Category Archives: Sermons

The power to practice love | Sermon for 1 Epiphany

 

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”

I am among the most fortunate of people, because I know that my father loved me.

In a picture from when I was just a couple years old, you can see his hand touching my cheek, a simple gesture of physical affection that characterized his relationship with me and our whole family.

Dad and Me Orlando 1970He held me in his arms (and he held my mother and my siblings, too), and he told me he loved me in countless ways. When I shared that picture on Facebook, my sister instantly responded that she recognized his gesture — the “sense memory” is as strong for her as it is for me.

The last time I served as a deacon at the altar with him before he died, a similar account of the Transfiguration of Our Lord was the appointed Gospel reading. After I read the Gospel, Dad got up to preach but then stopped, saying, “I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to sit down, because this is my son, my beloved, and I want to listen to him. I want to hear what he has to say.”

My wife and I have spoken many times about what a blessing it is for both of us to have had this kind of unconditional love in our lives. Even though we do not have children of our own, we have been privileged to share our love with others, especially our “emotional daughter” Anna and our grandson Alex.

You have it in your power to give this kind of love, too. You can be for another person — a child or a grownup — the same kind of blessing that my father was. You can embrace them in the kind of love that God the Father has for all of his children.

Who is your beloved? Who needs to feel the touch of your hand on their cheek and hear from you that you are well pleased with them?

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Jesus heard these words from God at his baptism in the Jordan River.

Baptism was for him, as it is for us, an act full of symbolic meaning.

Our service of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer outlines several symbolic meanings that the water holds for us.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior. (BCP 306-7)

Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we will renew our own Baptismal Covenant and our baptismal vows.

The vows are not about how to earn God’s favor. Rather, they are promises we make about how we will live as God’s beloved children, how we will “continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Baptism is to us a sign of God’s grace pouring over us; the promises we make are about what we will do in practice to share that grace with each other and with the world.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

That is, will you practice being graceful and generous with your fellow parishioners, your clergy, and your fellow-Christians? Will you practice prayer that keeps you in touch with God and the needs of God’s people?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

That is, will you practice demonstrating grace by standing firm against those who do harm to others, and by recognizing when you are the one doing harm and making amends to those you have hurt?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Being a Christian is meaningful to you; will you practice telling other people about God’s blessings? Will you practice showing them that you have God’s peace?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

We had diversity and inclusion training at my work this week, and we learned that promoting diversity requires conscious action. It’s easy to be with people like yourself, but you have to practice choosing to be with people who are different.

 Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

That is to say, will you practice remembering that every human being craves the touch of a father’s hand on their cheek, the loving embrace of a mother, the gentle word from a friend? Will you practice sharing that love with others and will you practice encouraging those in power to make sure people are being cared for?

As baptized Christians, we are filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

That means you have it in your power to practice the kind of love that Jesus practiced. You can be for another person — a child or a grownup, a neighbor or an enemy, someone who is poor or someone in power — you can be for them the same kind of blessing that Jesus was.

You can embrace them in the kind of love that God the Father has for all of his children and demonstrate Jesus’ self-giving love by your actions.

Who is your beloved? Who needs to feel the touch of your hand on their cheek and hear that God (and you) are well pleased with them?

 

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Beloved | Sermon for Holy Name

Note: Today’s sermon was my first as vicar of Church of the Holy Apostles in Oneida, WI. Founded as the Oneida Indian Mission in 1702 in New York State and moved to Wisconsin in 1822, Holy Apostles is the oldest Native American mission in the Episcopal Church.

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“Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Like Jesus we have not only titles, lots of them, but also a name.

Jesus’ Titles

Jesus’ most common title, Christ, isn’t really Jesus’ last name (and H. is not his middle initial). Christ is the Greek adjective that means Anointed; it’s the same as the Hebrew word Messiah.

In the stories of his birth that we read from Matthew and Luke last weekend and this morning, Jesus has another title, Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Perhaps some of you have seen that poster that lists many of his other titles?

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But perhaps Jesus’ most important title is Lord.

The first proclamation of faith after the resurrection – and from the patron of my former parish “doubting Thomas” no less – was “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Jesus is both Lord and Savior. His title is Lord, and his name means Savior.

Jesus’ Name

The name Jesus, according to the angel, means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Paul writes to the Philippians that, because of the self-emptying, obedient love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross,

God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

From before his birth, Jesus’ name starts to show us who he is and what he is doing.

We have names, too

My name is Rodger – Lindsay – Patience.

My name comes from my father and grandfathers and our Scottish ancestors.

I also have clan names – Ross, McColl, and Lindsay.

You each have names – some of you that I’ve met already, like Ken House (Hoyan), have two names.

Your names may come through your mothers and grandmothers. There were certainly a lot of Betties in the church basement a couple weeks ago when we were tying the cedar ropes that decorate the church for Christmas!

Many of you have clan names, too – Wolf, Turtle, and Bear.

Our names begin to describe us, at least in relationship to other people in our family and clan.

We have titles, too

I have a new title – Vicar.

The kids at St. Thomas have been having fun the last few weeks trying to remember to use another new title “Father” instead of my old title “Deacon.”

I am called a Senior Faculty Member at work. I’m not actually “senior” yet; my boss keeps trying to give me a promotion.

I am a Delta Diamond Medallion™ Member, and I have the luggage tags to prove it.

When we meet for coffee, Richard Ackley jokes and refers to me as “White Male Privilege” – that’s more about entitlement, but it comes from the same root word.

I am also a recovering alcoholic, a title that has transformed my spiritual life in the last few years.

Some of the titles we use are descriptive of who we are; some are aspirational. Some only serve to bring us down; others remind us how far we’ve come.

Beloved

But in the Body of Christ, in the “company of friends” who follow Jesus, we really only have one title, and that is Beloved.

Jesus is Lord, and we are his Beloved. John, who was actually known as the Beloved Disciple even while Jesus was alive, wrote that

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

We each have different names that connect us to our families, we each have titles that define our aspirations, but as friends of Jesus we have only one true title.

We are Beloved.

No other title should be allowed to obscure that one or to separate one Beloved child of God from another.

No other title – Episcopal/Methodist, Republican/Democrat, Oneida/White, Packers/Vikings, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, believer/atheist, no family name or clan affiliation – should keep us from sharing our lives with others as Beloved children of God.

Paul insisted that

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit …. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:12-13; 27)

So as Jesus’s Beloved, it is our joy to cooperate with God and “plant in every heart the love of him who is the Savior of the world.”

We are – first, lasting, and always –

Beloved friends of a loving Savior
who remind God’s other Beloved children
of the self-emptying love of Jesus which is for them, too.

If other people are to believe in Jesus’ saving love, if they are to trust the loving purposes of God, they will have to see that love in his Beloved.

They will have to see it in us.

Amen.

That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

My temple and my tower

Today is the last Sunday in the six-part sermon series on the Beatitudes at St. Thomas Church.

Remember that Jesus is addressing a diverse crowd, announcing the kingdom of God, and turning conventional wisdom upside down.

Jesus says people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are honest about their own failings (what he calls pure in heart), and who are persecuted and reviled — these people — are blessed.

They are in the kingdom of God now, they are in intimate relationship with God now. It may not sound like it, but Jesus is trying to get the crowd (and us) to hear something that has always been true.

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Today is also “Bible Sunday,” if you will, in the Episcopal Church with the lovely collect that urges us to “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, which God has “caused to be written for our learning” (BCP 236).

What the Scriptures say about salvation is that it is to be found in intimate relationship with the God who created us, not in the things we humans desire out of a false sense of need or out of envy of others.

Professor John Dally at Bexley Seabury in Chicago lays out a brilliant summary of the biblical story. He says, in part, “salvation is knowing where you fit in the story.”

The biblical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

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Things like kings and rulers, a Temple adorned with stones, even Christendom and the towering structures of economic and political power, those will all be thrown down eventually in favor of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city.

As our final hymn says,

Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.

But until they do fall to dust, “the powers that be” – both political and religious – will not be able to comprehend the self-giving love that Jesus invites us to practice, and we who practice it will get into all kinds of trouble with Tower and Temple both when we do.

That is when the kingdom of God is near, says Jesus.

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Jesus is the lens for reading the Scriptures, suggests Fr. Richard Rohr in his books and his daily meditations.

When the Scriptures represent people acting like Jesus = people get it.
When the Scriptures show people not acting like Jesus = people don’t get it.

The Scriptures are the record of the people of God working out how God has been acting in salvation history.

When Jesus says “Let the children come to me” and the disciples do (Matt. 19) = they get it
When the poet sings of Babylon, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock” (Psalm 137) = he doesn’t get it.

When the apostles set apart deacons to care for the Greek-speaking Gentile widows who are neglected (Acts 6) = they get it.
When the priests force the returning exiles from Babylon to divorce their foreign-born wives in order to be “pure” (Nehemiah 13) = they don’t get it.

When the Hebrew people live in intimacy with God who saved them from Egypt, walking in the desert for 40 years as a covenant people (Exodus) = they get it. They grumble about it a lot, but they get it.
When they are in the Land and they want a powerful king like everyone else (even though Samuel warns them he’ll be a tyrant and they’ll hate it) = they don’t get it.

When David the king wants to build God a house, a splendid Temple adorned with jewels (2 Samuel 7) = he doesn’t get it.
When David confesses his sins of committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) = he gets it.

When the disciples who’ve been with Jesus for three years are still gawking at the tall buildings and the splendid Temple (in today’s passage from Luke) = they still don’t get it

Jesus tries to help them and the crowd see that when you are hauled before synagogues and judges because you don’t fit in their orderly, successful scheme, that’s when you get it.

That’s when you are on the right side of the story of salvation history, the story that has been unfolding all along.

In fact that’s when you’re blessed, because you’re nearer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.

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Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that political power or religious control is part of knowing God’s near. God’s always been near, but our desire for power and control and our need to prove to others that we’re right means we’ve missed him. We’ve looked right past those who are near him.

Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that words are part of knowing God’s near. Jesus says poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, purity of heart, and persecution — these states of being — are the places where God is present.

When you are in those places yourself, when you are grieving and aching over injustice, worn down, sick at heart over your own failings, words don’t help much. Words are often part of the problem, especially when well-meaning religious people like us tell you everything is really all right.

Everything is not all right, but hear this: God is near.

Can you hear that?

Everything is not all right, but God is near.

Even Jesus — the Word of God as John calls him — even the Word of God stopped speaking in order to demonstrate God’s presence. That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now a newborn baby, speechless and helpless. Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now alone, a beaten and broken man, thirsty and suffocating on the cross.

That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

We Christians who are fortunate to have plenty are called to empty ourselves, like Jesus, to stop grasping for political power and religious respect, to stop talking about how we’re persecuted or how our plan is right, and instead to follow Jesus, to demonstrate by our presence with people who actually do suffer that God is with them.

Until we go farther – until we listen to people’s needs, until we join them in their cry for justice, until we stop looking for power and respect and risk being reviled and falsely accused ourselves, we don’t get it.

Let those with ears “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures and let us join with God in God’s plan for salvation.

Then we can truly sing:

But God’s power
Hour by hour

Is my Temple and my Tower

 

 

Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.

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He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.

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“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”

i-thirst

He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

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 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.

Amen.

A green olive tree in the house of God | Sermon for Proper 11C

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)

Gethsemane

The earthy smell of the olive trees in Gethsemane, ancient and alive at the same time, reminds Jesus of Martha and Mary. He smiles in the dark, his face wet with tears.

His disciples follow him as best they can, but look at them sleeping over there on this night so heavy with decision!

The men and women who crowd around him are sometimes caught up in his vision of the kingdom of God, sometimes seem to understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s his friend Mary who draws the vision out of him, whose listening ear gives him space to talk.

And it’s Martha who makes a home for him to rest in, to eat and drink and recover from the stress of his ministry.

He’s in agony now in the grey moments before dawn on this Friday morning, his heart racing just as it was when he heard that his friend, their brother Lazarus, had died.

Lazarus

Martha challenged Jesus right there in the road when he finally arrived — “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hands on her hips, she gets right in his face: “You should have done something!”

Martha’s love drives him to tears, the living water pouring from him in waves of grief and love, like healing oil for his friends, for her and Mary and Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” he says.

“Unbind him.”

The wailing of the mourners in Bethany is silenced, and all he can hear is tree limbs creaking in the breeze. The scent of the grave clothes is sharp and pungent, earthy and spicy.

Bethany

The first time he had come to Bethany, the whole house was warm, and the aroma of bread and spices filled his senses.

Martha was cooking something delicious – everything she made was delicious – and she gave him some green olives to eat before dinner was ready.

She chided Mary for not helping, but he laughed and said Mary had chosen the better part, and it would not be taken from her.

Mary held a rose in her lap, and she was listening, helping him to relax and put his thoughts in order while Martha busied herself in the background. The sharp taste of the olives kept his mind from wandering.

“You are busy with many things, Martha. There is only one needful thing.”

Like a green olive tree

On one knee in the crowded Jerusalem street, he struggles to rise. The earthy scent and the deadly weight of the wooden beam press him down, causing blood to flow freely from his wounded back and head.

Later, as he hangs from the cross, his breath getting shallower and more labored in the noonday heat, he is given a taste of sour wine.

His eyes close. What he wouldn’t give for another taste of green olives, for another evening in the warmth of Martha’s home!

Pain pierces his hands and feet in waves of grief and love as he stretches out his arms, offering himself with the same gesture she made when the meal was ready and she invited him and Mary to come to the table.

“Take, eat …”

“They know not what they do … but now I know what I am doing.”

“Lord, I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am the resurrection and the life … O Martha, believe.”

His vision of the kingdom completely clear now, he speaks to the one hanging next to him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”

Jerusalem

In the garden of Gethsemane stand olive trees that are more than 2,000 years old.

Fr. Aran tells me they still smell earthy and spicy, ancient and alive, just as they did in Jesus’ time.

They have endured the endless agonies of men and women down the centuries, continually bearing fruit from their gnarled limbs and giving oil for healing.

Another beloved disciple and friend of Jesus did catch his vision and followed the Way of his Lord into old age. In a revelation, John glimpsed “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

In the center of the heavenly city flows the river of the water of life, “and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree – like a green olive tree in the house of God — are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

Amen.

 

The plumb-line, the cross, and the circle

A parishioner reminded me earlier this week that I sometimes get political in my sermons. That was before two black men were killed by police and before five Dallas police officers were killed and seven others wounded by a lone shooter, a veteran who had served in Afghanistan. This morning I promise not to get political.

First of all, I am not a black man. And I am not a police officer. And I am not a military veteran. And I do not want to presume to speak about their frustration or their suffering or their families’ grief.

Instead I must offer some prophetic and pastoral words today. I am a Christian and an ordained minister, and the words of the Scriptures are directed at me, at us. It is my responsibility not only to heed the words of the Scriptures but to help you heed them, too.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors.

But first, let me start with a joke.

The Plumb-Line

I spent six hours driving back and forth from Charlotte through the mountains of western North Carolina for a business meeting on Friday. As I drove, I couldn’t help thinking of George Carlin’s observation that “anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac.”

This is precisely the kind of “judgment” that the Scriptures condemn, the judging of other nations as good or bad, the judging of other religions as right or wrong, the judging of other people as worthy or worthless.

The prophet Amos shows us, in a vivid image, why our judgment is flawed.

He sees in a vision “the Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand … then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line in the middle of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 7:7-8).

plumbline1

A plumb line, for those who may not know, is an ancient tool to help builders make their work straight and level. The heavy weight at the end of the line was originally made of “plumb,” or lead (that’s why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb).

But that’s not the point; the point of Amos’ vision is that only God’s judgment is perfect, and when he holds a plumb line up to humanity everything is crooked in comparison.

Every nation, even our beloved America, is crooked.

Just last Monday – it hasn’t even been a week! – we prayed on Independence Day to the “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”

Righteousness and peace? What a crock! What a self-righteous, violent, chaotic nation we are proving to be, if we could only see straight!

Just like the king of Israel, our nation won’t stand for judgment. And too often, our denominations and we religious leaders do just as Amaziah did and turn away the prophets for disturbing the peace. “Go somewhere else with your protests and activism; stop calling into question our righteousness and peace.”

Just like the priests of Israel, compared to God’s plumb-line, every denomination, every religious leader, is out of true. We offer our “thoughts and prayers” again and again and again, but we don’t get political in our sermons because we don’t want to rock the boat or offend anyone. Or we do get political in our messages, teaching (whether we mean to or not) that power and politics and success are what really matter.

But every person, every single one of us, is at least “half a bubble off plumb,” too. And here’s where it gets personal. What’s really happening when God’s plumb line hangs beside us is that we are ashamed. We see ourselves clearly, and we are ashamed.

Reflecting on “Dallas and American Contradictions,” Alexandra Petri wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that,

Being told that you aren’t living up to your own standards is an uncomfortable thing. …. [T]hat is an unpleasant thing to discover about yourself. So a lot of the anger in America now resembles the anger that you have at your mirror. ‘This isn’t what I look like,’ you say. ‘I look much better than that.’ It hurts to realize that the only reason you thought you didn’t have wrinkles was because the lighting was poor. But it’s not the fault of the light.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves …

The Cross

We see ourselves clearly, and we are ashamed. The plumb line just hangs there, but we feel like we are being sentenced. Because we are ashamed, we try to deflect attention away from ourselves, to justify our behavior.

The lawyer came back at Jesus with a second question “wanting to justify himself.”

That’s an important “hinge word” to pay attention to. Because our behavior – our living up to our national ideals or our keeping the commandments – has been called into question, we are ashamed and we try to justify ourselves.

“Our nation is not so bad.” At least America is not a warlike country invading other sovereign territories at will and destroying people’s homes and cities.

“Our political candidate is not so bad.” You know, the other ones misbehaved, too.

“Our religion is not so bad.” At least we’re not preaching violent fantasies and subjugating women and minorities.

So much of what we say and share on social media serves this self-justifying need – “I’m not so bad.” Other people are much worse.

At least I’m not like other people.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because it was the punch line of another parable Jesus told, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Justify is a hinge word because it has two meanings – we justify ourselves because of our shame, but the Gospel tells us our shame has been lifted and we have been justified by the grace of God through Jesus’ self-offering on the cross.

Paul writes that

while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

We must not try to justify ourselves – we must not try to take away our shame by deflecting attention onto others. We ourselves are the ungodly, the sinners for whom Christ died on the cross.

But do you hear the good news? We cannot justify ourselves, because in Christ we are justified by grace, through faith.

In the Advent season, the priest prays right before Communion that “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold Christ at his coming.” Christ’s self-offering on the cross is the hinge that turns our self-justifying into justification.

The cross, standing stark and upright, takes up the plumb-line of God’s judgment and transforms it into the symbol of God’s grace, erasing our shame and fear.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors.

 The Circle

One of the loveliest prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is this prayer for mission:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

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What could you accomplish if you could act without shame or fear, without the need to judge others, without the need to justify your actions?

You could accomplish just what the Samaritan man did in Jesus’ parable. You could stop focusing on yourself as better than anyone else, you could stop justifying your action (or inaction), you could see someone hurting and stop and help them.

The “Good Samaritan” is not actually the focus of today’s parable – even the way we talk about it shows that we miss the point. The Samaritan man focuses on the one in need, cares for him without judging him, and doesn’t have to spend any time justifying his inaction.

The Samaritan man – and us, if we follow Jesus’ invitation to “do likewise” – doesn’t waste any time deciding whether the man is worthy or deserved what he got, or should have given the robbers what they wanted. He simply binds his wounds and takes him somewhere safe.

My wife recently had tears in her eyes as she described to me how one father of an Orlando shooting victim refused to claim his son’s body — he hadn’t known his son was gay until he was killed — and how a local Seventh-Day Adventist Church offered to hold funerals for victims of the massacre who had no other place to go. She grew up in the SDA church, and had given her denomination up years ago for their judgmental attitudes, but here they showed that their focus was on the victims and their hurting families.

What Jesus says to the lawyer is that inheriting eternal life has nothing to do with judging others wrong. God’s plumb line makes clear your own crookedness.

It has nothing to do with justifying your actions by deflecting attention onto the sins of others; the cross casts its long shadow on your own sinfulness, at the same time taking away your shame and freeing you to act without fear.

Inheriting eternal life, according to Jesus, has to do with lessening the suffering of the people in your path. You don’t have to care for everyone, but you do have to respond to those who cross your path who are hurting.

Whether people meet you online or in person, on social media or in social settings, you create the circle of Christ’s outstretched arms of love; you bring people into Christ’s saving embrace.

Alongside the cross and within the circle of Christ’s love, the new plumb-line hangs as straight and true as ever: Did you lessen the suffering of the people you encountered today?

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors, for God’s sake.

Go, and do likewise. Amen.