Sermon--I wish Jesus hadn't said August 18, 2019
Have you ever heard of the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson made his own Bible. He took a couple of Bibles and with his pen knife cut out all the passages he agreed with, could believe. He pasted all those passages in a scrapbook, and that became his Bible, the one he lived by. You can buy printed version today. As you might guess, it tends to be a good bit shorter than a standard Bible.
Sometimes I feel like doing that. If it were up to me, I’d eliminate a lot of stuff in the Bible; all the repetition, the unpronounceable names, and even some of the things Jesus said.
Oh, I wouldn’t touch those things we like to hear— comforting words such as “Those who comes to me I will not cast out.” I wouldn’t tamper with reassuring words like, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I’d leave intact that refreshing invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And of course, I’d leave the good news that God loves us beyond our understanding and strengthens us in time of need.
I’m glad Jesus said all those things, and I believe them. It’s the other things, the difficult things like in today’s reading, that I would just as soon he hadn’t said.
One saying I’d like to red-pencil is that passage in which Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” There’s a parallel saying in Matthew that’s even worse. There he says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34). How I wish he hadn’t said that! It sounds so harsh, almost cruel; and on first glance, it seem wholly out of keeping with almost everything else Jesus said.
Of course, we all have our bad days, days when nothing goes right, and in our frustration we say things we don’t mean. Maybe this was one of his bad days. But I don’t think it’s that easy. For one thing, we remember that Jesus often used words as a poet uses them. This is why a lot of us have trouble understanding the Bible: knowing when the words are to be taken literally and when they are to be understood poetically or metaphorically. When Jesus said, “I came to bring a sword,” we don’t expect to see him swinging a weapon any more than when he says, “I am the door,” we expect to see him swinging on hinges. He was speaking metaphorically—poetically .
It may seem trivial to make this point, but you would be surprised how often in the course of history, from the Crusades even up to the present day, wars have been justified by just such a simple-minded literal reading of scripture.
I take what he said seriously, which is why I wish he hadn’t said what he said… at least the way he said it. Couldn’t he have softened it somehow?
The Christian life could be so simple if it were all about peace and love and hope. But it isn’t. He was speaking the truth, if more directly and bluntly than I would want. “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” (Matt. 10:35).
In other words, he’s telling us that if follow him there will be conflict, even among those who are near and dear. He came to turn the world around; not everyone wants to be turned around. He was bringing change and change always results in push-back. He’s just being realistic; it’s his ways of saying, “There is no gain without pain.” He’s not saying that conflict is the last word any more than crucifixion is, but he is saying that it’s an unavoidable word, just as is crucifixion.
One of the things I always explore with couples as they prepare to marry is how they feel about conflict. Most are frightened of having any conflict in their relationship and tend to avoid it at all costs. That’s simply not being realistic. Marriage brings change into two people’s lives. There will be conflict, so there needs to be negotiations and compromise and the will to grow together.
A soldier on the battlefront kept getting nagging letters from his wife about stuff around the house that wasn’t getting done, to which he finally responded, “Will you please quit bugging me and let me fight this war in peace!”
Whenever two or more people spend time together there will be conflicts from time to time. That’s especially true when life’s most basic questions are introduced, questions of faith and ultimate meaning, as Jesus was doing, conflict between friends, family, and lovers is virtually unavoidable.
Jesus’ personal experience figures here, I suspect. On at least one occasion, his own family came to take him home because they thought he was deranged. He was proposing changes to the way the world worked, and he got push-back even from his own mother. There can be no doubt he knew what “division” felt like. Jesus was calling his family and his community to leave the old ways behind and follow him into a new way of life, a new understanding of God. Nothing could possibly generate more conflict within a family or a community than something like that.
When a good Jew turned his back on his family’s religion, it was as if he had died. In fact, in certain parts of the world even today when one leaves the family’s faith to become a Christian, the family publicly carries a casket through the streets to symbolize the convert’s death. It’s as if Jesus had come to bring a sword dividing families and communities.
In this world, conflict is inevitable; we can’t pretend it is otherwise, anymore than we can wish Jesus hadn’t been so blunt about telling the truth. But Jesus always told the truth and in this case he told it with sadness. Sadness for all those who will come to their senses too late; who will reject the gospel gift when it is offered and too late come to appreciate what they’ve missed.
Nevertheless, Jesus did not give up. Time and understanding can restore relationships. Patient commitment and a generous spirit can heal broken communities. And while conflict is a part of life, so is love. As followers of Jesus, reconciliation is our goal; we are bringers of reconciliation between all people and between each individual and God.
We have a world to transform, and we do it one relationship at a time. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The peace and unity we long for probably will not come any time soon, but it will be ours in the end. That’s a promise.
Sermon: Investing With God August 4, 2019
There was an old story about a stockbroker who was given one magic wish. So he wished for a copy of the New York Times... a year in advance. He would know what stocks to buy and sell, what properties to purchase. Puff… his wish came true. He rubbed his hands together with glee, the world was his oyster. But then he turned a page and saw a picture of himself under the headline, “Wall Street Wizard Killed in Auto Accident.”
It reminds me of the parable Jesus told about the man who has a bumper crop. It was one of those happy problems; what to do with all the excess. He could have shared it with his neighbors, but he decided to built bigger barns and keep it all for himself. He had visions of spending the rest of his life in lazy days and easy living. Then God spoke: “Fool! Tonight your life will be required of you.”
Notice that word fool; it has a special meaning when used in the Bible. It is reserved for people who don’t trust God, and instead put their trust in themselves. They think only of themselves and give no thought for what God would have them do with what he’s given them. Fools.
I came across an interesting essay on Facebook this week; it first appeared on NPR’s webpage. It was titled “This is what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously.”
You remember Rand; she wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged and was an advocate for modern libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism.
Anyway, the article is about a investor who was trying to apply Rand’s philosophy of unfettered self-interest to the corporation he controlled. He did this by breaking the company into more than 30 individual units, each with its own management and each measured separately for profit and loss. The idea was to promote competition among the units, which he assumed would lead to higher profits.
A reporter for Bloomberg Business (Mina Kimes ) described the results this way: He thought that “if the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance. Instead, the divisions turned against each other, and the whole corporation suffered. Interviews with more than 40 former executives, many of whom sat at the highest levels of the company, painted a picture of a business that was being ravaged by infighting. Executives started undermining other units because they knew their bonuses were tied to their individual unit’s performance in comparison to the other’s. They were focused solely on the economic performance of their unit at the expense of the overall brand.”
This was Sears; by 2018 it was in bankruptcy court. Today it survives but it’s just a shadow of itself and is still shrinking. Fools.
What the CEO failed to see is that contrary to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, humans actually have a natural God- given inclination to work for their mutual benefit. And altruism, the selfless concern for the well-being of others, is a natural human trait. We were created to cooperate and collaborate, and we work more productively when we have shared goals we believe in. Take all of that away and you create a company or a nation that will become so divided it will destroy itself.
The One who created us this way rules all tings, so the logical thing to do is to trust God. The truly wise among us are women and men who see what God is doing and choose to cooperate with Him in it. The foolish, on the other hand, are blind to God’s working in the World. In fact, they tend to think they are running everything themselves. They’re fools.
You might call the man in the Jesus’ parable a practical atheist. He had drawn a tight circle of self-interest around himself leaving out God. He conveniently forgot that God had given him the land, or that because he had used the land well, God had enlarged his opportunities even more. The fool misunderstood the situation; it never occurred to him that he had all this so that he might be better able to serve God. All he thought of was himself. He was a practical atheist; he was a fool.
It’s not just ironic that the stockbroker who got his wish and the farmer who built barns both died before they could fully realize their dreams, it is God’s judgment on all those foolish people who put self-interest before God’s purposes.
As far as I know the former CEO of Sears is still alive. He lost a good bit of his massive fortune with his experiment in laissez-faire capitalism and more than 200,000 people lost their livelihood. His hedge fund owns the highly leveraged wreckage of what was in 1990 the largest retail business in US history. Still it’s not all bad news, he still has his 288 foot yacht, named after Ayn Rand’s other novel, Fountainhead.
Everybody dies, and all our earthly success is meaningless at that point isn’t it? Whose 288 foot yacht will the Fountainhead be then?
When it comes to thinking about how we will fill our limited time on earth, I like to think of that little known character from the Old Testament named Jabez. (1 Chron. 4:10) “ Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that thou wouldst bless me and enlarge my border, and that thy hand might be with me, and that thou wouldst keep me from harm.’ And God granted what he asked.”
Bless me and enlarge my border. That’s quite a prayer. It’s like saying “enlarge my world, give me more ways I can serve you, more opportunities, more responsibilities, more work to do. Direct me, Lord, I am yours.”
Then he continues, “Keep your hand on my shoulder, Lord, to guide me and urge me on. All I ask is that as I attempt great things for you, you will keep me focused so I don’t wander into ways you never intended for me to go. I don’t want to end up like that man building bigger barns for himself. If you want bigger barns, Lord, so that I can better serve you with them, that’s one thing, just don’t let me forget who’s I am and who I’m really working for.” That’s the kind of prayer God always grants.
Think about your prayers. Do you get up every morning asking, “What can I do for you today Lord?” We say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” but do we really mean it? Is it His kingdom we spend our days building, or do we put all our energy into building our own? Only a fool thinks he can get along without God.
If you want your prayers answered, pray that God might bless you and enlarge your borders. I have no doubt that He will give you what you ask for: greater opportunities to serve him.
Sermon: Marching Music (on the occasion of the baptism of Korra Faith) July 7, 2019
Sometimes important things don’t start out that way. One Christmas Eve day a vicar discovered that mice had gotten into the church organ. If there would be music they would have to sing to a guitar. He composed a simple little tune to fit a poem he wrote. That’s how we got Silent Night.
It was a Saturday night in 1865 and the vicar, of an English country church needed a simple tune that children could sing unaccompanied by musical instruments. He needed it for tomorrow morning, for a Pentecost Procession to the parish church in the next village. Churches have been doing such seasonal marches for centuries. It was, so to speak, a way to take church to the wider community. Anyway, as he planned it the crucifer would lead them. The children would come next, singing something. And his little congregation would follow waving banners as they marched. The hymn he wrote for the children was Onward Christian Soldiers.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before! Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see, his banners go.
As he imagined this procession, it was the lines of children marching into the future that inspired him. Like little soldiers they marched, but too soon they would be battling with the grown up challenges of everyday life. It was his prayer that they would remember to do so by following in the way Jesus lead. The foe they faced was sin and the devil; all those things that tempt us to lose faith and wander astray. His prayer was that the children would always keep the faith; and with a soldierly sense of duty follow the cross marching through life.
The original tune was dropped a couple of years later when a young Arthur Sullivan, soon to be of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, supplied the one we know. It caught on and became popular in churches around the world. I’m told the Salvation Army is particularly fond of it.
Some of my pastor friends avoid this hymn because of its militaristic language. I have to agree that it’s message can be misunderstood. Though, if we miss it’s real message we’ll find we are in good company.
When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in August 1941 on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to draft the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Churchill chose the hymns. He explained his thinking this way: “We sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals ... it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
In Churchill’s mind those children of a Pentecost Procession in 1865 had become soldiers with banners unfurled, following in the way God surly must be leading. I think he had the right of it then, but only partly right. Not every soldier is Christian and few conflicts can ever be said to serve God’s purposes. But still, the Atlantic Charter that Churchill and Roosevelt drafted was our two nations’ promise to build a peaceful world at war’s end, surly a God inspire goal.
I bring all this up today because it’s the Fourth of July weekend and we’ll be singing Onward Christian Soldiers as our last hymn. Further, we have family, soldiers, marching today in hotspots all around the world. And it seemed fitting to remember them.
But I bring it up in particular because Korra Faith will be baptized today. She’s about to join the great parade of Christians, with banners unfurled, following in the way Jesus led. I guess instead of marching she will be crawling for a while yet.
I want to make sure we all understand; she isn’t joining a church, she’s becoming a follower of Jesus. Instead of enlisting for a tour or two, this is a life-time commitment. She’s making Jesus her north star, her guide in life’s journey.
There will likely be side trips; Christ’s foe is ever watching, ready to lead her away by temptations. So she will likely wander in directions harmful to self and others, searching for meaning and finding none. I suspect we’ve all been there at least once. Still the north star remains our ever faithful guide, if we will just look to it. The parade goes ever onward and it’s easy to get back in step.
So today we welcome Korra Faith to join us as we march. We promise to do what we can to help her keep up, on track, and with her eyes fixed on Jesus. But remember, this isn’t so much a church to join, as a way station. It’s a place to recharge or heal, to get your bearings or directions, as you march forward through life. May she ever find it so for her.
Sabine Baring-Gould, that young vicar, reportedly wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in about 15 minutes, later apologizing, “It was written in great haste, and I am afraid that some of the lines are faulty.” He spent years trying to rewrite it, but ultimately the world loved it just the way it was. The Salvation Army has the right of it; it’s good marching music.
Sermon: Disintegrated June 23, 2019
I’m often alone in my office at odd hours. Years ago, in another parish, there was a loud knock at my door, behind it was a rather large intimidating man. He declared that he’d been told at the library that there was a bridge club playing at the church. We were the closest church, just a block away. I told him we didn’t have a bridge club, but he kept repeating that he’d been told there was. Maybe it was one of the other churches.
Anyway, he didn’t seemed the bridge playing type, but he told me he’d started playing bridge while in the army in Vietnam. That explained a lot. You didn’t need a college degree to tell that he was mentally ill and more than a little belligerent. And I was alone with him.
I’ve been in this sort of situation many times, but I don’t mind telling you that it still makes me nervous. I’ve been threatened and I know clergy who’ve faced knives and guns. But I did what I always do, I asked if he wanted a cup coffee. Then we sat down to talk.
He gradually calmed down and we had a pleasant, if somewhat disjointed, chat. He told me his story and how much he enjoyed living in Alpena. Then we moved on to current events. All told we talked for about 30 minutes and then he was ready to move on. We smiled at one another, shook hands, and bid each other a good day.
His leaving brought me both a sense of relief and of shame. He was doing the best he could to hold himself together; he only wanted to be recognized and valued as a human being, and I was afraid of him.
I think we see something similar in today’s Gospel lesson. While my veteran friend was managing to hold himself together, the man Jesus met had lost all sense of self and agency. Today we might say he had a disintegrated personality, what is clinically called dissociative identity disorder. In common parlence-- multiple personalites. He’s come apart, lost control of himself inside. He doesn’t know who or what he is; he can’t remember what’s real and what isn’t. Everything inside is all jumbled up. A disintegrated personality is often associated with some significant trauma. My Vietnam veteran friend’s PTSD might be considered a milder form of this.
The man Jesus met needed help… more importantly wanted help. Finding your self once you’ve completely lost it, that is, reintegrating your sense of self, isn’t something you can do by yourself. He needed help, so God responded. God grounded him in reality, helped him put the pieces back together, and helped him find him self again. We treat it as a miracle, but this is something that happens every day as the mentally ill are put back in their right minds.
Dr. Maurice Buck, a enlightened 19th century psychiatrist, ran an asylum for the mentally ill in London, Ontario. Generally, those were still the days of lock-them-up — strap-them-down treatment, as was the case in the Gospel we read today. Dr. Buck was trying something different. But the local folks feared and shunned the asylum residents, just like the people of Gerasene did the man with a legion of demons.
One day a patient wandered off the asylum grounds. He become lost, and grew panicky. The fearful villagers followed him, becoming ever more menacing in their remarks and attitude. Finally, the poor man crashed through a store window to escape his tormentors. Dr. Buck, like Jesus, arrived just in time; offering words of comfort and reassurance, he cradled the man in his arms like a father comforting his frightened child. The doctor wrote that the sight moved many to see that here was just another frightened human being. In all the ways that count, he was really no different from any of us.
Paul wrote, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Our common Father has made us brother and sister to one another. Fear keeps us from recognizing our kindred. Fear keeps them from recognizing us. “Have no fear,” Jesus said. Do not doubt, but believe,” He said.
As I remember my veteran friend from Alpena I think about Willy Loman, the central character in the play Death of a Salesman. “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention must be paid. Attention must be paid.” It’s true of every human being. Attention must be paid.
Sermon: My Dad Is Here June 16, 2019
It was a special day. All the student’s fathers were invited to visit their child’s class. As you would imagine, many fathers were unable to attend because of their busy schedules. So the teacher had the class of second-graders go around and at least say what their father did.
One said, “My father is a doctor and is at his office making sick people well.” Another said her dad was a store owner and couldn’t get away. Another said his dad was a lawyer, he was in court helping people with their problems.
And so it went until the turn came to one little boy whose father had taken time off from work to be there, he proudly shouted: “My dad is here.”
Are there any words more reassuring than, “I’ll be there?” If you’ve ever had to call for a plumber over a weekend, you know how really good these words can feel. Or if you’ve been stranded on the road with car trouble and called a friend, you know how good those words can sound. I’ll be there! “Grandma, I’m graduating in June.” I’ll be there! “Mom, the baby cries all night and if I don’t get some sleep I’ll die!” I’ll be there!
Father’s Day. The apostle Paul tells us that we should address God as “abba.” That’s the same word Jesus used in his prayer, that we translate as father. “Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” (RSV-Luke 11:2) We are to think of ourselves as God’s children.
But there’s more here than we might realize. There’s a proverb dating from before the time of Christ that says “the first words a child learns are abba and emma,” dad and mom, literally, dada and mama. Our relationship with our heavenly Father is like that… dada. It’s the relationship of a young child completely dependent on a parent for daily needs, as well as the training that will continue to be necessary as the child grows into adulthood and beyond.
It was in recognition of the fact that the disciples had a lot of growing to do that Jesus told them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” In other words, “There are other things you need to know, but you’re just not ready to learn them yet. I’ve got to go now, but the Spirit of truth is coming to take over. The Spirit will teach you and help grow into the Children of God the Father dreamed you’d be.”
Our parent God has carefully provided for the “raising up” of all God’s children, from now until the end of time. In other words, God is saying, “I be there for you.” As Father the plan was established, as Son the process was begun, and as Spirit it continues in each generation. That’s the Trinity.
The disciples were first. Jesus gathered them and taught, but it was the Holy Spirit that helped them grow in understanding, grow into a mature faith, grow into Children of God. They in turn taught what they had learned from Jesus and God the Spirit helped that new generation understand and mature in the faith until they too were Children of God. The process was repeated in each generation down through the centuries. It began with a few dozen and grew until the family of God numbers in the billions today.
So we who are parents, fathers especially today, continue to care for our dependent children and teach them what we were taught. God the Spirit fills in where we were unable to inspire then. Then when the kids are on their own, the Spirit continues to help those who are willing to make room for God in their lives, willing to let the Spirit inspire them.
Sadly not everyone matures in the faith or passes it on to their children. Not every father is as faithful as our God. But unlike, the too busy doctor, or businessman, or lawyer, or whatever, our “dad” is always there for us, here for us. “I tell you, ask, and it will be given you, seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks find, and him who knocks it will be opened.” God does not give up, nor is God too busy to give us what we need if we ask.
So as Zephaniah wrote, “Sing aloud O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. (Zephaniah 3:14). Paul wrote something similar, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.. . for the Lord is near.”
God is the father who would sacrifice anything to be there for you in that second-grade classroom. God is the one who says “I’ll be there,” and always comes through. Zephaniah and Paul were right, on this Father’s day we do have something to shout about. Amen.
Sermon: Worship June 9, 2019
One traditional analogy for our worship services is that of a symphony orchestra. You all are the players in the orchestra, with many different instruments represented among you. Some voices are high pitched, some low, some loud and some soft, some read smoothly and others haltingly. The score is right here, and I’m the conductor. I’m supposed to lead, keep time, and sort of tie everything together. And who is the audience at this joyous performance? The audience is God, of course.
It’s all supposed to comes together in one glorious effort to respond to our sense of God’s presence here. Jazz musicians call this “blowing soul.” That is, sometimes, when it all comes together as it should, we can step out of ourselves and enter a deeper reality. We sing the praise of God, and sometimes in the praising we find we can experience something of God’s presence. When it all comes together it’s like that first Pentecost for the disciples when they discovered the Holy Spirit all around them.
This analogy illustrates the basic truth that worship in the Episcopal tradition is always participatory. There is intended to be a lot of action on the part of the congregation. Contrast that with some Protestant churches, the sort in which worship is mostly performance by musicians and teaching by pastors, with the congregation serving mainly as audience and students, but not active participants. We want more; we need more; we want to encounter God.
Worship requires everyone’s participation; for a time it will unit us as few other things can. That is, it can. Unfortunately, some Sundays are better than others; not every service is a new Pentecost. Why?
Like many of you, Merrill and I try to have an active role in our grandchildren’s lives. That means going to their school activities. Two of our grands are musical, so we go to their concerts. We’ve watched them progress in band or chorus from just struggling to keep the tempo and avoid squeaking to pulling off a pretty credible performance. Sometimes they’re amazingly good. It’s all about learning to take their part and blending in with everyone else’s to get the desired result. They are learning self discipline and the power of cooperation. All good.
Worship is like that. Some Sundays feel like we’re all distracted, like we’re struggling to keep the tempo and avoid squeaking. But there are other Sundays that move way beyond the “amazingly good” to heavenly highs. On those days the distractions of daily life are forgotten, and for a few moments we feel as if we’ve been transported to the throne room of God in all God’s glory.
Rarely does that sort of thing happen at a concert, even one of your grandchildren’s concerts. But it has been known to happen, as when a Jazzman is blowing soul or certain pieces are play by a capable orchestra.
Think of Handle’s Messiah, especially the portion called the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Handle’s oratorio took its text from the Bible and the chorus describes the first Pentecost and the resulting spread of the gospel through the world. It ends with the definitive statement of God’s glory summarized in the echoing hallelujahs.
At that point the conductor, the orchestra, the soloists, and the full chorus are all working feverishly. Every orchestra member is playing with inspired fervor. The soloists and the chorus are singing at full volume. The conductor, beating time with baton and hand, works exhaustively to tie the pieces of the musical whole together into one intricate, moving entity. He urges forth every last ounce of spirit left in the performers. What comes out all this is a great piece of musical love.
It sends shivers up the spine. It’s said that in 1743 when King George II first heard it he was so moved he stood up. As is the custom in England, when the king stands everyone else does too. At concerts to this day, we all stand up for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The king of England stood before the King of Kings in all his glory and worshipped, and so do we.
As much as we love attending our grandchildren’s concerts they don’t produce worship. They are intended to be entertainment. But put God in the center of the production, with everyone giving their best, and you can get the Hallelujah Chorus.
Certain hymns have a similar effect. Hymn 376, the melody of which comes from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony titled “Ode to Joy”.
“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love; hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
“All thy works with joy surround thee, earth and heaven reflect thy rays, stars and angels sing around thee, center of unbroken praise. Field and forest, vale and mountain, blooming meadow, flashing sea, chanting bird and flowing fountain, call us to rejoice in thee.
“Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, well-spring of the joy of living, ocean-depth of happy rest! Thou our Father, Christ our Brother: all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”
Those words carry a vision of worship -- everybody working intently together, joining with all of creation, to praise the King of Love in our midst.
This is what that first Pentecost must have been like. Suddenly the disciples realized that God was in their midst and so they joined the rest of creation in spreading the joy. They couldn’t help themselves. They stood up before the King of Kings and said, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
That’s why I chose today’s last hymn.
“I, the Lord of wind and flame, I will tend the poor and lame. I will set a feast for them, My hand will save. Finest bread I will provide Till their hearts be satisfied. I will give my life to them. Whom shall I send?
And we respond: Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.”
Worship is no performance or teaching; it’s an encounter with the living God whose very presence moves us to act, to spread the glory we’ve found, to live in love. Hallelujah.
Note: This was written for June 2, 2019, but unused. When I got up to preach it didn't feel right, so I put it aside. Instead, without a written text, I explored the idea of divination, as found in Acts 16:16-34. It is a Christian ideal dating to the first century; something we should working toward. Yet Paul squelched it in the slave girl. Why? It was a better sermon. But read on if you like.
Oh John, you’re almost as bad a Paul. I try to make what they write sound sensible, but sometimes they just don’t follow the same rules of grammar we do. Paul would string clause upon clause until a sentence would stretch half a page… and a lot of the time the clauses don’t seem to have any meaningful connection. Then we have John… He records Jesus as saying, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,... so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Huh?
One thing is clear: through repetition John is putting a strong emphasis on Jesus’ prayer for unity. Unity between the Father and the Son; unity between Jesus and us; unity between you and me. That’s what Jesus prays for; that we all might be one.
Jesus prays; he doesn’t command. He commanded that we love God and one another, but he prays we might find unity. We love naturally, but unity is something human beings just don’t do very well. “God, help them,” Jesus says.
When you look around you soon realize that not everyone wants unity. In politics, divide and conquer is a useful tool, though clearly its not the way God thinks. I just wish we wouldn’t fall for it, but humans, like moths to a flame, just don’t seem to be able to help themselves.
Even when we try to be “one” we soon run into situations that produce conflict, differences of opinion about how things are supposed to be and who gets to decide.
One Friday a Papal Nuncio, an ambassador from the Vatican, came to tour an American parochial school. For that very special event he gave the students a dispensation from the “no meat on Friday” rule. So at lunch, meat was on the menu. But some of the kids were too nervous to eat it. Sure the Nuncio represented the Pope, but did he have the right to just declare that eating meat on Friday was OK? What if their immortal souls were being placed in terrible danger by having meat for lunch. All through lunch some of the kids debated the question. For one boy the tension was simply too much. He threw up! This caused the debate to shift to whether, technically, he had actually eaten meat, or not.
In the great scheme of things dogmas about meat on Friday might sound like a little thing, but little things quickly become big causes of division.
There are dogmas -- those teachings pronounced by some authority as true -- about everything. We live with dogmas that cover the gamut of human life from government and economics to religion and culture. Dogmas do satisfy the cravings of people who need rules to follow, explanations to quote, and implacable authorities to respect. Fine for them, but there are almost always other dogmas, also spoken with absolute authority which if followed will lead to conflict. Where then is the unity Jesus prayed for?
For us, trying to follow the right dogma must be balanced with an effort to have that unity in love that Jesus prayed for. So you won’t typically find Episcopalians supporting either extreme in conflicting dogmas debates. Instead we’ll be trying to live in the middle. Not necessarily in complete accord, of course, and probably tending towards one direction or the other, but nevertheless deliberately avoiding the end zones. There can be spiritual benefit in abstaining from meat on Fridays, but requiring it seems to diminish the benefit, we would say. So the Episcopal Church doesn’t say you should or must… but it wouldn’t hurt and might even help in your spiritual journey. If abstaining from meat on Friday is your gift to creation, go for it.
Can a people who count among their good traits the phrase “comfortable with ambiguity and mystery” also claim to be “one?” Being “one” as the Father and the Son are one doesn’t mean “they are the same.” The Father and the Son are not the same. In fact, it means they support a grand over-arching purpose, each in his own way. They welcome one another, accept one another… as they are. So should we.
For those of us who believe, it also means joining them, gathering together under that great canopy of God’s creative purpose. That’s where the oneness is. God’s creation is an ever expending, evolving, developing phenomenon that attests to God’s dazzling power and forethought. He’s made us part of it and wants us to push it forward with him.
But if there is only one great purpose that unites all creation, does that imply that there is only one way that purpose is to be pursued? Each of us was created to be different; we’re not expected to agree on everything. That must mean we each have something unique to contribute to God’s plan.
The oneness Jesus prays for is that we will offer our uniqueness and join him in creating that perfect city that the Book of Revelation talks about. No that’s too small a thought. What God wants is for us to join Him, each of us in our own small way, in the creation of a perfect universe.
These are thoughts to hold on to in times of division, when deep misunderstandings keep faithful people of differing persuasions at arm’s length, when honest beliefs stray from reality and when home-spun science collides with authentic research. It is easy to find ways to despise what we do not understand, to hate what does not resonate with our own experience, to fear what seems alien. We support these convictions with anecdotal evidence and with snippets of scripture.
It is harder to seek ways to understand, to broaden our experience and to look with fresh eyes at those who differ from us. Yet the eyes that are sometimes fresh to us, are the experienced eyes of Jesus Christ, who calls us to the unity of purpose that is greater than the sum of our selves. It is a unity made both possible and perfect by the extravagant and abundant love of God that is driving all creation.
Sermon: Who Holds the Future? May 26, 2019
During the Easter season the epistles come from the Book of Revelation. It’s probably the strangest book in the Bible--full of odd visions, catastrophic events, a coming judgment, and the end of all things. It’s popularity among Christians waxes and wanes; at the high point everybody’s reading it or talking about it; at other times it is almost forgotten. The last high point was during the decades leading up to the turn of the century. During that period we heard more and more claims, especially from evangelical Christians, that the tribulations the Book of Revelation described were just about to fall on all of us.
In the publishing trade this was particularly obvious. In the 60’s & 70’s there had been one or two books on the end times… generally considered the work of crackpots. Then gradually the numbers swelled as the year 2000 approached, becoming a flood with the best selling “Left Behind” books.
Then when the millennium passed with no more than the usual tribulation, much of that interest died down. So much so that in 2001 when Hollywood got around to trying to cash in on the Left Behind books, the film version dropped from notice almost immediately. But Hollywood didn’t give up and made another version in 2014. Roger Ebert called a “dull groaner”. At that point no one, even the evangelical Christians, were interested.
However, one film series loosely based on the Book of Revelation did have some success. They were horror films released under the general heading The Prophecy. They were about a cosmic battle taking place in heaven and earth between good and evil, angelic and human. Both sides are searching for an otherwise unknown lost chapter to the Book of Revelation, the key to final victory. But this time Hollywood didn’t make the same mistake they did with the Left Behind movies; this time they left God out of this strange mashup of truth and fantasy. For good reason. Without God, the future is always in doubt, and that leaves us tense or fearful, and tension and fear makes for an exciting movie, one that will sell tickets.
I bring all this up to remind us all, that humanity has been through this before, many times. The Book of Revelation seems to attract interest especially during periods when significant parts of the Christian world are anxious about the future. Then, when the threat passes and our fear subsides, the book drops back into obscurity.
Today there is certainly a lot of free-floating anxiety in the world. Will we see a corresponding renewed interest in the Book of Revelation? Not yet, it seems. So does the book have any special value for us today? Can all of the strange visions and the descriptions of heavenly places really speak a meaningful word in our everyday lives? I think so.
It was written to encourage people like us as they faced the challenges of being Christians in an often dangerous world. But before we find encouragement we will first have to get past some of the images. Like the seven headed dragons and a pregnant woman standing on the moon and wearing a crown made of stars. It’s symbolic language, sometimes a code for something else: a dragon for the devil fighting God or the Roman Empire opposing the Christian community. Sometimes an image representing a mood: a pregnant woman representing Israel’s longing for the birth of its deliverer, or the Bride of Christ, the Church, laboring, suffering painfully under persecution by the Empire as she awaits God’s final triumph.
Likewise, leave the violent imagery to the horror movies that terrify and titillate, but have no place for God. Instead consider the message of a film classic from 1951, a time when no one gave a thought to the coming millennium and an uncertain new century. It receive 8 Academy Award nominations. In Quo Vadis we look back into the actual history of the Church, to a time when there was real persecution of the Christian community. In the movie Emperor Nero redirects public anger over his bad administration by scapegoating a minority, the Christians of Rome. For amusement at a dinner party he has some of them tied to stakes and burned, while others are thrown to lions. Later he tours the carnage to see their bodies. He is taken aback by their faces: the Christians had died singing, and now he sees blissful smiles on their still faces. Unable to understand this, he becomes frustrated and angry, because he senses that they have seen what he can not... the heavenly Jerusalem we heard described this morning in the passage from the Book of Revelation.
This is what I take away from the Book of Revelation: We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future! All the symbolism and strange imagery may fascinate us but should not distract us from the message: God alone embraces all of history, from its beginning to its end, and there should be no doubt how the story will end -- it will end in God.
We may wonder about the specifics. We may wonder about the events yet to take place. But at the end of the historical road, we will find a Person, not an event. He is someone we already know, Jesus Christ our Savior.
Sermon--The Glory May 15, 2019
Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” This weeks Bible Study spent time chewing on that sentence. What does it mean to be glorified?
“Glory” is a slippery word. It can mean so many things. We admire the glory of men such as Alexander the Great, huge personalities who shaped whole civilizations. Or we sit stunned before the glory of the riches that adorned the tomb of someone like King Tut. But earthly glory is so ephemeral... Alexander is said to have drown, weighed down by the weight of his glorious armor, and Tutankhamon’s tomb was desecrated by robbers and archeologists seeking his riches. So much for glory.
The Bible uses the word in another way. Here it is most often used to describe God, whose glory is like the sun’s blazing glare on a rippling river, it hides more than it shows, and yet you just know something wonderful is there. Such glory stabs the eye and heart; you feel it transforming you, forcing you to see the world differently.
When Moses saw God face to face, he covered his eyes, it was just too much to bear. Caught in such an overwhelming awareness of God’s might and magnificence, all the Psalmist can do is sing of God’s “glorious splendor.” “Hallelujah!,” he says.
Hallelujah… That’s a word that doesn’t have much of a meaning by itself; it was just an exclamation common in Bible times and southern Baptist churches today. Sort of like on Antique’s Roadshow when the appraiser tells you your Mom’s candy dish is worth $500,000, you say, “O My God, you’ve got to be kidding.” The lucky candy dish owner isn’t offering up a prayer to God; it’s just something that jumps out of your mouth when you have been overwhelmed by something.
In the Bible, Hallelujah is always occasioned by an awareness of the overwhelming near presence of God, it’s the glory of it all. Words just pour out of your mouth; you don’t know what to say. “Praise him you angels,” says the Psalm, “praise him sun and moon, praise him you sea-monsters, praise him fire, hail, snow and fog, praise him all the earth. Hallelujah!” (Ps 148)
When John wrote his gospel, the glory of God was foremost in this thoughts. He sets the theme for the whole Gospel in this beautiful statement: “We have seen His glory; the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love.” (John 1:14, Amplified version)
You’ll notice that in the Bible glory and love are often linked. That’s what Jesus did in today’s Gospel lesson. Unfortunately, we in this world often separate them.
Michael Jackson is a case in point. He was a man who was at one time crowned king of Pop, Rock and Soul music, all at the same time. His album Thriller (that’s its name) is, the last I heard, still the best the selling recording around the world... in history. Regardless of what you think of him, he is even now glorified by millions of people. And yet, in the end he cowered and hid in his fear and pain...and perhaps shame.
Some years ago he was interview by Oprah Winfrey, and throughout he was continually apologizing. Over and over he said “I’m sorry.” And when he wasn’t saying it, his manner was. Why would Jackson, who basked in the glory of fans around the world, need to apologize for his existence? The answer is abuse. He grew up with too little love from an abusive father. Glory, fame and fortune cannot compensate for love denied. Neither, can you buy love from children you coax into your bed.
Babe Ruth had hit 714 home runs during his colorful career, but before he retired, he grew old and lost much of the agility he had known as a wonder-kid. Finally traded to the Boston Braves, he was playing one of his last games against the Cincinnati Reds and having a humiliating day. In one inning alone his errors lead to five Cincinnati runs. When the inning was mercifully over, Ruth trotted off the field to the jeers and boos of the crowd. Suddenly, a young boy jumped over the railing on to the field. With tears in his eyes he ran to Ruth and threw his arms around the aging hero.
Ruth stopped, picked up the young boy, hugged him, set him back down on his feet and patted him on the head. Almost as on cue the booing stopped and a reverent hush settled over the park. In those brief moments the crowd saw a different kind of hero-- a man who still had a glory about him, a glory apart from how many home runs he could hit-- a glory that shown forth in a touch of love for a little boy who could not stand to see his hero crucified by a heartless mob.
Pearl Bailey, the popular singer, she’s gone now; she was asked how it felt when she received the adulation of the people who surged around her after a performance. She replied: “Why do they run to me? What are they seeking? Love. And with outstretched hands, it’s given. The young smile and joke; the old look for hope. Love is so frighteningly beautiful,” she continued. “I see their souls, and I hold them gently in my hands and, because I love them, they weigh nothing. God has set them there so gently I can enjoy their love... I also feel a great healing power, so when they run up to the stage and we touch, I am healed and so are they.”
Glory and love were never more connected than when Jesus had surrendered his will to God and was ready to reflect the glory of God’s love through a horrific display of love on the cross.
Glory and love are made to go together. God’s glory is ultimately reflected in every act of real love. The glory of God is the perfect love forever poured out by the Son and forever manifested by those who receive him into their lives. God’s glory still shines in this world through the love of one person for another. Would that we never become so jaded as to not feel overwhelmed whenever it breaks in upon us, whenever we see it in another. O my God; Hallelujah.
As he said, “A new command, I give you, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Sermon--Lead me to the Waters of Life May 12, 2019
A man went into the Unemployment Office in New York City. When asked his occupation, he told the befuddled clerk, “Shepherd.” Where would a shepherd find work in New York City?
Unfortunately today’s texts about sheep may not speak to us as forcefully as they should; in our supermarket world we’ve little opportunity to learn much first hand about sheep and shepherds.
An experiment was conducted in a college class in behavioral science. Seven pieces of string precisely two feet long were placed side by side on a table. Next to those seven the experimenter placed and an eighth piece of string six inches shorter than the others. Six people were brought into the room. Five of them were plants, the sixth, was the subject of the experiment.
The researcher asked them all several questions, among which was “Are all of these pieces of string the same length?” To this, the first plant answered with an emphatic “Yes!” Then each of the other plants did the same. The subject answered last. Three out of four times the subject went along with the crowd and answered “yes” when he clearly knew that was the wrong answer. And when the experiment was repeated without the plants nine out of ten times the subjects answered “no.” Peer influence is very powerful.
We’ve probably all attended meetings where something similar happens. Everyone tends to agree with the first couple of speakers on an issue. We haven’t gotten far from our childhood games of “follow the leader.”
Human beings can be led and misled... just like sheep. We even have a herd mentality. Sometimes we call it style or fashion or trends, but it’s really herd mentality. Somebody leads and herds of people follow. We can be panicked into a stampede, free-floating anger can turn us into a mob, and in a peaceful environment we tend to wander without much though for the future.
That’s why a good shepherd is so important. Human beings need someone who can lead well; who can lead us to, as the second reading says, “springs of the water of life. ” Good shepherds lead us in directions that are life fulfilling.
Every year or so some pollster takes a survey of historians; asking them list our Presidents from greatest to worst. The names get shuffled around, but three always seem near the top of the list: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. And despite all the rampant partisan feelings present today, the general population seems to agree on these three.
They are recognized for leading the nation as it faced enormous challenge: For Washington, securing the independence of a new nation and providing it with sound political institutions; for Lincoln, preserving the Union and purging it of slavery; for FDR, guiding the country through its greatest economic crisis and its biggest foreign challenge, World War II.
In each instance, what sets them apart is their ability to call a bewildered and straying or scattered people back to the high ideals upon which the country was founded.
But as important as these shepherds were, we’ve shepherds just as important but much closer to home. How old were you when you realized you’d just said or done something the way your father or mother always did it? Whether we’re conscious of them or not, we’ve all had several key people who guided us along the ways of life: spouses, teachers, mentors, pastors, and especially parents. It’s a part of our nature, this need for good leaders. Blessed are those with good shepherds.
Unfortunately, not everyone has been blessed by their circumstances. Those who have experienced the guidance of parents who are good shepherds, may not appreciate how exposed and abandoned it can feel without them. Likewise, if you’ve had inspiring teachers and good mentors--the kind that will teach you how to examine your own assumptions and how to sift truth from fiction-- if you’ve been blessed by such, you might not appreciate the confusion and bad choices you see in those not so blessed. And if you were raised within the Body of Christ and continued into adulthood, you might not appreciate how meaningless life becomes for those who were not so blessed.
A little girl was touring Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico for the first time. Her father was carrying her younger brother as she walked beside him. That arrangement was fine as long as the path was broad and level. But the path grew narrow and a bit steep so her father moved ahead. She said, “Daddy, hold my hand!” Her father reassured, “Honey, you’re just fine. I’m right here with you.”
This calmed her for a time but then it go darker and the trail grew rougher, a bit slick with water dripping from the formations. The little girl again spoke, “Daddy, hold my hand!” “I can’t,” he said. “I’m holding your brother. You’re all right. Why don’t you believe me?” The girl had an instant reply, “Because only my ears know you’re ahead of me. My hand doesn’t.”
Somehow, we always seem to put more faith in leaders who are “hands-on.” Parents to hold us. Teachers who take care about us. A church community to welcome us as friends in a common mission.
That’s why God came in person to lead us, to take our hand in his. That’s why God is our Father and why Jesus is our faithful brother and teacher and why the Holy Spirit is our constant companion. Only when you’ve known a good parent, teacher and shepherd can you appreciate how lost and wandering you were before. Every generation needs the “water of life,” and must be led to it.
We say that together we are the Body of Christ and Jesus is the head of that body. God is our Father and the Holy Spirit gives life to the body. So the Good Shepherd has grown from one man to become a holy community numbered in the billions. None of us walks our paths alone. God, through the community of faith, guides our paths aright. And collectively we are the Light of the World.
On this Mothers Day it is well to remember with praise and thanksgiving all those who lead each generation to the “water of life”.