Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

YEAR B 2018 christ the king

Christ the King, 2018
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about power.  There’s the obvious power struggle between Pilate and Jesus, and there’s the background power struggle between Pilate and the Jewish leaders.  And there’s an overall power struggle between the Jewish people and Rome.  Lots of power being thrown around, and it’s hard to tell who’s actually going to win in the end.

I grew up in Niagara Falls NY, and was surrounded by natural power.  We had this massive waterfall—perhaps you’ve heard of it—powerful in it’s own right.  Safe to look at from a distance, but if you get in the way of its flow, you will be swept away.  And thanks to Nikola Tesla, the power of the water was harnessed into the power of electricity.  And electricity, like the waterfall that generates it, is powerful in its own right.  Safe to use in daily life, but get in the way of its flow and you will be electrocuted.

It is the nature of powerful things to sweep over us.  You think of a tsunami, or a hurricane, or Rome in Jesus’ day.  You can stand in the way of such things, but they will sweep you away without so much as a ripple.  Powerful things cannot be resisted, like electricity, earthquakes, and the IRS.  You might step out of the way, or leave town, direct the energy elsewhere, but when power hits you head on with its relentless force, there really is nothing you can do.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is being held captive.  He’s kind of on trial, being interrogated by the one in power.  Pilate has the power to decide what happens to Jesus.  The power of life and death over Jesus.  He says, “Your own people handed you over to me.”  Your own people have put you in the path of my power, and you will now be swept away without a ripple.  Do you not understand the force of my awesome power?

And the two of them have the strangest conversation.  Pilate keeps asking questions that seem designed to help him justify putting Jesus to death, but the answers make it sound like the two of them are each talking to someone else.  Like they’re not using the same rules of conversation or something.  Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews.  Jesus asks if he’s asking on his own or if someone else told him about him.  Pilate says, I’m not a Jew; what have you done?  Jesus answers, My kingdom is not of this world.  Pilate asks, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.”  But “I testify to the truth.”

We would expect Jesus to be talking his way out of getting killed.  We would expect him to be trying to step out of the tidal wave of Pilate’s power.  We expect Jesus to seek higher ground, but he just stands there, talking like a crazy man!  Pilate is playing a game of sorts with Jesus, and Jesus is going to lose.  It’s a fight to the death, and Jesus won’t even pick up a sword.  Jesus is swept up in the wave of Rome’s power.

There are some confrontations in life where you could say just surviving is enough.  Maybe you didn’t win the fight, but you’re still alive, right?  The Hunger Games, Presidential Debates, pistols at twenty paces, in these cases, surviving is good enough.  You don’t necessarily have to win to win.  You just need to not be dead, right?  But Jesus cannot be said to have won even on this level.  Because, as you and I both know, Jesus does end up dead when this is all said and done.

Following this exchange with Pontius Pilate, Jesus is overpowered in every sense of the word.  And yet we call him victorious.  We call him king.  Jesus loses the game in the most decisive way possible, and yet today you and I are celebrating Christ the King Sunday.  What makes the difference?

Well, there’s a temptation to say that Jesus loses the battle but wins the war.  We want to say that when you put his death in the context of the larger picture, Jesus wins.  In the broad scope of things, Jesus’ death is just a temporary setback on the way to the larger victory.  Gotta break some eggs to make omelets.  The end justifies the means, as some like to say.

The problem with that approach is that it justifies the smaller battle on the way to winning the overall war.  When you and I take this approach to things it is exceedingly dangerous, because we get caught up in moving the goal posts.  Before long, any act can be justified in service to the greater good.  You can end up approving anything by simply dialing out the lens and putting it in a larger context.

We can see this in dictatorships all around the world.  The suffering of one person, or one race of people, means nothing if it achieves the overall goal.  People are completely dispensable when we can trade them in for lofty things like world peace, or purity of doctrine, or an achievable political agenda.  And if we claim that we don’t do this ourselves on at least a small scale, then we’re not looking at our lives very carefully.  We do this kind of cost-benefit analysis all day long, when you think about it.

And sacrificing one person for the overall good of many should sound familiar to us because it is ultimately what gets Jesus killed.  For the survival of Israel, one man must die . . . for today.  If this one man is sacrificed, the Jews can have peace with Rome . . . for today.  All will be right in the world, the thinking goes, if we can just get rid of this one rabble rouser.  In the bigger picture, killing Jesus is the right thing to do.  For the benefit of many, let us join together and turn against this one man.  And look!  He’s not even willing to put up a spirited defense!  What could be better?

And you and I can safely watch this injustice in the assurance of the resurrection, right?  We can fold our arms and say, “You just wait until Sunday buster.”  And when we do that, we’ve walked ourselves right back into thinking it’s okay for Jesus to lose the battle because he wins the war.  But if his death is okay because we know he’s going to rise again on Sunday morning, then we’ve missed the point.  Because “the end justifies the means” is exactly the thinking that gets Jesus killed.  Strange as it sounds, Jesus’ death is not made “okay” because of the resurrection.  The death of God’s own son is not just a minor setback on the way to the bigger goal of salvation for humanity.

Let’s return for a moment to where we started, talking about the power of nature.  When a massive wave is rushing toward you, if you do not move out of the way, you will be swept away, no matter what you do.  But what would happen if you could change the nature of the water?  What if you could separate the hydrogen and the oxygen, for example?  Or what if you changed the forces of friction, or gravity, or the nature of mass itself?  The point is, power sweeps us away because we are forced into playing the game on water’s terms.  The reason water can overwhelm us is because we’re stuck in this system with the laws of nature governing what happens.

Now, step back into the interrogation of Jesus before Pilate with all that in mind.  Pilate is fully expecting Jesus to beg for his life, plead for mercy, or at least stand up to him as a king.  What Pilate is not expecting is for Jesus to stand there like he doesn’t understand the game.  Pilate is working from the perspective of the massive wave of Rome’s power, and Jesus isn’t responding appropriately.  And though I know I’m reading into the text when I say this, I think it freaks Pilate out.  I think he is unnerved by this reaction . . . Or, lack of reaction.

And here’s the important thing: The reason Jesus is not playing the game as Pilate expects is because Jesus has declared the game to be over.  Jesus has seen the violations of the rules, the undeclared fouls and penalties, the absolute corruption of the referees and judges, and declared the entire game invalid.

The resurrection is not just some last-second score that somehow wins the game in overtime, because that would still be playing by the rules of the game, you see?  Jesus does not overpower Pilate with an even bigger dose of power.  Instead, Jesus changes the very nature of power itself.  Changes the laws of nature, if you will, in what it means to wield power.

Because of Jesus, power is no longer displayed in putting someone to death, but rather in rising from death.  Power is no longer displayed in taking from the hungry, but rather in feeding them.  Power is no longer displayed in conquering my enemies, but rather in loving them.

We began this day with a Collect proclaiming that it is God’s will to restore all things in Jesus, asking that God would grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.  The most gracious rule of Jesus.  Power as Jesus defines power.

In Jesus, God has changed the very meaning of power and strength.  Power and strength come from the hand of God, and they are to be used for very different purposes than what the world has taught us, or would have us believe.  And for those of us who gather at this Altar, true strength comes in holding out our hands as beggars, to receive the most precious body and blood of God’s beloved son, Jesus Christ our Lord, our strength, our redeemer, and our king.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 26

Pentecost 26, 2018
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, one of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that reads, “Entropy Rules!”  Entropy is the science-y word that means, everything naturally falls apart.  Like, you cut down a tree, come back in 20 years, and it will have slowly decayed into the ground.  Or, to quote from a popular movie from the 80s: "Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.”  This is why we have to get our cars serviced, and contribute to capital campaigns.  Because the natural order of things is to fall apart.  Entropy Rules!

And that’s kind of how Jesus responds to the disciples as they leave the Temple in this morning’s gospel reading, and it’s kind of depressing.  As we heard, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asks him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  What Jesus could have said was, “Yes, it’s all very impressive.  But remember: Entropy Rules.”

I have a friend who used to be a pretty hardcore Evangelical, and he was really hooked on the idea that when Jesus returns he’s going to wipe everything out and start over.  When anyone got too attached to the world, my friend loved to use the phrase, “It’s all gonna burn.”  Like you’d say to him, “Hey, I’m really happy because we were finally able to get into a house in Massillon, and things are going really great at our church, and I’m excited about the future.”  And my friend would say, “Don’t get too excited, because it’s all gonna burn!”  Like when Jesus comes back he’s going to be carrying the Mother of All Flamethrowers.

And some people take that view, like my friend, because they think that everything is broken and tainted and must be replaced.  Irredeemably flawed.  I personally disagree with that view, because from what I see in the scriptures, it seems more the way of Jesus to perfect things rather than replace them.  When Jesus sees a blind man, he doesn’t replace him with someone who can see; Jesus gives the man his sight.  Jesus restores things, rather than upgrading to a newer version.  At the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus brings him back to life, instead of rolling out Lazarus 2.0.  In Jesus, things become what they were meant to be, rather than what they are, and as opposed to what people say they should be.

But there’s a tricky balance at work here.  If my friend is correct and everything is gonna burn, then why take care of anything?  Why eat vegetables since I might get hit by a bus tomorrow?  Why start singing a song if I know it’s going to end after the last chorus?  Is there any point in pursuing beauty through preservation and care if it’s all going to be destroyed?  And that’s where there is a difference between entropy and It’s All Gonna Burn.  Entropy makes us engage to make things better; thinking It’s All Gonna Burn makes us despair.  Entropy rules, but not if we can help it, right?  There’s a great quote that applies here, sometimes attributed to Martin Luther:  “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today.”

So, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asks him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  And I think there’s something more than entropy at work here.  Remember last week’s gospel lesson?  The one about the widow and the two pennies that Mo preached about?  That story comes immediately before this one.  Jesus commends the poor widow, who gave all she had to a system that was set up to intentionally and unabashedly oppress her.  And when you take the long view, all the little two pennies from generations of widows had come together to build those great buildings of oppression, which so impress the disciple.

Sometimes, the buildings that oppress are built by the oppressed.  And there’s something about that in Jesus’ response, I think.  Imagine walking through the Egyptian desert and saying, “Look at these huge pyramids the Pharaohs built!”  Well, yeah, if you mean built on the backs of slaves!  The Pharaohs did nothing to build those giant structures except to enslave other people to build them for them.  Glorious monuments of horrific oppression.

Or, closer to home, drive on over to Washington DC and visit the White House.  “Look at this giant grand home with the columns and the beautiful gardens.”  And Jesus might respond, “Do you see this great building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Entropy Rules!  Maybe it’s the literal physical structures, sure.  Or maybe it’s really the oppressive systematic structures that find a way to claim greatness by sacrificing the lives and hopes of those around us.  Two pennies at a time from widows might build impressive structures, and those structures might or might not be oppressive, but eventually, “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

So let’s bring the lens in closer, to the corner of 3rd Street and Tremont Avenue.  With the Massillon Candlelight Walk less than two weeks away, I’m excited for the chance once again to show off our sanctuary to scads of visitors!  One of the thrills of being the Rector at St. Timothy’s is that throughout the year I get to bring groups of people into this space and hear them ooh and aww at the beauty that has been handed down to us.  Look, Teacher, what large stones and what fine Tiffany windows!  And then, naturally, I always turn to them and say, “Do you see these great windows in this amazing building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.  Hope you can join us for worship on Sunday!”

Of course I don’t actually say all that.  Because we’re sure that Entropy doesn’t rule here!  This building will stand forever!  Just ask anyone in the room whose grandparents were baptized here.  St. Timothy’s Church will be here forever because it has always been here forever.

Now, I know we don’t like to think about it, but it’s obviously true:  Some day, somehow, this building might no longer be here.  Although we are called to care for this structure as best we can, at some point, this could just be an empty lot.  And, hearing me say that, if you thought I knew the future, you would now turn to me, just like the disciples, and say, “Father George, tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  We want to know when, so we can prepare, right?  If you knew the date when all this would occur, you would be sure to stop by the day before and rescue the photo of the choir that you’ve always liked.  Or at least rescue the cushion from YOUR PEW.

Hearing that something is going to change naturally makes us want to know when it’s going to happen.  And when the disciples hear Jesus suggest that all these buildings will be rubble at some point, they want to know when.  Tells us the day, Jesus.  Give us the signs that we are to look for.  Is it today?  Tomorrow?  Next week?  They almost seem to panic, don’t they?  What do you mean St. Timothy’s won’t be here forever?  What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?  Whatever will we do?

And you know why they panic?  Why we panic?  Because we often put our faith in structures, and in buildings.  This system we have created will last forever.  This building will always be here to shelter us.  And when we start putting our faith in buildings and structures, well, maybe it’s helpful to have someone say to us, remember: Entropy Rules.  Or when we put our hope and our trust in kingdoms and nations, well, as Jesus says, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes; there will be famines.”  One hundred years ago this month the War to End All Wars came to an end, and simply paved the road to an even more devastating war.  We will be disappointed if we put our trust in kingdoms, nations, or buildings.

But, as you’ve probably heard said, the Church is not a building; the Church is us.  Sure, we happen to have inherited the most beautiful structure in the state of Ohio, but this building is not the Church.  We are the Church, along with all the others who have ever lived and will ever live.  We do not put our hope in the current things of this world, where Entropy Rules.  But you know where we do put our hope?  We heard the answer in the reading from Hebrews this morning:

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”  We put our hope in the promises of Jesus Christ.  And we can trust that hope, believe that hope, live that hope, because Jesus who has promised is faithful.  And among the promises of Jesus, we know he has promised to be among us, when two or three are gathered in his name.  And here we are, more than two or three, doing exactly that, in this astonishingly beautiful place.  Which means Jesus is among us this morning.

I still believe the best bumper sticker ever is the one that says, Entropy Rules, though I’m tempted to add, “So Far.”  And that’s because, though things do fall apart, God restores them to fulness.  And though we all do go down to the grave, God promises to raise us up to new life.  May God give us the grace to trust in the hope of these promises, and to live together in unity and peace, until the day that Jesus returns, and makes all things new.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

YEAR B 2018 feast of all saints

Feast of All Saints, 2018
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  We heard a fantastic collection of readings today.  And, to be honest, All Saints Day is one of my favorite celebrations of the Church year, which is why I was willing to risk imposing incense on you this morning.  On All Saints Day we remember the saints who have gone before, and also the saints of today, and also the saints of tomorrow.  All the Saints.  But we’ll get to all that in a moment.  First I want to tell you a story . . .

When I was in high school, I remember a friend telling me I should sign up to take physics.  (Taking physics was optional in those days, which explains how I was able to graduate from high school.)  So my friend Dan told me I should take physics because they were doing all sorts of cool things.  I said, “Yeah, sure, right.  Like what?” 

He told me the class had proven that the molecules of the dying breath of Julius Caesar have spread out everywhere on the earth.  “Which means,” Dan said, “every time you take a breath, you are breathing in a molecule from when Caesar said et tu brute.  Dude.  Isn’t that the coolest thing?”

I had to admit, that was pretty cool.  But then Dan showed me the complicated calculations the class had labored over to reach this conclusion and I decided, sure it was cool, but it wasn’t that cool.  Dude.  So, needless to say, I never took physics.  But I still think about that first concept.  Every single breath contains a molecule from Caesar’s dying breath.  Wow. 

That seems intuitively significant, though I can’t say why, exactly.  I think the science of it works with anybody who lived a long enough time ago, but the name Julius Caesar gets our attention.  He’s famous, after all.  We tend to celebrate celebrities.  That's what makes them celebrities.  Julius Caesar is important because . . . well, because we know his name.  But, really, other than the calendar, has Julius Caesar really impacted your life?  Probably not.  Even though, here we are, breath after breath, sharing some little chunk of his dying breath.  And we don’t even really care about this guy!  The world remembers him, but he means nothing to you and me.

So what about all the people who mean nothing to the world, but who mean the world to you and me?  What about the ones who have made a real difference in our lives? The people who brought you to church?  Or taught you the faith?  What about all the Saints who from their labors rest?  Chances are, you could name one of those people right now.  These are the saints we know.  The ones whose actual living breath we felt on our cheeks.

And each person we name would have had their own names to thank, and the people they name could add someone else who was dear to them, and so on and so on, in a long line that leads us all the way back to the disciples themselves.  You and I are sitting here today because the story of faith has been passed along to us, by the saints who have gone before.  We know some of their names, and others we will never know in this lifetime.

And, of course, it works the other way too.  For the past 180 some years, the kids in this church haven’t driven themselves over here.  Children come to church because someone brings them here.  And during Sunday school, the children learn the stories of our faith because someone takes the time to teach them.  And those children receive communion or a blessing at this Altar because the adults in this parish have made sure some priest was here to do that.  As the Church, we have received the message of Good News, and we pass it along to others.

And what has kept that message going is that people have been willing to do whatever it takes to share the gospel.  We give of ourselves in order to proclaim what God has done for us.  We offer up our time, our talents, and our possessions.  We offer ourselves back to God because we are grateful for what God has done in our lives.  Which is the whole point of the United Thank Offering that we will contribute to this morning.  We respond out of gratitude by giving back to God.  But the really important thing is that God transforms our gifts into something even more amazing.

We offer our time and skills, and God uses them to build up a community of faith.  We offer our money and possessions, and God uses them to further God’s kingdom and keep this message going. We offer mere bread and wine, and God transforms them into the body and blood of Jesus.  We offer our meager selves, and God unites us into the living body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

This past month,  we have talked about stewardship a lot.  Now I know that the word stewardship strikes fear into the hearts of us all.  But that’s because we tend to think of stewardship as being about money.  But stewardship is actually about offering up to God whatever it is you did to make that money.  And it’s also about a lot of other things.  Like offering our time and talents.  Offering the gifts of service to the church and those around us.  And that means, stewardship is really about keeping the story going, inviting more people into the story of salvation, and giving ourselves back to the One who creates and redeems us.  In other words, stewardship is all about All Saints.  The ones who came before, and the ones yet to be, and us—the ones who are right now busy breathing in those molecules of Julius Caesar’s dying breath.

And, although year after year, physics students talk about Caesar’s dying breath, there is nothing special about that breath or those molecules.  Just another despotic tyrant, killed in a moment of betrayal, dying a dramatic death, according to Shakespeare.  Big deal.  We know his name because we learned it somewhere along the way.  But so what?  You know Caesar’s name, and you’re breathing in scraps of his dying breath.  Great.

The thing nobody bothers to mention when they talk about this physics exercise, and those molecules of Caesar’s breath is this:  Every breath you take also contains a molecule from the dying breath of the cook who made Caesar’s breakfast, and the guy who sold Brutus the knife, and the gravedigger who buried Caesar’s body.  When it all comes down, there’s only so much recycled breath to go around.  A molecule by any other name would still be a molecule . . . as Shakespeare might have said.

But you know what is more interesting?  Every breath you take also contains a molecule of the dying breath of someone with the same initials . . . Jesus Christ.  As Christians, that seems more significant to you and me, sure.  But, still, does that even really matter?  Does it change anything?  I don’t know.  But it naturally leads us to something else:  It must also be true that each breath you take also contains a piece of the first resurrection breath of Jesus Christ.  The first breath of the risen Lord.

Which means every time you take a breath, you are breathing in the resurrection.  The first new breath of the one who has defeated death.  If there’s anything to all these molecules and that significant breath stuff, I’d put my money on the first breath of the resurrection.  Caesar’s dying breath changed nothing, really.  But the rising breath of Jesus?  Oh, that changes everything.  Nothing is the same when God’s breath of redemption fills the world.

We breathe in and we breathe out, just as people have always done.  And we gather around this Altar, just as Christians have always done.  And we celebrate here with the saints of every time and every place, the wonder and majesty of what God has done and continues to do in this world.  And, perhaps, someone somewhere will speak our name, because we gave of ourselves to make sure this story continues, forever and ever.

The rising breath of Jesus changes everything, whether or not anyone ever talks about it in a high-school physics lab.  Yes, we breathe in the dying breath of Jesus.  And we also breathe in the rising breath of Jesus.  In baptism we are united with him in his death.  And we are also united with him in a resurrection like his.  And around this Altar, we are united with the saints of every time and every place:  the ones whose names we know, as well as the ones whose names we do not know.  All of us celebrating the story of God’s Good News, which will never leave us nor forsake us, for as long as we draw breath, and even after we have drawn our last breath. 

The breath of God’s resurrection continues well beyond the grave, and this is what gives us the strength and hope to carry on, until each one of us joins the Saints who from their labors rest.  And until that day, we all continue to breathe in that resurrection breath of Jesus Christ, to whom we give honor and glory, forever and ever.