From Stock.xchng User alfredo-9

From Stock.xchng User alfredo-9

Each week I get to think about a text (or two or four) and my congregation and my own life and the world and listen to God and try to say something meaningful.  I love what I do, and I love the challenge of trying to say something new with scripture texts that are often familiar. Here’s my sermon from this past Sunday on a couple of well known parables.

Based on Luke 15:1-10

After my father died last year, my siblings and I gathered to do the hard work of sorting through his belongings.  We discovered that Dad had three rings in a box on his dresser, and so my two brothers and I each picked one to keep.  These rings were fine specimens of the 1970s — all were gaudy— and, to be honest, I never saw dad wear any of them.  Mine had a star sapphire and a couple of diamond chips in a white gold blocky setting.  There wasn’t a chance I would ever wear it either.  When I picked it out though, I thought the stones could possibly be used for a wonderful new ring for Melissa.  We worked with a local jeweler last year who showed us a fabulous setting, and then he went to work on this new ring.

When we finally saw the completed setting, we both loved it.  Melissa wore it daily, and I often asked her to hold it up to the light so I could see the star formed in the stone.  It become, for both of us, a joy to remember those we loved and also the love we shared with one another.  And then one day I noticed an empty spot where the stone had been; and Melissa looked down in horror.  The star sapphire had slipped out.  We were devastated.

Since we had no idea where she lost it, we didn’t even know where to begin to look.  So we turned the house upside down, just in case, but came up empty.

Luke’s parables of Jesus in the chapter we read from this morning are among the most well known.  It’s a trio of lost items, a sheep, a coin and a son (we didn’t hear that one this morning, but I’d argue that the prodigal son is the most well known of Jesus’ stories) and how there is great rejoicing when the items are found.  The problem with familiar parables is just that, we have heard them so often they lose their power.  We know the moral and have filed it away to that place in our minds where Bible stories get banished.  We might pull it out from time to time and blow the dust off, but it has little to nothing new to offer us.

But let’s try, and start at the beginning.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  So, Luke writes, Jesus told them a parable.

“Which of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  Wait a second, you may be muttering.  Who’s going to watch all those other sheep? Am I just leaving them to wander around in the wilderness alone?  Is there another shepherd nearby that can keep track of those other ones so they don’t get lost too?

But Jesus doesn’t even give the questions a chance to be formed, as he continues, “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

And then, as quick as lightening, he tells another one.  This time, it’s a woman and her lost coin, who cleans her house form top to bottom.  And then when she has finally found it, she too rejoices.  “So it is when one sinner repents.”  Not only that, but she then went on to call her neighbors and friends and invite them to celebrate too.

It was Noah and Olivia who found Melissa’s gem.  Just a few weeks ago, actually, on our stairway.  God only knows how we missed it since we had cleaned those stairs quite a few times and never saw it.  But Melissa, as you can imagine, let out a whoop when the kids came running over with the stone, and we all celebrated together.  (The ring is still getting fixed, by the way, so you can’t stop Melissa to see it this morning and rejoice with her, but it should be back on her finger soon!)

For the sinners and the tax collectors and anyone else out there that has ever felt adrift or lost, these stories provide great comfort.  Not only is God looking feverishly to find them, but when God does find them, there’s a party to boot.  God doesn’t scold and shame and ask why you got lost in the first place.  There’s simply rejoicing and a party.

And I’m beginning to think that this parable is less about the items lost and more about how there is rejoicing in heaven after a sinner repents.  And, Jesus implies to those religious leaders mumbling, if God is rejoicing, you should be too.  If God goes to all that trouble to seek out the lost in this world, why wouldn’t you join with God and be overcome with joy when the lost one is found?

A Jewish story tells of a hardworking farmer that God decided to bless.  “The Lord appeared to the farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the framer would be given double to his neighbor.  The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle.  Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred.  So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land.  Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he.  Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye.  And God wept.”[1]

If we were picking parts to play in this drama, many of us would be the Pharisees and the scribes.  The religious ones who come to church regularly, who know the rules, and have probably written some of the rules ourselves.  Like who the right kind of people are to be associated with or who can follow Jesus, or, in the case of this story, who you can have a meal with.  Certainly the religious types in Jesus’ story weren’t rejoicing at all, but rather were disgusted with Jesus’ seeming nonchalance toward the wrong sorts of people. They couldn’t be happy with Jesus or these outsiders he befriended at all.  Yet, as one commentator wrote, “These stories are about learning to rejoice.  The parables … both end by calling together friends and neighbors to join in the celebration.  Indeed the movement of joy pulses outward from the one to the many, from the earth to the heavens.  The party takes a cosmic scale.  Rejoicing itself seems to be the telos of these stories, the goal toward which they move beyond the penultimate moment of finding.  So salvation consists not purely or even primarily in rescue, but in being drawn into the eternal celebration.”[2]   Let me say that last line again: “So salvation consists not purely or even primarily in rescue, but in being drawn into the eternal celebration.”

Are we able to rejoice with God when someone we don’t expect God to love gets found?  Can we turn ourselves away from the Green-eyed Monster of jealousy when someone we know is blessed by God, and instead celebrate with them at their good fortune, recognizing the wideness in God’s mercy?

Can we be those who readily and joyful join the party rather than saying “We don’t party,” or even more damning, “We don’t party with them”?[3]  This table is set and it’s a place where all the lost are found; can we come to and share in God’s exuberance over everyone one who is found by God?  “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” If only we could recognize that at some point we are all the lost sheep or the lost coin and that God looks diligently for us longing to find us.  And when that happens, when we are found by God, a celebration erupts beyond compare, as it does for all those whom God finds no matter who they are. Amen.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX: Luke & John.  Abingdon Press, pg. 298.

[2] Scott Badder-Save. “Luke 15:1-10, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4. Pg 72.

[3] Badder-Save, 72.

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From Stock Exchange (c)user ba1969.

From Stock Exchange (c)user ba1969.

It’s been a bit since I posted a sermon — or anything for that matter — on this blog.  This summer I preached without a net; it’s good for me to mix it up.  But we’re back to a full morning schedule at St. Mark’s, and I’m back to using a text.

Here’s the one from Sunday. Jesus tells us that unless we hate our friends and relations then we can’t follow him.  Yeah, he said that.  Continue reading to see what I made of that hard saying from Jesus.

Proper 18C— Based on Luke 14:25-33

Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple.

A number of years ago, a commercial came out depicting a college-aged couple.  They were, as my parents would have said, “necking.” They pull apart momentarily, and he looks down at her smiling.  He says, “Your lips are so soft,” and she replies, “You’re so sweet.”  As they say this, and begin kissing again, the camera pulls back to reveal their shirts.  He has on a red Ohio State sweatshirt, and her blue shirt has Michigan emblazoned across it.

Text appears on the screen.  “Without sports, this wouldn’t be disgusting.”  It peddled ESPN, of course.  As someone raised in the great state of Michigan, it made my skin crawl.

Maybe it’s not U of M and Ohio State for you, but it may well be Red Sox-Yankees, or Bruins-Canadiens, or BU-BC.  It’s all about loyalty.  One team you love—based on birth or family connections or, as in my case with the Sox, because you married into it—and the other you despise.

Large crowds traveled with Jesus, Luke writes, and he turned to them and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple.”  If you want to follow me, Jesus tells them, then you must be loyal to me and my kingdom.  When you face a tough choice, don’t go with what your parents say or your spouse or children.  Do what I would want you to do.”  You must despise or hate who or whatever pulls you away from Christ.  If you can’t or are unwilling, well then you aren’t really a disciple after all.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus obviously hasn’t read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Lesson number one is all about using honey rather than vinegar.  Jesus doesn’t heed this advice.  If you’re gonna follow me, he tells them, then your loyalty is to me first, and it’s not going to be easy.

That’s why he tells those two parables.  Suppose you want to build a new storehouse, Jesus tells them.  Don’t you first sit down and draw up a budget and make sure you have enough to cover the expenses?  Because if you don’t, and your building is only half finished, people will ridicule you for not having enough dough to finish the job.  Likewise, if a king is in a conflict with a neighboring ruler, before engaging in a battle he makes sure his army can handle the fight.  Otherwise, if he can’t, he’ll send over a peace agreement before things get out of hand.

In both cases, these people counted the cost.  They figured out what it would take and then took a good hard look at their own situations and decided from there.  And that, Jesus tells the large crowds traveling with him, is what they should do too.

Which is quite the opposite of what we in Christianity often say.  When someone new comes into the church, we don’t tell them about how hard it might be or what could happen if their loyalties went to Jesus first.  We talk about how easy it is to join our church, about the low level of commitment.  The conversation often follows the well-rehearsed script you might hear on a car lot, “So what’ll it take to get you into this wonderful church today? No money down?  Low monthly cost?  No commitment?  You’ve got it!”

“Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate…even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

For Jesus it’s all about commitment.  And he tells would be followers upfront that there’s a cost to following him.  They really need to consider that before pulling up stakes and following him.

And then Luke’s Jesus seems to go for the jugular:  “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  I can tell you the looks I get when I suggest folks give away 10% of what they make.  But Jesus tosses in the other 90% as well.  In a country like ours where it’s hard to talk about money—it’s the last great taboo, it seems—this is completely ludicrous.  Give up all my possessions?  Surely you jest, Jesus.

So two questions remain: what does it cost us to follow Jesus and why should we bear that cost anyway?

If we consider Jesus’ opening line about loyalty, about making sure our allegiance stayed with him no matter what, then it might become clearer as we consider the cost.  Imagine taking a stand about giving aid to undocumented aliens and being questioned on that by people you love.  Scripture says, “If a foreigner resides in your land, you must not oppress him.”  That could be costly.  Or maybe you decide to stay committed to your vows and work on your marriage although things have gotten tough and you’ve noticed supposedly greener pastures.  Telling a friend you can’t grab a drink after work because you’re off to feed the homeless is tough. Perhaps you stick up for a person being mocked because of who they are, or you refuse to turn a blind eye to your boss who is cheating the investors or you decide to give away a portion of your income.  Maybe your friends don’t see why you read your Bible or they can’t understand your making church a priority on Sundays.  All of those things would certainly reflect the way of Jesus.  But they come at a price that may include friends or family members calling you nuts.

Or maybe the one thinking this is all crazy isn’t someone else but you yourself.  To imagine that Jesus would ask anything substantial from you makes you scratch your head.  In part, because we rarely talk about how following Jesus devotedly might actually cost us, and because we seldom think of our faith as asking for a sacrifice from us.  The cultural soup we swim in constantly tells us that we are the most important and that we should always look out for our best interests.  To even imagine the life Jesus is proposing is counter-cultural.

So why would we do it?  Why follow Jesus?  In a similar passage from John’s gospel after Jesus gives a hard teaching, many who had been following him turn back.  “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” he asks the Twelve.  Peter speaks up first, “To whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  And that’s what I would say too.  It’s hard sometimes to follow Jesus, to love your enemies and to pray for them, or to live on a little bit less money each month, or to promote beliefs that may at times put you at odds with both political parties.  Or your faith may cause you to be lumped together with other Christians who seem a bit odd.

Yet, even though there is a cost, it is so worth it.  The sacrifice is nothing in comparison to the deep contentment and joy I have found in following Christ.  Other things that garner our loyalty, well they let us down, don’t they?  The Sox are great entertainment, but in the end it’s all a business and about making money for John Henry.  But Jesus gave up his very life for us and lived they way he wants us to live.  Jesus doesn’t ask us to go someplace where he himself hasn’t led the way.

What about you?  What is the driving force behind your actions and choices?  Where do your loyalties lie?  With this one who came to bring life?  Or with something—or someone—else?  If the first thing you use to describe yourself isn’t “Christ follower” but rather “banker” or “mom” or “American” or “Red Sox fan” or “husband” or whatever else it is, Jesus is asking you to reconsider. If the thought of selling all you have crushes your spirit entirely, maybe your stuff has too much power over you.  That’s what following Jesus costs us.  It’s costs us our lives.  And the life we get in return far exceeds anything this world can offer; I, for one, am banking my life on it.  Amen.

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(c) UNT3 from Stock Exchange

(c) UNT3 from Stock Exchange

“Take this job and …” well, you know the rest.  We’ve all got days like that in our jobs.  Yep, even us clergy.  Work—whether we’re paid to do it or not—has the ability to sometimes bring us amazing joy and sometimes some bleak despair.  I was thinking about our skills and passions and work when I wrote this sermon.

Proper 5C— 2013

Based on Galatians 1:11-24

In the section of his letter to the Galatians we read this morning, Paul describes his life before he became a follower of Jesus by highlighting his zeal for the traditions.  Paul craved knowledge and understanding of the Torah, so much so that he excelled beyond others his age.  He became a protégé of faithful Judaism found in the sect of the Pharisees, and he became exceptionally legalistic.  He saw those following the way of Jesus as detrimental to true Judaism and needing to be uprooted so he persecuted them.

But God, Paul writes, had other ideas.  Paul had his own way of understanding his life, his own way to make meaning, but God had something else in mind for Paul.  God set Paul aside before his birth and called him through grace.  God chose Paul.  God found Paul.  God showered this gift of grace on Paul in order to bring him into a deep relationship with God and so he could share the good news with the Gentiles.  Grace transformed Paul from a persecutor of Christians to become one of Christianity’s most vocal devotees.

Grace.  It’s one of those words that can be used so frequently, especially in Christian circles, that we lose a sense of its meaning.  It becomes too familiar, too—dare I say it—cliché, especially when described as amazing.  Frederick Buechner, my favorite author, unpacks it in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.  He writes:

“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given.  There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

“A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams.  Most tears are grace.  The smell of rain is grace.  Somebody loving you is grace.  Loving somebody is grace.  Have you ever tried to love somebody?

“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.

“There’s only one catch.  Like any other gift, the gift of grace is yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

“Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”[1]

Grace is pure gift.

I sit alone most mornings in my study before Melissa, Olivia, Noah or even Buster stir.  I look out my window and pray and read and sometimes think about what’s on my plate.  As an introvert, I love the time by myself to center, to think, to give thanks for the gift of a new day.

Sometimes it lasts only a few minutes before I hear footsteps running down the hall to mark the beginning of new morning.  Sometimes I hear laughter and giggling and muffled words.  It isn’t too long before I hear steps coming down the stairs and a little person climbs into my lap for a morning snuggle.  If it isn’t raining, Buster’s jingling collar can be heard as he wakes up and is looking for attention and someone to take him out for his morning ramble.

I’ve come to learn that each day is gift.  The ones that are cold and snowy, and the ones that are sunny.  The ones too humid and the ones where I can see the leaves budding on the tree.  The ones filled with crisp air and rustling leaves and the ones where the moistness of nighttime pools on the grass.  All of them, gifts.

It’s a matter of perspective, of course.  I could see the mornings full of rain as less than the others, or the ones with a glorious sunrise as so much better.  The humid days might better be classified as a punishment rather than a gift, but then I’d be missing something.

What I’d be missing is grace.

What strikes me in Paul’s retelling of his conversion experience is that it is God who finds him, not the other way round.  God takes the initiative, God reaches out, God called Paul through God’s grace.  Too often we as Christians describe it going in the other direction.  We’re the ones who have found God, as if we stumbled upon God one day as we did our errands on Route 9.  But it’s not what we’ve done.  It’s all about God reaching out to us.

And the way Paul talks about his own interactions with God, God had a plan right from the beginning, even before Paul was born.  (By the way, this should say something to us about the sanctity of human life even while we are in the womb.)  Paul spent time learning about the intricacies of Judaism, and developed a deep zeal for the traditions of his faith.  He lived earnestly and with immense passion.  And then God interrupted his life with this gift of grace, and instantly Paul experienced deep change.

Put another way, grace transforms us.  When God comes in to our lives — when God interrupts our lives—we too are invited to deep change.

I find it fascinating that Paul describes his dedication to Judaism prior to the Damascus Road event.  Paul is earnest and full of fervor.  Once Jesus comes in and grace abounds, Paul is still full of earnest and fervor, it’s just now for the way of Jesus.  Notice that Paul is used to traveling around.  He knows the Torah better than anyone his age.  Those things continue in his life for Christ.  He travels even further afield to share the Gospel.  His knowledge allows him to speak to his critics who want to make following Jesus all about following the Jewish law.  God doesn’t declare those skills in Paul as useless.  Rather, God takes what we do — our work and calling and passion— and uses it, transforms it to his good.

There are days when all of us hate our work; a truth highlighted way back in the beginning of Genesis.  Days when we are mentally or physically drained or when we feel under-appreciated or wish we could land that job of our fantasies (that won’t ever exist by the way but will always call to us as siren songs). Work is like that—whether it’s something we are paid for or not—stay at home parents and retirees are in this boat as well—all of us have things given to us each day that need to be done.  But if we allow those days when we are bogged down to lead us to cynicism and performing what is given to us half-heartedly, then we possibly lose sight of the grace in our lives.  I think that God takes our experiences, our work, our passions and uses them for God’s redeeming work either in the present or in the future, and, possibly, both.

While I thought I would be a priest from an early age, I lost sight of that in college due in part to trying to find a home in a denomination.  Because of that struggle, I ended up getting not one but two degrees in rhetoric and composition.  While pursuing my masters, I worked in the high-tech industry doing marketing communications and website design and development.  Once I figured out that I really wanted to be a clergy person, I could have decided that my experience in the business world was a mistake, a waste of many years of my life.

But that would not be seeing God’s grace.  I learned how to string words together to make meaning—not a bad thing for someone who makes their living by the sweat of their lips, as my seminary professor put it.  And my time working in the 128 Corridor means that when I meet with someone to talk about their work I can relate.  I know the intense pressure of a start up environment and the challenge of life working in a cube.

God doesn’t waste our life experiences.  God takes what we are doing now, our passions, our previous jobs, God takes all of it and transforms it to further the work of the kingdom.  Maybe you’re at a transition point in life wondering what is next.  Maybe your job is getting you down.  Maybe you wish you could find a vocation—a place where you are using your gifts.  Maybe you feel great uncertainty wondering if the disjointed experiences you’ve had to this point in your life will ever be meaningful.

That’s where grace comes pouring in.  God takes all of our lives and making something new.  It’s a matter of perspective.  Will we see God’s grace in the midst of life, in the moments early in the morning, or as we’re driving on the MassPike or in running to yet another after school event?  Will we trust that our passions and desires and strengths won’t be wasted but be used by God even if we can’t see the meaning and grace today?

God took Paul, this fanatical Christian-persecuting zealot and transformed him.  Others said this, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”  That’s grace.  Pure gift.  And what God did for Paul, he wants to do for us as well.  Will we be open to seeing and experiencing God’s grace?

[1] Frederick Buechner.  Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.  New York: Harper Collins, 1993.  38-9.

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(c) joeymc86 from Stock Xchnge

(c) joeymc86 from Stock Xchnge

I took a class in college on the book of Galatians, but honestly I don’t remember much from it other than I liked it. I loved talking with other about the scripture and getting into some of the details and making connections between it and other epistles (especially Romans).

We’ll be reading most of Galatians in our church over the next several weeks, and it’s great stuff.  So I want to focus my preaching on it during this early part of the summer.  Here’s the first installment.

Proper 4C — 2013  Based on Galatians 1:1-11

If you’re paying attention at all you’ll notice that our liturgical color has changed today from white to green.  It’s been white since the Easter Vigil with one week off there for Pentecost when red came out in force.  But now it is the green season, the long period after Pentecost, and it will remain this color until Thanksgiving.

This season is often called “Ordinary Time,” not because of its “day in and day out” rhythm, but because we count the Sundays after Pentecost.  The “ordinary” refers to “ordinal,” the numbers associated with each week.

And with ordinary time we hear long sequences of readings week to week in church on Sunday.  We’ll be winding our way through Luke for the rest of the summer for our Gospel stories, as well as reading chunks of Paul’s epistles beginning with his letter to the Galatians.  My intent is to at least preach through our Galatian readings through the next several weeks to help you in your understanding of this important letter from Paul and also to make a connection between faith and life today.

Paul the apostle, after his awakening and conversion on the Road to Damascus—remember Paul (at that time in the story he is called Saul) had been killing followers of Jesus.  He happened to be on another of these trips when Jesus came before him and knocked him down and asked Paul why he did these horrible things.  Paul immediately became a follower of Jesus, and after some years of learning, began going out into the Gentile world to share the good news.  Paul, a Jew, shared the gospel of Jesus (which hadn’t been written down yet, all the stories about Jesus’s life, death and resurrection were told orally), and he shared it primarily with all the non-Jews he could, the Gentiles.

This made some of the Jewish believers rather nervous.  Up until that point most of the followers of Jesus had been Jewish just like Jesus himself.  But as more and more people told about Jesus’ compassion and his love, his teachings and his healing touch, and especially about his death and resurrection, well, they couldn’t keep it just to followers of Judaism, they told non-Jews as well.

So Paul began to travel on missionary journeys and planting the seeds for churches.  Once they were established he would move on to another area; he traveled all over the region sharing the good news about Jesus.  And one of the places he came was to the region of Galatia.  Galatia probably represented the southern part of modern day Turkey that is close to the Mediterranean Sea.  If you can imagine coming from Israel, heading north to into Syria and then making your way west around the Sea.

All of that is background to the beginning of this letter.  And as soon as you start hearing Paul’s introduction, you know that something is up.  Paul usually began his epistles by saying he was an apostle of Jesus and then moving to some other greetings and a prayer of thanksgiving.  But not in writing to the Galatians.  He pens, “Paul, an apostle,” and then goes on to clarify just how he is an apostle, “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.”  With only three words written, Paul goes on the defensive.  He’s justifying his apostleship which didn’t come from others but from Jesus himself, back on that Road to Damascus.  Paul’s authority comes directly from God, and he wants these believers to know this.

In other words, someone has come in behind Paul and claiming that Paul isn’t really a true apostle of Jesus.  That he didn’t quite have everything right in what he preached; that he didn’t really know Jesus and so messed some things up.  Paul wants to address this quickly, which is why he didn’t offer a prayer of thanksgiving at all, getting right to the matter at hand.

And that’s exactly what Paul does beginning in verse 6.  “I am astonished,” he says emphatically, “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.”  Someone or a group of people had come in after Paul left and began teaching something contrary to the gospel of Jesus and it has Paul on edge and completely aggravated.  He’s ticked.

Paul gets a bad rap these days.  Many in the church see him as this anti-woman, traditional, legalistic guy who cared more about following rules than anything else.  This happens though because we look at Paul from our vantage point in the 21st century and want him to have progressed as far as we have on issues.  Ironically, however, Paul himself was quite the radical in his day and age.  And this is an example of that.  Paul is angry because the folks who came preached that the Gentiles couldn’t be true followers of Jesus unless they adhered to the Jewish Torah, the Law.  In other words, these ones perverting the gospel wanted more requirements placed on the Gentile believers in order to be good enough to follow Jesus.  The gospel of grace, of salvation from sin and death as an unearned gift from God, became twisted by these Torah-following people.  The Good News could only be accepted if you followed the checklist, they said.

Which is why Paul is so upset, because that isn’t the Gospel at all.  He says a number of times in the next verses that if the gospel of love and grace is twisted—even by him or an angel—then that one should be accursed.  The gospel message of Jesus came to all without added requirements from human beings.  We humans tend to make things up, to make coming to Jesus harder than it needs to be, and begin restricting access to Jesus by any who want to come to him and be his disciples.  So Paul says emphatically that his teaching came from God and that he only cared about God’s approval and not approval from others.

A couple of examples of how this has happened again throughout the ages.  First, Martin Luther in his desire to reform the Catholic Church, claimed that indulgences and “buying” one’s salvation through good works and money was not the gospel of grace given by Jesus.  His stand resulted in the entire Protestant Reformation, and, by the way, he was largely influenced by Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  More recently, theologian “Karl Bart and members of the Confessing Church of Germany drafted” a declaration saying a resounding  “no to the Nazi’s usurpation of the church… against a false gospel of nationalism and ethnicity.”[1]  And in “1982, the world Alliance of Reformed Churches denounced the acceptance of racial apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa as heresy.”[2]

We can see glimpses in the church today, albeit a lot more subtly.  A friend sent me a link this week to things Jesus never said that helps illuminate this.  Here is a sample,

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have correct theology.”

“If anyone would come after me, let him disparage all other religions and their followers.”

“If you love me, you will regularly attend a church of your choice… within reason.”

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you a checklist of things to do and not do in order to remain in God’s favor.”

“For God so loved the world… you know like theoretically… as in, God loves the big ‘W’-world. But when it come to you specifically, there are quite a few things that would need to change for God to actually and specifically love… or even like… YOU.”[3]

Whenever we say that someone has to look like us or think like us to follow Jesus, we are preaching a false gospel.  Whenever we tell someone that they are not truly following Jesus unless they do a list of things or believe a certain way, our testimony about Jesus is deceptive.  Whenever we make someone feel as if they are not loved by Jesus and invited into a relationship with him, we are accursed.

Let me say it as emphatically as Paul.  You are loved by God, and God’s gift of salvation is free to all who come to him wanting life.  Who you are or where you are from or what you wear or what you look like or how you live is not an issue needing to be changed or somehow “fixed” before you can experience God’s true grace.  Jesus came to bring life.  Period.  He came and brought it through his teachings and miracles, through his unquestionable love and grace, and he offers it to you, no questions asked.  You just need to decide if you want to accept it or not.  If I, or if anyone else, tells you that you must jump through a bunch of hoops before you can truly follow Christ, well then let us be doomed.  Jesus came to offer his love freely to all, and he offers it to you.  I pray that you receive it again and again and that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt how deeply God loves you.  That is the true gospel given to us by God so that God may rescue us from the darkness of this world and bring us into God’s light and truth.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol XI.  Abindgon.  Pg. 206

[2] Ibid.


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(c) Eastop from Stock.Xchng

(c) Eastop from Stock.Xchng

I’ve been ordained nearly 9 years, and I think I’ve preached at all 8 of those Trinity Sundays. Rectors often pass it off to their associates so they don’t have to deal with a theology that is all about mystery.  Every analogy breaks down (see this video about St. Patrick for a good laugh).  My take is that the Trinity is best described as a divine dance, perichoresis.  I can only say that so many times, so I opted out of dealing with the Trinity directly and talking about Paul’s bit from Romans on Suffering leading to Hope in Christ.  So my sermon went in that direction this past Sunday.

Based on Romans 5:1-5.

Trinity Sunday 2013—May 26, 2013


“So we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”

Whenever hardship strikes, well meaning people say things like, “God only gives you what you can bear.” As a priest put it this week in speaking about the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma, “that platitude is a classic example of meaningless bumper-sticker theology.  It’s easily said and only makes sense when it goes by you so fast you don’t have time to think about it.”[1]   If you do take time to think about it the implication of course is that God forces suffering on you.  Not only that, you also must be incredibly strong in God’s estimation otherwise you wouldn’t be dealing with the difficulty.  When I’ve experienced hardship myself and people have said things like that to me, I’ve wanted to slug them, hard.  Or at least look at them and say something to make them realize how foolish this is.  But as a priest I can merely smile and nod; popping off a good zinger won’t do when I’m wearing a collar.

But rather than hitting with my fists or my words, what I want to do most of all is challenge their theology, this idea rumbling around that God causes pain, that God gives us suffering.  I don’t buy it for an instant myself.  “God doesn’t willingly grieve us,” scripture says in Lamentations.  And while I believe that God doesn’t bring us pain, I know that suffering comes on all of us as part of our human condition.  Not one of us is exempt.

The good news is that God can redeem the pain we encounter in life, that it can be taken and transformed and become the seed of something good.  God can take the pain, the hurt, the confusion brought onto us and convert it into purposes for good beyond our wildest imagination.

Rob Bell, in his book Drops Like Stars, explores the connection between difficulty in life and finding purpose.  He writes, “When you talk with people who have just received news that they have a life threatening illness, what do they say?  ‘Now I must get those hedges trimmed!’ ‘I’ve been putting off that plastic surgery long enough.’ ‘It’s finally time to join that online poker club.’

“No, of course not.  They talk about family and friends.  They gather those they love as close as possible.  They reflect on any amends that need to be made with anybody.  They talk about what matters most.  Suffering does that.

“It compels us to eliminate the unnecessary, the trivial, the superficial.  There is greatness in you.  Courage.  Desire.  Integrity.  Virtue.  Compassion.  Dignity.  Loyalty.  Love.  It’s in there — somewhere.  And sometimes it takes suffering to get at it.  It’s in there.”[2]

Corporal Daniel Riley, US Marine Corps, was born in Victoria, British Columbia and moved in 1999 to Colorado for his dad’s work.  He attended Columbine High School for three years, and then moved in order to complete his education back in Canada.  In 2008, while still a Canadian citizen, he enlisted in the Marines in order to help pay for his future education.  On July 4, 2009, he officially became a US citizen before the Vice President in a ceremony that took place at one of Sadam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad.

In September of 2010 Daniel shipped out to Marjah, Afghanistan as a combat replacement.  On December 16 of that year, while out on patrol, Daniel happened upon an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), sustaining significant damage to both legs, his left hand and left lung.  As it would happen, a photojournalist from Time traveled with the 1-214th, the Army medevac crew that airlifted Daniel.  Photos of him hanging in the balance as medics worked to save his life made it into the publication in January 2011.[3]

Daniel lost both legs above the knee and some fingers from his left hand, but he survived.  I followed his story with great interest and prayers as I worked closely with his father who served at the Office of the Bishop in Denver.  As you could imagine, his family rallied around him, moved from Denver to San Diego to be with him as he rehabilitated and posted updates on Daniel’s blog.  The hardships seemed insurmountable—too many surgeries, the physical and emotional pain, the reality of a new normal—but Daniel persevered.

You can find a Youtube video of Daniel walking on his computerized legs for the first time, which took place on May 17, 2011.  In August of 2011, I saw photos of him surfing, and that winter Daniel was on skis.  I’ve watched news reports from local stations around the country highlighting the recovery of soldiers when Daniel was one of those featured, often doing something amazing.

Daniel learned first hand that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope.  The pain experienced from that December are unfathomable, yet Daniel did not give up.

Paul, in writing to the Roman believers wanted to encourage them to persevere.  To recognize that in the suffering of life God offers us a way to make meaning.  To see that we can strip away the unnecessary things and get to the core that God has already placed inside us.  We persevere in spite of hardships because we know that the hope of God “will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

We know what can happen if we lose heart.  Yoda, in speaking with young Anakin Skywalker in Episode 1 of Star Wars, lays it out in much the same way as Paul.   “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”  I’ve met those people who have experienced a significant trial or loss and have become bitter and angry.  They became so focused on what was taken away that they couldn’t see what stood before them, family and friends and opportunities in this world.  Despair and darkness crept in and stole away any hope they could have had.

Donald Miller in his fabulous book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years invites us to live a better story with our lives.  He spent a lot of money to go to a conference to learn how to write great stories.  They talked about plot and characters and setting and what motivates us as human beings.  He spent a few days listening and taking notes and dreaming.  And one of his take-aways from that gathering distilled down to this: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”[4]

You may not have had an Improvised Explosive Device explode near the side of the road on your way to work this week, but some of you may have experienced an emotional IED.  Something that has blindsided you and caused you immense pain.  Some of you have been living with pain for a long long time, and may not know how to persevere or strengthen your character of resolve and dependence on God and to hope in the work of the Spirit.

When we hear stories like Daniel’s we recognize the God given human spirit of perseverance and hard work.  None of us would have blamed him if he had just given up, if he had chosen a life bound to a wheel chair and became self-medicating.  Yet how much more a testament is he to the work of God in his life?  Through his doggedness he continues to live a great story.

And we can too.  The gift of faith is that we have a hope both in this life and in the life to come.  We are those who know that the Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit—work together in order to bring us the joy found only in worship to the living One.  God invites us to not allow the random suffering of this world overcome us, but to have it lead us to deeper faith, greater character of person and renewed hope.  My prayer for you and for me is that we not lose heart, that we persevere through the difficulties in life and that we know deep in our bones the hope of God that will never ever let us down.  Amen.

[2] Rob Bell. Drops Like Stars.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Pg. 90-91.

[3] James Nathcwey. “Wings of Mercy: Medevac in Afghanistan.” Time. January17, 2011.

[4] Donald Miller. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2009. Pg. 48.

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(c) Sias van Schalkwyk from stck.xchn

(c) Sias van Schalkwyk from stck.xchn

It was Pentecost yesterday; the 50th day of Easter. We wear red at our church to remember the tongues of fire coming down on the disciples.  And it’s a day to remember the great diversity that God has made in this world, the many creatures and the many languages.

In our passage from John 14 read yesterday, Philip tells Jesus that he just wants to see God.  Jesus response is pretty interesting, and so that’s where I went with my sermon.

Pentecost — Year C — May 19, 2013

Maya Angelou posted on Facebook this week, “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.”  I needed this heartfelt reminder that we live in a world of abundance and beauty and of great variety opening up before us each morning.  Birds and flowers and lakes and mountains.  And God created all of it, even–as our Psalm informed us–that great Leviathan just for the sport of it, or, as the Message puts it, to be your pet dragon romping in the seas.  Yet notice that the God of all creation doesn’t just fashion things and then walk away.  The God of the universe provides for this creation.  “All of them look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.”  God provides for this amazing creation.  When God sends forth the Spirit—ruach in Hebrew, meaning “spirit, wind or breath”—the great variety in the world are created and have life.


Is it any wonder that on this day of Pentecost as we see God’s Spirit moving as wind and fire among the disciples that God’s message of salvation comes to all the people gathered in Jerusalem?  Even more, the message comes not just in the local language—Aramaic—or the languages of commerce and government—Greek and Latin—but in a diversity of languages, a full representation of the world.  While some thought that the second language skills of the Galilean disciples were enhanced by drinking some wine—which has not been my experience, by the way—it was God’s Spirit, God’s Wind, God’s Breath—“pnuema” in the Greek—that came to these disciples.  It was the Holy Spirit coming to declare God’s love for all the world shown through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  That declaration wasn’t just in the language of our schools and of our minds, but in the languages of our homes, the languages of our heart.


Just as God provides sustenance for the lions, for the rock badgers, and the salmon, God wants to provide life for us as well.  The message of Jesus couldn’t be contained to the Jews living in the area around Jerusalem and up to Galilee.  It had to be shared with the world.


This has become a bit of a thorny issue for some: how do we both live as Christians and share the good news of Christ while also respecting others and their religious beliefs?  Living in a pluralistic world—and whether you like it or not, we do—can make us cautious and reticent in sharing our faith.  Part of this comes from the fact that some Christians frame the question around the final destination of a person’s soul— they are doomed to hell unless we convert them to Christianity.  Thankfully it is God who gets to determine all of that at the end of the age.  But the response of many—and especially with those of us who worship in the mainline—is to espouse an almost universalistic approach with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality. We think that God can work in all the religions of the world and that in the end it doesn’t really matter.


But if it didn’t matter to God that the good news of Jesus be shared, then why did the Spirit come to the disciples on that Pentecost so long ago and give them this supernatural ability to speak in other languages?  If the Parthians and Medes and the folks from Lybia and Crete didn’t need to hear God’s message, if they were just fine living their lives as faithful and devout Jews, why would the Spirit have come in that particular way?  Surely the Spirit could have come and been with the 120 or so disciples gathered in that place without this tongues business.  The Spirit could have invigorated their lives without the proclamation of God’s wondrous news.  But God wanted the message of good news to be proclaimed to the whole diverse and wonderful world.  And notice how this happens, the Spirit of God comes, the disciples speak in other languages, and then the crowd asks, “What does this mean?”  Through their question Peter shares the message of Christ.  Peter gives meaning to the experience, and the good news is shared.


In a few moments we will reaffirm our baptismal vows (with Brody and Liam who will be affirming them for the first time), and one of the questions we will be asked is this: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  If all we are concerned about is padding the numbers of our church, then this endeavor will ultimately fail.  If all we are concerned about is doing good works without connecting them to our hope in Christ, then this endeavor will ultimately fail too.  Instead we are to declare the Good News of God in Christ: that the God of the Universe, the God who created all, wants to take part in our story.  God wants to show us how our stories become a part of the larger story that God has been telling since the foundation of the world.  There is more to our lives than just the day in and day out, God brings about transformation in the work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus both taught and healed; he shared the good news in word and deed.  We are called to do likewise, to share our faith by what we say, and by how we live our lives.


But what about sincere people of other faiths?  There is the famous story of the blind men in a village who hear there is an elephant nearby.  They go out to it since they have never encountered an elephant before and each feels a different part of the elephant to explain it.  “It’s like a pillar,” says the one touching the leg.  “No, it’s like a rope,” says the one grabbing the tail.  “It’s a solid pipe,” says the guy touching the tusk.  They all go around describing the different parts: ear and belly and trunk as best they can.  They get into an argument about it, each certain that they know what it is until finally a wise man comes by and tells them they are all right, that they have all just experienced a different part of the animal.


This story often gets told to show that God is revealed to everyone, that no single religious faith has the market on God.  However, as theologian Leslie Newbigin declares, that misses the point entirely.  If there was no wise man who has seen the elephant then they would still be in the dark, there would be no story.  If Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (as he tells the disciples in the verses just before our reading from John), then we, as his followers, have seen the full elephant.  That does not mean we understand the elephant, nor that we have the market on what the elephant does or how the elephant works, but we’ve seen it.  We can point to it.


That might sound arrogant to some of you.  Notice that Philip says the thing all of us long to say, “Lord, just show us the Father.”  In other words, “We really just want to see the elephant, Jesus.  Could you help us out?” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” he replies.  “Do you want to see God?  Look here; I’m right here in front of you.”  I think what would be arrogant is to say something like this, “What you’re touching there isn’t an elephant at all, it isn’t God.  Let me show you what an elephant is really like; I’ve got it hidden under this tarp over here.  For a small fee, I’ll let you take a look.”  What Jesus claims, and what we as his followers declare, is that he is the full revelation of God, of the Creator of the Universe.  What God is like, how God acts in humanity is shown in the person of Jesus. And we are called to share the good news.


That good news is this: God longs to be in relationship with each of us, to become a part of our narratives as we find our way into God’s story. The God of the universe is robed in majesty and honor and glory, and the Creator cares deeply about each one of us.  So let us treat others with dignity and respect, working alongside them for the common good of our world, and intentionally share with them our faith journeys and the way in which Jesus Christ has brought us fullness of life.  That is our call as disciples.  That is our call as Christ’s body.  Amen.

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My sermon from last Sunday…


Easter 3 Year C — We are not islands — John 21


I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t at least once or twice in their lives really messed things up.  We try to hide these things, of course, in order to save face, to keep up the appearances and with the Jonses.  Words bolt out that we want to lasso back into our mouths.  We make decisions that bring pain to others, while looking out entirely for ourselves.  I’m not sure always why we do this, except to say that we have a penchant for putting ourselves first.


So often in life when things go bad, when we screw up and do the wrong thing, we withdraw and put up barriers.  We block out those around us and create obstacles, and, in turn, we push others away.  The situation lingers in our minds, of course.  If you are anything like me, you’ll replay that scene over and over in your head.  You’ll try to calculate where you went wrong, you’ll try out different responses as if you could somehow go back and erase what happened.  Of course, you can’t by yourself.  And until you approach the obstruction that has been created, you won’t truly heal.



“No man is an Island, entire of itself;” John Donne, English Poet and Priest, wrote so many years ago. “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”


I wonder what was going through Peter’s mind that afternoon in Galilee when he said this his friends, “Let’s go fishing.”  These are the first words of his recorded in John’s Gospel since the dark night of Maundy Thursday.  We remember those words, those utterances of denial.


He had promised, of course, to be there for Jesus.  “I will lay down my life for you,” Peter says to Jesus after he has had his feet washed.  Jesus foretells Peter’s denial, and we soon see Peter by that charcoal fire outside the palace of the high priest. “I don’t know the man!” he shouts, not once, but three times.


I bet he gathers his nets on that afternoon because he longs for the comfort afforded by the familiar.  How many starlit nights has he spent out on the lake, casting about for a good catch?  Being in the boat was second nature.  Pulling up the nets would soothe his hurts.  It would give him time to think.


We do this too, don’t’ we?  When our lives get disrupted, we long for the familiar.  We put on a pot of tea, go for a run, call a friend.  The diet often gets displaced for a time; we long for comfort food.  We try to make sense of things through daily routines.


Peter has unfinished business, to be sure.  He’s disconnected from Jesus and wants to fix this, but doesn’t know how.  Jesus, even though he is risen, isn’t really there.  And so Peter goes fishing.


“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were.”



The comfort Peter sought was not found.  They didn’t catch a thing.  And then at dawn’s first light, a figure from the shore appears and calls out to them.  They listen to his words, even though they know that the best time for fishing has passed.  They cast in the net, and then are unable to pull it in because of the great number of fish.


That other disciple, probably John, makes the connection immediately.  “It’s the Lord!” he exclaims.  Peter hears this and strains his eyes toward the shore.  His heart is racing, and he grabs his clothes and dives into the water.  He swims that hundred yards as quickly as he can, racing to get to Jesus.


And when he gets there, he sees it.  A charcoal fire.  It shoots up a few embers, and crackles.  He stares at that fire as his mind replays the last time he stood before one.


The others draw near to the shore, and Jesus tells them to bring some fish.  Peter is brought out of the trance the fire has over him.  He runs over to the boat and hauls the net to the beach.  The fish are flopping like mad, and the take is unbelievable.  They talk excitedly about the great catch of fish, and begin to get some together for their breakfast.


But Jesus has already taken care of that.  “Come and eat,” he tells them.  So the seven of them make their way over to this morning picnic.  They gather in community, as disciples of their Lord and teacher.  He takes bread and fish, and gives it to them.  They certainly remember the other times he has done this, the feeding of the 5000, the Passover meal.  They gather around this food, and share it with one another.  This is the familiarity that Peter has been longing for.  This simple act of gathering for a meal with friends.  This simple act of being in community.



“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”



After the meal is over, Jesus takes Peter aside.  “Peter,” he asks, “Do you love me?”


Peter is shot through his core.  There is remorse and guilt and this hope for forgiveness and grace.  He jumps at the chance.  “Yes, Lord!  You know that I love you.”


“Feed my lambs,” he says to him.


Again, Jesus asks this question.  And again Peter declares his affinity for Christ.  “Tend my sheep,” he commands Peter.


One more time he asks.  Peter is hurt.  “Lord, you know all things,” he says to Jesus, “You know that I love you.”  “Feed my sheep,” he says.


These three affirmations counteract those three denials Peter made.  And with each declaration of faithfulness, he is given work to do.  It isn’t enough for him to just say that he loves Jesus; there is work to be done.  Work in the midst of community.  Work for one another.  “Feed and tend,” Jesus tells Peter.  “Take care of one another.  Reach out.  Break down barriers.  Live with one another as members of a community.  Forgive one another.”


That is Jesus’ charge to us as well.  When he asks each of us if we love him and we affirm our devotion, he gives us work to do.  We are called to be reconcilers in this broken and hurting world.  We are called to be people of the resurrection, to live as those who have been given new life.  We are called to be his hands and feet in a world that so desperately needs his love.


We are not islands.  We are not disconnected from one another.  No; instead, we are baptized into this community of his followers, we are marked as Christ’s own forever.  We are disciples.  And he looks not just on Peter but on all of us—hard-headed, broken and grace-filled people—and says, “Follow me.”

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I’ve always loved maps.  I remember doing a map exercise in 7th grade with Mrs. Cerrini where we had to start in our hometown and describe how to get to another location in Michigan.  We drew the other location out of a hat.  My group got Copper Harbor a small town at the highest tip of the Upper Peninsula,  and the place furthest away from where we lived in Southeast Michigan.  We aced it.  But I’ve never been there, and there has always been a mystique about this place for me. I love the outdoors.  The pictures I’ve seen online are fantastic.

 I think the resurrection can be like that.  We talk a great deal about it, but do we experience it?

Based on Luke 24:1-12

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

            I can’t even begin to imagine the range of emotions experienced by these women who had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee, these Christ-followers.  Luke tells us that on Friday they saw the tomb and how his body was laid, and that they prepared the spices and ointment for Jesus.  They rested from nightfall Friday to sunset on Saturday to observe the Sabbath.  And then early on Sunday morning, just as the sun was breaking over the horizon, they made their way back to that tomb, carrying those spices so they could take care of Jesus’ body.

The others had scattered, of course, fearing for their lives. But these women, Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James and the other women, couldn’t care less about the Roman soldiers or the religious authorities.  They had followed Jesus all the way from his hometown, and they weren’t about to abandon him now.  They wanted to honor him the best way they knew how, to take the time to anoint his broken body with those spices and offer their prayers as they gave him back to God.

So they came bearing those gifts, much like the Magi who came at the start of Jesus’ life, to honor him.  Grief surely turned into uncertainty as they arrived at Jesus’ tomb only to discover the stone rolled back.  And then almost immediately that uncertainty transformed into horror when they looked in and saw that his body was no longer there.  They cried out, “Why? Why would anyone do such a horrible thing as to steal his body?”

And then suddenly, two men in dazzling white appear.  Shock.  Alarm.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but he is risen.  Remember how he told you that he must be handed over and crucified and on the third day rise again.”

They are perplexed.  Could it be true?  And then it dawns on them.  They do remember; Jesus did say that.  He did tell them that he was going to die and rise again.  They didn’t understand it then, they thought he was talking in metaphors, but it must be true, right?  His body is no longer here.  He must have been raised just as he said.  And then a flash of unbelievable joy.

They head back with tears of happiness streaming down their faces.  Just wait until the others hear this! They will be overcome with great joy to learn that Jesus is alive!  The women quicken their pace in order to hurry and tell the other disciples, the men who are hiding.

They rush in to the place where they’ve been gathering together since Friday, and the words start rushing out in their excitement.  They’re out of breath, speaking over one another, and the other disciples have to slow them down having just one of them speak.

“He’s alive!” one of those women says.  Blank stares from the others.  Incredulous looks.  So they start over, more slowly, telling them everything that had happened.  Nothing doing.  Those guys aren’t buying this story.  They stood off in the distance, but they saw him die.  They saw him when his tortured breathing stopped and his head collapsed on his chest.  They know he died, that he’s not alive.

Those women feel the disappointment and anguish rising in them. They look at one another, stunned that the others won’t believe them.  They see a couple of the men quietly whispering to one another, and then looking at them.  They hear someone say the words “it’s just an idle tale,” and then one of them begins to cry.  “Why won’t they believe us?” they whisper to each other.  Hurt, disappointment, disillusionment.

Peter alone finally leaves the place where they are staying.  He can’t believe their words, but he must verify it for himself.  So he runs over to the tomb and finds just the linen cloths just inside, but nothing else.  And he is amazed.

Sometimes when we hear unbelievable stories from others about the amazing things God has done for them, we approach them skeptically.  After some time we determine that these stories are merely fantastical—the person telling them is much too excited—so we take them with a grain of salt.  It isn’t that we don’t believe God can do amazing things, it’s just that we have never experienced them ourselves.  Besides we can’t muster up enough chutzpah, or enough disbelief in reality, to imagine that such miraculous things can take place.  So we politely dismiss the stories in our minds, while slowly smiling and nodding to the crazy person talking to us, trying to get them to finish up with their story so we can get on with our busy day.

Who would believe that God can save marriages?  Or that after praying for that person riddled with cancer, now the doctors can’t find anything?  Or those parents with the troubled teen that has had a turn around, surely that isn’t true.  We learned long ago that people don’t change, that even the idea of new life isn’t real, it’s not practical, because Jesus doesn’t really work that way in our day and age.  So we’re doubtful, cynical.

In his writings, C.S. Lewis compares discussing the things of God to reading a map.  A map is useful in describing things, like showing you the outline of a the shore. The creeds are helpful in describing God, for example, and in showing collectively what many have seen as attributes of God.  It’s just like a map, really.  But while maps are useful for getting you to your destination, it cannot begin to prepare you for what’s in store.  A map’s outline of the Acadia shore in Maine cannot prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of being there, of hearing the waves crash in on the rocks and having the salty spray hit you in the face.  If all you look at is a map, you’ll never experience the heart-pounding beauty.

Sometimes the same is true with God.  Perhaps you are here this morning and thinking, I’ve had quite enough of maps, thank you very much; I want to feel the spray.  I know the creeds, or what others have said about Jesus Christ, but I want to experience it myself.  I want to encounter the risen Christ because I am uncertain.  The whole thing seems like an idle tale.

Maybe you’re here this morning and are staring down great difficulties.  Maybe you’ve become estranged from a child or a spouse.  Perhaps you are in bondage to addiction or anger or fear and you think there is no way out.  It’s possible that you’ve been attending church for years but inside you feel that your faith is dead.  While others have had experiences with living God, you’ve never had those encouters or haven’t had them for a very long time.

Or perhaps most of all, this talk of new life, of experiencing the risen Christ seems to you to be nothing more than idle chatter.  Words that must be endured because you’re expected to be here, and you really just want the priest to hurry up so you can get on with the rest of your day, and head over to Tavolino’s for your Easter Brunch.

I want to say as emphatically as I can that Jesus came into this world to free us from those things that weigh us down, to forgive our sins and to bring us new life.  Experiencing the living Christ does not mean that we give up our identities, our deepest and truest selves; it was God who made us to begin with.  Rather, encountering Jesus brings us healing, reconciliation and wholeness; it allows us to be the people we were created to be: our best selves.  When we stumble upon Jesus–or maybe when he stumbles upon us—it is like being at the ocean for the first time and feeling the spray of the water as it crashes in on the rocks, rather than just tracing the shoreline on a map with our finger.

That’s why we gather on this day, and why we come to this table: to experience the risen Christ.  Jesus wants to “help us embrace the mystery of salvation, the promise of life rising out of death.”  May we “hear the call of Christ” and be given the “courage to follow it readily.”[1]   May we proclaim with joy the good news of the risen Christ, and may we experience Christ anew this Easter season, for he is risen, jut as he said.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime.346.

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Saturday after sunset we began our journey into Easter by gathering around a fire pit and kindling a flame in the darkness.  We then lit the Paschal candle, and smaller candles held by everyone, and moved into the darkened tomb of the church.  We baptized 3 adults, a teen, 2 older boys and finally a baby boy as part of our celebration of moving from the darkness of death to the light of resurrection.  My sermon from that night, the first of Easter.

Based on Exodus 14:10-31

On this most holy of nights we hear the stories of God’s deliverance, of God’s redemption of the people of Israel. We tell these stories as we gather in the darkness to remember that God has offered salvation before and continues to do so, especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As the people of Israel stood on the edge of the Red Sea, they feared for their very lives.  They began complaining against Moses—and against God—because they could have stayed in Egypt rather than die on those watery banks.  Much earlier, God had heard their cries for help to be delivered from the slavery they experienced under the oppression of Pharaoh.  God sent Moses to free the Israelites, and Moses came before Pharaoh begging for their release so that they might go and worship the Living God.  Pharaoh refused; he liked having the slaves to accomplish his immense building projects.

So God began sending the plagues.  You may remember them from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston (which, by the way, we are currently missing; it’s on ABC tonight and runs till 11:45 if you’re interested).  First the water was turned into blood, killing fish and other aquatic life.  Then there were plagues of frogs and lice and flies.  Each time Moses came back to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh declared that if God would remove the plague, he would free the Israelites.  Each time, the plague was lifted, but then Pharaoh changed his mind, thinking he was more powerful than God.

This continued through the other plagues: disease of the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness.  Each time the same: Pharaoh promised to release the people of Israel and then reneges. Until finally God resorts to the ultimate plague, the death of the firstborn.  On that night, God instructed the people of Israel to kill a lamb and to place the blood from that lamb on their doorposts.  Then God told them to roast that lamb and eat it with unleavened bread and prepare to depart.  During that night, an angel of death came into the land of Egypt and whenever that angel saw the sign of the blood he passed over the house, knowing that the people inside belonged to God.  But those who didn’t have that mark lost their firstborn child to death.  This deliverance became known as the Passover of the Lord, a celebration among our Jewish friends even to this day.

Pharaoh, mourning the loss of his own son, called Moses to him and released the children of Israel that very night so that they could go and worship YHWH.  This conflict, we must remember, was between God and Pharaoh, not between Moses and Pharaoh.  And God only resorted to violence as a last option because Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.

But Pharaoh had second thoughts and chased after the Israelites with his chariots in the morning.  As the Egyptians advanced, the Israelites moved as close to the water as possible.  That’s when God brought deliverance; the Red Sea was parted and the people walked across on dry land.  Then the chariots of Egypt tried to follow only to have the waters crash back in on them.  Miriam—Moses’ sister—in her exuberance begins to dance and sing about the deliverance God has given to them.

In the Jewish Hasidic tradition, the story gets told of this scene playing out on the earth while angels watched from the heavens.  As the dancing and singing began, some of the heavenly host took up their tambourines as well, joining in the celebration.  “’Wait,’ says one of them, ‘the Creator of the universe is sitting there weeping!’  They go to God.  ‘Why are you weeping when Israel has been delivered by your power?’ ‘I am weeping,’ says the Creator of the universe, ‘for the dead Egyptians washed on the shore are somebody’s sons, somebody’s husbands, somebody’s father.’”[1]

While on this night we speak with joy of God’s deliverance, let us not become people who believe they have earned this deliverance, or that we are somehow special.  Yes, tonight we will gather around the waters of baptism and proclaim our Easter joy, but this is not due to something we have done.  God gives this gift of deliverance freely, and we should approach the grace of God with a sense of humility. And we were reminded in the prayer after our Exodus reading that the deliverance of the Israelites was “to be a sign for us of the salvation of all nations by the water of Baptism.”  We went on to pray, “Grant that all the peoples of the earth may be numbered among the offspring of Abraham, and rejoice in the inheritance of Israel.”  All nations, and all people.  God desires to bring deliverance from evil and death and destruction to every human being.

One of my great joys as a priest is to bring people together to explore the faith, to ask questions and to learn about God from one another.  These past months have been filled with that as Victor and Julia and John joined with three others both this past fall and then this Lent to explore the faith.  We’ve spoken at length about the way of Jesus, his call to love and serve others.  We’ve discussed how frequently the church is more concerned with self-preservation than in true discipleship.  We’ve discussed how many in the church have used guilt as a motivation to good works, rather than relying on the love found in Jesus Christ and the desire to share in that love that leads us to a new and transformed life.  Fear-fueled guilt does not lead us to Christ, rather it leads to a feeling of privilege when we do all the right things, or to lives of timidity when we mess up.  Jesus came to bring us life, which he offers us as he delivers us from the power of sin.

That is why we are gathering to baptize Hunter and Chris and Nick and Cameron and John and Julia and Victor.  To provide an outward and visible sign for an inward and spiritual grace that has been taking place for some time.  God has been working in the lives of these seven people, drawing them closer to the life of love and freedom and peace and forgiveness that God has planned for them.

That is certainly a reason for rejoicing this evening.  We rejoice with these seven, and the many others entering the waters of baptism tonight around the globe, recognizing that God continues to bring deliverance.  God loves us—and all of the people of the world—deeply, and God longs to bring us peace.  May we all experience that this Easter as we encounter the risen Lord.  Amen.

[1] Albert C Winn, “A Way Out of No Way: Exodus 14:5-32” qtd in “Exodus 14:10-31: Pastoral Perspective” by O. Benjamin Sparks in Feasting on the Word: Year C Vol 2. Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds.  Pg 330.

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Each year on the Friday before Easter we gather on the most solemn day of the year for Christians as we contemplate the death of Jesus. The challenge is not to rush to Sunday yet, but to really think about its meaning. My sermon from the powerful liturgy we had last night based on St. John’s Passion

Good Friday — 2013

Last year on Good Friday, I received a phone call from my sister informing me that my dad had 24-48 hours to live. There wasn’t much I could do.  As a solo priest, I couldn’t drop my responsibilities for the holiest time in our liturgical year and head out to be with my family.  I planned for a conversation with my dad late that evening when I could at least say a goodbye if we weren’t able to see each other again in this life.

And then I came to the foot of the cross and heard the Passion read and watched as the Lord I loved deeply died.  Never had the pain of Jesus’ death seemed so real to me.  Never had I felt the loss so acutely.  I could barely keep my composure as I led this congregation in that liturgy.

When I called him after the service, I told my dad how much I loved him, and he told me how proud he was of me.  I apologized that I couldn’t be there with him, but he told me not to worry, I had people to minister to and he was surrounded by so many who loved him.  We prayed together and then I told him if I didn’t see him again in this life, I looked forward to seeing him in the next one.

As most of you already know, my dad died late in the evening on Easter Day last year, as Melissa and I raced to be home with him.  We made it as far as Buffalo, NY.  Still a good 6 hours from Detroit.  He went to be with the Lord on the Day of Resurrection.

However, I do not want to jump ahead to Easter, as the reality of Good Friday is much too strong.  I am certainly not the only one in this room to lose a parent, and I am probably not the only one who has missed standing by the bedside of a loved one who is in their final hours.  I know many of you have experienced loss as well, and have been beside those you love at their death—something I have experienced both with my Mom and for parishioners.  Whether we are together with family or if we are waiting for a phone call to bring us the news, experiencing the death of a loved one stuns us.

Mary, the other women, the beloved disciple and the others who were present at Jesus’ death are trapped by feelings of helplessness.  Even those who fled the scene out of fear are shrouded in a sense of powerlessness. They know Jesus will die; the question for them is simply how long must they watch him hang from that cross.  They look on this one they have followed, the one they cherish, as he slowly languishes.

St. John the Gospeler wants us to remember that this is what love looks like.  “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  It was Jesus who uttered those words after sharing his last meal with the disciples;  he said them only a few hours before he was strung up like a criminal.  He went on to say, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.”  The word “friends” is the Greek word philos which finds its root in the Greek phileo or “love.”  These friends are beloved.  They love Jesus because they seek to keep his commands, and he loves them more than they can imagine.

It is no wonder then, that Jesus tells Pilate this his kingdom is not of this world.  Jesus is not bound by an earthly perspective to save his own skin first.  In this worldly kingdom of ours we watch our own backs, and then, maybe once we’re all covered, we’ll help out a family member and possibly a friend.  But then they owe us big.

Not so with Jesus.  He gives his life freely for his friends because of his deep love for them.  He wants them to be known as the beloved of God and so he offers himself.  Jesus came to bring life, but it is only in passing through suffering and death that this life is offered to us.  Jesus’ work in this world was incarnational.  With human flesh, he loved, ate, cried and was tempted, yet he performed miracles and signs to show his divine nature.  The work he came to do on this earth as God incarnate revolved around love and life and showering us with those things again and again.  Jesus healed the sick and spoke words of encouragement; he turned water into unbelievable wine.  He raised the sick, and showed mercy and care and told wonderful stories.  All to bring life and love.  To show any who would follow him what God is truly like.

One commentator writes, “Because Jesus is human, because he can and will die, he can reveal the fullness of God’s love in ways never before possible, because he reveals God’s love in categories that derive from human experience.  In his death, Jesus gave up what human beings hold most dear—life—and he gave it up because he chose to do so in love.  Jesus lays down his life in love for those whom he loves, and the meaning of both ‘life’ and ‘love’ are redefined.  Life becomes an expression of love, the ultimate gift.  Love, love unto death, becomes the only true source of life.  Jesus’ gift of his life on that cross is the ultimate gesture of generosity and grace.  It is, indeed, pure gift—not required of him, but offered by him, so that we may understand the full extant of God’s love for the world.”[1]

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Love.  It is before us in poignant reality on this day as we take our place among Jesus’ beloved at the foot of the cross.  With his death we remember the death of those we have loved so much, wishing we could have taken away their pain.  Through Jesus’ gift, we recognize that death certainly was not in God’s plan for us, and that he offers us fullness of life.

Jesus finished the work he came to do.  He died for us; he gave himself.  We need only to receive his gift.  As we weep at the cross, may we know that through it we can find grace and eternal life.  Amen.

[1] The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX. Luke & John. Abingdon Press:Nashville. 1994.  Pg 837.

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