and imparted the fire of Pentecost Spirit upon us. Advent preparation is a time to remember, refocus and reclaim the baptism vows we all made—to prepare the way for Christ’s return by fulfilling our promises “to resist evil and to repent from it,…to share the Good News,… to serve Christ in all people,… and to strive for justice and peace.”
Christmas will come in a few weeks, bringing our remembrance and celebration of the birth of Jesus, the manger, the shepherds, the sheep, the star, the “Silent night.” However, Christmas is not the ending of the story but the beginning, and Advent preparation is, in part, our reminder of another night, not so silent, that led to arrest, the cross, and the grave. It is a mistake to come to the Christmas manger without at the same time coming to the Cross. God led Israel out of bondage, but Israel strayed from the path and wandered until it found trust and obedience. The first century Jews had forgotten God’s command to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly; they stopped “bearing good fruit” and relied just on their past, relying just on Abraham’s obedience and not their own. John called them into the wilderness to not just to remember, but to repent.
It’s so easy in our culture for us, today, to forget our promise to be God’s light in the darkness, to be God’s counter-cultural people who seek justice for the alien and the outcast, to be those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. It’s so very easy for us to escape into the self-centered comfort of shopping and sentimentality. I was baptized, I was “adopted into the household of God” – Christmas reminds me of that and makes me feel all safe and loved and child-like, right at home there with that sweet little baby Jesus in the manger. (Well, except maybe I’d need the new Sealy Posturepedic comfort-dial mattress that’s on sale with free delivery at the Furniture Mart instead of all that itchy straw…) Christmas is full of nostalgia. But nostalgia is not preparation—nostalgia is feeling good about what used to be (or feeling good about our dream of what used to be). Advent, on the other hand, is a season for repentance of what used to be, and a demand to change what is now, in the present, and a call to prepare for the future. Advent is an opportunity to consider how much in my own life I really am working (or not) to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before God. Not enough…some days barely at all…I’m too busy—and perhaps, like Scrooge, too blinded by my own materialism. This self-centered blindness is all wrapped up in a pretty Christmas bow, so it doesn’t seem as corrupt as Scrooge’s—but I fear it has taken over my heart just the same as it did his.
So I invite us all, this Advent season, to journey into John’s wilderness, away from the easy, wandering path that winds past the antique, animatronic scenes in the shopping mall windows, past the free shipping promotions on Amazon.com, past the same, inescapable, endlessly repeating thirty-five songs. I invite us to journey into the wilderness and then to seek out the more difficult and dangerous, the straighter, path. It’s a path that might bring tears of repentance to my eyes for the realities that actually were. It’s a path that might bring tears of repentance for the sins that actually are—my own. The Ghost brought Scrooge to scenes of his past and his repentance didn’t just change his mind—it changed his heart—it changed his life. John the Baptist stands in the desert, calling to the people of Israel to see themselves not with nostalgia, but with the critical eye of repentance. John the Baptist calls to us today: “See where you came from; see how you lost your way; see where it got you; look where you’re headed now. Repent. Make your path straight, for the Kingdom of Heaven is nearby and the Lord is coming soon.” I pray that you and I can know that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that our hearts will be opened, and our lives will be transformed, by John’s call this Advent season. Amen
– Keith Winton
Two TV moments to start this morning. Sixteen years ago at this time, after George W. Bush and Al Gore had fought through a bitter and mean campaign (it seems pretty mild now), the country waited weeks and weeks to sort out what was essentially a dead tie between the candidates. Cynicism about politicians and Washington had been growing for a while, and seemed universal. NBC’s “The West Wing” was just hitting its stride. Against the backdrop of an election scene that looked a little like a circus, and then as the country started to become more and more fractured, “The West Wing” provided us with a sort of alternate political reality, where President Josiah Bartlett and his team united a country with integrity and a commitment to service that seemed both pleasantly old-fashioned and hopefully forward thinking.
Fast forward to today, and in the aftermath of this year’s bitter and mean campaign, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series “The Crown,” which traces the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II from her ascension as a young woman in the late 1940s. In one of the early episodes, Elizabeth is seeking advice at the bedside of her sick grandmother. The older woman leans in and says forcefully, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to bring grace and dignity to the earth. It gives ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.” Her point is that the monarchy serves as a grounding point for English identity, an anchor of stability and history in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and a British empire coming apart at the seams.
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, which since the early twentieth century has been celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King to remind a divided Europe in the aftermath of World War I of their common allegiance to Christ rather than to any earthly ruler.
It’s a feast that seems as relevant and important today as it did in the 1920s, and I think the alternate reality of “The West Wing” and the Crown’s ideal to strive towards can help us make sense of what it might mean for us today.
Our gospel lesson today gives us a sense of what the ideal Christ our king sets for us might be. Here is Jesus in the most unlikely position for a monarch: being executed alongside common criminals as an enemy of the state. Three times Jesus is mocked and challenged to save himself, and three times he forgives and embraces his tormentors. While the nations and kingdoms of the world are ruled by force and intimidation, our kingdom is ruled by a king who suffers alongside us, a king who uses his power to dispense boundless mercy, who promises paradise to criminals and outcasts. When Jesus was handed all the power in the universe, he didn’t choose to simply be the biggest king with the biggest empire, he chose to give his power away in love, he chose to use his power to upend all the ways we normally organize kingdoms.
Our king provides an ideal to strive toward, a grounding point for our identity, but it is an ideal of service, and mercy, and love, and peace. It’s an ideal of loving rather than winning. It’s an ideal of being merciful. It’s an ideal of standing with those who are cast out. Our king rescues us from the power of darkness by turning the order of a dark world on its head.
“The West Wing” provided a different way of imagining one season of our nation’s history. But, of course, it was fantasy and escape. The alternative kingdom we belong to—the Kingdom of God—is actually more real and more true than the darkness we currently see. Our job is to make what seems like a different and fantastical reality shine through that darkness, until it turns the whole world to Christ’s light.
In the coming months and years, there will be no easy or cheap healing of the deep and complex divisions among us in this country. I’ve heard from so many people who I love, who I work with, that the immigrants, refugees, gays, lesbian, and transgender persons, and so many others who were targeted by hateful rhetoric in this campaign are scared about what happens next. That the election came out the way it did suggests there’s a whole lot of people in our country who are angry they’ve been overlooked and ignored and dismissed. Others are simply tired of hearing about it, and simply want to move on.
I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but wherever a person falls on that spectrum on this day, the call to us is the same. On the feast of Christ the King, we are invited simply to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, not as a doctrine or a belief or a religion, but as a way of life. We are invited to renew our commitment to living the way Jesus lived and taught, and to renew our allegiance to the kingdom his life announced. We are called to make Jesus’ way of standing with the suffering, solidarity with the marginalized and threatened, offering peace at every turn, the ideal we strive towards, the thing that lifts us out of our ordinary lives.
But then we are challenged to help make this other kingdom a reality here and now. We are challenged to ask ourselves: what is one thing we can do today, or this week, to wave the flag of Christ’s kingdom? How can I stand with the suffering? Where can I offer forgiveness?
The good news today, and every day, is that no matter what happens in our lives, in our nation, or in our world, God has already overcome the powers of darkness and sin and death. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The resurrection assures us that’s a done deal. Our job is to use whatever life we have to offer that promise to those who are still trapped in darkness, until the kingdom of life and light and love appears in its glorious fullness. Amen.
– The Very Rev. Craig Loya