Category Archives: Sermons

Choose the Kingdom life, you brood of vipers!

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

Look, it’s Gaudete Sunday and we’re lighting a pink candle in the Advent wreath. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Christmas is just around the corner … but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

What a downer! C’mon, John  ….

At least John is just a forerunner, announcing the coming of Jesus.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild — infant holy, infant lowly — whom we celebrate at Christmas.

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Yeah, we’ve been hearing from that Jesus all week in the Daily Office readings from Matthew 23.

And you know what? He sounds an awful lot like his cousin John.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ … You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt. 23)

So, yeah, let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

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I mean, what’s going on here?

What happened to our gentle Lord Jesus?

Well, you see, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting together to trap him (Matt. 22:16).

(You remember the Herodians — they follow Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the guy who had all the babies of Bethlehem killed when Jesus was born. Yeah, that guy.)

The religious and the political powers are converging around Jesus, trying to silence his message, which up until then had been about the kingdom of God, about healing and restoration.

They’ve been badgering him ever since he arrived in Jerusalem on that Sunday, riding on a donkey through the gate of Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna from the the palm-waving crowd.

They were probably still upset about the whole tables of the money-changers thing, still smarting from his response about paying taxes, still angry about his undermining their authority and evading their questions.

The chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the lawyer … push push push!

But Jesus has probably just about had it, too.

He turns to the crowd and delivers his outburst against the Pharisees and scribes — the hypocrites. He goes all John the Baptist on them.

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But that’s not the end of it.

Jesus does not win over the crowds — or the religious leaders — by railing at them.

In fact, he doesn’t win over the crowds at all.

As he leaves the Temple, he tells his disciples a number of parables, then says: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matt. 26:1-5)

It’s hard to tell whether it’s Advent or Lent … whether it’s Christmas or Good Friday.

Christmas is just around the corner, but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.

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I’m grateful to my Bishop, Matthew Gunter, who offered this brief meditation at a discernment retreat yesterday:

In response to what’s going on in the world around us, all the fear and violence, we can pick up a hammer and nails, or we can pick up a basin and towel.

The hammer and nails speak in the world’s language, the language of power and victory. The hammer pounds with the force of John the Baptist’s conviction, and the nails ring out with Jesus’ piercing clarity as he argues in the Temple.

But the hammer blows ring out against Jesus two days later, and the troublemaker hangs silent, nailed to a tree.

It seems the authorities have won.

But the basin and towel turn everything upside down.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks after the Last Supper is concluded, as he dries his hands on the towel around his waist.

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13).

The basin and towel set an example for us of Kingdom living, of a new way of acting in the face of the world’s power and violence.

The basin and towel wash our feet and set them on the way of the cross, which is paradoxically the way of life and peace.

The basin washes us just like Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan washed him.

Jesus, at the very end of his life, shows us how we should live, what we should do.

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“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist back at the beginning.

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

The Rev. Steve Pankey, on his blog Draughting Theology, writes:

John’s answer is simple. In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane. He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own. Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.

Wait… what? Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied? That’s what Kingdom living looks like? That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it. Which is precisely John’s point.

Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.

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Even now the ax is laid at the root of the tree.

So bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Choose the Kingdom life — the basin and towel — instead of the life of power and control that nailed gentle Jesus to the cross on Good Friday.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you lovely brood of vipers.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Give it away entirely and come into the oasis

Many of you know that two years ago this week I acknowledged my addiction to alcohol and began living in recovery.

I carry a pocket medallion as a reminder of the grace I have received in recovery – grace far beyond my imagining. Most days, I have a sense of living in what a friend calls “the oasis” and AA refers to as “a daily reprieve … contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

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My prayer life, my practice of the Daily Office, the teaching I do and the conversations I have with colleagues and friends – all of it has been reinvigorated by what the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr calls in Breathing Under Water the “coded Gospel” of the 12 Steps.

You may not realize, though, that stopping drinking was only a small part of the work that I have had to do in recovery. In addition to the medallion in my pocket, I also wear a bracelet around my wrist, one of the last things I bought without my wife’s knowledge before losing my job.

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My addiction to spending and to indulging myself has been much, much harder to deal with – it’s the same struggle alcoholics face when they can’t stop thinking about their next drink.

You lack one thing

I think I know a little bit about how the “rich young man” felt after he found Jesus.

A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments …. “ He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

You lack one thing …. you have many possessions.

Here’s where I think the rich young man realizes what the living God asks of each one of us. The living God asks for all of us.

The young man is looking for inspiration, but Jesus, who loves him, points to the one thing that really keeps him from God – the wealth he cannot imagine doing without.

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.”

What a state he must have found himself in:

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face! (Job 23:8-9,16-17)

The Almighty has terrified me

In our Old Testament lesson, Job has lost everything, and he does not yet have the answer that will help him remain faithful to God. The Almighty has terrifed him, and Job doesn’t yet understand that God loves him.

In the meantime, his friends and his wife, as Fr. Ralph reminded us last week, are giving him conflicting (and bad) advice. They can’t help him discover either God’s love or the one thing he lacks.

Unlike Job’s companions, however, my wife and my friends have given me good advice and steady support.

Their willingness to share love and to confront me about the things I lack has helped me do the hard work of staying steady in recovery.

  • A dear friend made sure I was “fearless and thorough from the very start” in admitting my failings.
  • A fellow deacon in another diocese helped me admit I needed to go to AA meetings and – laughing at how upside-down I had it – helped me understand that sobriety was an oasis, not a burden.
  • The first boss I had after losing my job, who has been sober for several years, gave me his 3-month sobriety medallion when I reached that milestone myself.
  • The guys in the Thursday morning breakfast and Bible study group here at St. Thomas drew me into their circle of support.
  • And my wife has cheerfully accommodated my being home and underfoot after nearly 10 years on the road, encouraging my new habits and being patient with my stumbling.

church-circle-graphicMy recovery – my new faith in this “coded Gospel” – really is something I have to work at every day. But what I have to work at most is not to do with drinking, but with spending money.

It’s a Pendleton, you idiot!

Sitting on the sofa watching TV one night a few months ago, I was in jeans and my favorite flannel shirt, and I thought “I really like this shirt; I should buy another one.”

A couple beats later, after that thought went away, a new one came in. “You’re an idiot; that’s a Pendleton shirt. It’ll last for 100 years. You’ll be dead before it wears out. You don’t need another one.”

“Oh, cool.”

Contentment is weird.

People in recovery are more used to being “restless, irritable, and discontented” (Big Book xxviii).

But when you’re content, it’s like you can just be, and everything is all right. Perhaps eternal life is like that – just being with God, living in an oasis.

What must I do?

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the rich young man, who probably had several shirts.

Jesus loves him, and says, “You lack one thing … get rid of the thing that’s keeping you from God, whatever it is. Give it away entirely, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.”

For me, giving away my desire for a drink and giving away my desire to buy more things have together led me back to Jesus and to “a faith that really works in daily living” (12and12, 43).

What is the one thing you lack?

What might Jesus, who loves you, point to in your life? What’s the one thing that keeps you from God?

Is it money?

Food? Anger? Gossip?

Is it drinking or drugs or politics or something equally addictive?

Is it approval or being right or getting your way?

What are you holding onto so tightly that you can’t receive the treasure of heaven?

Give it away entirely, and enter the oasis!

Speaking of oases

The story of the rich young man reminds me of another favorite story, this one not from an oasis but from the Desert Fathers of 3rd century Egypt:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

 Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “Why not become totally flame?”

abbas lot and joseph - all flameWhat’s the one thing you lack? What’s holding you back from God?

Why not give it away in order to find a faith that works, in order to find contentment?

Why not become totally flame?

Why not give it away entirely, and live now in the oasis with God?

Transformed by the renewing of our minds | Sermon for June 28, 2015

I subscribe to the daily emails sent by the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr, who said once at a lecture at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena that:

Religion distinguishes between education and transformation. They’re not the same thing! You can be educated and not transformed, and you can be uneducated and profoundly transformed.

But the apostle Paul blends the two in his letter to the Romans, where he writes:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

Education and transformation go together in the program called Education for Ministry, or EfM, which Joanne and Barb invited me to talk about today here at St. Luke’s.

EFM as education

Students in EfM really are students. They read textbooks chosen by staff at the Beecken Center of the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee (one of the 11 historic Episcopal seminaries).

EfM was created 40 years ago as a “four-year distance learning certificate program of theological education,” and students will testify that they learn a lot.

EfM students in Year One listening to today’s Gospel might be thinking about the Old Testament’s (excuse me, the Hebrew Bible’s) ritual purity laws.

John Petty of ProgressiveInvolvement.com writes that:

Mark does not explicitly mention violations of the ‘purity code,’ but there are two of them in this reading. First, the woman with the hemorrhage touched Jesus, rendering him unclean. Second, Jesus touched the dead young woman, which also would have rendered him unclean.

EfM students in Year Two might be thinking about the New Testament and how to interpret documents written in Greek nearly 2,000 years ago.

Mark Davis, on his blog Left Behind and Loving It, translates the Greek of each week’s Gospel reading directly and comments on the problems or insights he discovers.

Mark the Gospel writer’s prose is urgent and breathless anyway, but this passage takes the cake:

And a woman being in a flow of blood for 12 years and having suffered much by many physicians and having spent all that she had and not having benefitted but having gone from bad to the worse having heard about Jesus having gone into the crowd she grabbed his garment from behind.

Davis goes on to say, “She is as defined by her determination as by her suffering. That is the value of respecting Mark’s string of participles and being patient for the main verb. After all that she suffered and did, she grabbed his garment.”

EfM students in Year Three might be thinking about how the political maneuverings and bloody wars of 3,000 years of church history are seemingly unrelated to today’s Gospel.

As one student in my group observes nearly every week, “The church history author hardly mentions Jesus at all!”

The church history we read is really the history of 3,000 years of religious change.

The last couple of weeks have seen momentous changes, with the events in Charleston and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the ACA and marriage equality, with President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Episcopal Church’s election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, another African-American preacher, as our 27th Presiding Bishop.

And yet we realize that the past is prologue, that history repeats itself, that even today girls in Zimbabwe, Kenya, or Haiti who have reached the age of menstruation often have to miss school because their period is seen as shameful. Girls in Bangladesh and India suffer infections for lack of clean supplies.

As for their hopes of an education or independence, they might as well be dead — like the synagogue leader’s unnamed daughter.

And EfM students in Year Four will have been reading stories and academic analyses about how people in different cultures read the Gospel differently, about how men and women read the Gospel differently, about how the powerful and powerless read the Gospel differently.

Deborah Blanks, associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, writes for the African-American Lectionary.org:

[Jesus’] message is clear – that the unnamed woman is of no less importance than the ill daughter of a person of power. She becomes a perpetual reminder that the socially marginal have a conspicuous place in the realization of God’s reign.

EfM might help us learn a lot that enriches our appreciation of the Gospel, but it doesn’t stop there.

EFM as reflection

We don’t simply gaze in admiration at all of the pictures our teachers have painted.

Instead, we deliberately – in a process called theological reflection – look more closely at the pictures, entering into the emotions and dilemmas and questions they depict.

In our “TRs” (as we call them) we seek a glimpse of how God is acting in our lives and share with each other our transformed understanding.

If we were doing a theological reflection on efficiency, for example, we might picture Jesus as a paramedic and look closely at his presence in this chaotic and emotional scene.

Peter Woods, on his blog The Listening Hermit, writes an entry called “Jesus has no time for triage”.

With all the drama of a novel rushing to its climax, Mark inserts the older hopeless woman into the story of Jesus’ mission to heal the just girl. The old bleeding woman is an interruption and an energy thief to boot! Yet, as the story unfolds both are healed. The young and the old, the hopeful and the hopeless. There is enough time, power, compassion, and grace to go round so that no one needs be written off.

Or, if we were doing a theological reflection on vulnerability, we might remember that the woman is ritually impure, shunned because of her bleeding; the child is unclean (and her father prostrate with grief) because she is dead. We might see ourselves in the portrait before us.

David Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia writes on the blog Dear Working Preacher:

We tend in our culture to avoid vulnerability – to avoid admitting that we don’t have it all together – because of the way it can leave you feeling exposed, desperate and, well, vulnerable. And there is something of that in these stories. But we’ve also seen that only in admitting our vulnerability are we able to receive help, and only by owning our moments of desperation are we willing to try something out of the ordinary, discover the courage to be and act differently.

Being transformed for ministry

Jesus’ presence in the whirlwind encounters with the woman and the child transformed them. The child was brought back to life, and the woman was brought back into life.

Jesus transformed and encouraged them both.

He encouraged Mark and the other disciples to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and the world keeps turning upside down.

Having “the courage to be and to act differently” – that’s what it means to be transformed by Jesus.

Admitting our vulnerability – admitting that we don’t have it all together – and receiving help, that’s the renewing of our minds in Jesus that helps us to “discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Transformation is for all of us. Reflection is for all of us. Education is for all of us.

Shameless plug: Education for Ministry is for all of us.

Being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect – that’s for all of us.

Amen.

[Sermon preached at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.]

Sermon at Morning Prayer | Sunday, June 21, 2015

“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of Ethel Lance said. “And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

“As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you,” survivor Felicia Sanders said. “But may God have mercy on you.”

How in the world can these people from Emanuel AME Church in Charleston be at peace?

How in the world can they have forgiveness in their hearts?

How did they come to possess “the peace that passes understanding”?

The Cycle of Gospel Living

It’s clear that most of us do not have that peace.

We try to talk about racism and violence and the other ills that plague us, but we end up talking past each other and inflaming each other further. The news media and social media erupt with argument and counter-argument.

Even when we are fellow-Christians trying to speak about the Gospel, we do not always help as we had hoped to. We try to “proffer the Word of life,” but we still talk past each other.

The Rev. Eric H. F. Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute teaches about the “Cycle of Gospel Living,” and I believe it can help us in these challenging conversations.

We have studied this cycle in our Education for Ministry groups this year, as we reflect on “Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World.”

Take a moment to look at the diagram carefully.

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We all participate in the dying and rising of Christ, in the cross and resurrection, but we enter the cycle from different places – the powerless from the bottom, the powerful from the top.

This cycle is reflected in all three of the readings assigned for the Daily Office today:

From the bottom, from complete defeat and disaster for Israel, “The wife of Phinehas said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’” (1 Samuel 4:22)

After speaking to someone on top, a rich young man, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23).

And writing to Christian Jews living in “the Dispersion,” in a variety of different places, James says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low” (James 1:9-10).

The Coded Gospel

How in the world can these people be at peace?

How can we come to possess the peace that passes understanding?

“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps…. Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

Through my own experiences in recovery I have heard in the 12 Steps of AA what Richard Rohr calls “the coded Gospel” (Breathing Under Water).

An experience of powerlessness can trigger our awareness that we cannot handle our life alone.

When we admit our powerlessness, we can find reprieve – “a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

We may even find that our regular spiritual practices become an oasis, rather than a burden.

Sitting in the Oasis

The members of Emanuel AME Church were meeting for their regular Wednesday night Bible study.

They were sitting “in the oasis,” and they welcomed a stranger to join them, even offering him a seat of honor next to their pastor.

As African-American people in South Carolina, they lived in relative powerlessness – even though their pastor was also a state senator, the streets around their church are named for Confederate generals, a constant reminder of slavery and of past and present violence against people of color.

As people of color, their identification with Jesus, their entry into the cycle of gospel living, may have been at the bottom, but their endurance like Jesus, their empowerment by Jesus, and the daily maintenance of their spiritual condition in union with the resurrected Jesus produced in them an oasis, full of living water.

Choosing the Cross

We do not necessarily have the same experience of the Gospel.

Our identification with Jesus, our entry into the cycle of Gospel living, is more likely to start at the top and to require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we enjoy as white people in northeast Wisconsin.

Whether something like addiction calls us up short, whether the death of a loved one brings us low, whether we are cut to the quick by the words of Scripture, our falling and failing will also lead us into “the way of the cross, [which is] none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

You Cannot Transmit Something You Haven’t Got

So how did they come to possess the peace that passes understanding?

And how can we come to share in the peace that does not “treat the wound of [God’s] people carelessly” (Jer. 6:14)?

The “Big Book” of AA reassures me that “the answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got” (164).

Many people in the Episcopal Church, especially as we prepare for General Convention, are calling us to a preach resurrection and engage in the kind of practices that will get us what we need to transmit.

A Memorial to the Church by the Acts 8 Moment invites the Episcopal Church to:

  • recommit itself to the spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life,
  • go into our neighborhoods boldly …, and
  • restructure our church for the mission God is laying before us today.

And 3 Practices TEC invites us to:

  • follow Jesus together
  • into the neighborhood, and
  • travel lightly

The Spiritual Disciplines at the Core

Like the 12 Steps of recovery, the “spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life” are deceptively simple:

  • Celebrate the Holy Eucharist on Sundays and Major Feasts
  • Pray every morning and evening, soaking yourself in the Scriptures
  • Confess your sins to God, and to another person if you need to
  • Feast during Christmas and Easter and on Major Feasts; fast during Lent and on Fridays
  • Baptize, confirm, and teach new disciples
  • Care for each other “in sickness and in health”

And, just like the folks in AA have a “Big Blue Book” we have a “Red Book” (the Book of Common Prayer).

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The “daily maintenance of our spiritual condition” is not a depressing burden, as I feared when I first entered recovery.

“You’ve got it all backwards,” a fellow deacon said when I called him in a panic. “Every day you don’t drink is an oasis!”

Rather than being a burden, our spiritual disciplines can create in us an oasis, a place where we are free to greet the stranger whom we meet in our churches or as we follow Jesus out into the neighborhood.

And one last thing, these practices are mostly portable, making it easy to travel lightly.

Sure, we usually gather in a church building on Sundays and holidays, but the book we need for the Daily Office fits easily into a briefcase – in fact, you don’t even need a book, since the Forward Movement iPhone app works just as well!

And soaking daily in the Scriptures means that following God “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven … neither is it beyond the sea …. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:14).

The Word is Very Near You

Listen again to that word:

“We enjoyed you … and may God have mercy on you.”

These are the words of a woman who lives in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.

These are the words of someone whose own experience of powerlessness, death, and violence is being transformed by her endurance, empowering her to offer a blessing instead of a curse.

We may not be able to offer those same words – we are not at the same place in the cycle of gospel living – but we can also participate in the resurrection life.

For us it may require a costly admission or an unwelcome realization, and it may require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we hold onto so tightly.

But we, too, can know the peace of Christ, recognize it in our neighbors, and share it with those around us.

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among us, and remain with us always. Amen.

Kings and priests and friends | Sermon for Good Friday

Kings

Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant,

Kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. (Isaiah 52:15)

We heard last night the refrain “Servants are not greater than their master” (John 13:16). Consider some of the servants of the king – the Roman emperor and the imperial government – in this Passion Gospel:

  • The detachment of soldiers – who coordinated with the Temple police in a tactical raid to arrest Jesus
  • Pilate – the governor of Judea, who bowed to political pressure and for expediency released a convicted killer and sentenced an innocent man to death
  • The soldiers at the headquarters – who beat and taunted and humiliated an innocent man, parading him around in a purple robe and crowning him with thorns
  • The emperor himself – whose hold on power depended on brutal, efficient force and military might
  • The soldiers at the cross – who shared their sour wine with Jesus and who did not break his legs to hasten his cruel death, because he was dead already.

“Kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see.”

Priests

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach …. And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1, 11)

We heard last night the refrain “Servants are not greater than their master.” Consider some of the servants of the Temple hierarchy in this Passion Gospel:

  • The police from the chief priests – who came with lanterns and torches and weapons (and a SWAT team of Roman soldiers) to arrest Jesus; who bound him and took him to …
  • Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas – who questioned Jesus, who had his police strike him for blasphemy, who had him bound as though he were dangerous.
  • Caiaphas, the high priest – who “advised that it was better to have one person die for the people.”
  • The chief priests – who complained “Do not write ‘King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man said ‘I am King of the Jews.’” and who shouted to Pilate “We have no king but the emperor!”

Kings and priests, priests and kings …. upholding the law, administering the law, enforcing the rule of law, executing the sentences of the law.

“[The law] can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.”

Friends

Kings and priests …. and friends.

We heard last night the refrain “Servants are not greater than their master.”

But Jesus went on to say more, after he had shared a meal with us, after he had washed our feet as an example, and after his betrayer had gone out from among us.

“I do not call you servants any longer, for servants do not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

Br. David Vryhof writes in the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s online meditation today that:

We are invited to take our stand at the foot of the Cross, joining the small company of Jesus’ friends who are already gathered there. We stand there together, under a dark and threatening sky, to witness the suffering of our Savior, to be with him in his hour of immense pain and desperate need.

Consider the small company of Jesus’ friends:

  • Peter – whose early-morning bluster and swordplay in the garden earned him a silent rebuke from Jesus, who was undone by a servant girl’s questions, who denied his friend before the sun even came up, but whose confession would become the rock on which Christ would build his Church.
  • Mary – who with her sister and two other Marys stood at the foot of the cross, all of them pierced through the heart for the son and master they had loved, but whose faithfulness meant they would be first witnesses to his resurrection.
  • The disciple Jesus loved – who could not only bear witness, but who could bear up his friend’s mother in her grief, laying her head on his breast just as he laid his head on Jesus’ breast at the table last night.
  • Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – who had much to fear from the chief priests and the council, but who stayed firm in their resolve to do their part.

“Kings shall shut their mouths at him,” for his gentle power undoes their shows of force, and “priests by their sacrifices can never take away sins,” for their law of might betrays their true allegiance.

But let us – the small company of Jesus’ friends, the Master’s friends – “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

We Wish to See Jesus | Sermon for Tuesday in Holy Week

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

At the time of Jesus, most Jews spoke Greek, and the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in a version called the Septuagint. 

“Greeks,” though, is the term the Gospel writers usually use not for non-Jews or residents of Greece, but instead for Greek-speaking (and often non-Palestinian) Jews and also for “God-fearers,” those who were not Jewish but who attended synagogue services and practiced the faith as best as they could. 

Stephen the Deacon was a Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking Jew; Cornelius the Roman centurion was a Gentile and probably a God-fearer.

But what do you think these Greeks wanted to see? Who do you think the “God fearers” were looking for?

Paul says that “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” but what Jesus says to the Greeks who come looking sounds foolish.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jesus first talks about the pattern of his life – the dying and rising, the self-emptying which is central to his ministry. He links that dying and rising to his work of salvation on the cross.

He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” His dying on the cross will accomplish not only his rising to new life, but bear fruit in ours, too.

The pattern of dying and rising doesn’t make any sense. The dying doesn’t fit with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that just happened right before our reading; it doesn’t fit with hailing Jesus as the coming King, the Messiah who “remains forever,” according to the Hebrew Bible.

What do you mean? the crowd asks Jesus.

Jesus answers them with another odd image: 

The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.

Several times during his ministry, Jesus has said something like this:

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” – he said that just last night at dinner with Lazarus and Mary. His feet probably still smelled of Mary’s costly perfume as he rode into the city on the back of a donkey.

“While the bridegroom is with them, his friends rejoice” – he said that early in his ministry when he was questioned about why his disciples didn’t properly observe some Sabbath regulations.

While we have Jesus with us, everything is different and the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore.

So Jesus’ dying and rising is the pattern for his life, and his presence makes a difference to his friends.

On Saturday night – after our “way of the cross” has led us with Jesus to supper with his friends and his betrayal by one of them; to his agonized prayer in the garden and to his arrest; and to his crucifixion and his death – on Saturday night the darkness of our church will be split by a single candle flame.

I’ll sing, “The light of Christ!”

And you’ll respond, “Thanks be to God!”

You see, dying and rising is the pattern. Good Friday comes, but so does Easter. Self-sacrificing, daily dying to self, is necessary, but it leads to resurrection life. The darkness comes, we no longer see our friend Jesus, but ultimately the light of Christ prevails.

This is the Gospel message that Stephen and the other Greek-speaking followers of the Way witnessed to, many of them with their lives. 

This is the Gospel that Paul carried to the Hellenistic world, to the actual “Greeks” and Romans and other Gentiles, and eventually, down the long centuries to us.

Many centuries before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon. Though many returned to the land, many more remained in the Diaspora – no longer speaking Hebrew, but speaking Greek like their neighbors.

“It is too light a thing,” said God upon his people’s return, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The restoration, the enlightenment, the resurrection life is not for keeping. It’s for sharing.

And you see, we still “walk while we have the light.”

“The darkness has not overcome it,” says John, and with the Spirit in our midst we always have the light of Christ with us, so the darkness will not overtake us.

Jesus’ dying and rising is the pattern for his life, and his presence makes all the difference to us – his friends.

By our dying and rising, by the pattern of our lives, we walk in the light, witnessing to the light of Christ in us and sharing it with “all the nations.”

May the Greeks who come looking always see Jesus when they encounter us …

An audio version of this sermon can be found at St. Thomas’ YouTube page:

http://youtu.be/JoE1b_qa0Ok

Rehearsing the whole of the faith

Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48).

Picture the scene in Jerusalem in the late fourth century:

“Immediately a throne is placed for the bishop in the major church, the Matryrium …. The bishop [teaches them the law] in this way: beginning with Genesis and going through the whole of Scripture during these forty days, expounding first its literal meaning and then explaining the spiritual meaning. In the course of these days everything is taught not only about the Resurrection but concerning the body of the faith. This is called catechetics” (134*).

These are the words of Egeria, a Spanish woman who spent a year in Jerusalem on pilgrimage and wrote letters home about everything she saw and how the Church in Jerusalem worshiped.

It’s entirely possible that the bishop she saw on the throne teaching the catechumens (those who were preparing for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter) was Cyril himself.

Cyril taught his fellow-Christians about living in the way of the cross, about repentance and forgiveness, dying and rising, and he helped develop the doctrines that became the Nicene Creed.

Cyril wrote about the way of the cross in his Catechetical Instructions, saying that “Jesus never sinned; yet he was crucified for you. Will you refuse to be crucified for him, who for your sake was nailed to the cross? You are not the one who gives the favor; you have received one first. For your sake he was crucified on Golgotha. Now you are returning his favor; you are fulfilling your debt to him” (136).

Christians then and now walk in the way of the cross during Holy Week, putting ourselves imaginatively in the places where Jesus himself was arrested, carried his cross, stumbled and fell, and was crucified. We will observe Stations of the Cross in Solidarity with the Persecuted Church at St. Thomas on Palm Sunday and three times on Good Friday.

The pattern of dying and rising that we rehearse through Holy Week and Easter is the pattern of the Gospel and of life in Christ.

We learn through experience that repentance and forgiveness are the way forward in relationships, that falling and rising again move us toward deeper union with God and each other, that our failing and falling lead us into greater dependence on God “who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son to the end that none should perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Sometimes it’s the Church that teaches us this pattern, but often it’s a mentor or support group or teacher or 12-Step program.

Jesus himself not only teaches but embodies this pattern. “Then he opened [the disciples’] minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’” (Luke 24:45-48).

Cyril and the believers in Jerusalem kept Holy Week by walking the Way of the Cross from place to place in Jerusalem, from the Martyrium to Golgotha, from the Mount of Olives to the Holy Sepulchre, and Cyril spent his time and energy with catechumens, “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.”

He taught them that “in learning and professing the faith, you must accept and retain only the Church’s present tradition, confirmed as it is by the Scriptures. Although not everyone is able to read the Scriptures … we have gathered together the whole of the faith in a few concise articles … this summary of the faith was not composed at any human whim; the most important sections were chosen from the whole Scripture to consitute and complete a comprehensive statement of the faith” (447).

So as we prepare ourselves to walk the Way of the Cross during Holy Week …

As we reflect on the falling and failing in our lives and see God at work to redeem and raise us …

As we open each other’s minds to understand the Scriptures …

Let’s follow Cyril’s example “in learning and professing the faith,” and let’s also join Cyril and Egeria and our fellow pilgrims in rehearsing “the whole of the faith in a few concise articles.”

+ + + + +

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen. (BCP 358)

* Page numbers for the passages from Cyril and Egeria refer to J. Robert Wright’s Readings for the Daily Office From the Early Church (Church Publishing, 1991, 2013).

Sermon for 2 Lent | Abraham, Peter, and a mustard seed

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31-33)

I don’t know if Paul had this story in mind when he wrote today’s chapter of the letter to the Romans, but his rivalry with Peter might have colored the way he painted the story of Abraham’s faith.

Abraham

Before the portion of Genesis that we read this morning (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16), Abram:

  • had already followed God to the land he showed him, “along with his wife Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, and all their possessions, and all the persons they had acquired”
  • had already gone down to Egypt because of a famine
  • had already separated from Lot so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way, then come back to rescue him
  • had already been blessed by Melchizedek
  • had already made a covenant with God, and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness”
  • and had already had a son, Ishmael, with Sarai’s servant girl Hagar, who went into exile with the boy

Today, God gives Abraham a new name, and God says Sarah will give birth to a son.

Here’s how Abraham responds, at least according to Paul:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:19-22)

Peter

Now before Jesus started talking about suffering and dying, Simon

  • had already left his nets and followed him
  • had already seen a man with an unclean spirit healed
  • had already seen his mother-in-law healed, for goodness’ sake
  • had already seen a leper healed
  • had already seen a paralyzed man get up and walk
  • had already seen a tax collector leave the money follow Jesus
  • had already been appointed one of the Twelve and given a new name, Peter
  • had already heard Jesus teach in parables, calm a storm, heal a demoniac, raise a girl to life and heal a suffering woman

And Peter had already gone out on a mission with the rest of the apostles and done all of these impossible things himself!

And then …. Jesus fed 5,000 people, walked on water, cured a deaf man, and fed 4,000 more people.

And then Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”

Today, Jesus talks about yet another impossible thing: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter starts to argue with Jesus, saying that’s not how it’s going to be! We’re on a roll here – look at everything we’ve accomplished – and it’s just going to keep getting better from now on!

Jesus is sharp in his rebuke, calling Peter on the carpet in front of everyone. “Get behind me, you adversary, you tempter! (That’s what “Satan” means.) You’re focused on human things, not divine.”

I can just imagine Peter’s face burning red with shame.

In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr writes “Jesus praised faith and trust – even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall, or to fail, and not to fall apart.”

How Peter must be humbled by Jesus’ rebuke, though he still has to fall, and fail, a couple more times before he finally falls upward into the identity his name points to: Peter the Rock.

The Mustard Seed

But today I want to turn from rocks, and from the mountain-top where the tempter lives, and focus down on a little mustard seed.

Jesus said, according to Matthew, that “if you have faith the size a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Both Abraham and Peter had trust.

Both of them had seen God acting and had followed God in trust.

Abraham also had just enough faith to be “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

That little faith, small as a mustard seed, was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”

However, Peter is most like us – that’s probably why he’s first among the Twelve apostles.

Like Peter, we have already seen Jesus and his Spirit acting in our lives:

  • In two powerful Faith Alive weekends that have revitalized the congregation
  • In vibrant healing ministries that we offer each other every week
  • In so many Bible studies, EfM groups, and reading groups every week
  • Through our mission partners and mission prayer links
  • Through our children and young people
  • In our retired clergy, so generous with their wisdom and time
  • In the 85 people who came out on Wednesday night to gather with our bishop for a Lenten study

But like Peter we have a hard time hearing Jesus when the talk turns serious, when he sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

The transformative dying that Jesus describes, what we now call the Way of the Cross, demands of us not just trust that Jesus is leading us where we need to go, but faith that our falling and failing actually moves us upward toward the share in the kingdom that he promises.

That kingdom, Jesus says, is within us (Luke 17:21).

That kingdom, he says, “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32).

Jesus says elsewhere that unless a grain of wheat is planted and dies, it cannot rise into new growth (John 12:24).

We are so like Peter in our falling and our failing — afraid to let go of our success, afraid to risk even a tiny mustard seed of faith.

Today, may we be like Abraham, fully convinced that God, in Christ, can do what he has promised.

“For those who want to save their life,” Jesus says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Our little faith is enough. Our little mustard seed of faith, if we are willing to lay it down for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the good news, is enough.

And that little mustard seed of faith will “be reckoned to us as righteousness,” just as Paul said it would be.

He also said, “The promise rests on grace … “

And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and for ever. Amen.

Without shame or fear

In just a few minutes, Fr. Ralph will lead us in the Great Thanksgiving as we prepare to celebrate Communion:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

“That we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing …”

But we should be ashamed.

We are citizens of a country in which black men like Mike Brown and Eric Garner and black boys like Tamir Rice are killed and the police officers who killed them are not indicted. We good citizens too often prefer to talk about the character of the victim and not the behavior of the police.

We live in a world in which at least 20% of women report being victims of sexual assault, and where 1,600 years after St. Nicholas saved girls from slavery they are still sold into sex trafficking. We well-behaved people too often prefer to talk about dress codes for young women or blame the woman for not protecting herself, instead of focusing on the behavior of the rapists and abusers.

We are part of a society in which a mentally ill man is not only not in the hospital, but is on Death Row and just a day away from execution. He was pardoned this week, but the scandal is that he was that close to being killed for being mentally ill. We who are supposedly “sound of mind” would rather not think about it.

We belong to each other, but we feel like we’re individuals. We feel alone.

And we are so afraid …

We are afraid to offer a hand to a poor person, in case a working mother uses her SNAP benefit to buy something tasty for her family. We’re so afraid that $74 billion is too much to spend, that we don’t notice she’s only getting about $125 a month for each person in her family. [FNS USDA 2014]

We are afraid that we’re not beautiful enough, or thin enough, or sexy enough, or fit enough, and we spend $60 billion each year on dietary supplements and gym memberships and diet soda [US News 2013]. Even in the middle of the recession, in 2010 we spent $11 billion on plastic surgery [Reuters 2010].

We are afraid to admit that we benefit from a strong military presence around the world, that our being able to feel secure and safe means that innocent people sometimes die in raids and drone attacks.

How long, O Lord?

We are too often blind and cheap and shallow in our daily lives, but what we’re really afraid of is dying, and what we’re ashamed to do is face up to our own failings.

Advent, far from being a run-up to Christmas, to gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild, is as much a reminder of death as it is of life, and it confronts us with the question of judgment. Will we be forgiven?

The reading from the Second Letter of Peter is a perfect example. “What happens to the people who die?” is the question behind today’s passage.

Peter replies by saying this: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think about slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” He goes on to say, “Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” (2 Peter 3:9,15)

Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation …

Peter also asks the question, “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

That is, how should we live in the meantime?

I don’t think Peter means for us to live in shame, but rather in humility and expectation, having experienced the forgiveness of Jesus.

The author Marilynne Robinson writes that:

The one letter confidently attributed to Peter, the friend of Jesus, represents Jesus in terms of his humility and patience to suffering … Perhaps it is Peter’s memory of the moment in which he himself injured Jesus that gives such power to his description. (from Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament)

If Peter, who denied Jesus before his crucifixion, has been forgiven, who are we to remain ashamed? If you have confessed your faults to another person, as I have, and received forgiveness, as I have, who are you to feel ashamed?

And who are we to be afraid?

Another of my favorite authors addresses Paul, the other great apostle of the New Testament, who would not want us to live in fear.

Robert Farrar Capon writes:

[I]f God has really done what the Epistle to the Romans says he has, he’s gone ahead and solved all his problems with sin independently of what sinners might or might not do about it. That’s outrageous, of course; and it’s not at all what most people think a God who’s a card-carrying member of the God Union ought to do. But it is what the Mystery of Christ is all about, because by that Mystery, God’s love and forgiveness are intimately and immediately present in full force to everyone in the world, virtuous or wicked, Christian or not, simply because the Word of God incarnate in Jesus is present to everyone in the world. Nobody has to clean up his act in order to be forgiven or loved; all anybody has to do is *believe (trust, have faith)* that he’s home free already, and then enjoy the forgiveness he’s had all along by passing it on to everybody he runs into. (The Mystery of Christ … and Why We Don’t Get It)

So, to Peter’s question, what sort of persons ought we to be?

If we have been seen in our shame and forgiven for our blindness and pettiness and shallowness, can we pass along that forgiveness? Can we look clearly at the behavior of those who injure others – or kill them or abuse them or belittle them – and see them through the same forgiving eyes as Jesus saw Peter?

If we have been set free from the fear of death, how should we treat those who are still afraid? Can we defend those who do fear death – or abuse or imprisonment or hunger – because they are vulnerable? Can we protect them so that they might experience the same freedom we enjoy?

If we can see and forgive, defend and protect, perhaps then we can inspire people to repentance and holiness, as we ourselves have been inspired.

If we can help people see that the grace and forgiveness comes first, and that our repentance, our turning around, is how we respond to the freedom we’ve been given, maybe then we can inspire others to live that way, too.

And maybe then our prayer will indeed be true:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

 

Amen.

Those who bring good news

There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:12-15)

Beautiful Feet

We Christians know that our feet were made beautiful by Jesus himself, who on the
night before he died …

“took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the
towel that was tied around him …. After he had washed their feet, had put on
his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I
have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is
what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also
ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also
should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater
than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them”
(John 13).

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord

Peter certainly isn’t “greater than the one who sends him”; in fact, Peter is the
patron saint of leaping before you look.

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the
water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the
water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became
frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus
immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little
faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31).

Joseph, on the other hand, doesn’t doubt. He has always known he was his father
Israel’s favorite – he has the “coat with long sleeves,” the coat of many colors to
remind him. It’s left out of our reading this morning, but Joseph wasn’t the easiest to get along with – he kept dreaming that his brothers, and even his father and mother, were bowing down to him. Even so, when his jealous older brothers saw their chance and sold him into slavery, his faith in God remained strong.

Joseph’s faith is remembered and his story retold in this morning’s psalm:

He sent a man before them, *
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet in fetters; *
his neck they put in an iron collar.
Until his prediction came to pass, *
the word of the LORD tested him.
The king sent and released him; *
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He set him as a master over his household,*
as a ruler over all his possessions,
To instruct his princes according to his will*
and to teach his elders wisdom. (Psalm 105:17-22)

Joseph is an example of endurance, of embracing his new role as servant to Potiphar,
of integrity when falsely accused and sent to prison, and of reliance on God to
interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s exemplary character and
puts him in charge of his house and the whole land of Egypt.

Much later, when Joseph is about 45 years old, when the famine he predicted has
struck the land and his older brothers come to Egypt in search of food, Joseph’s faith leads him to bless them instead of cursing them – to be a messenger of good news.

Messengers of good news

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

There’s a wonderful backwards series of sentences in Paul’s letter this morning:
“How are they to call on – to believe in – to hear – to proclaim – unless they are
sent?”

We have been sent – by our baptism into Christ’s body, by the washing of our feet
that Thursday night on Jerusalem, by our participation in his death and resurrection,
by the empowering of his Holy Spirit – we have been sent to proclaim good news.

We proclaim the simple message of the Gospel: that Jesus is Lord, and that
“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

There’s nothing more to it than that. The good news is simple.

And we are simple, like Peter, mindful of our own doubt and sin, but grateful for
God’s power to save us and for the gift of a new spirit.

Like Peter said “not my feet only, but wash my hands and my head,” we proclaim the
good news “not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to [God’s] service” (BCP 101).

The good news is not just what we say, but how we live.

We are like Joseph, mindful that we are beloved, but resolved to live with integrity.
When others are in trouble, even if what they do hurts us, we have it in our power to
bless and not curse. When others are hurting, most of us have plenty to spare, and
our generosity speaks volumes about God’s grace.

The good news is simple: Jesus is Lord, and “everyone who calls upon the name of
the Lord shall be saved.”

We are sent to proclaim the good news by word and deed.

The rest is not up to us

We cannot control what other people hear.

I’ve just spent weeks learning how to teach a course for physicians, nurses, and hospital administrators on “Leading Change” – a course that underscores that very point. People receive what we say to them filtered through many layers of perception. We can tailor our message to reach people better, but we cannot control what they hear.

We cannot convince people to believe.

Any of you who have tried to have a political “discussion” on Facebook know how well that works. We’re called to witness to new life and transformation, more than we are called to deploy proofs of logic. We cannot reason people into risking the leap of faith.

And, we cannot make people call upon the name of the Lord.

The ISIS fighters in Iraq are trying to do that at gunpoint and at the tip of the sword. They are preaching hate, not love. Our own Christian history is also full of too many examples of forced conversions and coercive use of power. We cannot make people into Christians; we
must invite them to join us.

Beloved, we are sent to proclaim a much simpler good news, free from force or
distinction or coercion – “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him” – and to proclaim it by word and deed.

So, this week …

Like Peter, let Jesus draw you outside of your comfort zone into something that feels
a little risky.

Like Joseph, proclaim good news in a way that goes beyond righteousness and into
material help.

I am taking my own advice here – like Peter, I feel that I need to step “outside the
boat” in my prayer life, to risk leaving some of the familiarity and comfort of the
Daily Office and to spend more time silently resting in Jesus’ presence. I have to trust that his hand will be there to catch me, and I do trust him.

Like Joseph, I am also feeling that I need to go beyond praying for Christians who are being persecuted in Iraq and do something more direct to help them. So I have given a donation to Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” and his work at St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad through his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.

How is God sending you this week? How will you risk stepping outside the boat?
How will you go beyond prayer and into action to help those who suffer?

Trust that Jesus’ strong hand will catch you if you falter, trust that you have enough to share with others in need, trust that your feet, your hands and your head have been washed by our humble Lord. Trust that the rest is in his hands.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Amen.